Instant Gratification

I was happy and surprised to read a Joel Stein article in Time (May 7, 2012) on the application of neuroeconomics to food habits.  It's a slightly funny and much abbreviated approach to the topic, but a good sign that this understanding of behavior is becoming well-known enough that even a humor columnist writes about it.  Absent is a mention of the role of seratonin, but it would not have added a great deal to what was present.


Feeding the Homeless

I was recently part of a group effort to provide dinner to a group of homeless at a shelter.  It was an interesting experience.  About 30 volunteers provided food and hands to feed 70-80 people.  A wide variety of breads was provided by a local grocery store.  Volunteers brought cakes, fruit, green salad, and spaghetti.  A local restaurant supplied meat sauce for the spaghetti.  Everyone was also given PB&J sandwiches to take for the next day's lunch.

After everyone got food, they were able to keep getting more, and many came back 4 or 5 times.  The total plates served was reported as around 270.  Common requests were to not have bread, to have more sauce (or only sauce), and for aluminum foil (which we almost immediately ran out of) for wrapping food to carry out.

The most obvious criticism of this arrangement was the very high proportion of the meal that was made from white flour, and the low proportion of protein.  The spaghetti was light on the meat sauce.  The PB in the sandwiches was the processed stuff.  The recipients, already at risk for nutritional and endocrinological problems, were given foods that compound on these risks and exacerbate problems.  Salad was eaten, and some sadly green bananas were taken, but the overall quality of the meal was poor.

Without being prohibitively more expensive or labor intensive, the meal could have been made from whole grains, and included legumes.  Lose the cake.

Nearly everyone was polite and thankful.  Only one person tried to get more food before everyone got some, one person threatened violence in line, and there were two fights broken up by security that were unrelated the meal.


Here is a good NYTimes article that summarizes the non-recipe content of Grocery Gaming: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/is-junk-food-really-cheaper.html?_r=1

I am tired of hearing the argument that an apple costs more than a candy bar.  Sure, a good, big apple costs a dollar, but I buy organic carrots for $0.88 /lb and a pound of dry beans or rice runs about a dollar, and cabbage is $0.79 /lb.  A 13 oz bag of chips costs over three bucks.  We don't just choose between apples and candy bars.  There are over 40,000 items in a supermarket.  We can easily and consistently have full, complex, nutritious meals for cheaper than most unhealthy alternatives, and definitely on a tight budget. 

Here is a link to fun illustration (not the original illustration page because I found it on this great cooking comic site that you should also see): http://drawnbutter.tumblr.com/post/10647712329/this-is-one-of-the-main-reasons-i-cook-and-do-my

For less than the price of the McDonald's meal for four in the above graphic, I've made authentic Coq au Vin with steamed broccoli and brown rice that would feed six people and has much less salt, with money left over for dessert.  That was a rare treat to even spend that much, so you can understand me not ever wanting to get fast food.

It is a complete lie that healthy food is too expensive. 



I've also seen it spelled "hummous".  This is an easy, tasty, and relatively healthy snack/condiment, as long as you have a food processor.  Seriously, blenders do not work.  Hummus is what I bring to parties nowadays, and everyone likes it.  Here's the simple version:

2 drained cans of chick peas, aka Garbanzo beans (or 1 big can). 
3 Tbsp peanut butter, all natural
1 or 1.5 Tbsp lemon juice (out of a bottle, from concentrate, no problem)
1 or 2 tsp cumin
1 Tbsp olive oil
2-3 fresh garlic cloves

Throw everything in the food processor and blend the heck out of it.  You'll probably need to add a little water to get a good texture.   I can't say how much water you'll need because it varies by the other ingredients and how the beans drained, and what texture you like.  Some people used reserved liquid from the beans.  Do not use all the liquid from the beans, or you will get a soup.

After everything is blended, put the hummus in a container, sprinkle some paprika and olive oil on top, cover and refrigerate for a few hours.

A traditional hummus uses tahini, pureed sesame seeds, but this is often expensive or hard to find.  Peanut butter works just as well, and your friends probably won't notice at all.  The cumin is vital!  Also, it is important to use garlic cloves instead of crushed garlic from a jar.  I don't add salt, but most people would probably like some salt in it.  It's already cheap to make, but you can save a buck by soaking dry chick peas overnight instead of buying them canned.

