Monday, December 27, 2010

Cost of Homemade vs Canned Soup

I've been eating Tasty Classics soups for $0.25 per serving, but this is because it was on sale for $0.50 per can. There was a recall of some of the Tasty Classics soup because of possible botulism contamination. I don't know if they'e now stopped making the soup, or if my local grocery store got hold of a large lot of it for almost nothing.

Most canned soup costs $0.50 per serving or more.

I found this interesting post on the Julie At Home blog. It compares the cost of homemade with canned soups.

Based on Julie's comparison, the cost of homemade soup is significantly lower than the cost of canned soup, and the homemade version tastes better as well.

Here is another of Julie's comparisons of homemade vs purchased prepared foods:

The Gardens in Winter

My nephew, who lives in Brooklyn, was going to visit San Antonio tomorrow but is stuck at JFK. Due to the blizzard, all flights have been canceled, the streets are closed, and trains are not running. There are even people stuck on trains.

Here in central Texas, it's a sunny, spring-like day. The recent foggy nights followed by rain have made the winter grass grow. I have not written about my gardens lately, because I have been too sad. A promoter from Houston got several hundred thousand dollars from European investors and drilled an oil well on the land next to mine, into the shale that lies just beneath the sandstone. They used hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") to break up the shale, which frees the oil so it can be pumped up. The methane that comes up with the oil in this area is what's called "sour gas" -- that is to say, it has a high sulfur content. So now, every north wind brings the smell of hydrogen sulfide. I have not had the water tested yet. The well operator assured me that they were casing the well with concrete down to 700 feet, which is below the level of the water. The theory is that this will keep oil, gas, and fracking fluid from entering the aquifer.

When I bought this land, I knew that it was in an oil field. Also, I benefit from oil and natural gas on a regular basis, to run my vehicle, to heat my house, to ship my food to the store, to operate the machinery to grow and harvest the food, to produce fertilizers and pesticides (to the extent I do not use "organic" food and fabrics), to create plastics and synthetic fibers. As I look around the room where I now sit, few of the objects in the room would be here without oil. So it would be wrong for me to feel angry. Instead, I am sad about the choices we humans have made, to trade our land and water for oil. According to the information I can find online, most of the oil used in the U.S. (the largest oil consumer of any nation in the world) is used for transportation and shipping. In fact, it looks as though more than half the oil purchased in the U.S. is used to make gasoline to run cars. Only a small fraction is used for shipping goods. I have not found a carefully researched table about where people go when they're burning all that gasoline, but based on observation, I'd expect to find that most of the gasoline used in cars is to go to and from work and to shop.  So we could make a huge dent in the amount of oil used simply by living close to where we work and shop. Changing zoning laws to allow businesses and homes to coexist should significantly reduce oil consumption. In addition, I imagine it would make life far more pleasant for most people. I've always arranged to live close enough to my work place to walk or ride a bicycle, because I hate driving cars through rush-hour traffic, or riding in buses or trains. I especially enjoy walking, just going out the door and walking to work. I'm definitely no saint, though. I walk to work because I enjoy doing it, not specifically to reduce oil consumption. If the weather is rainy, I drive. If I need to take home a lot of paperwork, I drive. Not to mention driving between San Antonio and the country place once each week and driving 30 miles to buy milk.

Anyway, I have been so sad about the oil well next door that I have not felt like writing. But I'm not one for feeling sad without thinking of things to do to remedy the situation. Sometimes, that means actively doing something, such as moving. It would certainly be easy enough for me to move. I still own the land at Altamira, just a couple of miles from here as the crows fly.  But in the present case, I've decided to change my point of view, rather than moving. It will be an interesting challenge to make beautiful gardens in the midst of ugliness. I will put plant living windbreaks that will absorb at least some of the hydrogen sulfide. If the ground water has been contaminated, I will install a rainwater collection system.

I will get guineas to eat the grasshoppers and use Nolo bait in the spring.

