$15/15 meals: The Week that Was

August 3, 2009

What a weekend! It was so nice to catch up and really break down the week that was $15/15 meals. Despite the fact that we all attacked the challange in slightly different manners, the results were very consistent. But before I get into the details lets go back to the beginning.

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The $15/15 challenge started as an experiment to see how healthy we could eat for $1 a meal for five days. Rather than falling to the temptations and the mentality that the best way to fill up on a budget inevitably leads you to the McDonald’s dollar menu or the processed and packaged food aisles, we set out hoping to eat nutritionally balanced meals with as much variety as we could. Everything we consumed would be counted in the $15 whether it was from the pantry or from the store. The only exceptions being olive oil, salt, pepper, vinegar, coffee and alcohol. If the last two had not been included as exceptions, I imagine those around us would have gotten real sick of this challenge. Other than that, the rest was up to us. It was never a question of if? It was more a question of how. We knew we could have limited our caloric intake and essentially starve to make the five days but that certainly wasn’t the point. I wanted to feel full. I wanted to feel healthy. And most importantly, I was hoping to learn a bit about my food choices and eating habits…

So back to the results…As we discussed our experiences from the past week, the most prevalent topic was that of waste. It takes some creativity but it’s amazing how much you can get out of ingredients, much of which we waste on a regular basis. Whether its taking the ends of the carrots for the stock I made, or saving the ends of a roll to make breadcrumbs for meatballs, I was forced to be a bit crafty because of my budget. But this craftiness has implications far beyond a budget. The environmental impact of waste goes hand in hand with the economic repercussions of our decisions. But even beyond these important social issues, at the route of cooking, wasting ingredients is a waste of flavor.

One of the inherent problems with cooking for yourself is that flavor. So many people rely on restaurants and other sources because of a lack of confidence. But next time you are eating out, pay attention to the ingredients in your dish. Sure the composed dish may be well beyond what you think your capable of, but ultimately the best food is made up of a balance of flavors; flavors available in the same ingredients that have always been accessible along with those that have become more and more available to us. How many times have you bought boxed chicken stock? Or what about those seasoned bread crumbs? These are just two simple example of how you can take back your food! Trust me, homemade tastes better and the added bonus of exuberance of self accomplishment is well worth the extra time and effort.

The other factor we all thoroughly agreed on was perception of hungry. When’s the last time you felt hungry? If your reading this mid-day you may be feeling that hunger at this very moment. Snacking to make it through the afternoon? Loading up at lunch time to make sure you won’t give in to the snacking? I have a better idea, one that became increasingly clear over the course of the week. Fill up on essential protein and simple carbohydrates and listen to your body, not your boredom.

Our brains are pretty amazing! But sometimes we listen to them too much. As we eat and our bodies start to digest the food, we will burn what is necessary and store the rest. However, this system doesn’t work as well as we would expect it to; our brains neglect to remind us of that storage. Just because you stored up those leftovers, doesn’t mean your body will use it, especially if you continue to eat more. So the more your body gets used to eating, the more it craves. Now this may not be the most scientific explanation but if you break it down, this argument is not only valid but certainly prevalent. Why do you think those who are severely overweight have such a hard time decreasing their intake?

However, in our case we had no choice.  So as we focused more on providing our bodies with nutritionally packed food, we ate less and in return desired less. Rather than feeling hungry, we felt energetic. Rather than pining for our next meal, there was a patient excitement. I didn’t weigh myself before and after because weight is certainly not a direct correspondence to health (and I forgot) but there is no question I lost a pound or two. But with a shift towards those simple carbohydrates and lean proteins, this weight loss was achieved the right way. As Nancy suggested, maybe the best way to lose weight isn’t by counting calories, but rather by counting dollars and cents. Of course this assumes you are making good decisions

So what next? Where do we go from here? There’s no way I could keep this budget going and expect to keep my sanity. But just because I plan on spending more than $1 a meal, doesn’t mean the impact won’t be evident. I hope you’ll continue to see these good decisions in my future posts as I promise to maintain the focus of healthy, affordable foods. But in the meantime, lets keep this conversation going. One of the interesting arguments we barely touched on was the importance of shopping organic and local. The stricter your budget, the harder this becomes and despite my best efforts, my purchases of these ingredients were limited. But as I mentioned previously, I hope to run this experiment again, with a few of you getting involved in the process. I know I have a few takers already but the more the merrier!

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And if you were wondering about our celebratory feast? Would you believe me if I told you that the main component wouldn’t have cost us a dime during our week long challenge? That is unless you count the man hours it took us to catch all of these delicious clams!


