Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Art of Eating In

How much did you spend the last time you ate out (and that counts your work lunch, too)? If it's over $10, you could have spent less and ate better.

I'm the Bay Area Minimalist, so I know it's hard to be frugal in the gourmet capital of the West Coast. But at the same time, the Chinese take-out in the south Bay is less-than-dwarfstarular. Even if you can afford to eat out (or eat in with take-out), are you really eating well?

I would really like to do a whole series of posts on the joy of just eating good food, but the first objective of this blog is to make sure that my audience understands that saving money is good, and it's good for you, too!

When in doubt, eat in. Make enough food for twice the number of people dining (Cook once, eat twice!) The costs scale logarithmically, and now you have lunch for the next day. When I was on overpaid SiVl engineer, I did this almost everyday. For four days a week, I ate delicious leftovers from the night before instead of spending $8 on lunch. That's $128 saved every month and I ate food that was better than the work cafeteria. (that's $1500 a year! I've bought used cars at that price.)

I got so addicted to good food that when I changed jobs where the lunches were catered, I still packed my own. A colleague confronted me, asking me why I packed a lunch when the food was free, and my reply was, "Not all food is created equal." Since then, I've read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, and my reply today would be, "I prefer to eat food."

I like following Pollan's mantra: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Food is anything--as Pollan says in his Eater's Manifesto--that your great-grandmother would recognize as food. If you can't pronounce an ingredient (and my readership is highly literate and scientific), then it ain't food. If it has more than four ingredients, it's pushing the boundary of food.

Portion control. When you're 80% full, you're done. Put the fork down and sip the wine.

Plants. Lotsa plants. I'm a vegetarian, but my foodie carnivore friends know that a chicken sandwich from a fast-food restaurant is not food, nor, presumably, does it contain much chicken.

Eating well is good for your Pliocene metabolism, but it's also better for our post-industrial wallets. To prove the latter, I'm going to do some math. (Ahhhh, math! don't worry, humans invented it. Just like hammers, it's a tool. Use it with caution.) I'll use the world's most perfect food to illustrate my point, setting the serving size four adults and two toddlers (tonight and tomorrow's lunch).

1) Eat out: $20. Prep-time: 10 min. (driving there and back)
A super delicious large pizza at Giavanni's Sunnyvale (best pizza in SV, sooo good!), after tax and tip, is $20. Good for parties and large groups, but night-to-night is going to get spendy--even at 1 night a week it's $80/mo.

2) Eat in, pre-made: $8. Prep time: 20 min (doesn't include trip to grocery store, but presumably you had to go anyway)
Two pre-made cheese pizzas at Trader Joe's $3.99 each, and are the equivalent of 1 large at Giovanni's--in volume, not flavor. Put them in the oven and bake them. Super easy, but it costs your electricity and gas for something that doesn't taste that great due to the amount of preservatives required to make it able to sit in your freezer for months.

3) Eat in, less pre-made: $6.57. Prep time: 30 minutes
Whole wheat pizza dough from Trader Joe's - $1.29
organic pre-shredded mozzarella cheese - $3.99
pre-measured sauce - $1.29
More work, but I find rolling out pizza dough to be fun, and in the winter having the oven on heats my home and my food, and I can splurge on toppings and still come nowhere near the pizza joint price.

4) Eat in, from scratch: $4.40. Prep time: 1 day
Using Peter Reinhart's pizza dough recipe from The Breadbaker's Apprentice yields two large pizzas, so the price above half of what you see here. I based all the prices on the most expensive, organic version of the ingredient I could find. (Thank you King Arthur Flour and Trader Joe's!).
Organic KAF bread flour - $2.00
Sunnyvale fluoridated H20 - $0.000022
TJs Greek kalamata olive oil - $0.25
TJs kosher sea salt - $0.22
KAF instant yeast - $0.04
Sauce (My super simple and delicious no-sugar sauce):
1 lb tomatoes - $1.99 (fresh or from a can, the difference is 10¢
5 cloves garlic - $0.20
tomato paste ($0.89 or from my garden, priceless)
TJs Greek kalamata olive oil (0.22)
Salt and spices - $0.00 (negligable, I use pinches of them)
TJs Fresh Mozzarella balls in brine - $2.99

The preparation time time goes up proportional to the amount of money saved. Time is money, money is time. What do you have more of? While I generally don't have a lot of time to spare, I have even less money. I tend towards 3), but I love, love, love 4).

Here's the art part: Time spent cooking and baking is part of the soul in food. Shun "quick and easy" recipes and especially ready-made meals, as "quick" means microwave, and "easy" means processed. Neither are good for your body. I can't stress this enough, if you can't pronounce it, it's not food. While I used canned food for cooking, anything in the ingredient list beyond water, vegetable, and spices defeats the purpose of canning the food in the first place. Even sugar is excess. Try your recipes with less sugar and enjoy the savory flavors of the spices and the salt.

Food should taste good, but it must nourish the mind as well. The processed-foodlike-substance industry may have perfected the ratio of fat to sugar to salt to sate our Pliocene brains, but it doesn't satiate our hominid creativity. Homemade food always tastes a little bit different than the last time you made it. Spice your food. Make it taste perfect to your taste buds. Every time you re-make a recipe, change something to see what it does and appreciate the variety that home-cooking affords you. Ask--no demand--that your guests tell what they like and dislike.

When I make food myself, I have to share it. Tammy enjoys it. Viola enjoys it. My friends enjoy it. The greatest compliment I ever receive is when my daughter can't get enough of my homemade bread. I don't do drive-thru for lots of reasons, but the most important reason is that we evolved to cook and eat together.

If you don't have time to cook, may I ask what you do with that time that you save by eating out? If you're working an extra job to pay the bills, then that's one thing, but if you're watching TV or surfing the net alone, maybe you need to rethink your relationship with people and your relationship with food.

Eating out is fun, too. The restaurants that I love I really love. They make food I can't make. They have atmosphere that I can't replicate. They have wine I can't afford by the bottle. I save those restaurants like I save my money, it's there waiting for me when I need it. But most nights, I turn on the burner 'cause I'm cooking with fire.

When I practice the art of eating in, I feel more connected to my people. I tell Tammy about Viola's and my day over a savory dinner. Afterwards we do the dishes, a healthy reminder that once again, we ate well.

Our culture is obsessed with having things (kitchen utensils are my pleasure). If you're a kleptocrat, the next post is for you. It's all about how to die with the most amount of things your dollar will get you.


  1. excellent, I also highly recommend making something on Sunday to freeze or store for the following week. Then it's as if you come home to a chef who made you dinner. Like this Sunday I made turkey meat balls (with quinoa not bread crumbs) and then also i marinaded some tofu ala Tammy's thing from the pary (great idea, doing that regular for sure)

  2. Dearest minimalist,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and lifestyle. Inspiring! My dad would agree on everything (except that he's not much of a cook... while I let Roland do the cooking, most of the time). Keep posting!

  3. well written.
    I love friends who promote eating food.
    I got my company to pay for organic spinach, walnuts, salad dressings so I can make a healthy meal at work.