That's the base recipe that I use for folks who like things bland.  For myself, I kick up the garlic and throw in some jalapenos and cayenne pepper! 

This is a great condiment for pita, chips, crackers, and veggies.


A Healthy Soup

As I have been learning more about nutrition, I have been making an effort to eat more beans.  As I have been very busy lately, I've relied more heavily on my slow-cooker.  The result is that about half of my dinners over the last two months have been bean and vegetable soups.  They have been great!  They taste good, I can fiddle with the spices and veggies for variety, I've been losing weight, and I've been sleeping and feeling better.

2 cups of dry beans (I use a half cup of each of four kinds that cost $0.80-1.60/lb)
soaked overnight, then brought to a boil for a few minutes.  Black, kidney, navy, pinto, red, whatever.

stock - whatever bones or stock I've got, sieved.  I don't measure it.

1 lb carrots, sliced
1/2 head green cabbage
some sauteed/caramelized onions
some sliced celery
peppers, scallions, or whatever else was cheap that week

Sometimes I add some barley or rice to thicken the soup.

hot peppers to kick it up, the standard Italian herbs

A crock of this lasts 10-15 meals for $5-10, depending on what veggies are put in.  I tend to eat it with corn chips (organic unsalted from Trader Joe's, $2.50/lb) and some cheese.  It's easy, it's cheap, and it's good for you.


The Best Burger I've Ever Made

While looking for a friend's of a friend blog posts about D&D, I came across Bobby Flay's Burger Palace.  In the same day, a Khymos post sent me on a link journey to a comment in the Ideas in Food blog, and I started Jonesing for a good burger.  I ended up making two too-big burgers for $4.  $2 each for juicy heaven.

12 oz 80/20 ground beef - 800 calories - $2.40
2 potato buns - 180 calories - $0.33 or $0.50 (from a package of 12)
2 strips of store brand bacon - 80 calories - ~$0.42
1 tablespoon of butter - 100 calories - $0.09
2 oz colby jack cheese - 200 calories - $0.50 (because we didn't have goat cheese!)
2 spare slices of onion
2 teaspoons of Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons of flour
a square foot of plastic wrap

I chopped the onion and bacon into small pieces, then browned them in a little steel skillet with a little fat from some other bacon.  Then I mixed the bacon and onion into the beef with the Worcestershire sauce (maybe put the butter in there too, next time), packed the beef into a "log" (it was only 2" thick) and wrapped it in the plastic, then put it in the fridge to rest for an hour.  I took out the log, cut it in half to make the two patties.  I floured the patties, then fried them in the butter while lightly toasting the buns.  I put the cheese on the patties after flipping them.

That's it.  We did not put anything else on these succulent burgers.  These blew away every other fancy burger I've had, so juicy and delicious.  One of my regular complaints about burgers at restaurants (I'm not talking about the awful trash at fast food joints) is that the buns are too big.  I don't want an enormous roll engulfing my burger and making it hard to fit in my mouth, giving me a lot of flour taste over the beef and fat.  The small, generic, potato buns from any supermarket are the perfect meat-holders for me.

Our only lament was that we had no goat cheese.  A little chevre from Trader Joe's would have topped this off nicely.  Actually, we also decided that 4 ounces is the right size for a burger.  The 6 oz burgers were delicious, but unnecessarily large.

So, each burger I made had about 650-700 calories and cost $2, but I would happily use a third less meat and swap the Colby Jack for some chevre ($0.50/oz), shaving off over a hundred calories and about $0.25 per burger.



I made a quiche for the first time, with no crust, and it worked out really well.  It was easy and tasty.  Eggs are all on sale for Easter, and I had some spinach on its way out.

