Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Eating Cheap: A Note from the Middle (lowerish) Class

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? 


  1. Interesting and thought-provoking post, Jean. You are right - why is money a big secret? It is for everyone except the poor, who don't have it and don't care who knows they don't have it! We are a family of five living on an annual income of $85-$90,000, depending on bonuses and oddball freelance jobs. We have months where money is tight - usually due to a huge unexpected expense (flights for a funeral, major home repair, that sort of thing), but most months we are good, and while I try to be cost-conscious on our food budget, I don't feel pressured to give things up too often.

    I think some of the things we do are similar to yours, and some are just plain common sense. One thing I've had to 'get over' is my hatred of leftovers. Even if the thing I ate was fantastic, I do not want to eat it again the next day... and then if it's been more than 48 hours, I am fearful that it's suddenly unsafe to eat anyway. It's a little pet compulsion of mine. I'm working on it.

    What helps us is to eat mostly "cheap" foods - I don't mean Ramen-cheap, but more like "cooked at home, normal foods" cheap - but then feel that we have room in the budget for a few splurges. For us, those splurges are things like organic popcorn (which is only $1.50/lb), using REAL butter - never margarine, and having one planned "eating out" meal per week. That serves a couple of purposes. One is, it's a well deserved mental and physical break for me (I plan/cook 20 other meals for these people every week); also it's important to FEEL like you're doing something different and fun.

    1. Your leftover phobia makes me laugh. When I make something good, I CANNOT wait to eat it the next day so I guess that gives me, like, a leftover fettish:). Also, I avoided that fear of leftovers going bad by having a mom who would scoop mold off things and declare them good (not too often, mind you, but yes, it happened occasionally).

  2. I have planned our dinners for a week at a time for years, and I wonder what on earth we did before I started (we ate out a LOT more... but that was mostly before kids). I don't have a ton of food storage, but I have enough that if we have a tight month I can get away with buying bare necessities at the store.
    I didn't have much luck with my garden this year, but I do have a bumper crop of tomatoes... which saves a few dollars a week. Having a successful garden could go far in saving some cash.
    I'm no longer afraid of buying generic for most things... there are a few things that I want the real deal. My husband finally agrees with that, it used to hurt his ego.
    I didn't grow up destitute, but we certainly didn't have any extra money. No designer clothes for me... My mom is Super Frugal and I'm continually amazed by her comparison shopping ability.

    1. Our garden was also a flop this year. Even so, I wound up with a few things that were nice to have.

  3. Although I'm in the UK I can really related to this! Here we have the term "squeezed middle" for families like you and I, as the Govt has targeted us for all the austerity cuts, costing us more money than the other social classes. Due to high mortgages and debt, there are some families earning more than us who have to go to food banks every week or their kids wouldn't eat properly! We would love to eat 100% organic but can't afford this, so we do what we can. We grow lots of our own organic fruit and veg and we order in bulk stuff like rice, flour, nuts and seeds and pasta from a wholefood co-op a few times a year to afford organic. The rest we get in our local produce market and Aldi. If it wasn't for Aldi we wouldn't make ends meet! Everything is home made from scratch apart from some bread and the odd frozen pizza for the kids. Nobody in our household of 6 buys their lunch for school, college or work any more; we use leftovers and make packed lunches. That's how we get by! Thanks for a really informative post :)

    1. Aldi (and its competitor Ruler Foods) saves us a lot of money each month. It is awesome.

    2. I'm sure its every bit as good in the US as it is over here. It won "supermarket of the Year" recently- more and more people are going there to save money.

  4. Thank you so very much for this post! In a word, awesome! I do plan all our meals and we eat leftovers. It's tough but I shop at Aldi and Walmart. I also shop a but at Harris Tester (I'm in NC) because they do have good meat sales.
    We get by on one income right now (about $75,000 a year) for a family of four. It's difficult to be around so many who can do all their shopping at Whole Foods and eat out all the time. So, I'm so thankful for your very balanced approach to eating frugally. Thank you!



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