Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Oh Kale Yeah!

My husband bought a cookbook for me this Christmas called Salad for Dinner. by Jeanne Kelley. I have enjoyed flipping through it over the past few days and planning future meals.  In the introduction, I found a great little pie chart showing seasonal vegetables.  It’s a nice visual representation of what to look for in the grocery store during each season of the year.   While it’s not an all inclusive list, it does help with meal planning on a budget, especially when it comes to buying fresh produce. 

So, I thought of Mark and his upcoming challenge.  I talked about seasonal produce in a previous post, and gave Mark his first recipe which included winter (butternut) squash.  Mark’s second recipe uses another great in-season vegetable, kale!  Now, kale is a staple in my household.  It usually shows up in a meal in some shape of form at least once a week.  It may show up twice if we have leftovers. 

Nutritionally, kale contains a host of micronutrients to include vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin K.  It also contains iron and is a source of dietary fiber.  Kale is very versatile and can be eaten fresh, or cooked in many different ways.  It tastes similar to collard greens, and like collards, it is sweetest after the first frost.  For Mark’s purposes, we’ll keep the recipe simple so he can stay within his budget.  On a recent trip to the grocery store, I found kale for $.99 a bunch, which equates to about 10 leaves ($.09 per leaf).  Because the leaves are fairly hearty, Mark can probably get away with using only 2 per serving (a mere $.18).

The simple recipe is as follows:  First rinse the leaves in luke warm water.  It’s best to rinse only the leaves you intend to use at one time.  Next, strip the leaves from the stems, discarding the stems.  Place the leaves in a vegetable steamer.  If using the microwave, steam for only 2 minutes.  If using a stovetop steamer, steam the leaves until they are slightly soft (3-5 minutes).  Don’t overcook the leaves, as the flavor diminishes once they are mushy.  Eat them plain or with a bit of sea salt sprinkled on top, or a couple drops of vinegar.  Enjoy!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

What the Quinoa?

A few years ago, no one had really heard of Quinoa.  Now, it is rare to visit a restaurant, aside from the typical fast food chain, that doesn’t have Quinoa on the menu in some form or fashion, whether as an ingredient in a main dish, or a stand alone side item.  Part of this stems from the recent focus by the United Nations on Quinoa and its naming of 2013 as the “International Year of Quinoa.”  Although this ancient grain has been cultivated for years throughout the world, it is only recently that it’s been recognized for both its nutritional and economic benefits. 

Nutritionally, quinoa contains 6 grams of protein per serving, and all of the eight essential amino acids. Its iron content is also higher when compared to other grains such as maize, rice, and wheat. An added bonus is that, per serving, Quinoa has 3 grams of dietary fiber! Economically, quinoa is relatively inexpensive to produce, adaptable to varied climates around the world, and not impacted by more arid conditions.

During my grocery shopping venture this week, I looked for Quinoa to check the current price. The least expensive I found was a box for $3.99 which contained 7.5 servings. This equates to ~$.53 per serving. I wish I would have priced it last year, as I’m sure it’s more expensive now due to its recent marketing by the international community. Also, I’m wondering if it’s produced in the U.S. anywhere, which if not, could potentially drive up the cost as well. The box I found locally was a product of Bolivia.

Quinoa has a somewhat nutty flavor (similar to that of couscous) and can be cooked several different ways.  So, my thought for Mark, is that even though it may be a more expensive initial investment, he could use it to alternate with his oatmeal in the morning, once he gets tired of oatmeal, or as a side dish with black beans or diced seasonal vegetables.  For a grain, it’s hard to beat its nutritional value for the price paid!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

can I afford coffee?

I'm a bit of a caffeine junky. I drink a lot of coffee, so this is one area I am a little worried about.

My preferred brank is Dunkin' Donuts. But at $7 for a 12 oz bag, I am thinking  that might be too pricey.

