Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics

In another life, I was a teacher of fresh, eager college students. For most of my very short teaching career, I had the immense pleasure of teaching a group of fiercely-talented burgeoning designers — the kind of kids you really didn’t have to teach at all. They were competitive and eager, which made it easy to come into class the first day and tell them that if they did enough to get by in my class, they’d make a C. That B’s and A’s were hard work, and I wasn’t giving them away (insert my scariest mean face, pretty much the opposite of this one in the Indy Star where I was caught at DigIN with food falling out of my open mouth).

This is how I approach the subject of grocery budgeting, too. There are levels of how much work you can do — and the fantastic thing about living in our plush western world is that you can choose how much you want to do. This goes for me, too — and on any given month, I make anywhere from an A+ to a resounding, thud-like F! when it comes to staying within our food budget.

So, today: the bare minimum. Do these things alone, and you’ll be facing solidly in a direction of staying within your real-food budget.
Continue reading “Grocery Budgeting, 101: The Basics”

Grocery Budgeting 101

The first time I had a grocery budget was during the summer of 1992. I was in summer school, living solo in a dreary on-campus dormitory. I had a mini-fridge, a microwave, and a set amount of cash in my bank account that had to last all summer. I would go to the grocery store on Sunday night, and buy my food for the week: my budget was $20. I remember apples, tuna fish, and bagels as regular items on a list that rarely changed due to its budgeting and belly-filling dependability.

A decade later, I had graduated to a full-sized refrigerator and started a family. It was a few years after I’d been managing the cooking, grocery-shopping, and most household budgeting that I realized one day: a college degree in home economics really does sound useful.

(I should admit to not previously having much respect for that line of study. I never even took Home Ec in school — to me, it was a semester of brownie-making and apron-sewing. And those things were so… simple. Who needed a class to learn how to make brownies when you can just follow instructions on the back of a box? said my 14-year old know-it-all self.)

But trying to keep a family fed with nourishing food that’s as high-quality and local as possible on a limited budget is really bleeping hard. It take time, knowledge, organizational skills, flexibility, and resourcefulness.

Anyone who says it is easy is lying through their teeth.

I did a little blurb at a cooking class last week, taught by my friends Alex & Sonja at A Couple Cooks. My assignment was to talk a bit about budgeting and feeding a family. Only a few of the almost 20 students actually had children — but many of the budgeting tips I offered could be helpful to anyone, not just those feeding larger households. This is a subject that comes up often in conversations with friends — how do we stay in our grocery budget and still eat well?

To have that conversation, we should start with a question: what’s a good amount to spend on groceries? In conversations with a random assortment of friends, I’ve discovered that families in what I would consider to be similar economic lifestyles have a vast range of grocery budgets. On the low end, a married mother of two has a budget of $450/month (that’s about $28/person a week, a good 20 years after my poor-college-student-summer budget of $20/week). And I have plenty of friends who spend $800/month or more for families of five.

Michael Pollan, in his book In Defense of Food, points out that, in 1960, Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food. Today, we spend just 9.9% (you can see the whole quote in this post, where I first publicly sighed over the ubiquitous grocery budget). As a culture, we expect to spend less and less on food, any yet we are also less and less healthy. The stats beg some questions, both culturally and individually: what should be our goal when it comes to providing food for our family? What should we sacrifice in order to eat well? In what battles do we stand firm and hold our ground (because we can’t win them all)?

Fully realizing that this is not a one-size-fits-all topic: over the next couple of months I plan to share a few of the practices we’ve put in place to get the most for our food money. But I would love for this to be a conversation that carries over to comments and Facebook — so think about your own grocery-buying habits, your budget if you have one, and your priorities when it comes to feeding yourself and those in your care. The more tricks we have up our sleeves, the better job we can all do when it comes to bringing home the (literal) bacon.

So today, I ask: what is your priority when it comes to setting your current food budget?
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Ready to tackle the basic steps that will help keep you in-budget? The next post in this series covers them!

The scoop on sweets, part four: the final chapter, finally.

Wanna get caught up on the sugar series before reading the last page of the book? If so, feel free to peruse Part 1 (artificial sweeteners), Part 2 (what sugar does to your body), and Part 3 (so what do I use again?).

Finally! The last in my series on sugar, wherein I tackle the remaining messy bits of sugary debate: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and agave nectar. I procrastinated on this one a bit because it was a big subject to tackle; both of these sweeteners are surrounded in controversy (much more for HFCS than agave), and while I think that the evidence stacked against HFCS is clear and damning, there is much money at stake in convincing the public otherwise, leaving an often-confused consumer (who to believe? if it’s so bad, why does the FDA let people use it?). On a grand scale of edible danger, I personally put aspartame in a much more lethal category than either of these sweeteners. But I still avoid them in my home, and following is why.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

When all the bad press started to come out about this sweetener, a friend of mine sat down to google it, and landed immediately on a site that told her, “HFCS is the chemical and nutritional equivalent to table sugar (sucrose). The two substances have the same calories, the same chemical composition, and are metabolized identically.” She read the information aloud to me, and then said, “So I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s just sugar.”  Then I asked her to look at the bottom of the site, to see who is funding it. The answer? The Corn Refiner’s Association. And this is where all of the logic starts to get really, really fuzzy.

If you visit the website, the homepage (as of February 19, 2011) lists the facts below (quoted directly). But like a used car salesman telling only half-truths about the history of a car, these statements are somewhat misleading, and leave out the parts that can be negatively construed. Taken apart one by one:

High fructose corn syrup is composed of the same two simple sugars (fructose and glucose) as table sugar, honey and maple syrup.