With respect to excessive driving ... most people will probably stop doing it when the price of gasoline goes up to $6 or $7 per gallon, or they will shift to engines or motors that do not burn oil. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

December 26 Low-Cost Healthy Meals

Breakfast: cup of milk $0.5

Snack: V8 juice $0.3

Lunch: Baked tuna steak with crushed pecan crust  $4.50
asparagus $0.88  Cost of meal: $5.38

Dinner: lentil soup $1; fresh spinach $0.45; grapefruit $0.05; cup of milk $0.5 Cost of Meal: $2.00

Snack: 2 large raw carrots $0.06

Bedtime snack: 2 oz cheese $0.25

Total Cost of Meals: $8.49  (I could have had approximately the same nutrients by eating canned tuna instead of fresh tuna steak, and the cost would have been about $1 instead of $4.50. The total cost of meals for the day would have been $4.99, which, I believe, is still about $0.49 cents above the daily budget for the Texas Food Stamp Challenge  However, some of my other days have been below the $4.50 per day budget, so maybe I'm still within budget. Not that I set out to take the Food Stamp Challenge, but it's interesting to see how well one can eat within the budget. I could have brought today's meals within the $4.50 budget by making my own lentil soup instead of buying the relatively expensive Amy's brand soup, and by eating canned tuna instead of fresh.

Kristi Willis of Austin Farm to Table came up with some wonderful recipes, all within the food stamp budget and all healthy. She prepared food as though she were cooking for a family, and stored the leftovers in her freezer.

Christmas Day Low Cost Healthy Diet

Breakfast: egg $0.15 (I'm guessing, since I got the egg from my hens); sausage $0.70; grapefruit $0.05; coffee $.05
Total cost of meal: $0.95 Time to prepare 5 minutes

Lunch: yogurt & berry smoothie - 1 cup yogurt $1; backberries $2; a little vanilla; some stevia
Total cost of meal: $3 Time to prepare: 4 minutes to prepare, 2 minutes to wash food processor

Snack: 1 oz cheese  $0.13

Dinner: Chicken broth $0.50; fresh spinach $0.45; pecans (free); lettuce and tomato salad with croutons $0.6; cup of milk $0.5
Total cost $2.05

Snack: grapefruit $.05

Bedtime snack: banana $.05

Total cost of meals for the day: $6.23
I did not add up the protein for the day, because it's clear I'm getting plenty of protein. Today was the most expensive day so far, because of the berry smoothie. Blackberries are not in season anywhere nearby; the ones I ate were shipped from central Mexico. Also, the yogurt I used was a relatively expensive brand.

The milk I drank was also relatively expensive. I do not like the taste of pasteurized homogenized milk, so I found the Strykly farm, 30 miles away from my country place where one can buy fresh raw milk for $5 per gallon. The reason one has to go to the farm to buy the milk is that it is illegal to sell raw milk in retail stores. This is unfortunate, but probably necessary in an economy where most milk is sold through large dairies that purchase the milk from many different farmers, not all of whom take good care of their cows. The Strykly's Jersey cows appear to be well-loved and well cared for, and the facility where the milk is bottled is clean and pleasant.  This is the sort of place where, if no one is around when you go by to pick up milk, you take what you want from the cooler and leave your money on the desk. It's cheering to know that such places still exist.

I do not have enough knowledge about the health benefits of raw vs pasteurized milk to have a confident opinion. I believe there have been a couple of studies that showed a negative correlation between drinking raw milk and suffering from asthma. Here is one of them:   I used to raise goats for milk. I would have them tested for brucellosis every year, but I never worried about  getting brucellosis from them, because I knew them personally and would know if any one of them was ill. I think the same is true for small dairies where the owners are in direct contact with the cows every day.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Low-Cost Healthy Diet, Another Day

This is for Thursday, Dec 23:

Breakfast: 2 oz cheese $0.25  16 g protein
Cup of coffee with half & half  $0.05  Time to prepare: 2 minutes

Lunch: 1/2 large sausage link made fresh by local butcher shop $0.70. 5 g protein
Egg: about $0.15 ?  I'm not sure of the price of eggs, because I've been using eggs from my hens. 6 g protein
 grapefruit $0.05  Grapefruit is in season here, and I bought an 18 pound bag for $4.50 Time to prepare: 7 minutes