5 eggs - 350 calories - $0.50
1.5 cups milk - 120 calories - $0.56 (I got organic milk)
8 oz pepperjack cheese - 720 calories - $2
.5 cup flour - 200 calories - $0.10 ish
1 onion - 50 calories - $0.30 ish
9 oz baby spinach - 50 calories - $1 (on sale)
1 tsp bacon fat - 30 calories - free

Chop the onion and caramelize it in a skillet with bacon fat.  Set the onion aside, chop the spinach, and wilt it in the skillet.  Chop the cheese.  Mix everything together in a casserole dish.  Bake at 375 F for 50 minutes.  Check on it, and take it out when the top is browning.  It may be worthwhile to put aluminum foil around the edges so the crust forms evenly.

As I made it, it cost about $4.50 and had around 1500 calories.  Many people would also add a half pound of bacon or some diced ham, which adds around $2 and 500 calories.  I got nine portions out of this, 160 calorie blocks for $0.50 each.


Salad Bar Gaming

I recently came across this NYTimes article explaining how best to game the salad bars at your local supermarkets.  It's nothing really groundbreaking.  It's relatively obvious that walking away from the salad bar with a carton full of the most expensive ingredients (sun-dried tomatoes, bacon bits, perhaps some cheeses and fruit) will save you money compared to buying those ingredients elsewhere in the store.  I have evaluated the opportunity at my supermarket, but rejected it for several reasons.

One very clear reason is that my price threshold for nearly all food that I buy is still lower than the salad bar price.  I just don't pay that much for any food.  There are three things (besides spices and teas) I will pay more than $5/lb for: sea scallops, premium cheeses, and premium chocolates, and I do not buy them often.  I get my premium cheeses at Trader Joe's for half the price the supermarket charges.  I am able to feed myself a variety of good foods for less than the price of salad bar food, so I am not motivated to get salad bar food even though there is an opportunity to get a couple items at a discount.

There are reasons for people with higher price thresholds to avoid or minimize gaming their salad bars, too.  Commenters of a blog post on the NYTimes article express real concerns that exploitation of salad bars results in the loss of valuable ingredients or even the whole bars all together.  There is a tragedy of the commons, and morality comes into play.  Salad bars are expensive because of waste, labor, and maintenance, which the stores take on so that customers don't have to.  Customer behavior that throws off the balance of the system can have consequences to other people

Gaming the salad bar as the article describes is primarily about getting your money's worth with your salad, not just walking away with a bowl of sun-dried tomatoes.  Of course, you can make your own great salads for much less money by buying romaine, spinach, etc... and spending a few minutes chopping and slicing.  People with money get salads at salad bars for the convenience, and the rest of us trade inconvenience for cost.


A Simple Dinner with Pork

After an entire week of eating bean and vegetable soup (not complaining!), I went for a change and grabbed a couple pork center loin chops.  I've been happy eating less meat, and I made sure to buy the smallest package of two, which cost $2.09.  They were about a half inch thick and a third of a pound each.  Instead of making my awesome pineapple pork stir-fry, I went an easier and less labor-intensive route.

I put a cup of brown rice and a crushed dried chili pepper into two cups of boiling water in a 1 qt pot, then set to simmer for 45 minutes.  This is generally about six modest portions of rice.

Then, I heavily sauted a sliced medium onion in my steel frying pan.  I didn't fully caramelize it, but it was more brown than yellow.  When it was done, I put the onion on a plate and set it aside.

I patted the pork chops dry with a paper towel, then put them in the hot pan for a few minutes to brown.  I sprinkled rosemary on the tops, then flipped them over, sprinkled with pepper, put a cover on and turned the heat down to low.

Then I made salads from bagged mix, baby spinach, walnuts, habanero cheddar cheese, button mushrooms, and dried cranberries, topped with a little light ranch.  All together the salads cost a little less than $1 each, and we'll eat them daily while we have the components.  The greens and mushrooms were on sale this week, and I've always got walnuts and cheese.

When the chops were done cooking, I plated them, then poured a half cup of Chardonnay (about 1/40 of a $15 box of Almaden) into the skillet to deglaze it.  I turned the heat back up a bit and reduced the sauce down to about two tablespoons, then poured it over the pork chops.

The chops were juicy and delicious!  The rice and onions were a good accompaniment for the pork, and the salads rounded out the meal.  This was a great dinner for two for $5.  Each person's meal cost $2.50 and had about 600 calories.  If the rice is made earlier, this meal takes a half hour to make.