Ok, yes. HFCS is composed of both fructose and glucose, just like sugar, honey, and maple syrup. The big differences are 1) the highly-processed nature of HFCS compared to these other sweeteners (even sugar, in its most refined white state, is not as processed as HFCS), and 2) the ratio of fructose to glucose in the chemistry. In short, fructose is bad news. It does wacky things to your liver, and is converted to fat more readily than its partner glucose. The percentage of fructose in HFCS ranges from about 55% (in soft drinks) to a staggering 90% (ironically in many “diet” foods, where the intense sweetness of fructose is preferred). Since table sugar, honey, and maple syrup all have about 50% fructose, the industry claims that the extra 5% in HFCS is negligible. But research shows that there is something in that 5% that is much more significant than a bar graph might indicate. That seemingly small percentage seems to tip the body’s metabolic scales, causing reactions that go beyond what is predicted by corn chemists on paper (more about a comparison study feeding table sugar or HFCS to lab rats, below).

There has been much confusion about this natural sweetener made from corn. We want to clear up this confusion by calling this ingredient what it is: corn sugar.

While this nomenclature is likely to call up imagery of some grandmotherly women in a kitchen, using a mortar and pestle to grind fresh grains of corn down into a syrup that they then dehydrate in the sun, the reality is that it takes 3 enzyme additions involving fungi, chemicals, and large vats, plus two additional refining steps in one of 16 chemical plants across the heartland to get the tanker full of clear syrup that the Corn Refiner’s Association would like the FDA to start calling “corn sugar.”

High fructose corn syrup is simply a kind of corn sugar. It has the same number of calories as sugar and is handled similarly by the body.

Again, it is true the the calorie count is the same. But “similarly” is not exactly. And those minuscule differences in how the body processes HFCS can have quite detrimental effects. In one study, rats were fed either exclusively HFCS ( in amounts much lower than those in soda) or sugar. The HFCS group gained significantly more weight, with every single HFCS rat becoming obese. While naturally occurring sugars and fruits contain fructose bound to other sugars, high fructose corn syrup contains a large amount of unbound fructose. Kind of like my Murphy’s Oil Soap analogy concerning the metabolites of aspartame — the body just can’t do good things with unbound fructose. It’s not the way nature carries its sugar, and not the way our bodies were meant to process it.

But it’s not just obesity. Consumption of fructose is linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, elevated triglycerides and LDL, and cardiovascular disease. We are a generation of adults that has been trained to lower cholesterol by avoiding animal fats and eggs, and by popping a staggering number of statins starting in our early 30s. But why isn’t our doctor telling us to avoid large amounts of fructose? Why is this so easily overlooked by the FDA as a likely cause for our decline of health in America?

Agave Nectar

This one is tough, because so many health-conscious people are using it — especially diabetics and those on low-carb diets. I purchased a bottle at Trader Joe’s last year, thinking it was a healthy way to sweeten my tea. But the more I read, the more concerned I became, and eventually threw out the rest of my bottle.

To boil it down, agave nectar is often produced very similarly to HFCS*. It is not a “nectar” at all (again, giving us the idea that native workers in South America are spending sun-drenched days squeezing the nectar out of agave leaves, giving us a pure and natural syrup like the maple syrup tapped from trees) but a sugar syrup derived from the starch of the agave or yucca root bulb. It goes through similar chemical and enzymatic processing as HFCS, only it ends up with upwards of 70% fructose (as opposed to the low-end 55% for HFCS).

This fact alone would cause me to avoid agave nectar for my family. There are some other concerns, including one that warns pregnant or nursing women to avoid it — the agave plant contains saponins which can stimulate excess bloodflow to the uterus. Even though the fructose of agave nectar doesn’t raise glucose levels (a reason most people us it), the high percentage of free fructose makes it, in my opinion, equally as questionable as HFCS.

In all of this controversy, the Corn Refiner’s folks have one thing right: we can’t consume huge amounts of any sugar and hope to be healthy. This goes for every kind of sweet thing, from an apple to raw honey to HFCS. But that doesn’t change the fact that these highly-refined sweeteners are a much greater evil on the scale of sweets — that they are not chemically the same. And since they are found in so many products, from ketchup to “whole-grain” breads, they are not only indicators of the fact that a food is highly-processed, but they are actually contributing more negatively to the body’s health, all in the name of making things sweeter, softer, and have a longer shelf life, and all for a much bigger profit to the producer.

Which is what it all comes down to: money. These refined sweeteners make it cheaper to make food products — and the products are therefore cheaper for the consumer, and sweet enough to keep the buyer coming back. But I stand by the notion that when it comes to food and our health, we will all pay at some point. I tend to think an investment in higher-quality whole foods on the front end will end up saving us a relative ton in future health care.

And with that final bit of opinion, I believe most every nook and cranny has been covered. Not sure exactly what to do with my apocalyptic soapbox now that I’ve maxed out my opinions on sugar — though I’m confident another use will present itself. In the meantime, though — anyone have a use for this megaphone and full-length body placard that reads, “Eat sugar and BURN” (includes hand-painted red flames!)?

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*Some agave syrups are less refined than others — but it’s hard to tell which is which. And even in those that are less refined, the percentage of free fructose is around 70% — which is a hard sell to me, when I can reach for honey (about 38%) or pure maple syrup (about 1%) instead.

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