So I did a little test this morning, weighing out the coffee grounds I usually use. Now Kandie and I make our coffee pretty weak. I brewed 9 cups of coffee using 5 scoops of grounds. The grounds weighed about 1 oz. At $7 for 12 oz, that's about $0.59 for 9 cups of coffee. Since I proceeded to drink 6 cups, that's about $0.39. I don't think I can afford to spend more than 10% of my allowed resources on coffee. So that means I will definitely need to go with the HEB brand coffee, at $0.21/oz. At that price, I can get my 6 cups for about $0.14 - much more affordable!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nickel and Dimed

One of my former students, Erika C., recommended that I read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America after she read about our $3 a Day Diet project.

I downloaded it on audio and I am finding it fascinating. The author took this idea to the fullest - choosing to live on minimum wage for two years, doing minimum wage jobs.

I still think she had some of the benefits of being from a higher SES - most notably, she knew it was an experiment and she could quit at any time and go back to her real life - something that people who are really poor cannot do and do not have the comfort of knowing.

One of the comments she made about cooking in particular that struck me was that many poor people do not have access to a full kitchen - especially urban poor. This brings out one of the realities of my experiment - even though I will be restricting my resources to $3/day in consumables, I will still have access to a full kitchen - a nice stove, nice oven, microwave, pots, pans, etc. And a refrigerator and freezer, of course.

When my wife and I relocated to San Antonio, we lived in a hotel room for six weeks with our three kids and two cats. It was truly unpleasant. One of the contributing factors to our misery was that all we had to cook with was a microwave and a hotplate, making it difficult to prepare food in our "home". We did try to cook in the room when we could, and we made some reasonably good food, considering.

Would I want to live like that? Of course not. Could I live like that? Sure. Preparing meals for five on a single hot plate cramps your style, but it can be done.

oats for breakfast

Kerryn recommended I give oat meal a shot for breakfast, so I thought - "Oatmeal, I can do this!"

Now there are about 20 different kinds of oatmeal, so I'm not sure if I got the right kind. But I did get the cheap kind. I think mine ran about $0.059 per serving.

Kerryn had recommended cooking the oats with milk, but that would add more cost to the meal, so I thought I would see if I could get by with just water. Honestly, I'd rather have a couple of eggs than a cup of milk if it comes down to price. I don't know if eggs are a reasonable trade off for milk or not, nutritionally. I've often eaten hard boiled eggs for breakfast when I've been dieting in the past.

Anyway, I went with 1 and 1/2 servings of oats, though. So the oats cost $0..09. I didn't think I would like plain oats, so I added two teaspoons of sugar, which I estimate cost me about $0.01.

Along with a cup of coffee, this really wasn't that bad a breakfast. There was enough cereal to satisfy my desire to eat. The volume was sufficient to make me feel relatively full. Not bad for $0.10. Especially since I'm not a big breakfast eater.

I haven't estimated out the coffee cost yet - that will be important. I drink a lot of coffee. I can drink it black, but I prefer a little skim milk and fake sugar.I make my coffee pretty weak - so I'm guessing it will run me something less than $0.10 per cup. But even at that relatively low price, I'm going to have to think more about how much of it I consume. Especially if I have to give up Diet Coke, which I also consume in large quantities. I actually started drinking coffee to reduce my consumption of Diet Coke. At one time I used to drive to work with a Diet Coke in my hand. Now it's coffee. But on this diet, I don't know!

So not bad.

(I apologize for the repeat of this post - I accidentally deleted it a minute ago - Blogger is very unforgiving of mistakes!)


Peanuts make a healthy addition to any diet, right?

OK, so maybe not these peanuts. Circus peanuts are one of the great mysteries of our time. What, exactly are they? Injection molded to look like a charicature of a peanut, but orange colored, and tasting of sickly sweet banana. How could you pass these bad boys up? I know I can't. They are one of the truly bad foods that I am drawn to like a mosquite to a bug zapper on a red neck's porch. If I venture too close to the candy aisle in the grcoery store, it is almost inevitable that a bag of these will, as if by circus magic, land in my cart. There is usually nothing left but a celophane wrapper by the time I get home, the only evidence to the crime.

I honestly don't know why I eat these. I don't think I actually like them. It's like a Bad Romance (cue Lady Gaga). Because when the damage is done, I always tell myself, never again.

