Thursday, August 21, 2008

Food Solved

In July, I opened up a discussion about meeting some food goals I had set. The goals were to 1) cut down on monthly food bill, 2) get 5-7 servings of fruits/veggies per day, 3) eat less meat, but still have hearty, calorie-filled meals, and 4) come up with an efficient recipe/grocery list management system.

Thanks to everyone for suggestions. Based on those, and some personal R&D, I have come up with some solutions that - so far - have worked well.

The high-level lesson I learned from this food foray was that buying, making, and eating food is a lifestyle. Okay. Not so profound. But still true. I found many, many possible solutions to meet my goals. The best solutions fit seamlessly (or maybe with just a few stitches) into my habits and preferences. That said, just because I do something by habit now, doesn't mean I wouldn't be happier doing it a different way. Some of my food habits were just that - processes that seemed superior simply because they were familiar. Some of my food solutions changed my habits. The trick was making sure that the new habit fit well with the rest of my life.

Because good solutions are relative, my final list may not be very useful to anyone. I've included it at the end of this post, just because I feel like I should. And to prove that I approach the nitty-gritty of life like a systems & process analyst. (Mom, aren't you proud?)

What may be useful are some of the technical resources I discovered on the way to finalizing that solutions list.

Coupon conglomerates

Using coupons really can save big money. But in order to save big bucks, you have to make a big commitment. Coupons come in two forms: manufacturer coupons (coupons from the product makers) and retailer coupons (sales at your local grocery store). You usually get the big savings when you combine the two. Save a $1 off coupon for Kraft mayonnaise until the grocery store puts mayo on sale for $1.50. Then you get the mayo for $0.50. But to do this on a regular basis with many products, you have to snip manufacturer coupons from the RedPlum or SmartSource ads that come in the Sunday paper, save them, check weekly retailer sales, go through all of your coupons to see if there are any matches, pull those coupons and take them with you to the store, and routinely get rid of expired coupons. Big couponers will tell you that as long as you're organized about it, it's not too hard. They're right. But for me it's one of those lifestyle things - I'm just not that interested.

Some interesting web resources are coming out to shortcut this process some.

Pugetsoundgroceryguide is a website where another person does all the work of tracking manufacturer and store sales to alert you to big deals. All you have to do is keep the coupons and find the right ones to bring with you to the store. This site is maintained by a woman in Washington, so is specific to that region and only includes a few retailers. And there is a $1/week fee. I came across other sites in my research - some national - , but unfortunately didn't record the urls.

Groceryguide is a variation of this idea. This site posts the weekly store sales and a list of possible manufacturer coupon matches to those sales. The matches are generated by a computer algorithm rather than a human. Circumventing human capital makes this method cheap, so you don't have to pay for the service, but the matches are not very precise. Also, not all grocers are represented on the site (Kroger, my staple store, being one of them).

If you don't get the Sunday paper, then you can print coupons online. For example, SmartSource, has coupons from the SmartSource ad. Just make sure your grocer accepts printed coupons - not all do. One problem with online coupons is that I'm pretty sure only a few coupons from the ads are actually going online. So if you choose this option, you only have a limited coupon selection. Plus you still have to pay for paper and ink to print.

My favorite site is Shortcuts. This is an AOL service, where manufacturers can choose to put their coupons online, and stores can opt-in to have your store customer card linked up to the coupons. So you can skip the clipping step. The coupons are automatically deducted from your grocery bill when you use your customer card. So far, the sight only has a handful of the manufacturers coupons out there. And only a few stores. But if it catches on, this could be an easy way to save money - just to visit the site once every few weeks and add all of the coupons with a few mouse clicks. Then if you happen to buy those items, you get the savings. I already saved $0.95 this month, without even realizing it. Think of what I could do with those savings: buy a quarter gallon of gas, get 3 candy bars, mail 2 letters, or buy 1 stock in Ford.

None of these websites solve my biggest problem with coupons, which is that usually coupons are for over-packaged food, which I try not to buy very much of to begin with. Except cereal.

Delicious online recipes

I love finding new recipes, and most come from the web: friends' recommendations, searching for Whole Wheat Applesauce Pancakes, blog posts. I was quickly losing track of where all these delicious recipes were coming from. So I started a Delicious (haha) account to bookmark the recipe urls. This application makes it so easy to store recipes - and anything else - , especially if you get the delicious tag add-in on your web browser. Come across a potential recipe, and with 2 clicks, plus a few tag recommendations, you've got it saved and sorted for retrieval later.

