Food has turned out to be one of the most complicated aspects of this project. There’s not only the question of Dining Out, but also what I’m allowed to buy at the store, whether I’m allowed to go to the store, and what to do when I’m out and hungry. A lot to consider.
Though one side effect of this project is to save myself some money, I won’t skimp when it comes to food. All of us need priorities, and good food is one of mine. Good tasting and good for me.
Obviously I’m allowed to shop for groceries. Food is a necessity, after all. However, I still have to carefully consider what I buy and where I buy it.
The majority of Americans get their food from grocery stores or stores with grocery sections like Super Target or Wal-Mart SuperCenter. Still others shop in bulk stores like Sam’s Club or Costco. It’s safe to say that most folks don’t shop at locally owned groceries, but corporate stores like Albertsons, Kroger, or Whole Foods. A small minority buy their food directly from the folks who farm or raise it.
That’s by necessity. The grocery system is a great one. It brings us food from all over the world and in great variety. Even if a certain food is out of season, one can usually find it either fresh or frozen and never be without. This convenience comes at a price, though. Dyed fruits and veggies, produce kept “fresh” by unnatural methods, food loaded with preservatives, and even contamination (e. coli, etc.). As with many things in life, there is some good and some bad to be found in the grocery store issue. My goal is to support the good and avoid the bad by looking for alternatives.
I decided to investigate how much of my food and culinary needs I could buy without setting foot in a store. For me, this is not very difficult. Though I live in a city and don’t have a car, I can have farm-fresh food every week thanks to New York’s Greenmarket Initiative. Every week 4 – 7 vendors set up a little market in my neighborhood to sell fruits, vegetables, beef, turkey, fish, honey, eggs, milk, bread, pastries, and tons of other edible delights. These vendors grow, raise, catch, and package their food and sell it directly to their customers.
Most weeks I can get all the food I need for the week at my local market. If I have extra needs, I head downtown.
Our market is comparatively small and only one of many in NYC’s boroughs. Almost every day of the week there is a market running somewhere. The biggest (I think) is the market in Union Square which is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Saturday has dozens of vendors, and the weekdays are well attended, too. In addition to the stuff I already mentioned, I can also buy farm-fresh flour, polenta, wool, cheese, cider, wine – almost anything I might want to eat or drink.
The prices are sometimes higher than the supermarket, but not always. Small operations may mean higher prices but the quality is often better. And I have direct access to the people responsible for my food.
I find that Farmers Market food often elevates my palette. After all, after you’ve tasted artisan, hand-made cheese you won’t soon settle for Kraft slices. It makes me more mindful of what I eat and it forces me to consider the choices I make.
Farmers Markets and You
I’m very lucky to live in NYC where there’s an active farmers market movement and enough farms, apiaries, fisherbeings, and orchards within driving distance to make it work on a large scale. If you live elsewhere, don’t despair! Most major cities have at least one market or grocery co-op thanks to advocates and initiatives.
You can use websites like LocalHarvest and the USDA’s website to find farmers markets, grocery co-ops, and farms in your area. If there isn’t a market near you, LocalHarvest is a good resource for learning how to get one going.
In major cities it may not be a hassle to get to a market. For smaller or suburban communities that may not be the case. This is where you must decide how much you care about buying food direct. It may mean only heading to the market once a month and stocking up. Or it may mean investigating if the groceries near you carry locally grown foods. In NYC Whole Foods does that. It’s not as direct as a farmers market, but still a few steps closer.
No matter if you’re buying food from a farmers market or a grocery store, it’s always a good idea to give a lot of thought to what you’re buying and why. I’ve said before that I’m not allowed any prepared foods. To clarify: I’m not buying any food I can reasonably make myself. I’m crap at bread, haven’t learned how to make jams and preserves, and don’t have a blender powerful enough to make nut butters. Stuff like this is Allowed. Frozen dinners/pizza, hot/cold food bars, deli food, etc. are Not Allowed.
I also keep a careful eye on the ingredients of what I buy. Anything with High Fructose Corn Syrup or Trans Fats are Not Allowed. I try to avoid refined sugars when I can as well. This narrows my choices down by more than you’d imagine.
The next time you go grocery shopping, think carefully about what you’re going to get. Lists are great and can help keep you from buying random foods you don’t need or aren’t good for you. But I also suggest looking for foods that you’ve never had before and trying them out. After all, if I only took things off of my Allowed food list and never tried to expand my horizons, I would just sit around eating broccoli and cheddar cheese all the time. I also suggest not going for a food just because it’s cheaper and, conversely, don’t fall into thinking that if it’s more expensive it’s better.
I now have a lot of wonderful food and other ingredients in my house. What am I going to do with them? I have an unfortunate habit of waiting until I’m really hungry to consider my meals. This usually leads to going out for a quick slice of pizza. Or, worse, a bag of chips. Not during this year. I do have a few foods that are ready to eat, but the majority of it requires cooking. Good thing I’m a good cook.
I wasn’t always a good cook. And I may not have considered doing this project if I wasn’t sure I had excellent cooking skills. A few years ago my repertoire of dishes included burgers, chicken, pasta and eggs. Anything I could fry or boil, essentially. I may not have expanded beyond this if some friends hadn’t introduced me to a show called Good Eats on the Food Network. It’s one of the few cooking shows I really enjoy because the host, Alton Brown, is very funny, very informative, and covers a wide array of foods and dishes. (Check out his rant on why the lack of local food consumption contributed to the e coli outbreak.) It’s not all 30 minute meals or high gourmet; Alton provides a mix of dishes, prep times, and difficulties. And he’s very good at explaining things so that I feel I can cook anything as long as I have Alton to help me along.
If you’re going to put Dining Out on your Not Allowed list, being a decent cook is essential. The better you are at whipping up a fantastic meal, the less temptation you’ll have to step out. If you don’t feel you’re a good cook, then I suggest giving Alton and Good Eats a try. If it doesn’t float your boat, Food Network has a lot of other shows to choose from. And if you’re like me and don’t have cable, Good Eats is available on DVD and Alton has three books out that cover basic cooking, baking, and equipment.
One you’re secure in your cooking skills, invite your friends over for dinner or lunch or brunch or whatever. It’s highly satisfying to have people say, “This is amazing! I have to have this again!” about a dish you’ve made. I get a warm feeling every time people compliment my sweet potato pancakes. And I can use them to draw people up to my apartment for bunch or the promise of other excellent food.
Eating While Out
Being a good cook also comes in handy when I know I’ll be out of the house all day. I can make my own snack or lunch and take it along with me. Sometimes it’s as simple as popcorn or fruit. I also have homemade honey nut bars, lotus root chips, and sandwiches. I carry a water bottle with me at all times and refill it whenever I can. I’ll also usually grab a selection of tea bags.
It takes planning to remember I need these items when I go out. It’s essential to keep myself from getting so hungry I need to get food in order to function. If I accidentally forget to bring food and find myself in that situation, I often duck into a grocery store and buy food I can eat as a snack but also doubles as groceries I can take home. The last time this happened I bought a loaf of bread, hummus, and feta cheese to tide me over. We needed more hummus, anyway.
If you have a regular 9-5 job things are a bit easier. Making lunch can become part of your morning routine. Even better if you have a microwave available to you. Last night’s leftovers can go right into some Tupperware and right into a lunch bag. This keeps leftovers from festering forgotten at the back of the fridge.
I will probably spend a decent chunk of money on food this year, even with Dining Out on the Not Allowed list. But I will spend my money with careful consideration. Food is a basic, important need. And nothing is more important than eating things that are good, healthy, and make you feel great.