$15/15 meals: We’ve made it!

July 31, 2009

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We’ve made it! 15 meals have gone by and our budgets have not been overdrawn. It may have been close and we may have made a few estimates but I think you’ll all agree the three of us accomplished our goals. When we set out, 5 days ago, we hoped to show that healthy eating wasn’t out of the question on a tight budget. But honestly, I think we all had mixed expectations. I’ve discussed a number of times throughout the week that I was extremely concerned going into the challenge. $15 or $1 per meal is just about nothing. And I wouldn’t have considered this a success if I ended up losing a ton of weight and starving myself just to make it through. So as the week went on and I continued to eat as I normally have (minus the snacking), I became more and more passionate about what we were doing.

What was so rewarding about this challenge was the thought and additional questions that have been created along the way. In no ways will one five day experiment be the end all be all of rubrick’s on how to live and eat. But if these entries have shown anything, the more we think about these decisions and the more information we seek out, the better informed we will be. And on top of this, one of the most crucial components of cooking for yourself was emphasized. The creative process and the hands on experience you have to cherish and share, is worth the growing pains. Not everything I cook meets my expectations (I have always been my toughest critic) but that doesn’t mean the meal was a waste. Creating my dinners this past week on such a tight budget was made easier by the tool box of cooking experiences I have gathered. It may seem daunting at first but trust me when I say, everyone can cook…

So enough with the uplifting and preachy portion of the experience. What about the negatives! You guys wouldn’t believe me if I only shared the greatness that was this 5 day event. Not to mention it would completely take away from the “challenge” portion of our goals. So what did I miss? How do I feel? Besides the repitition of the meals, my biggest issue along the way was the lack of certain components of my regular diet. Last night, as I contemplated my dinner, I had burning cravings for two things!

I would have done anything for an apple. I don’t even love apples like most do, but last night I would have sacrificed it all for a pink lady. Hell, I would have even considered a red delicious. This makes a decent amount of sense on the nutritional level but also when you consider what my diet was missing in terms of flavor. It was tough to develop sweetness in any of the meals I ate and therefore I craved some sugar!. So now you know the first thing I’ll be eating after the challenge.

The second craving came about when I was making my dinner last night. I wanted to use up what I had purchased so I created a dish that had two of my favorite foods on one plate together! Although I didn’t have large cabbage leaves remaining, that didn’t stop me from taking my remaining ground beef and making stuffed cabbage (more like cabbage roll-ups). I made the sauce out of the remaining diced canned tomatoes and the result was really great. Simple and delicious. But I knew this wouldn’t be enough for dinner. Realizing I had one end of my roll remaining I decided to add some breakfast to my plate. One fried egg with a runny yolk over two pieces of toast acted as a perfect compliment to the cabbage roll-ups. If you look at this plate of food however, just like all the rest, there is something missing. All week as I developed my dinners I pined for just a bit of basil, or a bunch of spinach. Something, to add some green to the plate. I became borderline depressed last night when I knew it was out of my reach. Isn’t that proof we eat with our eyes first?

So what next? Where do we go from here?, Well, tonight we’re celebrating. Celebrating with a large feast! Although it will be interesting to see how much I end up eating. I’m so looking forward to our dinner to discuss the individual experiences we have all had and to think about the implications of this challenge. It is clear that these issues are prevalent throughout the country and more and more people are jumping on board for the discussion. A fellow blogger (one of my favorites) just recently posted about the cost of cooking. Also in the Times online “cheapskate blog”, there was a discussion on eating well for $50 a week. I know I said the same thing. Is $50 a week really that difficult? Either way, the discussion is important. Lastly, I’d just like to say thanks to all of you who have made this even more rewarding. I never imagined how many people would be interested in something like this. The interest and support have been really uplifting! I’ll be sure to update you on the celebration dinner soon and check out Sarah’s blog to see how her week ended up…


$15/15: You can get a good look at a butchers…

July 30, 2009

3 meals to go! I couldn’t bare to have the same old chicken soup for lunch today. So rather than scrapping the soup altogether, I used my left over fried barley and made my soup a bit more flavorful. Plus I managed to get a few more veggies in there along with some bonus protein from the egg. Your probably surprised I even have leftovers but like I said in the last post, its amazing how much we have tricked ourselves into feeling hungry. Once you cut back, you need less. Seems counter intuitive but the more you eat, the more you need to eat…

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In the “think about that for a minute” department, my good buddy sent me an article today that I found fascinating. Why do you buy organic groceries if you do? Lets say you walk into the store and there’s a organic banana versus a conventional banana. Assuming you picked the organic what was the driving force? Many people purchase organic produce assuming there is a nutritional advantage. There must be more nutrients and vitamins in the organic. Right?

