Once upon a time, M and I were notorious fast food, take out, and convenience food consumers. Between our jobs and the hectic nature of our lives, we just had little energy or interest in food preparation. Then M left the work force, temporarily at first, and his running began to take hold of him, and we went from eating out a lot of the time to eating out/take out about 15 of the time, 50% convenience food, 35% of cooked meals at home. The eating out/take out dropped significantly, probably less than 5% now, and the convenience food and regular cooked meals percentages slowly flipped and then convenience food dropped as M settled in to not being stressed about work 24/7 and started shouldering more of the food preparation burden.
In the last 3 years, our convenience food and take out food consumption has dropped to less than 10% of our eating. We order pizza once or twice a month, eat a meal out at least one day of the weekend. M still eats a can of soup or chili on occasion, but these days it’s simply what it was meant to be – a quick and convenient meal.
The process of cooking and preparing food at home has not been the easiest transition for us, because neither of us like cooking as a hobby that much. M does enjoy it more than I do, but he is a taste adventurer and likes trying a lot of different foods and experimenting with spices and flavor combinations. Me, not so much. Left to my own devices and without anything in particular available to eat, I have been known to chow down on a peanut butter sandwich or a can of green beans. Bread, peanut butter, cans of selected vegetables are nearly always available in our pantry.
Unfortunately our freezers and pantry somehow became overstuffed with stuff. The food experimentation led to new spices and ingredients appearing, and unfortunately the recipes were not always a hit or were sort of meh and then quickly forgotten when something more favorable was prepared. Where I used to be fairly organized about what went into the 3 refrigerator freezers and what was in the chest freezer, between the cooking flurry and my own work schedule things quickly got out of control and remained that way until this year.
Freezers and pantry turned into this disorganized, overflowing mess. Before the new year began M and I agreed to go through our whole stockpile and do an inventory of what we had and figure out ways to use it up before buying more. I will be honest – a lot of food thrown out in that process. Some was freezer burned from sitting way too long, some pantry stuff was so far out of date for our comfort, and some was stuff we’d bought to try and found we didn’t like. Still, by the time we were finished getting things sorted and reorganized so we knew what we had on hand, I estimated we might not actually need to buy food other than fresh produce and transitory staples (bread, eggs) for at least a month.
We actually did our first significant grocery shop of the new year today.
The great eat-down-the-pantry-2017 has been a good exercise for us, and we have done really well with getting things back under control and to a more manageable food stockpile. Our trip to Costco today finally included more than just eggs and our weekly produce haul, so our food budget looks oddly skewed the last couple of months. January spending was less than $120, and February we are ramping up to the $400 range (protein sources are expensive). In my effort to continue our focus on weaning ourselves off overly processed and convenience food, I started breaking down our grocery purchases by category in our budget. Categories are fairly broad:
- Beverages – Getting its own category next month for juices and the flavored selzer water we drink instead of soda.
- Carbohydrates – Breads, cereal, rice, tortillas, crackers.
- Convenience – This would be the occasional microwave meal; happily we do not seem to be eating anything of the sort thus far in 2017.
- Dairy – Cheese and the occasional milk purchase.
- Junk – Anything sugar-related, chips and other salty snacks.
- Pantry – Spices, canned items, juice, salsa, etc. Yes, in M’s world salsa is considered a pantry staple.
- Proteins – Meat, fish, eggs, nuts.
- Produce – Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables only; canned goes into pantry.
- Sundry – Non-food, clean supplies, paper products. Everything except for fluffbucket supplies (they have their own line item).
- Supplements – Protein powder and speciality protein shake add-ins.
It’s an imperfect and somewhat labor-intensive system, but since we usually only shop once a week it’s not as horrid as it sounds. Plus I’m an accountant; this sort of thing is second nature.
I started this experiment to get a better idea of where most of our food-related dollars were spent. While we’re only 6 weeks into 2017 and have been eating out of our food stockpile, I am estimating that most of our grocery bill is spent on fresh produce and protein sources. While I list supplements here – M and I both consume at least one protein shake per day and the protein powder we use is not cheap – it is a separate line item in the budget. Eye-opening was how much we spend on crap food, usually when we are on the go or planning to go somewhere. M and I agree it is not so much the cash we are spending as much as the fact that we
are were spending at least 10% of our grocery budget on crappy food neither of us should be eating, or not eating that much of it. While not all of it is terrible kind of bad – juice bars, lemonade, greek yogurt with added sugar – it is still junk food and not in line with our healthy eating objectives. We agreed that we want to cut that spending in half, which will also mean our consumption of it should technically decrease by the same percentage.
Which does not mean our gratuitous junky food eating is going to be completely curbed. Probably just snuck in one ingredient at a time.
Sometime last year I decided that if I want a cookie or a cupcake or a muffin, I had to bake it from scratch. Since then I have experimented with various blueberry loaves and muffin recipes. I have made cinnamon streusel coffee cakes and my own cinnamon rolls (disaster – never again). Banana bread I have down to a science. Thing is, baking is part of cooking and not something I particularly enjoy. But if I want that cookie, I haul out the apparatus and make it happen. Then I eat/keep a few and give the rest away. So much easier and safer that way.
It’s an illusion of control which is not necessarily all illusion. I probably make muffins and bread loaves the most, and I try to choose healthier alternatives with less sugar and fat than the processed versions in the stores and bakeries. Since we always seem to have fresh blueberries in the house – M really enjoys them in a variety of things – I have experimented and found a few recipes that I really like. Most of it freezes nicely and I have treat foods for a month.
Overall, I feel as if I am doing some things right and on my way to some things better.
Protein consumption – oh my I wish this were simpler for me. My former registered dietician is still an RD but now just my friend, since he relocated to SoCal last year and I left the Kaiser system in November, is always telling me that I need more protein. M is the same way. So I’m trying. Since I do not track food consumption, I am kind of unclear as to how much I am eating, but from my general descriptions of meals RD is certain I remain deficient.
*sigh* It’s always something.
I completely understand my shortcomings in this area, and if I were hard-core in weight loss efforts I would be far more invested in monitoring my eating. As it is, my interest lies primarily in eating both a wider variety of foods and a more balanced diet. The process is a slow slog of learning about nutrition and not getting bogged down in the details. I do read food labels. I do look at the nutritional values of recipes I try. But I admit to being undeterred by the information if it is something I really want to eat or a recipe I really wish to try.
It is so easy to get discouraged in lifestyle change efforts. I get this about myself and have removed most of the obstacles that will trigger some sort of destructive spin cycle. Calorie counting, food tracking, getting on the scale frequently to measure progress – these are things that will wig me out in the worst possible ways. Only by throwing out those measuring devices have I enjoyed any success or sense of peace about the better health quest. While my financial tracking of our food costs is not for everyone, it makes sense to my accounting brain. Small tweaks, tiny changes add up to something more significant and impactful over time.
In the traditional, mainstream senses, my progress is nonexistent. In the real ways that matter to me, I am successful managing my health for the first time in my life.
That is my version of progress, and in this, mine is the only version that matters.