Eat on 30

October 12, 2009 · 16 comments

in atlanta, cooking at Home, dining out, eat on 30, misc food

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A few months ago, local food blogger/stylist/trendsetter Tami from Running With Tweezers created a challenge for herself called “Eat on 30”. Tami and a few others decided to see what it was like to eat off $30 for an entire week, which is slightly higher than the $21-$24 received per week by the average person on food assistance. Hunger and food assistance is a topic close to Tami’s heart, and some of the data that she has posted surrounding this heart-heavy topic is staggering, and to be honest, it makes me feel quite guilty about my lifestyle.

I pretty much buy whatever I feel like when I go to the grocery store, often without looking at a price, or having some sort of budget. The same goes for dining out. While I show some restraint (no Quinones yet), I dine out quite often, embarrassingly, sometimes even to multiple venues for the same meal. Since the time which I first started earning good money while working in college, my tolerance for an ever increasing average meal expenditure has greatly increased. Nowadays, if I get out of lunch for under $20, or dinner for $30-40, I think it’s a decent deal. Just last night, I was telling someone how great a deal Abattoir was, because I “only” spent $50. That’s craziness!

I justify this to myself by saying that “food is my hobby”. I don’t spend much money on clothing, I don’t work on old cars, and I don’t fly airplanes…all of those activities are expensive, and I happen to know people who drop lots of money on those hobbies. And while I’ve yet to buy patio furniture for my three year old house, that expenditure is on the backburner while I try to find some caviar for a Momofuku dish I have planned. Priorities…out…of…whack.

When Tami decided to setup another run of Eat On 30, I decided I definitely needed to participate. My goal in doing this is to of course provide additional exposure to Tami’s cause, but I’m also participating for selfish reasons. I hope to learn new tricks about buying smart, planning grocery purchases, prioritizing, and I need to figure a way to take control of my crazy dining out, grocery shopping, and wine guzzling habit. Splurging on a great meal out should be a treat, not an every day occurrence, and I need to get back to that mindset. Hopefully this week will help get me there.

One thing to note – I have a wedding which I’m in this weekend, with numerous parties surrounding the event, which will provide me with at least four, possibly five free meals. The occasional free meal does get offered to many people, but I think that 4-5 isn’t normal, and as such, I am going to try to adjust the $30 limit to $24 and see how it goes.

I’d like to do a more comprehensive write-up on this challenge, but work beckons, and this post is getting lengthy as it is. So I will leave you with a few thoughts on ideas and obstacles that I came up with since I started planning this endeavor last week. Also, I scanned in my planning sheet that I used to jot down my thoughts. I thought it was sort of funny. And finally, below are pictures of my first two meals today, which used $1.82 worth of food.

Please be sure to read Tami’s initial post, which lists the details surrounding this program and its genesis, and also lists the other bloggers participating. I won’t list them all here as Tami already does that, but I read one post from Use Real Butter today that is fantastic and I suggest you take a look at the amazing food she is creating on this budget.

Random Thoughts So Far About ‘Eating on 30’

  • Coupon hunting can eat up quite a lot of time, but it is easier to do on the internet – coupons.com and slickdeals.net are good resources. And you don’t have to buy a Sunday Paper.
  • Researching prices at one grocery store is much easier. Trying to plan for the specials at 2+ grocery stores would take me more time than I have, though if you do so, you can find better deals that way.
  • Things I realized I couldn’t afford on my plan: most cuts of beef, dining out anywhere (though I have considered picking up a $1 chili from Wendy’s), most cheeses, name brands, processed foods, organic vegetables, junk foods, dessert, wine, fish (I did see $3/lb tilapia at Kroger though, and I think three filets could go a long way in enchiladas/tacos), and finally, I realized I couldn’t afford to rush my purchases – every expenditure required research and planning.
  • Oh crap, I can’t drink bourbon
  • Shopping takes a lot longer when researching and comparing the prices on every item
  • Legumes and rice are my friend
  • Soups and pasta are hearty items that are nourishing, filling, and economical
  • I am making lots of “extras” of items. For example, I had an egg and rice for breakfast, but I made a bunch of extra rice for fried rice tonight or tomorrow.
  • I am replacing ingredients in some recipes. A black bean soup I am making calls for chicken stock, but I am using water. I’m sure it will taste just fine.
  • Taking my time with presentation…making the meal “look” good, seems to impact my eagerness to both create and consume.

