Food

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.

Grocery Shopping

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.

Farmers Markets

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.

Mindful Shopping

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.

Cooking

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.

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Blog Highlight: the Consumerist

The Consumerist is fast becoming one of my favorite blogs. Though it purports to be for people who consume rampantly, there are plenty of posts warning you away from consuming, listing free stuff, and giving tips on how to save money.

Some notable posts from the front page:

Conserve Energy By Watching Hourly Rate
Did you know that you are charged a different rate for electricity during the peak hours of the day? It’s true! One Chicago group is learning to conserve energy (and money) by monitoring their usage hourly, rather than monthly.

Free Online Investment Classes From Morningstar
Don’t know what the hell you’re doing when it comes to investing? Hey, join the club. Good thing Morningstar is offering free investment classes on their website. They’re organized like college classes, and you can earn points for completing the quizzes at the end of each class.

They also have a daily Morning Deals post.

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Resources: Free Books

One of my major addictions is to books. I’m a writer, after all, and a voracious reader. One of the things it will be hardest for me to give up is buying books because I do like to own them. Getting them from the library isn’t as satisfying.

I can’t fault my local library system for much. NYC has one of the best collections in the world between all of the boroughs. They sometimes don’t have the newest genre books and restrict some of the books I need for research to the non-circulating collections, which vexes me. And there’s still that thing about wanting to keep the books I like.

There are a few solutions for getting books for free or almost free. Mostly in the form of book/media-swapping groups. Here are a few I’ve found:

Zunafish – Sign up here to trade DVD’s, CD’s, paperbacks, video games and more. The only money that changes hands is the $1 fee you pay the site for each successful trade. It’s easy to post an item: you simply plug in identifying information–the site walks you through that–and the Web elves produce a full listing. The sole limitation–apart from those of your collection–is that you can only swap like items (CDs for CDs, books for books etc.). So choose a screen name, and start swapping.


PaperbackSwap – We are a group of real people who have formed a Club to swap paperback books with each other. No gimmicks. No spam. No advertising. No kidding. When another member requests one of your books, you mail it to them. Yes, you pay for the postage. But then another member returns the favor when you request a book from them and they mail it to you. And that way the books are always free because we are all trading books with club members!
(they also have a sister site, Swap-a-CD)


Bookcrossing – A website that tracks books you register and release “into the wild” or to other bookcrossing friends. You can search for books and request them from other users or join a Bookcrossing Meetup group to get books face-to-face.


If you’re not like me and don’t need to own the books you read, then the library is definitely the best resource. If your local system isn’t all that great or if you have a tendency to keep books far past their due date and rack up the fines, there is another solution.

Booksfree works just like Netflix. You add books and audiobooks you want to read to your list, they send you a certain number at a time and send the next when you’ve returned them. Also like Netflix, the shipping both ways is free. The service is not (unlike the library). Plans range from $8.49 to $39.99/month.

Another similar service: Bookswim

For me, PaperbackSwap may end up on my allowed list later. For now I will try and stick to the library.

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Dining Out

Eating out and ordering delivery food went on my list of Not Allowed early in the planning for this project mainly because it’s not allowed in Not Buying It, which I used as a rough template. I modified this decision after considering that I do live in New York City, after all. Home to some of the finest restaurants and foods in the world. It would be a waste for me to live here a year and not dine out. On the other hand, I do spend a lot of money every month on average foods like pizza, Chinese take out, wraps, pastries, sweets, and coffee or tea from cafes. As I said, a lot. I needed to find a middle ground.

First, I eliminated delivery and take out foods. A year ago I stopped eating at fast food places (McD’s, Burger King, Subway, etc.), so they were already off the list. Though I would sorely miss it, I struck street food as well.

Cafes and coffee shops present a particular challenge for me. I’m a writer and I tend to hang out in these establishments for hours while I work. On a typical day I’d spend up to $15 on drinks and pastries alone. If I wanted real food, even more. Obviously this is unacceptable for this project. It remains to be seen how I will deal with this restriction.

Eliminating these foods alone should save me hundreds each month. And that leads right into what I am Allowed.

Though there are plenty (and I mean plenty) of great mid-priced restaurants in NYC that are very good, there are some places that are just fabulous and have fabulous prices to boot. Every now and then I get a chance to eat at one of these places, but often I cannot because I don’t have the money. Now that I’m freeing up some money, I’m going to choose one restaurant a month to splurge on. Some place with really great food that I’ve either been to before and love or a place I’ve wanted to go. A place I couldn’t afford because all of my money was going into $3/cup tea every 30 minutes. This way I won’t miss out on the culinary delights of the city and still save money.

I’m allowing myself two other exceptions. The first: Desert. In addition to great restaurants are great desert bars, bakeries, patisseries, and artisan sorbet parlors. Once a month I can indulge at one such place.

The second: once a month I attend a reading series/get-together and dinner. It’s a chance to meet with authors, editors, agents and friends in my genre. It’s partly about business, partly about making connections, and partly about meeting people interested in writing and reading. And the dinner after the reading never costs more than $20.

The goal is to cut my eating out expense from $100 – $140/ week to $150/month, if that.

This means more groceries and cooking in my future. I’ll have a reason to try some new recipes and perfect others. I’m a fairly good cook, so I doubt it will be a problem.

Though I will miss eating out with my friends, I’m looking forward to having dinner parties, instead. If I can get my friends to come all the way up to my apartment.