Until next time.

Monday, December 23, 2013

A healthy breakfast on a budget IS possible!

I hope the Mac and Cheese with squash went over well for Mark! As I was making breakfast this morning for my kids, I was thinking about what I could recommend for Mark that would fit into his daily food budget. Both of my kids are fans of Cheerios, whether they are honey nut or plain. I think they are fascinated by the little rings with holes in the middle more than anything. Unfortunately, a box of Cheerios is out of Mark's budget. My two year old, however, loves oatmeal just as much as I do. And, believe it not, he will eat it plain (no sugar added), and not just one bowl, but two at a time! This gave me an idea for Mark. Now, I know oatmeal is probably not on the top of his list of most enjoyed breakfast items, but it is not only very economical, but deliciously nutritious as well. One serving (1/2 cooked oatmeal) provides 4 grams of dietary fiber (16% of Mark's minimum fiber needs/day) + 5 grams of protein. (~8% of his daily protein needs). He can add a cup of milk to that for another 8 grams of protein plus the benefits of calcium and vitamin D, bringing his protein intake up to ~20% of his daily needs. Since he's still missing a fruit, we can throw in a banana. This brings the cost of his breakfast to a mere $.56, with the most expensive item being the banana at $.31.

The oatmeal (store brand) is $1.49 for 30 servings (1/2 cup cooked), which equates to $.05 for one serving.  Ironically, the oatmeal came in cheaper than its competitor, Frosted Flakes, which was $1.79 per box (14 servings) or $.12 per serving.  This is proof that you can eat healthy foods on a budget!!!

The milk is $3.23 per gallon, which is an expensive initial investment, but contains 16 servings (1 cup each), equating to $.20 per serving. There were too many people in the dairy section to get a good photo of the milk, but that was the price as of today.

The bananas are $.47 per lb, which is about 5 medium size bananas, so ~ $.31 each.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Food Expenditures Around the World

I did a little research today on how the world spends on food. The following data is from the US Department of Agriculture web site. You can find the data here:


I sifted through all of the countries the USDA had listed and picked out a few that seemed representative of developed and developing countries, as well as most of the continents. My sample is somewhat haphazard - you can do your own follow up if you want.

The above chart shows expenditures on food consumed at home as a share of all consumer expenditures. As you can see, food consumed at home is a small fraction of total expenditures in developed countries and much larger (nearing as much as 50%) in developing countries. It's important to note that this is not the complete picture of food consumption because people in developed countries eat out a lot. 

Looking specifically at the US expenditures on food consumed at home and food consumed out of the home:

You can see the dramatic shift towards spending on food consumed outside the home. On average, we spend as much eating out as we do on food we prepare at home. That makes me feel a little better - at least I know I'm closer to average. 

a deal and a dud

One of the things I love to do on a quiet Sunday morning is bake biscuits for the family. Being a guy in a house full of ladies, I can be dressed and ready in about 1/10th the time, which means I can sleep in, bake biscuits, and still have time to blog.

Like today.

Now biscuits are classic, old-time-y food, and I figured that must mean they carry a lot of bang for their buck. So here's how the biscuits stack up:

10 oz flour - $0.24
8 oz buttermilk - $0.50 (could have got it cheaper if I had bought a larger bottle)
3 tsp baking powder - $ 0.05 (guestimate)
1/2 tsp salt - < $0.01
1/4 tsp baking soda - $0.01 (guestimate)
1/2 C shortening - $0.32

total: $1.13 for 10 biscuits --> $0.11 per biscuit.

recipe estimates 140 calories per biscuit.

that's pretty economical.

now the dud is... my daughter had a little holiday party last night and one of the girls brough one of my favorite bad, store bought, baked goods - loft house cookies!

each of these mini-loft house cookies (about 1/5 inches in diameter) loads 130 calories and 4.5 grams of fat. Who can say no to these little packages of modern love?

Not me, I'll tell you. I ate four of them before I finished making the biscuits.

So what do you think Kerryn? Do I get to keep biscuits on the island?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Oh.....the price of convenience!