Dinner: 1/2 can minestrone soup $0.25 (this soup was on sale; I think the price would ordinarily be higher)
Added to soup: fresh spinach, fresh zuchinni, fresh green beans approx $0.75. 6 g protein
Pecans: Free. protein 3 - 5 g protein
Ricotta cheese dessert (this is a South Beach diet recipe, except I use whole milk cheese rather than low-fat): a scoop (about 1 cup) of ricotta cheese flavored with almond extract, sweetened with Stevia  $0.35.  25 g protein (can this be right? It's what I found at several sources online, but it seems awfully high) Time to prepare: 6 minutes

Bedtime snack: 1 cup milk 8 g protein $0.5 Time to prepare: 30 seconds

Total prep time: 15.5 minutes

Total cost for the day:  $3.05  If I had to buy the pecans, the cost of food for the day would increase by perhaps 25 cents. I don't think it would be more than that, given that pecans are in season at the moment, and unshelled nuts are less expensive than shelled ones that you buy in packages (also healthier, I'd think, since the nuts go rancid more quickly after they are shelled)

Throughout the day I drank mostly water, but did have two cups of licorice root tea, the cost of which would have been about $0.12 each. I have not been including the cost of herbal tea in the daily food calculations, because I don't consider it nutritional, but perhaps I should include it, in the interest of full disclosure. So if I add the cost of the pecans and tea, the total food bill for the day would have been  $3.54.
Total Protein: 70 grams (if the ricotta cheese actually has 25 g of protein)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Very Agrarian Meal

Note: I am using organic veggies and milk that are relatively expensive. A person could probably find fresh veggies for less than I'm paying for mine. I believe WalMart now carries milk products without hormones and possibly some organic vegetables. One can also get relatively inexpensive organic veggies at farmers markets. Not to mention growing stuff in one's garden if one has some outdoor space. One could grow herbs such as mint and cilantro on the balcony of an apartment. The people who were interviewed in Food Inc. said they're at work all day, so perhaps they would not have time to tend a garden. Maybe the parents are both working two jobs or something. When I was young, I worked two jobs -- night audit in a hotel from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and in the office of an insurance company from 8:00 until noon. I had very little spare time, that's for sure, but I still managed to have a small garden that I tended on weekends when the insurance company office was not open. Of course, that was before I had a child to take care of. But the children of the family that was interviewed were in their teens, and it didn't appear that they had jobs. Maybe they could spend a couple of hours a week looking after a garden or a few herb plants on the balcony if they lived in a apartment.They didn't look like completely down and out people living in a motel or vacant lot. I'll bet they had a yard or at least a balcony.

I'm not saying it would be easy to get most kids to tend a garden or that it's a common thing. I'm just saying that it's possible for many people the grow at least some of their veggies and herbs, to further reduce the cost of fresh food so they don't have to eat foods with toxic levels of refined carbohydrates and unhealthy fats.

My meals today were definitely not the sort of thing a hunter-gatherer would have been likely to eat, but still, there were no refined carbohydrates, and the calorie count was within reason.

Breakfast - oat porridge with milk  $0.60  6 minutes  18 g protein
Cup of coffee with half & half  $0.15

Lunch: 2 oz string cheese  $0.25 less than 30- seconds 16 g protein
cold cucumber soup:
     plain Bulgarian yogurt 1 cup $1.50  8 g protein
     cucumber $0.80
     mint from garden (I don't know how much this would have cost at the store, but it could be left out and the soup would still be good)
   chopped garlic $0.05
   1/3 large avocado  $0.50  3 g protein
Total cost: $2.85    time to peel and chop cucumber, gather mint, chop garlic, slice and peel avocado and run through food processor 8 minutes (this is rather expensive in terms of time & money, but it's very good, and it was so filling I didn't need an afternoon snack)

Supper: bowl  of Tasty Classics Corn Chowder $0.25 with 1/2 ear fresh corn $0.12
Time to shell corn: 5 minutes; time to cook corn: 3 minutes; time to heat soup: 4 minutes
A few grapes $0.15 protein 6 grams for soup and 2 grams for corn

For mid evening snack I will have some freshly shell pecans. Free, because I gathered them from the ground, protein  3-5 g protein