Could you give up eating out, fast food, and Starbucks for a year? Or even a month?

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How to go to M.I.T. for free

From an article in the Christian Science Monitor:

“By the end of this year, the contents of all 1,800 courses taught at one of the world’s most prestigious universities will be available online to anyone in the world, anywhere in the world. Learners won’t have to register for the classes, and everyone is accepted.

The cost? It’s all free of charge.

Intended as an act of “intellectual philanthropy,” OpenCourseWare (OCW) provides free access to course materials such as syllabi, video or audio lectures, notes, homework assignments, illustrations, and so on. So far, by giving away their content, the universities aren’t discouraging students from enrolling as students. Instead, the online materials appear to be only whetting appetites for more.

“We believe strongly that education can be best advanced when knowledge is shared openly and freely,” says Anne Margulies, executive director of the OCW program at MIT. “MIT is using the power of the Internet to give away all of the educational materials created here.”

the sheer volume and variety of the educational materials being released by MIT and its OCW collaborators is nothing less than stunning.

For example, each of the 29 courses that Tufts University in Medford, Mass., has put online so far is “literally the size of a textbook,” says Mary Lee, associate provost and point person for the OCW effort there. The material provides much more than “a skeleton of a course,” she says. Visitors to Tufts’ OCW course on “Wildlife Medicine” call it is the most comprehensive website on that topic in the world, Dr. Lee says.”

Important Links:
OCW M.I.T.
OpenCourseWare Consortium
ETA (from Consumerist):
50+ Free UC Berkely Courses on iTunes
766 free lectures from Stanford on iTunes

Thanks to LJ user gloryhunt for the tip.

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Resource: Freecycle

If you don’t know about Freecycle, get out some paper and take notes. Folks thinking of embarking on a project like this may find that Freecycle is their best friend.

From their website:

The Freecycle Network is made up of many individual groups across the globe. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them’s good people). Membership is free.

The Network provides individuals and non-profits an electronic forum to “recycle” unwanted items. One person’s trash can truly be another’s treasure!

Despite that last bit, the stuff one finds through Freecycle isn’t necessarily trashy or gross. It’s just stuff people don’t want or need anymore. One of the byproducts of a culture that encourages materialism is that people inevitably end up with a house full of things they don’t really need. Or, they buy new things to replace things that weren’t broken but are obsolete, according to someone, and therefore have to go. You also get people going through a move and realizing that they have too much junk.

Items available through the network run the gamut and vary by city. Obviously the NYC network is very busy. That list generates hundreds of emails a week. There’s furniture, kitchen gadgets, electronics, office supplies, you name it. Smaller towns and new networks will naturally offer less. The great thing is that you can send posts to the list asking for things you need. Someone may answer.

Some cities have in-person Freecycle meetups where folks bring the items they don’t want and look at what others brought for things they want/need. I don’t go to the meetups because it feels a bit like shopping for me. I am likely to bring home even more useless stuff simply because it is free.

A caveat – the old saying “You get what you pay for” certainly applies. While some things people want to rid themselves of are in perfect condition, some won’t be. Get as much detail as you can. And participate! Offer up some of your unneeded stuff. You may make someone’s week.

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Allowed / Not Allowed

In the Not Buying It book the author states that her friends revealed their “Consumer Ids” when they would ask her what she was “allowed” to have. When I first started talking about my project I was amused to find that this held true for my friends as well. And they used the same word – allowed.

“You’re not allowed to eat out?”
“Are you allowed to buy wine?”
“You’re not even allowed to go to the movies?”

The way they (and I) frame these statements makes it sound as if the terms of this experiment are coming from somewhere else. People don’t disallow themselves, other people disallow. Right?

I like the word Allowed to describe what I can have or do during this year, so I’ll use it. I’ll even have a category for it. What is allowed and what is not allowed and why.

Drawing a line between necessary and not isn’t as simple as it seems. Food is, of course, a necessity. But dining out is not. I won’t go out to movies, but will I rent them? And, of course, can I still have something on the not allowed list if I don’t buy it?

I knew I would have to write up a firm list of allowed/not allowed at the beginning then modify it until I settled into the project and understood my needs better. After all, anyone can talk themselves into ‘needing’ almost anything. There’s always a justification somewhere.

If you decide to try not buying for a month or longer, you can use whatever term you like. But I suggest you sit down and really think about the parameters of your experiment. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re not sure if something is allowed or not, and then choose to have it and become demoralized or something. Plus, parameters are good.

This is my current list of Allowed/Not Allowed.

Not Allowed

  • Shopping for non-necessary items such as:
    • Clothing
    • Accessories
    • Electronic Gadgets
    • Software
    • Toys
    • Home Goods
    • Kitchen Items
    • Books (unless for research and that can’t be obtained from the library)
  • Anything from the Container Store
  • Anything from Bed, Bath, & Beyond
  • Taxis
  • Prepared foods
  • Delivery or take-out food
  • Dining Out (except under particular circumstances)
  • Movies (in theater – renting is an unresolved issue)
  • Music
  • Theater
  • Television (i.e. no cable)
  • Concerts
  • Buying food or drink in:
    • Bars/Clubs
    • Cafes/Coffee Shops

Allowed

  • Food / Groceries
  • Toiletries
  • Items legitimately classified as business expenses (more on this in a later
    post)

This list is going to change and grow as I go along. I hope to have it firm by the beginning of February at least.

Taking a look at my not allowed list will probably give you a nice peek into my psyche. What would your list say about you?

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