School Lunches

School lunches are a travesty in the US.  This isn't new.  They are plagued by outdated laws, lazy and ignorant staff, and corporate lobbying.  Jamie Oliver also showed how a culture of pride in ignorant inertia instead of valuing performance improvement can contribute to schools fattening up our nation's children like pigs in a factory farm.  Money, however, is not necessarily a problem.

Paul Boundas is demonstrating how easy it is to serve kids delicious and nutritious food that they will eat for less than $2.74 per meal (unfortunately, the article does not say if that amount is just for food ingredients, or if it includes rent, utilities, equipment, cooks, etc...).  Boundas is a great example of what can be accomplished when authority is given to a knowledgeable person with a drive to experiment and apply scientifically proven techniques to the improvement of a system, instead of lazily allowing profiteering suppliers or people who have obviously not valued education or quality in their own lives, to direct programs and policy.

Here are some of the ways that Boundas effectively applied principles from psychology and business to efficiently improving the health and welfare of thousands of children:

  • He asks the kids what foods they like, then makes healthy versions of them.
  • He gradually increases the proportion of whole grain in his pasta without telling the kids until long after they've been happily eating it.
  • He gives foods names that kids associate with other foods they like instead of with foods they erroneously believe they would not like ("power bar" versus "granola").
  • He uses fresh ingredients.
  • He tailors his menu to what ingredients are inexpensive at the moment (quick breads from bananas that would have gone to waste).
These are things that parents can do at home, too.  Understand the power of expectation biases, and harness them to get your kids to eat good food.  Buy seasonal or discounted ingredients.  Work with your family instead of being a dictator.


Libraries are Good

I've been checking out books on cooking from my local library.  Actually, some aren't directly from my library, but I can get any book in the county delivered to my library.  I can request books over the internet or in person, and maybe by phone, though I've never tried.  All of this is free.

On Cooking, What Einstein Told His Cook, Omnivore's DilemmaCooking for Geeks, The Healthiest Diet in the World, all full of techniques and information and recipes, and costing me nothing.  I take notes on the things I want to use in the future, using a $0.10 notebook and $0.10 pen.  As much as I love food, I hate spending money.

Many people don't have much money to spare.  Many people don't know how to find quality resources on the internet, or have internet access in their homes.  These limitations should not prevent anyone from getting good information about food, health, and cooking, universal and essential parts of life.  Public libraries are valuable services that provide us with useful information and resources on all topics, help and skill development, and even community and entertainment.  I really want to emphasize the "us" in that sentence.  Even if you don't personally use your library (why not?), you should recognize the value that it provides for your community, and our society as a whole.  Public libraries contribute to equality and economic mobility, and are integral to America's values and prosperity.  The funding of public libraries is a valid investment in our nation's future.



It is not really news anymore that many package and product sizes have been shrinking in the US.  I am mentioning it, though, as a reminder to double check your price:mass_or_volume ratios over time if you are gaming your groceries.

Ice cream hasn't been in half-gallon containers for ages, slipping subtly to 1.75 qts, then 1.5 qts for some producers (Breyers).  My beloved Tropicana OJ has dropped its cartons from true 64 oz half-gallons to 59 oz.  I have finally increased my price threshold for OJ from $0.05/oz.  Quilted Northern just made its bathroom tissue substantially narrower, but it doesn't take me any more squares than before to take care of business, so it doesn't affect my ratios.

There was a television commercial a few years ago about a guy who got promoted for realizing his company could make a larger profit by putting fewer olives in each jar they sold.  He was expected to continue increasing profits to keep his job.  How he would continue was left open with the implication that he'll eventually have to think of something besides selling fewer olives for the same price.  This economy and gas prices have been drivers for food producers to practice some shrinkage, but I don't expect re-enlargement when the economy recovers.

I keep seeing odd package masses, such as 15 oz cans of beans and 13 oz bags of chips.  What's wrong with the pound?  Trader Joe's sells me a pound of organic chips for less than I find 13 oz bags of other chips at the supermarket.  This isn't really a problem, but something to keep watch of if you're particular with your price thresholds and ratios.