For bedtime snack, a bowl of applesauce  $0.25

Total cost to eat today: $4.57
Total protein about 57 g

Even though I ate rather extravagantly today, my total daily bill was still under $5. I believe it would cost more to buy three meals at McDonald's. Lessee ... a "value meal" with chicken mcnuggets, fries, and a drink is $6.39, but apparently you can get 12 chicken mcnuggets without the drink and fries for $3.00. You can get a sausage Mcmuffin with egg for $2.29. Looks as though a Big Mac is around $3.75. Looks like it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible to buy three meals at McDonald's for under $5.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Low-Cost Healthy Diet

In November, 1998, Texas Gardener Magazine published my article The Paleolithic Gardener. I am interested to see that the "paleo diet" is now all the rage.

I no longer have a copy of the article, as it was lost when my house burned down, but as I recall, the article was more about gathering and eating wild foods than adopting a strict paleo diet. Recent advocates of the paleo diet do not insist on gathering wild foods, although I'm sure they would not object to this. According to the author(s) of the Paleo Diet website, "Paleo is a simple dietary lifestyle that is based on foods being either in or out. In are the Paleolithic Era foods that we ate prior to agriculture and animal husbandry (meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruit, berries, mushrooms, etc.). Out are Neolithic Era foods that result from agriculture or animal husbandry  (grains, dairy, beans/legumes, potatoes, sugar and fake foods)."

I'm not sure what's meant by "fake foods," but I'm guessing that would be stuff such as Chicken McNuggets (see note 1 below). These would not have been Neolithic treats, but still, I see the author's point.

The reason very old-fashioned diets are supposed to be healthy is that the human body evolved prior to the neolithic period (the Neolithic period was believed to have begun around 12,000 years ago, although I think I read somewhere that recent archaeological evidence indicates that people may have been farming and living with domesticated animals prior to that time). Our bodies are made to deal with certain kinds of sugars, proteins, and fats; we don't thrive on substitutes. As a gardener, I would not plant azaleas in the highly alkaline clay soil in my San Antonio garden. I would, instead, plant azaleas in my Caldwell County garden, where the soil is well-draining sandy loam and slightly acidic. For similar reasons, it makes sense for the human consumer to give his or her body the sort of nutrients that will help it to thrive.

There are two reasons I've suddenly become especially interested in my diet: 
1. Ever since I reached the age of 50, I've tended to put on lots more fat than I need;
2. The extra weight is very hard on my knees;
3. I was recently ill with a bad cold or flu. I'm not sure which it was, but it involved fever and feeling completely drained of energy. And it made me lose my appetite. I didn't eat much for several days, and I was amazed to find that even after the cold or flu symptoms were gone, and my energy level back to normal, I didn't crave carbohydrates the way I had before.

I am now able to get by well on about 2/3 of the calories I was consuming before, almost none of which are refined carbohydrates. I can go for many hours without eating, with none of the symptoms of low blood sugar I would have had before (headache, shaky feeling, dizziness).

It reminds me of when I quit smoking as a young person. I had not been able to kick the habit, no matter what I tried, until I got sick with a nasty cold. While I was sick with the cold, I had no desire to smoke. By the time I got well, I'd gotten past the most horrible withdrawal symptoms, and it was not that hard to never smoke again. It was not easy, by any means. For at least a year after I quit, I'd really want to have a cigarette when other people lit up. But it was possible, whereas before I got sick, it was not.

Having developed an intense interest in diets, as a result of what recently happened to me, I watched Super-Size Me and Food, Inc. on Netflix over the weekend. Food, Inc. included an interview with a family who said they could not afford to buy good food. The whole family was eating fast food from paper bags -- stuff that was probably heavily laced with high-fructose corn syrup,  fried in rancid oil. They also said they didn't have time to cook, since they had to leave the house early in the day and didn't get home until about 9:00 in the evening. 

I don't believe this. I believe it's possible to eat a healthy diet for less than the cost of buying fast food, at least in terms of money. I'm not sure about the time. I see that a McDonald's franchisee has reduced the drive-through order time down to one minute by outsourcing the order taking function to a call center.  It would be hard to beat that time, but my experience with drive-through fast food joints is that it takes more like 5 - 10 minutes to get all the way through the line from order to pick-up. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I've never been through a McDonald's drive-through, only Jack-in-the-Box and Taco Bell.

