Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mainstream Is A Big Step Backward

A friend of mine with whom I was sharing the burdens of housewifery and parenting this week made me realize how far I have departed from mainstream North American consumer culture. Shocked by the thought of me spending 2 - 4 hours a day cooking, and trying to help me alleviate some of my time-stress and work load, she suggested I buy more prepackaged meals and convenience foods. This suggestion appalled me, and suddenly made me realize how much I have changed in 5 years.

It's not just the fact that nearly any prepackaged food from the grocery store costs four times as much (or more) to buy as to make from scratch; as I ardently protested over the phone, the true costs are much higher, and certainly not worth the savings in time.

Consider the ingredients of even a "healthy" prepackaged meal. The list is longer than your fifth grade essays, and half the ingredients are unpronounceable without a graduate degree in chemistry. Then think about the interactions of all those additives and preservatives in your body, and the cumulative effect of them over the years. What do you think your drug costs might be in the next 10 years? Maybe you have a great drug plan, but you're still going to end up paying for your health care through taxes and insurance premiums.

And then there's the environmental costs. Prepackaged food travels farther to your grocery cart, meaning more carbon emissions and higher fuel costs. All that packaging is being created to contain the food, and often ends up in landfill. Even if the packaging is recyclable, it still takes energy and resources to create (creating pollution), to transport (more pollution), and to process for recycling. Do we pay for that? You bet we do. And so do our children, and our grandchildren... if the earth lasts that long.

Even if I could be making $20 an hour (which I'm not) for those 2 - 4 hours a day, is it really worth it? Not in my books. And if I was a gazillionnaire... would it be worth it then? If I was the only person on the planet, maybe. But I'm not, and the earth, it's resources, and our own social resources are shared by billions of other people - other human beings, just like me.

Five years ago I put things like jalapeno poppers and bagged chicken alfredo into my shopping cart without a second thought. Today I would rather eat my shoes. I just can't do it without massive guilt. Who would have known that in five short years I would go from being Average Joe Consumer of mainstream culture (scoffing at my Trent U influences), to being one of those green-frugal-alternative nuts I so disdained.

All things considered, I consider this to be a sign of personal growth. My new lifestyle is rich, intentional and meaningful. I don't want to go back to being mainstream, and I want to bring as many others as I can down this path. Next stop... a visit to the Complete Tightwad Gazette.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Stretching Dollars, Stretching Groceries

Last week, I took the plunge. Pushing aside my habitual procrastination, disorganization and impulsivity, I sat down and created a weekly meal plan. Breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, dessert or evening snack, and all beverages for each day meticulously planned out to the smallest detail, I then wrote a grocery list based on that plan. I estimated the cost of groceries required. And I had a fit.

Here's the thing. My meal plan was based on exactly how much every member of our household eats on a daily basis, and was made up of foods we regularly prepare and consume. Everything was to be made from scratch, and sales and discounts were taken into account. My total came to just about $140. Our weekly grocery budget is $80, but allows for an extra $20 a couple times a month for diapers.

How is this possible? I know for a fact that we have not been spending anywhere near $140 a week on groceries. I haven't been eating as much lately due to pregnancy sickness, but I certainly haven't been starving myself, and all three of our kids are eating well. My oldest daughter often eats more than she should, in fact.

With a great deal of difficulty I managed to pare down the grocery list to about $120, by stretching what I had on hand, planning some recipe substitutions, and doing without a number of items. I convinced my husband that I needed an extra $40 on the grocery budget. Then I went shopping. Without diapers, my total came to less than $100, and I ended up getting most of the things I had crossed off the list anyway. I realized that the only way we have stayed on budget every week is that we have been fortunately favoured with getting unexpectedly amazing deals on groceries and making great finds on the grocery clearance racks regularly. Thank God.

The second big challenge over the last few days has been addressing some greedy belly issues in our home. One of the reasons we usually end up scavenging barely-meals on Wednesday and Thursday every week (Thursday evening is when I grocery shop) is that certain people are frequently eating food that was intended for other meals / uses, and I am not on-the-ball enough to realize it. Now when someone asks for food, I refer them to the meal plan. Did you eat your lunch? Make sure you finished all your leftovers. You did? Then you'll have to wait for afternoon snack time. What can you have? The schedule says veggies and dip. You don't feel like having veggies and dip? Too bad. That's all that's available for this meal.

I'm not the mean mom, I'm just sticking to the meal plan. This is how I make sure the food I bought for the week LASTS for the week.

This is a whole new approach to life for me. It requires discipline I have never had before. But my goodness, do I wish I had done this a whole lot sooner. Goodbye mealtime battles, hello happy (less stressed) mom!