Amortization and Utilities

You may be unfamiliar with the term amortization.  Its root means death, and the word refers to killing the cost of something on a balance sheet gradually over time instead of all at once at the time of purchase.  Amortization is relevant to our game when calculating true costs of meals.  So far, I have only included the costs of food in my write-ups, and this is typical of reports of the costs of meals.

Electricity and gas costs for cooking are not amortized.  They would be recorded in full at the time of cooking.  Unfortunately, you would have to know how much gas and electricity you use during cooking, and how much you pay per unit.  Electricity prices change according to time of day and your peak use, depending on your supplier.  I think I pay about $0.05 on average to run my microwave for 15 minutes.  You may also find out about how much water, heating, and soap cost you for washing dishes, since those costs are also related to your meals.

Electricity costs for refrigeration should be distributed.  Fridges use a lot of juice.  If you are really motivated, you can keep track of everything you refrigerate and figure out exactly what proportion of your fridge electricity cost can be attributed to each food, but that is a lot of work.  Maybe estimate the monthly cost of running your fridge and flatly divide by the number of meals you make that use refrigerated items, then add that amount to the cost of each meal.  A quick search suggests that a typical fridge costs $8-12 to run per month.  That adds about $0.10-0.30 to each meal.

Cookware!  Quality cookware, the stuff that turns food out properly, can cost piles of money, but lasts generations if you take care of it.  Non-stick cookware generally needs to be replaced every few years (or not used).  Investing in durable equipment that you will use more can result in lower per-use costs.  Suppose you drop $100 on a sweet stainless steel pot with an aluminum core.  That's a lot of money, but it makes nicer meals than a $20 pot (there is a significant difference).  If you use it once a week for 20 years, that's about $0.10 per use, which can be a fraction of that per meal.  Good, maintained cookware should last a lifetime.

Appliances are also investments.  A Sunbeam blender may only cost $15, but when it breaks after a few uses and has to be replaced, you'll realize you would have been better off with a $60 Oster.  A $20 slow-cooker may do bad things to your food that a $100 slow-cooker with a timer and higher-quality construction would not.  Whatever your decision, think about the amortized cost over the lifetime of an appliance.  Maybe you can look back on your buying behavior and realize that you have a tendency to buy things that you end up not using much.  In the store you think "I'll use this so often!" but things sit on your shelves while you eat frozen dinners and fast food.  Know yourself, be conservative, and think about how much you're spending on a per-meal basis.

You can see that the variance is very high among amortized and utility costs for your meals depending on what equipment you buy and how you use it.  Based on the numbers I threw together for this post, I estimate that these costs add an average of $0.50 each time I cook, which is about $0.10 per meal over all.  Seemingly trivial, but it can add up, and wise, big one-time equipment purchases can be daunting to someone with few financial resources, confusing the value of saving up for a purchase.


Gorgonzola Sauce

I found some reasonably priced Gorgonzola cheese, more expensive than my regular cheese threshold, but fine for a rare treat at $6/lb.  I've had good Gorgonzola sauce in a restaurant, so I decided to try to make my own.  My default source for recipes is allrecipes.com.  This means I tend to end up with a half dozen highly reviewed and widely different recipes.  Which is best?  I won't know because I am not going to try them all.  I just take a loose average adjusted to my taste.  I ended up with a good (and rich) dinner for two for about $3.50.

Gorgonzola cheese, 1/4 lb @ $6/lb = $1.50 (~400 calories)
Milk, skim, 1 cup @ $3.45/gal = $0.22 (80 cal)
Butter, 3 tbsp @ $2/lb = $0.19 (300 cal)
Flour, 1/2 cup = $0.08 (200 cal)
White wine, 1/4 cup, optional = $0.20-0.50 (45 cal)
Nutmeg, pinch, optional = ~$0.05
Spaghetti, whole wheat, 1/4 lb dry @ $1.29/lb = $0.32 (420 cal)

Served with 1/2 lb frozen green vegetables on the side @ ~$1.50/lb = $0.75 (50 cal)

Start boiling your water for the pasta.  Melt the butter in a quart pot on low.  Stir in the flour until it's foamy.  Add the pasta to the water when it starts boiling.  Stir in the milk to the butter-flour mixture (like a roux) and turn the heat up to low-medium.  Keep stirring the sauce as it gets warmer and thicker.  Add the wine if you are using it.  Crumble up your Gorgonzola and stir it gradually into the sauce the minute before your pasta is done.  Drain your pasta, put it on plates, and pour the sauce on top.