While shopping today for groceries, I noted the prices of winter squash for Mark's first recipe. The best deal was a butternut squash at $.94/lb. The store (HEB) was also selling cut up pieces of butternut squash, but the price of convenience ($4.98/lb) was outrageous and definitely not feasible when you're trying to eat on $3/day! Sorry Mark, I don't think you can afford "convenience" anymore, which is why I'm glad to see you have resigned to making your own bread. And yes, you're right, it will taste better and will be more affordable. The only downside of homemade bread is that it doesn't last as long as store bought bread since it lacks the preservatives which extend shelf life, so don't make too much at one time.

I also found a bonus for Mark: fresh blackberries on sale, 6 oz. for $.98! Yes, it sounds like a rather small serving, but 6 oz. equates to about 27 berries, enough for 3-4 breakfast servings and some snacks throughout the day. More fiber to go along with the beans and brown rice!

some initial shopping

I did some initial shopping yesterday and made some notes about prices.

I was able to find a few sales - like getting a bag of free rice if I bought a bag of beans for bean soup. Then I realized I probably would have been better off buying the beans separately. Bean soup is basically just a bag of mixed beans with some spices. Since mixed dried beans are all about $0.05/oz, I paid more than double for the soup mix. The benefit is that I don't have to buy 16 different bags of beans to get the mix. But variety is one of the sacrifices I suspect I will be making. I also got 2-for-1 on a brand of pasta, getting the price down even below store brand cost. I don't know about that wheat pasta thing, Kerryn. I do not like wheat pasta. My wife has tried to get me to eat it and it tastes like ground up particle board. I could potentially make my own pasta, but I doubt it will be cheaper than store bought. It does taste a little better, but it's much more time consuming. I may make some gnocchi though. I'll have to see how the ingredients add up. 

Dried beans are clearly a bargain. Once they are soaked, they will increase in weight dramatically. Maybe I'll try weighing them soaked in order to do a comparison to some of the other potential ingredients. Canned vegetables are pretty reasonably in priced, but compared to beans they will be much more expensive.

I'm interested in seeing what a serving of each othese weighs, so I can get a sense of how much my diet will cost. And by serving, I mean what I would actually eat, not the non-sensically small amount the food lables usually indicate is a serving.

I'm thinking I'll bake my own bread. It tastes better than store-bought, and it might be cheaper. 

The canned yams were a good deal. I like them and I think they have a lot of nutritional value. And $0.78 for a 29 oz can - that's got to be cheaper than fresh. I'll check and compare.

Eggs are an obvious choice for protein, especially in the morning. Meat is pricey, but I was surprised I could get frozen boneless skinless chicken breasts for about half the price of fresh ground turkey. That made me happy because Kandie and I eat a lot of chicken now. 

More to come!

         $ unit commodity 
0.109 per oz peanut butter (HEB)
0.0538 per oz grape jelly (HEB)
0.049 per oz Spaghetti (Skinner brand)  was able to get it 2 for 1
0.0605 per oz Pinto beans dry 
0.0386 per oz Diced tomatoes (can, HEB)
0.037 per oz tomato sauce (can, HEB)
0.0387 per oz corn (can, HEB)
0.0461 per oz cream corn 
0.0593 per oz can peas & carrots ?
0.213 per oz ground turkey
0.032 per oz sugar
0.0237 per oz all purpose flour
0.273 per oz red star yeast
0.0295 per oz corn meal (HEB)
0.0515 per oz canola oil
0.266 per oz olive oil (HEB)
0.211 per oz coffee (HEB)
0.188 per bag cinnamon tea (HEB)
0.0328 per bag Lipton tea
0.155 each eggs
0.1248 per oz boneless skinless chicken breasts (frozen)
0 per oz white rice (Riceland brand) I got it free by buying the Hambeen soup mix. Normally 0.0467 per oz
0.116 per oz Hambeen soup mix
0.026897 per oz canned cut yams was on sale from 1.78/can to 0.78/can - 29 oz
0.034688 per oz brown rice (Riceland brand) was on sale from 1.48/32 oz bag to 1.11/32 oz bag

Mark's first recipe!

