Monday, July 14, 2008

Audit Your Trashcan

We were in New York recently and it was garbage day (yuck!). As I took my kids on a walk to the park, I couldn't help but notice just how much some people spend on groceries. The evidence was simply right in front of my nose. You see, where we were staying everyone shops at small local stores that put the price of the item right on a small sticker. So when you sit down for a bowl of cereal, you know your host paid a ridiculous $4.59 for a small box of cereal. Or when you go to grab a snack for the kids, you know just how many dollars they are inhaling. "Out of town" you would have a much harder time knowing how much that same box of cereal sitting in my pantry costs (between $0.80 and $1.00, if you are curious).

I wasn't looking at people's trash, but when I bent down to tie a shoe and saw a chalav yisrael carton of ice cream with a sticker saying it cost $8.59, my antennae went up and I started to look at the contents of the trash. I imagine that the ice cream was a special treat, but I simply cannot fathom paying that much money for ice cream, but I don't keep chalav yisrael.

Sometimes I feel the answer to the financial crunch of some families is right in front of their eyes, or in this case the answer is in the trash can. When a week's worth of garbage includes at least 5 big bottles of apple juice, it is no wonder people are struggling. When trash cans are overflowing with boxes of prepared blintzes, macaroni and cheese, and pizza, I don't have to wonder how in the world a family spends $30,000 per year on food alone.

Perhaps what is most interesting about trash in the frum community is just how many disposables are used. It seemed every trash can was overflowing with aluminum cookie sheets and bakeware, plastic silverware, and used paper plates. ProfK this morning is writing about the cost of acquiring two sets of dishes, cookware, and bakeware, but the real cost is NOT acquiring such. If you shop smart, dishes and even bakeware/cookware will not break the bank. But, disposables inevitably will.

Unless you live in a rabbit hole, I'm sure you as painfully aware as I am that the price of groceries is going through the roof. Now is the time to make sure that you are controlling what you can control and a trash can audit is the perfect tool to really get a handle on what you are spending.


Anonymous said...


I think the only occasions where I've gone out to eat instead of cooking my own meals have been on erev Pesach, before leaving my apartment, when there was almost no food left.

SephardiLady, would you be able to post some of your three dollar meal suggestions for your readers? I can't think of a better time to do so than now, given the current economic situation.

On a somewhat unrelated note, how about a post with your thoughts on the latest news about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?

Lion of Zion said...

"I simply cannot fathom paying that much money for ice cream"

especially when it tastes like complete crap

"but I don't keep chalav yisrael."

this is getting to be a problem where i live (flatbush). some of the groceries (even some non-jewish ones) stock a limited supply of non-chalav yisroel milk (if any) and in general have a preference for the over-priced and qualitatively-inferior jewish brands of other foods.

btw, you must have great eye sight.

i just responded to you about disposables on Prof k:

that's not the point. we personally use a lot of disposables (although i have been cutting back a bit lately.) i think i once commented about this a while back by you. there is a point in being frugal where you reach a point of diminishing returns, especially when time is factored in. (of course everyone has to make there own cheshbon concerning what their time is worth.)

pinching pennies when it is not worthwhile may have an psychological effect, but it really may just make your life more difficult.

"how about a post with your thoughts on the latest news about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac?"

i'm still waiting for a practical post on buying life insurance. i hope you'll remember that first when taking suggestions from the floor.

miriamp said...

3 dollar meals, good idea! Although I bet my picky kids will turn up their noses.

My husband recently helped me make a spreadsheet that lists possible meals and the actual cost per designated "serving" for each meal, then lets me put them into a two week meal plan along with how many servings I expect to need, calculating the total cost for each week. But I'd love to have more (cheaper!) options to stick in there, at least for the grownups and maybe some of the less picky kids.

ProfK said...

In the Anne of Green Gables series Marilla goes through Anne's scrap bucket and is pleased to see that nothing is in there that shouldn't be. It's not only the cost of some of the products that is mind boggling but how much gets wasted and thrown away only partially used.

