Saving Your Money and Your Health: Part I

My mom would always tell me that if I can't get enough sleep, I should at least eat well. I can't agree more; if I have to eat takeout everyday, I would feel terrible all the time. I just don't know how people do it. In college, I hear about many a bachelor whose concept of cooking is sticking something in a microwave. Yes, there are many girls who can't cook (or don't want to) as well. I have to admit that around finals, I find myself eating a lot of things out of a box or a can, or a combination thereof. Lately I've also gotten myself into the bad habit of eating out or heating up instant foods for meals; when you're sick and you've been at school for 10 hours, you just don't feel like cooking.

Eating out can get very expensive, very quickly. Do the math: if you want decent food and enough of it to fill you up, it'll cost you at least $5 per meal. Even if I don't count breakfast, which is much cheaper, that's $10 a day, $70 per week, $240 a month! When I get $50 worth of groceries, it's enough to feed me for 3 meals a day for a whole month. This alone deters me from being lazy about cooking.

Still, some may feel apprehensive about getting into cooking especially when they've never done it. As daunting as cooking sounds, there are many benefits. Yes, it takes time, but in the end you can take pride in your culinary masterpiece (and eat it too). You get to perfect a skill that many people don't have. Cooking is also a great stress relief activity. I may be tired starting out, but I become more and more awake as time goes on; I get stimulated by the idea of putting dishes together (generally I don't use recipes or measure portions), and most of the tasks like washing and cutting are mindless enough that I can just relax. Finally, I save LOTS of money by bringing leftovers to school for lunch. I feel even more proud when someone comments that my lunch looked or smelled good and wants to know what it is or how I made it. Oftentimes what I make is so much better than what's served in the cafeteria (a couple of days ago there was a pot of curry spinach with [something] soup...WTF?!?). It just feels healthier to eat my own food, knowing exactly what the ingredients are and that there's little grease.

In order to save money by cooking at home, you have to be careful about how you shop for groceries. Before you hit the grocery stores, do a bit of planning:

-First, think about what kinds of food you need and what quantities are necessary. How much you should buy each time is dictated by how much you eat and how frequently you head to the supermarket. When I say "necessary," I'm referring to what you'll actually eat in between your trips to the market. One of the biggest money drainers is rotten food, so you want to avoid that trap.

-Try to limit the amount of microwavables and processed foods. Not only are they less healthy, but they tend to cost more than fresh meats and produce. Besides, those tiny $2 Lean Cuisine dinners can't fill you up like $2 worth of home-cooked food. However, it's good to have a little bit of frozen/canned food around, especially vegetables, for days when you come home tired. Heating up food in your home is much better than spending more gas money/time in the car and then more time/money at a restaurant. Just don't go overboard with the frozen/canned goods, since you might end up being tempted to skip cooking more often than you should.

-If you live with a roommate (or roommates), you all get along, and have similar tastes in food, you might be able to cut down costs on certain food items. My roommate and I take turns in buying milk, bread, and eggs. We both like this arrangement because neither of us can guzzle a gallon of milk in 2 weeks on our own, eat all that much bread, or use eggs quicky enough before they go bad. Of course, this doesn't work for everyone, but if it does, it's another money-saving avenue.

-When deciding what type of meat to buy, think about how much time you have that week. Usually I'd buy the cheapest cuts of meat that have bones/fat rather than the more expensive boneless varieties. However, I recognize that time is money, and it does take a lot of time to debone, etc. I'm a cheapskate and would rather put in the time, perhaps on the weekend when I'm not as busy. One of my college roommates was busy all the time; she would always buy the pre-cut items, which were obviously more expensive, but she could cook up a dinner at the same speed as her life--lightning fast. The time/money balance is really dependent on your evaluation of your budget and lifestyle. However, even the boneless cuts of meat can go on sale sometimes (see next point), and when they do, you can buy more, separate into ziplock bags, and freeze.

-Read the weekly ads for your local markets, because the savings can be quite substantial (up to 50% off). I pay particularly close attention to prices on meat and canned soups, which I use as a base for many dishes. Meat is probably the most expensive of the grocery items, followed by dairy products, canned/frozen stuff, breads, cereals, and produce, more or less in that order of descending prices. Oftentimes Ralphs would have great 50% off sales on certain cuts of meat and Food 4 Less would have some great 10 for $10 sales. Sometimes one market would price their bell peppers 3 times less than a competitor (I see this a lot). Hence, it may be worth it to go to several supermarkets to get what you need, provided that the markets are in relatively close proximity to each other or if you're willing to go to each market on different days.

-As a corollary to the last point, different types of supermarkets offer different prices on food. Ethnic markets are often a great source of cheap groceries. A few Asian and Hispanic markets in my neck of the woods have the lowest prices in fruits and vegetables. Warehouse stores are great for large quanities of nonperishables, such as canned soups and paper towels. They also offer good prices for perishables, which is hard to take advantage of if you live alone or have a small family. However, there are ways you can reap the savings. Ask your roommate (if you don't share food), friend, significant other, or family members who live nearby if they need anything or if they want to go shopping with you. That way, everyone gets their groceries and save money. Also, shopping trips can be quite fun; I fondly remember how my college roommates and I would go to Ralphs at midnight and how we'd always go to the same cashier.

-Supermarkets also have bargain bins, but I'm more leery when it comes to perishable foods. When I hit the meat section of Ralph's, I often see "manager specials" that are significantly cheaper than the rest of the meat because they've hit the expiration date. I bought one of these packets once, but only after throughly inspecting the meat to make sure it's still fresh--good color, no runny blood, etc. If you buy one of these, it's best to eat it the same day because they're not going to keep for long. At the very back of the market, usually near the bread aisle or bakery section, you'll find "closeouts" of buns, breads, cereals, or seasonable items. Apply even more caution to bakery items, as they go bad even more quickly than meat and flora/fauna are often hard to discern behind the wrappers.

After you're done shopping, you should plan out your cooking strategy:

-If you're a "time is money" person, be prepared to cook big batches and distribute them into freezer-safe tupperware. Cooking big batches saves me oodles of time--I cook once, and I get 3 days' (sometimes even a week's) worth of lunch and dinner. Of course, the down side is that you'll get sick of your food fairly quickly, so you might want to do several entrees and rotate between them.

-You've got the food, so how do you cook them? If you're afraid that creativity = culinary disaster, you should follow recipes. Sure, you can go out and buy a cookbook (the Barnes and Noble "bargain books" section is great). Cookbooks are especially helpful for ethnic cuisine, but why do that when you can get recipes for free? Supermarkets often have recipe cards, and packaging on pastas, soups, etc. also have recipes on them. Don't forget about the power of Google and the Internet in general! Allrecipes.com is my favorite recipe site. There's a huge collection of recipes, ranging from quick and easy to gourmet. Many of the recipes are submitted by everyday people, and they are rated according to how good (or bad) they are. Many of those who left ratings leave behind useful comments about how the recipe worked for them, what they did differently, and suggestions on how to make it better.

Talking about food makes me hungry already. Hopefully these tips are helpful. The down side of eating is the potential of eating too much, so we can't neglect another aspect of healthy living: exercise. Next time I'll talk about gym memberships and simple home exercise equipment (should be a fairly short entry).

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