Mark mentioned in a previous Post that he typically doesn’t pay much attention to food costs at the grocery store and more or less buys what he wants to eat. I have to admit that I do much of the same as I shop for food. Generally, I will write a list of foods I need for various meals I intend to make for the week, but rarely has the cost of a food item stopped me from purchasing it.

Mark’s challenge has increased my awareness of just how much food costs, particularly of fresh fruits and vegetables, can vary throughout the year. I recently found an old food receipt from the summer in my car. My kids recycled it into a colorful art project, but beneath the Crayola colors I could still make out the prices of some of the produce I purchased that summer day. The blueberries were $2.45 for 12 oz. I use this as an example since blueberries are a common staple in our home. It’s rare to open our refrigerator and not see blueberries! My kids love them! Unfortunately, when I purchase the same amount of blueberries during the winter months, I usually pay between $4-7. The point I am trying to make here is that purchasing produce in season can definitely stretch your food dollar, as you can see from my own experience.

Since Mark is starting his $3 a day challenge in January, during the winter months, we can stretch his food dollar more by incorporating seasonal vegetables into his daily meals. Winter fruits and vegetables include: bananas, lemons, grapefruit, oranges, pears, mushrooms, onions and leeks, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, turnips, and winter squash.

Mark’s first recipe to try is one for good ole’ Mac and Cheese. Yes, I’m trying to ease into the whole “healthy eating” concept with Mark since he’s not used to eating this way. So, I didn’t want to make the first recipe too “green.” This Mac and Cheese has a unique twist, though, as it incorporates one of our winter veggies: winter squash. Trust me, if you didn’t know the squash was in there, you would think it was regular Mac and Cheese! I hope you like it!

I can’t remember where I originally found this recipe as I’ve used it several times and have evolved it into what it is below. It serves about 4 people, depending on how hungry everyone is. As for Mark, just save the leftovers for 3 more meals.

Here it is:

8 oz. whole grain pasta (buy store brand to save money)
1 tbsp butter/margarine
1 tbsp whole wheat flour
2 cups cubed winter squash
3/4 cup shredded cheese (It’s cheaper to buy the block of cheese and shred yourself. Cheddar is preferred, but if another type of cheese is cheaper, go for it!)

Boil pasta, drain, and keep the pasta water. Use a steamer to steam the squash until it’s soft and will easily mash. In another pan, melt the butter. After it is liquid, add the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes. Add in about a cup of pasta water along with your steamed squash. Mash the squash until smooth. Add the cheese and stir until it melts. Finally, add the cooked pasta.

If you have extra squash, use it in another meal as a starchy side dish. An easy second use could be to steam it first, then transfer it to another pot, mash it, add salt, pepper, and butter. Eat it like mashed potatoes!

blood drawn

I had my blood drawn yesterday to get a baseline. Matt has promised to give me a run down when he gets all the results.

Initial response was my cholesteral numbers are high, but not dangerously so. That's not really surprising given that I had eaten at Chama Gaucha this week, as well as McDonald's a few times (things I honestly don't normally do). If I remember correctly, my cholesterol was in the normal range about  six months ago. I'll ask Matt to verify that, too.

World Bank - What is extreme poverty?

A part of this experiment is to try living on part of what I consider to be a poverty level of resources for food. I'll post more about that in a bit, but what I want to talk about for a minute here is how extreme poverty is defined by the global development community.

The World Bank defines someone as living in extreme poverty if they are subsisting on $1.25/day (in 2005 dollars - probably the equivalent of about $1.45 in 2013 dollars). This is an all-inclusive number, not just the amount they spend on food. According to World Bank estimates, about 52% of the world lived on this amount of resources in 1981, about 41% in 1990, and in 2010 about 21%.

These are amazing numbers. In the course of 30 years, we have seen a dramatic decline in extreme global poverty the likes of which have never been seen in human history.

There is a myth in some circles that once upon a time we were all living in harmony, and then capitalism came along and the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. That is completely untrue. The truth is that once upon a time we were almost all living in abject poverty, and a very tiny percentage of the population lived in what we would look at today as just poverty. With the advent of capitalism and the structures that support capitalism the rich indeed got richer, but the poor get richer, too. (Note when the acceleration in improvement really changed - post 1990 - after the global rejection of communism, the supposed alternative to capitalism.)