This article discussed the findings of a study done at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (I laughed as well). The findings they claim to have shown is that organic produce shows little to no nutritional advantage over conventional produce. You might be shocked and you might think you’ve been wasting your money but let me try to convince you otherwise.

First off, this shouldn’t surprise you all that much. The produce is grown essentially the same way with just one key difference. Organic relates to the conditions the produce or meat was grown/raised, without pesticides, without antibiotics or growth hormones. So the argument for organic isn’t simply routed in nutrition. Remember, it isn’t just about the carrot you eat, it’s about the environmental impact that carrot made. Organic farming is widely considered more sustainable and promotes a healthy working relationship with the environment. The nutritional impact may be more readily seen within the meat production component of our farming system but that doesn’t mean we should ignore remaining aspects of our agriculture.

I think what really bothers me about this article is how little of the story they decided to tell. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming to be an expert nor am I trying to deny the results discussed. But how can you or I make informed decisions with just a bit of the information. Luckily, there is a lot of information out there. We just have to go find out.

Blank“Course, I could get a hell of a good luck at a t-bone steak by sticking my head up a bull’s ass, but I’d rather take the butcher’s word for it” -Big Tom from Tommy Boy

Can we trust the butcher?

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$15/15 meals: Chinese Take Out

July 30, 2009

Fried Barley

Were in the home stretch now and you’d think I’d be really pushing the limit. Although surprisingly, it isn’t so much the quantity of the food that has created the issue. Similar to Sarah’s boredom of black beans, as the week goes on my breakfast and lunch have become a bit mundane. That being said, cutting down on large lunches often consisting of a monstrous amount of carbohydrates has really made me more productive. My chicken soup, which I’ll be finishing up just as the challenge ends tomorrow afternoon, is giving me the energy I need for the latter part of my work day. No more food comas for me! Plus it’s really amazing how we’ve convinced ourselves we need more food than we do. I’ve been doing little to no snacking, and as the week goes on I miss it less and less.

This challenge has really opened my eyes in so many ways. I was skeptical of how well I could eat and how nutritionally balanced my meals would be. I think we’ve proved that with a little creativity and advanced planning, eating well doesn’t have to cost a fortune. However, many of the followers have brought up the concern that this experiment is somewhat skewed because of my ability to cook for myself. One of the major deterrents of home cooking is a perceived lack of creativity. As Sarah mentioned on her blog yesterday, she was struggling to come up with a new way of eating her ingredients. All it took was a small suggestion and look what she was able to create! I hope this week has inspired some of you to get into your kitchens more and more. A few basic techniques and a bit of trial and error goes along way. I see this $15/15 meal challenge as a re-occurring event on the blog and would love to have more people involved the next time around so let me know if your interested…In the mean time, here’s an example of a incredibly simple dish that anyone could make…

How many times have you gotten home late from work and ordered some chinese take out. A little wonton soup and maybe some fried rice? I’ll be honest, I have a weak spot when it comes to Chinese food. Doesn’t matter how full I am, if it’s there I’ll keep eating it. MSG? No problem…I just love Chinese food. Well clearly ordering out was not within my budget this week, so I decided I’d make my own.

Fried rice is a great dish for all levels of cooking. If your just starting out and looking for some interesting options this is a great one to try. I didn’t have any rice, although I did have my barley which I am now 100% hooked on. I love it way more than rice, and I figured it would work just as well for this application. So I cooked a 1/2 cup of barley as the directions on the bag instructed. While the barley was simmering, I julienned a carrot and some red onion, and chopped up some of my remaining red cabbage. Once the barley was cooked and cooled, I brought out my wok. You’ve heard me rave about the wok before, but if you don’t own own, a good saute pan will do the trick. Preheat the wok over high heat. I’ve always loved the scrambled egg in the fried rice so I was sure to include this. Scramble the eggs in the wok with a bit of oil and then remove them. Immediately add the veggies and stir continuously. After only a minute or so I added my barley, shredded chicken, and the scrambled egg. While stirring I added just a touch of soy sauce (maybe this counts as my remaining $.10) and let the whole dish come together. If you don’t include the cooking of the barley, this dish took 4 minutes to make. 4 minutes! And it was absolutely delicious.

