Let's talk money. No one ever does. But we should.
Kip and I are not poor. But we're not rich either. We make between 50K and 60K a year and have 4 children. There. I said it. We live in the Midwest where housing is cheaper, but food and utilities are fairly average, sometimes even on the high side. We do have an Aldi--bless it.
I find that there's not a whole lot written about the middle class and food. What I tend to notice is that the upper class (the Michael Pollens and NYTimesers of the world) tend to think and write about food a lot and that they tend to think and write about the poor and food and the problems the poor face with food. The interesting thing about this is that it creates a sort of great divide. These well-off folks are writing about a class of people they don't know very well (my mother would have called that gossip). The wealthy don't have food insecurity; they don't understand food insecurity; they may have never had or understood food insecurity in their whole lives. Yet they came up with the word 'food insecurity.' Sometimes they go all rogue and sort or pretend to be poor for a while so they can write about their experience with it (we see this in books like Nickel and Dimed, in those challenges to live on a food stamp budget, and even on this blog with the Cheap Eat Challenge--although in my defense, part of the reason for that was a need/desire to chop our food budget down because something in our budget had to give and there wasn't another area with any room to give).
The problem with the divide between the people who are writing/proposing solutions and the people who are actually struggling is that those well-off writers either spend their time writing about what they think will solve the (food) problems of the poor (i.e. We need to put more fresh foods into the food deserts of urban communities so the poor can make better food choices.). Or how the rich have no right to judge the poor because the rich can't possibly understand the plight of the poor, so we should just pity the poor and try to come up with some nice, easy solutions for those poor people who can clearly only handle nice, easy solutions (i.e. the poor don't have time to cook or the education to make good food choices, so we need to provide processed food options that are healthy and affordable). Both attitudes come off as more than a little condescending. Because there's just too big of a divide. The rich can't talk about the poor. Which is where that puzzlingly ignored middle class comes in. Some of us are close to being poor; or have recently risen above the poverty level; or spent our childhoods very poor; or have made significant sacrifices in order to step out of the class called "poor." In other words, we've worked the crappy jobs, know what a generic shoe looks like, and have probably devoted a portion of our lives to the consumption of ramen noodles (or, in my case, spaghetti with that cheap Hunts sauce--eaten cold at work thank you very much). Generally, the middle class can pinch a penny, though they might not have to pinch it quite so hard it yells. At least not anymore.
Because of this I think the middle class has a lot to contribute as far as useful suggestions about how to eat pretty healthy and pretty cheap. But our voices are rarely heard. (Presumably because we're at home making a healthy, cheap dinner and not sitting at our oak desk writing about the plight of the poor.) Indeed it seems that the voices of the middle class are usually drowned out by the wealthier voices that are either telling the poor they should be making all organic lunches for their children that are shaped like owls. Or they are saying, "Boo hoo for the poor; it just must be so terrible to be you. All you can possibly afford is boxed mac and cheese and it's just making you so dumb and fat. Maybe it'd help if there were a healthy option on the McDonald's dollar menu?" I don't think either attitude is very helpful.
So today I'm going to go all crazy and political on you and offer several suggestions (sometimes attached to a little pet peeve of mine) about how we can eat a little cheaper, but still pretty well. They won't be all-organic or require a trip to Whole Foods. Of course they might not be dollar menu easy either, but I trust you're smart and motivated enough to put forth a little effort if you want to eat well yet inexpensively. And if you're not, there's probably some rich guy crying over his mocha latte for you right now, so don't worry--he's getting that healthy fast food organic thing all under control.
1. Make dinner. And probably lunch. You can have a pass for breakfast and eat cereal if you want (though oatmeal is way cheaper and, I think, tastier), but a Sausage McMuffin is going to need to be skipped. Well, most days.
2. Eat fruit and vegetables. But it's okay if you serve them over rice or pasta instead of quinoa or farro or beside a steak. (Note: I love quinoa and farro and they're super healthy. They're not even very expensive or difficult/time consuming to make. But if you're really pressed financially or just struggling to enjoy those weird, healthy options, have some pasta with a delicious tomato sauce. Heck, throw in some broccoli on the side if you want to go all crazy.)
3. You can buy produce that is not organic or local. I am not going to fight here about which is better or worse. All I am going to say is that fruit and vegetables are better than crackers and chips. And while they have much lower calorie counts and therefore always show up unfavorably in "studies" about food and the poor, they are just as filling as their junk counterparts. A banana is about the same price as 1/5 of a can of Pringles and it's better for you and more filling. Also, you usually stop after one banana, but you don't always stop after 1/5 can of Pringles. Maybe bananas aren't a "local food," but we're going to look past that for now. (p.s. Pringles aren't a local food either.)
4. You can use cream of whatever soup or canned sauce or store-bought dressing if you're pressed for time, but if you have extra time and can make them from scratch, it's a little cheaper and a little healthier. Nevertheless, a crock pot meal with veggies and meat and cream of whatever soup is cheaper and healthier than a fast food meal or freezer dinner. And, frankly, many crock pot meals take less time to throw together than a wait in the drive thru line.
5. Leftovers. Seriously, people. Maybe Michael Pollen wants us to eat foods our grandmothers recognized. I'd bet a million bucks they recognized leftovers. You can be all cute and pack them up for your (or your husband's) lunches the next day or make them into some fabulous leftover meal. Or you can just throw some Saran wrap over the serving dish and call it good. But eat them. Love them.
6. Take 10 minutes to sort of think about your meals for the week before you go shopping. Nothing has to be color coded. You don't have to plan every meal and every food. But have a sort of vague-ish idea of what you will be eating. I don't care what socio-economic class you belong to. I don't care if you live downtown with only an expensive corner store or if you live in the suburbs or if you live 1/2 mile from a good grocery store, this will be helpful to you when you shop.
7. If you don't have a vague-ish idea of what to eat this week, know what your basics are and buy them. Our list looks a little like this: Cereal, oatmeal, milk, eggs, pasta, sauce, bread, PB, jam, chicken, broccoli, whatever fruit is cheap, hamburger meat, rice, potatoes, and maybe some fish if I pass by and think about it. This isn't a perfect list; it could get boring if I never planned a meal, but when I find myself in the store with only a vague idea that the refrigerator is empty, I try to remember to buy the basics and then maybe a few things that seem interesting; and I trust that life will fall into place. It usually does.
So... what am I missing? Feel free to chime in middle class or lower class (or even upper class) cheapskates. What do you do that's not crazy to keep your food life tasty, but cheap?