below – my “plan”. yes, my handwriting is encoded.

planning

breakfast 1: poached egg over steamed rice, scallion, soy sauce, sriracha – cost: $0.72

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lunch 1: miso soup with noodles, scallion, mung bean sprouts – cost: $1.10

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  • Emily

    This is awesome Jimmy! Good for you! Maybe next time I can try it too.

  • Colin Blake

    I think I know who you were talking about Abattoir to…. ;-) It was good meeting you last night. I like the blog, and this should be an interesting experiment.

  • Sarah

    This is really cool Jimmy! Looking forward to seeing more of your meals on the cheap. Thanks for sharing this…and good luck!

  • Matt N.

    Good stuff. This could be very useful for the hoards of people being laid off every week. Do you count the soy sauce and sriracha in your $.72? What I mean by that is, does the challenge assume you have an empty pantry at the start?

  • Matt –

    That $ amount does include a few cents for sriracha and soy sauce, but yes, I already had those in my pantry.

    I am kind of struggling with this issue, which I am calling the “overhead issue”. There are pantry items such as soy sauce, hot sauce, and flour which I already have, and for the most part I’m not going to purchase additional quantities just for this week when I already have some in stock.

    To me, the question becomes, is it that I’m trying to eat < $30 worth of food, or can I only spend $30 out of pocket? And if it's the latter, then am I not allowed to use things I already have?

    While I think a more true test would be to only use items that I can purchase this week for $30 out of pocket, on the other hand, if I was consistently trying to eat for under $30, then over time I would be able to accumulate certain items that I can use over a 2-4 week period. Flour is one example – it costs $2.20 for a large bag of flour, but I only need 1 cup for what I have planned this week. So does that mean my amount "spent" is the 1 cup portion (somewhere around $0.40), or is it the $2.20? If I were limited to spending $30 EVERY week, then in week 1 when I purchase the flour, I can't buy as much food, but next week I already have the flour and then I have extra dollars to spend on food AND I have flour in my pantry. Eggs are another example, I have 18 of them, but I won't eat 18 eggs this week.

    I think I am comfortable only counting the portion of flour or eggs used this week, because if I were eating on this budget every week, then it would play out as I described above. Regardless of opinion (maybe I'm wrong in my assessment), I am still learning a lot about budgeting and purchasing in this experiment.

    Thoughts?

  • Jimmy,

    I kind of covered how I was handling the whole staples issue in my post about doing this challenge. I’d love to do this challenge clean – buy food and only use that for the week. But I’ve got food I need to use up in the fridge. I’ve got some things already and if I buy another one, they might go to waste. Maybe I’ll try the Eat on $30 someday without using what I already have but this time, I’m not.

    Really loved your post! Thinking about stealing your breakfast idea!

  • For the most part, I tend to start “clean” when I do this challenge. I’m trying to be as true to the nature of having to buy EVERYTHING as I can. The only thing I tend to “work in” are the dry spices. As you know, buying spices at YDFM (where I get mine) are super cheap and in such large quantity that the portion I use during a week is negligible. My dried red chili flakes cost $.61 for a pint, ya know?

    I think if we attacked this challenge doing this for a MONTH..the approach to shopping would be a bit different. We would be able to stockpile things as people who live on a budget or use staple items all the time tend to do.

    I am considering doing this challenge for longer and see how my approach and the results differ.

    Your post was great Jimmy! Thanks for taking part :)

    – t*

  • Andrew

    You can make chicken stock fairly cheaply if you find a whole chicken on sale. You can get them for around $3 and you’ll have a cooked bird and a large amount of great stock. It takes some time to do it right, but it’s worth it.