Very slick.

My sister also suggested GoogleDocs to save recipes anytime you're online, if you have a Gmail account. Also a good method. It may take a little longer to copy/paste the recipe in a new doc, save the doc, and put it in the right folder, but it makes them very printable and easier to call back because you have the actual recipe and not just a link to the recipe. Links go bad - GoogleDocs has more permanence.

But it does lack that delicious pun.

Simple spreadsheets are awesome

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to organize my recipes. I have several different cookbooks, a recipe card box, and recipes I find online. It was tempting to put together an "Erin's Ultimate Recipes" cookbook that took all the recipes I actually use from those cookbooks and finally have the cookbook to end all cookbooks. But it would be out of date a week later when I discovered a new recipe. Plus, did I really want to spend all that time typing in recipes? No. And that's saying a lot, because I've had a lot of time on my hands lately.

Finally, I realized that the problem wasn't really that I have to switch between cookbooks for different recipes. Once I know what recipe I want, finding it usually isn't a big deal. (This may just be an oddity of the way my memory works. I can also remember obscure freeway exit numbers, but not street names.) But when I sit down before going shopping to decide what meals I want to cook that week, I draw blanks.

So the real problem was knowing what recipe I wanted in the first place. Once I realized this, it took about 20 minutes for me to create "Erin's Ultimate Spreadsheet". The spreadsheet lists the names of about 100 dinner dishes, where the actual recipes are located, and several key characteristics of the recipes (vegetarian, makes portable leftovers so we can take it in for lunch the next day, cheap, etc.). Now when I sit down to make my dinner list for the week, I open up the spreadsheet and quickly scan for ideas. If it's the end of the month and I need some cheap meals, I can sort the recipes by cheap/not cheap. If I already planned 3 meat dishes for the week, then I sort by vegetarian. It's easy to add recipes to the spreadsheet, but even if I never bother to add more recipes, it still works as a great idea generator for dinner.

Screenshot of the beautiful spreadsheet.

Food Goals & Solutions

1. Eat less meat but still get full
-Make more meals that use beans instead of meat
-Eat vegetarian 3x/week
-Create "vegetarian" column in meal database to easily find meatless meals when planning weekly dinners
-Stock good snacks for between meals (granola, for example) and after dinner

2. Eat 5-7 servings of fruits/veggies each day
-Eat 2 servings of fruits with breakfast and lunch
-Keep fridge, freezer, pantry stocked with the makings for fruit/veggie side dishes for dinner
-Eat vegetarian 3/week (see #1)
-Never underestimate the power of a good fruit smoothie

3. Decrease monthly grocery bill
-Use weekly ads to make weekly meal decisions
-Stock up on sale items that I know I use
-Create "cheap" column in meal database to easily find cheap meals to fill out weekly dinners

4. Integrate recipes, grocery list, weekly meal plan into one efficient interface
[After going through a few options, I decided this goal just wasn't working. I wanted a slick computer system for keeping track of all my recipes (with the ability to add new recipes), creating weekly meal plans, and automatically creating my grocery list based on those meal plans. But my all-in-1 solutions all seemed like big time commitments. In the end, I figured out a slick process, rather than a slick program, for doing this.]
-Keep a spreadsheet of recipe names and important characteristics (once I make and like a new recipe, the recipe can be added to the spreadsheet)
-Bookmark new internet recipes on delicious
-Keep running grocery list on fridge b/c I'm almost always in the kitchen when I realize we're out of something (because I'm trying to use it and it's not there)
-Each week write down a dinner list on scratch paper, turn that into a grocery list (consult recipes only as needed - I usually know what ingredients are required for, say, spaghetti), add items from fridge list plus other items (lunch, breakfast, snacks, special events), and write dinners down on calendar for later consulting


M&M said...

Erin, you never cease to amaze me... I would love to get a copy of your spreed sheet... just to analyze... I'm still trying to figure my system out... my meal planning has become somewhat of a slice of toast and a peice of fruit and than Merrill has to fend for himself...

Sarah said...

You have officially sucked all the fun out of eating.

Mamacita said...

You need to learn "Access." You have moved beyond the spreadsheet, you need a database. It would be so much easier and you'd learn a new software program that you can add to your resume. And heaven knows, you have time to learn now! Also, you could send all of us the database, once you have it done!

Jen said...

You've come a long way from the laminated calendar and grease pencil we grew up with.

Glad you were able to find solutions to your food quandaries.

Kim said...

Nice post..! Online coupons will help you to save a lot of money.