Thursday, June 14, 2007

Frugal Food Wrap-Up: How to Eat for Fun and Profit

I feel like I learned so much from my frugal food experiment of the last two weeks, I don't even know where to start wrapping it up!

The benefits of this project were substantial: I managed to save enough money to successfully cashflow a purchase I wouldn't have been able to afford (out of my last paycheck) otherwise, without even reducing my savings allocations (I ended up tranfering about $50 out of my eating-out and work-lunch envelopes, as opposed to needing to transfer money in, so I'd say in terms of concrete savings: at least $75 over the past two weeks). I saved myself time and energy during some frantic days. I (mostly) ate tasty, satisfying, nutritious food.

What are the keys to frugal food success?

  • Planning
    You have to know how many meals you're going to need to pack, so you need to know where you're going to be. Part of the reason this experiment worked out well for me is that my time is suddenly very regimented, which makes planning easy. You also need to decide in advance what you're going to eat over the next unit of time (whatever unit you grocery-shop for: for me, that's a week). A grocery list derived from a meal plan that takes your schedule into account is the ideal of efficiency and frugality here. That's not to say that you can't do it if you can't hit that mark--what I'd do is guess how many meals you're going to want to pack, plan that number of meals, and do your shopping based on that plan. You can always tweak the plan--it's still a crucial starting point.


  • Batch cooking
    It's way easier to fill a container from a big bowl in the refrigerator than it is to make something from scratch in the morning. Batch-cooking is essential--I do it mostly on the weekends, and only rarely do any actual cooking during the week. So yes, this does absorb time--but for me, it was rquite pleasant time. I'd hook up my computer in the kitchen and listen to an episode or two of "This American Life" while I cooked.


  • Considering portability
    It's essential that you pack food that travels well. A banana or an apple is easier than strawberries or grapes (I bought grapes on my last shopping trip, but have never packed them--because I'd need to put them in a container). Another one of the troubles I've had is having to stuff everything in my regular bag--I think that, if I really do keep packing my own food this often, I'll have to buy some kind of lunchbox or lunch bag. I need the purse space!


  • Covering your bases
    Don't forget to pack snacks! My favorites this week were things that were pre-packaged, like cups of applesauce or individually wrapped string cheeses, but it's also quite easy to take carrots and hummus, or some cut fruit. And I keep dried apples, dried cranberries, and some trail mix in my desk drawer at my office. That way if I need a snack and I haven't packed one, there's something tasty and nutritious to munch, and I don't have to spend my money at the vending machine.


  • A sense of adventure
    This might be the most important at all--I really do feel like the key to my success in this experiment was looking at it as a challenge. I got interested in it from a problem-solving perspective and from an aesthetic perspective. I started looking for recipes that would suit my specific needs, and ended up sort of rediscovering my enthusiasm for cooking. That's part of why it was so important to me to focus on packing delicious, healthy food--I felt like I was doing something wonderful and enjoyable and nurturing for myself (not just sacrificing to save money) and for that, I was willing to put in the time and effort. It's weird to say about an experiment in frugality, but this felt really luxurious to me--when I was packing up this morning, I looked at the food I had in my hands, and realized that that was what I'd be eating today, and it was all really good. It was pretty, and tasted good, and was nourishing, and I was pleased about that, and proud. Plus, I thought about how I wouldn't have to stand on any lines or think about going to an ATM or replan my whole week of discretionary spending based on my lunch choice, which was just such a relief.

    In conclusion, planning and packing your own meals is awesome. It's healthy and it saves money, but the most important and most genuine thing I have to say about it is this: it's really fun. I encourage you all to try your own frugal food challenges.

    Some of my regular readers seemed really interested in continuing to see updates on the frugal food situation. I'm happy to provide those, but I think I may bump them down to weekly updates--from now on, I'll check in of a Thursday or Friday and do a quick update on how I'm doing on this front. I'll continue doing frugal recipe posts, too--so watch for those! And most of all, thanks for all your support with my experiment!

  • 12 comments:

    Strange Bird said...

    I bring a backpack to work, actually, for this reason: I can't fit a packaged lunch in my purse :). That way, I can also wear walking shoes on my commute and work shoes in the office. I highly recommend it. And a lunchbox. An insulated one.

    Krystal said...

    Great post!

    I've been able to pack my lunch every day for the past 6 months by following a lot of those steps - especially planning. It used to be such a chore to throw something together in the mornings for my lunch, and it ended up being so gross I had to buy something instead to eat.

    Now, I pack my lunch the night before, so when I'm in a rush in the morning, I can just grab my bags and go.

    SF Money Musings said...

    I'd love to see what kinds of lunches you're packing. I could use a little variety in my meals.

    Planning ahead like you said works well and factoring in schedules, meetings and events keeps you from going hungry.

    gildedbutterfly said...

    Great post! :) I pack lunch all but one day a week. (And my "eating out" lunch is bartered--my coworker buys my lunch and I give her a 10-minute massage.)

    I actually reuse bags from shopping as lunch bags, that way I don't have to keep food in my purse. (Gross, even when it's packaged well.) I have several that are shaped like gift bags that I just reuse over and over until they rip.

    Of course, I also sometimes long for the days of my v. stylish Annie lunchbox...

    Olga said...

    Thank you so much for this inspiring series of posts! When I was a second year at college my schedule was so packed that I simply couldn't make it to the cafeteria. That's when I used to bring lunch with me. I was convinced that a lunch must be hot and filling (as opposed to cookies or a boring slice of bread with cheese), so I cooked something like pasta and chicken and brought it in a container. However I did experience some problems with keeping food hot, so when I was able to go to the cafeteria again, I gave up making my own lunches.

    After reading your posts – that give so good ideas and recipes! – I think that I probably wasn't enough creative to make tasty and nutritious lunches like salads and sandwiches. And maybe I need to shop around for a good lunch bag with thermal insulation :)

    3 Things About Money said...

    Fabulous series -- I really enjoyed it. Many thanks for the post.

    Kim said...

    Congrats! This is a great wrap up, and I'm glad you found frugal eating so much fun! I made this bag (http://knitty.com/ISSUEwinter06/PATTbrownbag.html) and use it almost every day--sometimes my Tupperware is too big to fit in said bag.

    Keep up the good work!

    SavingDiva said...

    Congratulations! I will try to be more frugal with my eating habits this month...but I feel as though it is pointless!

    Anonymous said...

    Try an insulated lunchbox packed with food for health

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