Now going from $1.25/day to say $2.00 a day (the next level of poverty that the World Bank estimates) is hardly going from poor to rich, but that's a 60% improvement in living standards. If you are sitting at $1.25, $2.00 looks like something quite worthwile. If we accept the concept that utility increases at a diminishing rate with wealth (the basis of progressive taxation and other redistributive policies), we have to accept that a 60% increase at the extreme bottom is a phenomenal increase in human happiness. Indeed, it probably means the difference between life and death for a large percentage of that population. To understand the concept of diminishing returns, ask yourself what you would be willing to do to earn an additional $0.75/day. Chances are, if you are reading this blog, the answer would be "not much" or more likely "nothing". But if you were living on $1.25/day, your answer might be quite different.

So I've chosen $3.00/day for food resources. It's a somewhat arbitrary number. It doesn't put me anywhere near what would be ranked as extreme poverty in global terms. In 2010 there were 1.2 billion people who lived on $1.25/day for all their resources. That's an ugly number. It's important to think about what we, collectively, can do to keep that number falling.

In the words of Robert Lucas, the Nobel Prize winning economist who has spent much of his career studying economic growth,
Within the advanced countries, growth rates tend to be very stable over long periods of time, provided one averages over periods long enough to eliminate business-cycle effects (or corrects for short-term fluctuations in some other way). For poorer countries, however, there are many examples ofsudden, large changes in growth rates, both up and down. Some of these changes are no doubt due to political or military disruption: Angola's total GDP growth fell from 4.8 in the 60s to - 9.2 in the 70s; Iran's fell from 11.3 to 2.5, comparing the same two periods. I do not think we need to look to economic theory for an account of either of these declines. There are also some striking examples of sharp increases in growth rates. The four East Asian 'miracles' of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are the most familiar: for the 1960-80 period, per capita income in these economies grew at rates of 7.0, 6.5, 6.8 and 7.5, respectively, compared to much lower rates in the 1950's and earlier.3,4 Between the 60s and the 70s, Indonesia's GDP growth increased from 3.9 to 7.5; Syria's from 4.6 to 10.0.

I do not see how one can look at figures like these without seeing them as representing possibilities. Is there some action a government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow like Indonesia's or Egypt's? Ifs o, what, exactly? If not, what is it about the'nature of India' that makes it so? The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.
(more here: http://www.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/docs/darcillon-thibault/lucasmechanicseconomicgrowth.pdf )

I always share that quote with my students when I teach Macroeconomics. It is The Big Question if you are a civic minded person.

What is extreme poverty? Almost no one living in America will ever experience it just by sheer luck of having been born here. But what we can do to help others out of it is worth considering.

For more about global poverty, go to the World Bank web site: http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Start date: January 2.

The plan is coming together.

I started thinking about this project on the drive in to work today. I recently read an article in which the author described trying to live on $5/day.

Three dollars sounds more challenging. I've seen it posted in different places that the food stamp benefit is $3/day. I don't think that's accurate, but there are certainly people in the world - about a billion - who live on a dollar a day or less. And that is for all their needs - not just food.

My former student and friend Dr. Matt Fandre, M.D., has agreed to run some lab work on me prior to the start of the experiment, and will run the same tests at the end to see if there is an impact on my health.

My colleague here in the Army Medical Department Center and School (AMEDDC&S) Graduate School from the U.S. Military-Baylor Graduate Program in Nutrition, Kerryn Story, MPH, RD, CSSD, LD, will be co-blogging with me, discussing just how bad my choices are. 

This should be interesting, because I really don't eat a very healthy diet. I really like McDonald's. I really like Diet Coke. I really like craft beer. I really like pretty much anything with a lot of fat and sugar. Most of this I will not be able to afford on $3/day. 

So, start date is January 2nd, 2014.  

Before then I will be sharing my preparations and planning, and Kerryn will be giving me some coaching.