The Gorgonzola should melt quickly, and also thicken quickly as it cools, so be ready to eat when the pasta is done.  I honestly did not notice the nutmeg flavor, nor the bottom shelf chardonnay that I used, but recipe comments suggested that the wine is added to keep the Gorgonzola from forming a bad texture, and lemon juice (something acidic) would also work.

About $1.75 and 750 calories for each person.  Takes less than 15 minutes start to finish.  Serves two Americans.


$3/day Diet - A Retrospective

I lived for years on a grocery budget of $20-21 per week, and it was not difficult.  It was also not terribly unhealthy, though not exactly healthy either.  My diet was heavy on carbohydrates and practically meatless.  I almost never went out to eat (and got the $2 chili when I went out with friends), and did not buy alcohol.  I was never hungry, and actually overate, maintaining an unhealthily high body weight.

In the beginning... there was ramen, and it was bad.  Those little packages of ramen noodles are just processed flour, salt, and fat, but they're six for a dollar.  I wouldn't eat them alone, though.  For the one year that I ate a package of ramen daily, I added a couple turkey-dogs (also predominantly fat and salt) and either three sliced carrots or some frozen broccoli.  Actually, it was just carrots for a few months, and I switched to broccoli when my skin turned orange.  Broccoli is maybe the second healthiest vegetable in the world, right after spinach, and may be responsible for protecting me from the rest of my diet.  Besides the big bowl of ramen'n'at each day, I also ate cookies.  Yes, store-brand cookies are a very cheap source of calories, and sometimes some nutrients.  A friend recently reminded me that I once figured out how to live only on lemon cookies, but, fortunately, I never tried.  I did not have any notable health problems during this year that I recall, but I was young.

The other years were better.  I typically had a bowl of cold cereal for breakfast, often corn flakes or frosted flakes with non-fat milk.  These were huge bowls, easily three servings or more.  I made myself two sandwiches for lunch, using whole grain bread, all natural peanut butter, and strawberry jam.  These sandwiches were maybe around 800 calories each.  Dinners were usually spaghetti with Prego sauce and broccoli, and when I lived in a place with a stove I often sauteed fresh onions and bell peppers in olive oil to add to the spaghetti.  I may have been cheap, but Ragu is just too nasty to eat.  My portions of spaghetti were also huge.  Depending on sales, I would sometimes buy Tropicana orange juice, bananas, or fancier cereals (Oatmeal Raisin Crisp, Honey Bunches of Oats, Life).  I no longer bought cookies or ramen, and I still did not buy meat.

I ate in the neighborhood of 3500 calories each day, and weighed 230-240 lbs.  Since then, I have significantly broadened the variety in my diet, and reduced how much I eat, with very good results.  I also spend twice as much on food, but because I can and I enjoy it, not because I have to.  But I still hold on to the gamer mentality at the store, follow my rules, and try to optimize my gastronomical enjoyment to cost ratio.

A huge problem with eating healthily on a poverty-level budget is not that healthy foods are too expensive, but that unhealthy "foods" (cookies, candy, frozen pizza, etc...) are cheap and easy.  Someone has to be knowledgeable and motivated in order to make healthy choices and do some preparation and cooking instead of taking the lazy and immediately gratifying road.  It would probably be good for national health to raise the prices of unhealthy foods, and not lower the prices of healthy foods, motivating the highest risk groups to buy better food, especially for their children.  Childhood obesity and type II diabetes are serious health and economic issues with some straightforward solutions.