    You can freeze the extra stock in ice cube trays, we have a silicone muffin pan that is perfect, then toss them in a bag in the freezer.

  • Andrew – Haha, wait until my post tomorrow for that…

    though I couldn’t find a bird for $3. It was on sale for $0.99/lb at Kroger and I got a 5lb bird.

    Can you eat the chicken livers in these guys?

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Thomas S.

    I think starting “clean” or using your “overhead” is a great debate to have. In the past I have started off with a modest budget and bought everything new. My budget was around $40 and if I bought flour, then I had to. Spices were included and these were the rough days before I discovered a farmer’s market.

    On one hand, including the total amount in a purchase forces a person to think more creatively about their meals, and to try to use all of that particular product. Something like flour is so diverse you can use it from Pierogies to Pizzas, places where it’s not just a tablespoon for a roux. Sriracha and Soy Sauce might be a little less so, but can help create some interesting dishes. On the other hand, if we pro-rate only the amount used, the opportunities for a wider-range of dishes is greater while sticking to the true purpose of the challenge.

    All in all, either approach helps create a more price-conscious consumer. Where is it being purchased, what’s the unit-price, and am I going to use it all?

    P.S. – You don’t have to cut out the whiskey either…I found at one liquor store that buying $1 mini-bottles of Jameson was cheaper than a 1.75L handle, on a per-ounce basis. Of course, pride takes a hit when you are buying 5 mini-bottles at the local package store…yikes.

  • Joe

    eat the livers, or catch a catfish with them, which would be cheap (if not muddy tasting…the one thing that’s always better farm-raised, methinks).

    I’d love to give this a try; we have the same problem spending on food. Oh, and FYI: I’ve been in my house 3 1/2 years, and I just got patio furniture a week ago…and it was really cheap garage-sale stuff. However, I’ve had two nice grills out there for a while. Priorities!

  • That poached egg with rice looks really satisfying. And I love your handwritten plan!

  • Oh helloooooo! Those dishes look AWESOME. I’m jealous of your sprouts. Had I purchased sprouts, they would have eliminated more than half of the chicken I bought. Excellent excellent to see your notes! I’m glad I’m not the only one. I’ll try to dig my shopping spreadsheet up and post that. You’re doing great and your observations are very true (and some are very very funny).

  • Jen – The sprouts are one of those items that I already had in the fridge. They go bad so quickly that I felt I didn’t want to waste them.

    It was $2 for the sprout bag, and I had ~ half of them left when I started the Eat on $30. So I am going to count $1 if I use them all, though as Tami mentions, starting clean is a more true test. But I think wasting food is the greater sin!

    Love your photos, they are awesome.

    -Jimmy

  • What a cool concept – I’m catching up from a ways into your experiment, but I think this is really awesome. Since I’ve started doing all my shopping at Trader Joe’s (about 1.5 years ago) I’ve had a huge realization as to just how expensive food at grocery stores is! I went with my mother a couple months ago to get dinner items from her local grocery, and we spent $70!!! Insane. I could have gotten so much more at TJ’s – in short, I’m kind of a crazy advocate. People often mention that they can’t find everything they “need” there – but my thought is, if it’s not there, then I don’t “need” it. I’ll make do for the considerable savings, and the better quality.

    I definitely would like to try this out though, as similar to you I do spend a good portion of my budget on eating out and wine purchases (granted like you said food:you::wine:me – it’s a hobby that I suppose I’d probably spend money on elsewhere).

    Looking forward to the rest of your days (why not just go extra days on $30 for the times you’ve gotten free food?) and to your conclusions/outcomes.

    Cheers

  • Leigh

    Jimmy- this is a very facinating series. As someone who is only partially employed at the moment, this hits home. Purchasing food is something I struggle with on a daily basis. One thing that I have problems with is a mental produce debate. I always want fresh produce but a lot of times it is a lot more expensive than canned veggies, etc. I can’t wait until I get a job and can go crazy in the produce section!

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