Four meals to go and a ton of food to get me there. I still have three eggs, 1 cup cooked barley, chicken soup for two days, enough ground beef for a meal, a small amount of cabbage, 1/4 red onion, and 1/2 can of diced tomatoes. Any ideas what I’m making for dinner tonight?


$15/15 meals: You be the Judge

July 29, 2009

Cabbage Pappardelle and MeatballsCabbage “Pappardelle” and Meatballs

The deeper I get the more I’m enjoying this process. Early on I became increasingly nervous about what the outcome would end up being. I was terrified my findings would only add to the mentality that cooking for yourself is expensive and there is no way to get the nutrition you need to be healthy at the low cost of cheap food available for purchase. Well you be the judge…

The dinner I made for myself last night was truly unbelievable. I’m not just saying this to prove a point or because I’m so hungry I’ll enjoy anything. In fact since I made the switch to the chicken soup for lunch, ensuring a decent amount of protein, my hunger level has gone down, and my energy level has increased. On my way home from work, with $3.59 burning a hole in my pocket, I realized I was going to be running out of important protein source as the week went on. Also, as I promised you the readers, I refused to be boring. So I left Whole Foods (yes the same Whole Foods that everyone thinks is so expensive) with a small amount (although enough for two meals) of organic ground beef and a can of organic diced tomatoes. Down to $.10 I’ll be sure to hang on to as a memento.

Remembering I had saved some of the bread from the sandwich roll I purchased I had an amazing idea. I had ground beef, eggs, and bread….sounds like meatballs to me. By toasting a small portion of the bread and then chopping it finely, I had homemade bread crumbs which I mixed with the beef and a half of an egg. A crucial ingredient to delicious meatballs is cheese and since I had none, I figured I would just move on with out it. But I’m more creative than that. I grated a half of carrot into the mixture ensuring my meatballs wouldn’t end up dry and boring! But what are meatballs without some pasta…

Well if you’ve been following along you’ll know that I haven’t purchased any pasta and with $.10 remaining I certainly couldn’t make another buy. So I decided to make my pasta out of cabbage. Cutting the cabbage into pappardelle sized “noodles” and cooking them in a simple sauce of the diced tomatoes I created a dish that I will never forget. I was blown away by how the simplicity of the flavors and ingredients meshed together to form a nutritional powerhouse of bold flavors. And the greatest part of this meal was how I felt in the morning. Rather than waking up starving for some breakfast I remained full through the morning. Just in time for some of my soup and some leftover cabbage pasta!

But what about some more experimental data for this argument. Sure I felt great! Sure I felt full! But was this dish giving me what I needed. Only one way to figure that out. So I hit the internet this morning determined to figure out the approximate nutritional facts for my dish. But what should this be compared to?

I don’t mean to perpetually go after McDonald’s but they are certainly an easy target. And as long as they keep targeting the world’s diners with their cheap and potentially harmful meals, these questions will continue to be valid. So what would I have eaten last night instead of my meal? Well for comparison sake, going into this competition we discussed the dollar menu items as the reason for our $15 cap. So I decided to choose, the double cheeseburger as a comparison. Both meals were grounded in the use of beef (pun intended) although I promise you, McDonald’s isn’t using organic…and if you don’t believe me go see Food Inc.

McDonald's Double CHeeseburger Nutritoin

Cabbage Pappardelle and Meatbalsl Nutrition

I constructed both of these figures from information I found online. The burger information can be found on the McDonald’s website and I used the Livestrong website to calculate my nutritional information. Some of the most glaring differences start from the very top. At over 100 calories less than the double cheeseburger, my meal was quite larger in size. And tell me, could you really fill up on one double cheeseburger and call it a night? I doubt it. And would you still be full and energetic the next day? I doubt that even more. I cut down half of the fat, and increased crucial vitamin content. Take a look at the Vitamin C difference! I’ll gladly take the additional cholesterol in my meal in return for these other health benefits. Not to mention the quality of product were talking about. And look at the sodium decrease! Now I didn’t include added salt as seasoning into my meal although I swear I barely added a 1/2 tsp. I let the salt in the canned tomatoes along with the natural flavor of the cabbage stand out on their own.

Now you may say, my meal cost more than $1.00 so is this really fair? My answer to that is a resounding yes. Sure, my meal cost more than the double cheeseburger but over the course of the week, aren’t I still spending the same amount. Averaged out this meal is one of 15, and at $14.90 spent, that comes to a shade over 99 cents. So you tell me if cooking healthy meals for yourself is so expensive.