But "According to Nielsen Media Research's latest report, the average American household watches 8 hours and 15 minutes of television in a 24-hour period. The average amount of time per individual (over the age of 2) is about 4 and a half hours."

If people believed they could lose weight and feel better by trading off a couple of hours of TV a week for going to the grocery store instead of to McDonald's, I'll bet most people would be willing to make the trade, if it were not for one thing: addiction.

I believe addiction is the main reason people continue to eat unhealthy food, even though they know it's bad for them, just as a person addicted to cigarettes and short on money will buy cigarettes instead of food. I was addicted to carbohydrates before my recent illness. If I didn't have some carbs every few hours, I would get a headache and might even feel shaky and dizzy. It's VERY hard to stop eating carbs when stopping makes you sick. Also, people are constantly exposed to the smells of frying foods and pictures of food, and people eating on TV.

I'm going to test the theory that healthy food costs more than fast food by tracking the cost of my food, in terms of time and money over the next several days, and see how hard it is to eat a healthy diet without spending a lot of money or time.

Today I have eaten:

Breakfast: oat porridge with milk (8 grams protein in the milk; 10 in the oats) 60 cents for oats and milk [about 6 minutes to pour the rolled oats into a pot with some water, cook, and pour in the milk; 3 minutes to wash pot, bowl & spoon]
Lunch: 4 oz string cheese (8 grams protein in each stick, total 32 grams) [less than 30 seconds to remove wrapper] 50 cents
Snack: a large carrot, eaten raw 5 cents at most [less than 30 seconds to remove from fridge]
Supper: bowl Tasty Classics (Canadian brand) chicken and rotini soup (6 grams protein) 25 cents [4 minutes to open can, pour into pot and cook]
Fresh asparagus 90 cents [3 minutes to break into pieces and throw into the pot of soup] 
Small can V8 juice 40 cents [less than 30 seconds to open can]
5 pecans, gathered from beneath a pecan tree earlier today (3 - 5 gram protein) [5 minutes to gather a bag of pecans]
Mid evening snack: another carrot, eaten raw 5 cents [less than 30 seconds to remove from fridge]
For bed time snack, I will have some unsweetened applesauce and maybe a few more pecans 25 cents for the applesauce

The fresh asparagus was the most expensive thing on the menu today. True, 90 cents per serving is kind of expensive, but my total cost for food for the day was still under $3, which is less than one would spend for a meal at McDonald's. 

I didn't consume a paleo diet today, since the soup contained wheat pasta, and the oats and milk would not have been available in quantity prior to pastoral and agricultural times. But I ate very few refined carbohydrates. I got plenty of protein and fat and carbohydrates, along with a good assortment of vitamins. I spent the morning doing fairly demanding mental work and the afternoon doing physical work in the garden. I felt good the whole time -- no hunger pangs at any time during the day. 

I'll admit that this is not a very interesting diet, so far, but it's at least as varied and visually appealing as a fast food meal. Some of the paleo diet cookbooks have very nice photos of yummy-looking food. 

This is the second week I've been on what would have seemed like a very restrictive diet before my illness. Yet I don't feel at all deprived. I enjoy eating when I'm doing it, but I don't have constant cravings to eat, and I get full on less food than before. I've been losing a pound every 2 or 3 days, which is fairly rapid weight loss, but since I feel good and am getting the other nutrients I need, I think it's OK. I've lost about 5 pounds, and my knees are already working better. I would like to lose 11 or 12 more pounds. I expect the weight loss will taper off as I get lighter and it takes less energy to move my body around. If I'm still losing weight when I get to my goal, I'll want to add some calories to keep my weight stable. I'm sure those calories won't be in the form of refined carbohydrates. The last thing I want is to get addicted again. Instead, I'll eat more fruits such as bananas and more nuts and maybe more meat.

Note 1: "The ingredients listed in the flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leeches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative. A couple of other plants take part in the nugget: There's some wheat in the batter, and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton rather than corn, depending on the market price and availability.

According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable.

But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill."
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma.