Saturday, January 12, 2013
Well, we went out with a whimper, not a bang. And maybe that's a good thing. It's a good thing because this project shouldn't have ever been a big deal in the first place. For thousands of years, people got their food (sometimes more easily than others), cooked it at home, ate it together, lather, rinse, repeat. Even Julia Child, in all her brilliance, didn't take off from the start. In the '50s and '60s, housewifery and homemaking had become such drudgery that many home cooks had turned to packaged, boxed convenience food. She had to convince home cooks that they could do better even in their own homes. But whatever its incarnation, most food was still being cooked at home.
Not anymore. There's so much quick, easy food available that your mind almost automatically defaults to running by the Sonic or picking up the phone to order pizza. Intentional or healthy eating only means choosing Jason's Deli or Subway rather than the alternative. And we were regular, if not habitual offenders. I was always turning over new leaves -- ordering/buying fresh food/ making meal plans -- always with the best of intentions. Mondays usually worked out, Tuesdays were iffy, and by Wednesday, we were off the rails. Week after week. And it wasn't until I stopped working that I could see the pattern. Good intentions on Monday, rotten chard by Friday.
Let me say up front that the project we undertook and the lifestyle it has grown into would have been exponentially more difficult if I were working full time. I volunteer quite a bit, am active in my community, and am physically active almost every day, but I still do have the time to grow food, shop for food, prep food, and cook food, all in the same day (except for the growing, of course). There's no way I could have so rigidly kept to the project while working a full-time and stressful job like teaching.
But I wasn't working, so the project began with the intent to decrease our retail food footprint and increase our home food footprint. And we did. It was really hard at first. Harder for some than for others, but definitely something we had to work at, to think about, to find our way around. But somewhere along the way, and I couldn't tell you where or when, it just got easier. Maybe not even easier, going out just wasn't what we did. At some point, I didn't really have to think so much about it, to fight the urge to pull into every Sonic I saw, to dream about orange-peel beef, to obsess over the perfection of every cooked item.
It just became not a thing. Some nights I had wine and microwave nachos. Actually, many nights I had wine and microwave nachos. But I had control over the quality of the cheese, the amount of salt in the chips, and with my own homemade salsa and an apple, it made a pretty satisfying meal for one. Somewhere along the way, I became okay with the idea that this project didn't have to be about presenting three-course, five-star meals every night. Clearly, I didn't. Sandwiches, pick-ups and leftovers featured heavily in the QC rotation. What eventually began to matter more (to me, at least) was an intentionality to our eating. We knew where it came from and what was in it. Period. If that's where you start, it's pretty easy.
The Project By the Numbers:
Days on the Project: 329
Dishwasher total: 353
QC entries: 280
Percent of time we ate pickups or leftovers: approximately 25-30
Money saved: My estimate is that we saved about 1/3 of our total food bill over the previous year. My dear friend DD suggested a money saved total along with the Daily Dish, but T and I couldn't ever find a way to calculate it given the multiple variables, such as we were spending much less on restaurant food but much more on groceries, the quality of the groceries was probably better because I was cooking everything from scratch which added value to each meal but cost more, etc. And honestly, I really hate math.
The girls have adjusted about like you'd expect. G still eats out more than the rest of us - she goes out to see friends, have study groups, and generally likes fast food more than we do. With her drivers license in the summer came the privilege to make her own decisions. Does she always make the ones I'd choose for her? No. But she is armed with knowledge and control over what she does choose. S has always loved the project because no one loves her mama's cooking like that one. She has always had a better palate, and I think, a tenderer tummy. She doesn't feel well when she eats crap, so her poor choices often come with more physical consequences that her sister's. Transition is not her issue. And T has been a trooper. It squeezed my heart a little today when, at the arrival of some little gratin dishes for baked eggs, he asked how to make them so he could try them when he's away. Sniff! My thinking is that the project may appeal to him more from the financial aspect, but he appreciates good food as well, so that's a win-win.
We've just returned from our long-awaited Christmas trip to Germany and France (the one we were saving for when we started this thing), and I was absolutely blown away by the cost of a dinner out in Europe. These were not super-fancy places but weren't fast food by any stretch, but each one cost anywhere from 80-100 euros for a family of four (with wine, duh), which is about $104-130US. A regular, good quality meal (and let me tell you, they were delicious) was still about twice what we'd expect to pay here. From what I can glean, there are two reasons for this: one, the French expect high quality dining everywhere, so they are willing to pay a higher premium for quality meat, fresh and local produce, etc., and secondly, the French don't eat out much. Some of this is because they have access to the most wonderful bread, cheese, meat, and produce on almost every street corner (bakeries) and certainly in every neighborhood (markets, butchers, etc.). They're starting with ingredients that make it much easier to prepare quality food at home.
They also eat out like I think we all should be. They eat out for truly special occasions. Not twice a week, or even weekly. So, their per-meal costs over the course of a week or a month can handle the higher price of eating out because they do it so much less than we do. This, I think, is changing considering that on the Avenue des Talles, I saw a gorgeous, model-thin woman wearing an impossibly chic outfit and carrying a GIGANTIC Louis Vuitton bag with another in a LV shopping bag, holding a cake box. Perched on top of the cake box, carried by this iteration of La Belle France, was a big, ole brown sack from Mickey D's. Quel horreur! And so it goes.
Back here at home, we've settled back into our routine. I'll tell you that I did run into the Sonic last week (riddled with jet lag) and ordered a grilled cheese, a tiny tator tots, and a soda. It was fine. It was even pretty good, but it just doesn't hold the fascination that it once did. I'd been out for five hours on a measly breakfast, and it was all that was close. Could I have made a better choice? Maybe, but I knew what my choices were, and I chose Sonic. Intentional, and reasoned. And it was fine. But I haven't been back. We may start to eat out more than we have - I don't know. T and I didn't use our date exemption as much as we'd have liked, and there is something to the French way of making a dinner out something special rather than Plan B on a bad day. To be honest, I'm not really sure what eating out looks like post-project. We'll just have to see. I'm going to continue to QC, if only to keep myself honest.
When the kids started school this week, we shifted without discussion or discomfort right back into our pattern - meal plan, shopping, dinner at home. We've made it an entire week without wanting to fall back into our old ways. Maybe the true test wasn't if we could be successful while we were on the project. Maybe the test is if we can be successful when we're off it. I think I survived the first test well. Tuesday's planned meal was roast chicken, which I had pulled out of the freezer Sunday thinking it would thaw. That sucker was FROZEN SOLID Tuesday afternoon. In the past, that would have been the most satisfying excuse to grab some take-out or head to Jason's Deli. It wasn't until Wednesday morning that I realized that I hadn't even thought to go out. I just grabbed some of my own chili (approaching its way-too-long-in-the-freezer date), thawed it, boiled the hotdogs I'd bought for S's sleepover the previous weekend, and roasted the cauliflower like I had planned. It was a little weird - chili dogs and roasted cauliflower - but I knew where it came from and what was in it.
I'll call that progress.