Just a reminder, check out Sarah’s progress at her blog and keep the comments coming. If you have any questions, leave a comment and I’ll make sure we discuss them in future posts. After my late breakfast I’m down to seven meals remaining and I feel great!


$15/15 meals: The Good, the Bad, and the Embarrassing

July 28, 2009

Mets Game Chicken Sandwich

I’ve been meaning to write about the food at CitiField, the new Mets stadium for a while now. Although today I won’t be discussing the burgers at Shake Shack or the bbq at Blue Smoke. No, tonight I will tell you all about the condiment bar!

Okay let me back up a bit. I’m now six meals down in this challenge and despite feeling a bit hungry in the mid afternoon, I’ve been doing a pretty good job of balancing my diet. As one of the commenters suggested, it would be valuable to know how much food I have remaining as this process goes on. So at the start of day 2 (last night’s dinner) I had arguably more than I started with. By breaking down the chicken before making the stock, I had two breast available for meals. One was gone after the first dinner but I ended up with close to a pound of shredded dark meat and about 8 cups of stock for soup. I also had the majority of my cabbage remaining, along with half of the onion, half of the bag of uncooked barley (plus leftover cooked), ten eggs, and eight of my carrots. I actually used the ends of the carrots (the parts you would normally trash) and the onion “skin” for the stock. Not bad huh?

Back to last night…Knowing that the Mets game is arguably the worst place to go under these current circumstances I knew I couldn’t make it on carrots and cabbage. So I went out and made a supplementary purchase of a ciabatta roll and a vine ripened tomato. Only $3.59 remaining now. The roll was a bit large so I decided I could use the ends for another application. I chopped the ends off and assembled a sandwich with my remaining chicken breast and a cabbage salad, sliced tomato, and red onion. It was really good and it definitely did the trick. My hearty sandwich helped me navigate the multitude of temptations. But then it happened…the seventh inning stretch must have shifted something in my stomach because I was about to give in. I was about to snack on my buddies French Fries. As he was piling on the ketchup, my decision became harder and harder. But luckily the ketchup wasn’t alone at this fixin’ bar.

I made a small salad of shredded lettuce, slices of tomatoes, jalapenos, and the famous New York onion hot dog topping all from the condiment bar! Call me crazy. Call me disgusting. But don’t call me a cheater. At least I hope you don’t. I’ll admit it was a bit embarrassing but certainly better than buying! So I made it through the night unscathed, full and without sacrificing a great night.

I woke up a bit late today and was unable to brew my own coffee, meaning I had to scrap it all together. I know the others would have let me grab a cup on the go, but I’m trying to be strict with myself (especially after my salad debacle). Tomato and Egg ScrambleAs I mentioned previously, the hardest part about this challenge for me is the variety. I get fairly depressed when I eat the same thing multiple times so I couldn’t just wake up and fry some eggs. I made a scramble with some of the leftover tomato from the night before and trekked on, sans coffee. I was thinking about what to do for lunch because I really noticed a lack of energy throughout my afternoon yesterday. I attributed this to the lack of protein in my lunch so today, I brought a big bowl of my homemade chicken stock filled with shredded chicken, carrots and barley. Not only was the soup delicious but it really did the trick of filling me up for the rest of the day. I’m still missing my snacks but at least now I know what I’m up against.

I’m really excited to see how the next few days go. I know I’m starting to cut it close and I refuse to be boring, for my sake and yours. The more interesting the food I eat, the more I consider this really feasible. As I write this, I’m planning my dinner and I can promise you it’s going to be a good one! As I mentioned earlier you can check in with Sarah’s progress at her blog and keep the comments and questions coming! I will be surely adding some of the nutritional information from the week’s worth of eating but I prefer to avoid making a lot of early assumptions. By saving this info for the end, I think I will have a more concrete story to tell so keep checking in! 3 days to go!


$15/15 meals: Day 2 Update

July 28, 2009

This is much harder than I expected. I’m used to snacking a decent amount and as I mentioned earlier the temptations are everywhere. Probably didn’t help that I went to CitiField last night for the Mets game where you are bombarded by the smell of premio’s sausages, shake shack burgers, nathan’s hot dogs, and so much more. But with a little thriftyness and a pre-planned meal, I was able to ward off temptation. Check back later for details of day two. You can also stay updated on Sarah’s week by checking out her blog over on blogspot. I’ll be checking in with Nancy as the day goes on as well. Despite the difficulty I’m thrilled about how this is going. Keep the comments coming!


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