Re the cheaper meals, people "eat" with their eyes. They want to see a full plate in front of them. Many of the "cheaper" meals are fully nutritional but don't satisfy those "eating eyes." Want to cut back on the cost of hamburger? If you serve someone the recommended 2-6 ounces (depends on age and sex) serving of protein and you make the hamburger a separate part of the meal then it has to look "big enough" to seem satisfying. Take half that hamburger, cut with ground vegetables and/or bread crumbs and use it to stuff baked potatoes or baked sweet potatoes. It looks like a lot is on the plate but there is less meat. Instead of making regular or large sized meat balls, mix the hamburger 50/50 with bread crumbs and spices (and a touch of egg white to bind them) and make mini mini meat balls. When mixed in with pasta everyone sees meat "everywhere" in the dish and the flavor is there with only half the meat. The same can be done using tuna instead of meat. "Fool the eye" cooking can work even with picky eaters.

Anonymous said...

The title of the post should be "Audit Your Neighbor's Trash Can." How do you know the expensive items weren't bought for a special occasion (or with a ton of coupons) unless you are regularly looking at all your neighbor's trash? I don't have time to do this, maybe since I work full time. And washing those dishes sure takes my time away from my kids, so I do use disposables on a somewhat regular basis.

By the way, let's not all be so judgmental. The mentality of a lot of posters here seems to rule out "different strokes for different folks". However much I could scrimp and save if I didn't work, it would not make up for my nice second salary, even after taxes and babysitter and other work related expenses. Plus, since I'm working now, I'm building the experience and skills to earn even more in the future, so there's an investment element there. I'll earn more in 5 years if I work now, rather than trying to find a job in five years.

Also, there are costs to washing dishes, such as hot water and soap, but those items are subsumed elsewhere in the budget so you're not factoring them in as dishware costs. I know it doesn't add up to the price of paper plates, but remember the costs of disposables are marginal, not absolute.

Anonymous said...

"I think the only occasions where I've gone out to eat instead of cooking my own meals have been on erev Pesach,"

Also, there's going out to eat and there's "going out to eat." A simple recommendation for all: while that pizza you're getting will cost more than buying it yourself, what REALLY costs more is the drinks at $1-2 a piece. Bring the pizza home and serve with water, or with milk which is more healthy, or at worst with a soda that you bought for $1/2 liters instead of $1.50 for 20 oz (a 2 liter bottle is 64 oz).

On a note from the original post: I'm not sure whether the boxes of food were prepared (i.e., you go into a grocery and say "I want 6 of those blintzes and 2 pounds of that macaroni and cheese") or packaged (i.e. frozen in a box), though it rather sounds like the latter. If I'm correct, that food is, well, disgusting. I can understand going out for steaks, if they're well made (though chas v'shalom that they're well done), or pizza, if it's well made (though I have yet to find a chalav yisroel one that is)...but buying prepackaged food like that, where the portions are both tiny and unappealing, is something I don't understand.

Therefore, on the request train, behind the life insurance and the $3 meals: how about easily defrosted meals? The idea of buying large amounts of meat at cheap prices and freezing it has been discussed here before, but how about the idea of making, say, multiple meals worth of a particular food and then freezing it? I can't imagine that unfreezing macaroni and cheese would work so well, but there have to be some meals that are still good when they've been frozen, and that would help to get rid of some of the "I don't have time" and "it's too stressful to make a full meal every day" complaints. After all, it's not that much harder, though certainly more expensive, to make 15 meals worth of food rather than 5, and it sure takes a lot less time than making 5 meals 3 different time.

Anonymous said...

I echo the sentiments of anonymous 12:48. As a full-time working mom with little to no household help I consider conveniences such as disposables or prepared foods as my household help.

I leave for work anywhere between 5:30 and 8:00 in the morning and get home at 4:00 the same time as my starving kids. Sorry, but I'm beat by then and to have to scramble to make a healthy meal at that point is beyond me. So out comes the frozen pizza bourekas, paper plates, etc. Not to mention I don't have to then stay up doing dishes OR (more likely) getting up extra early the next day to wash those dishes.

I try to limit it somewhat due to cost and environmental impact -- I think of disposables as a necessary evil.

SL -- **please** post your tips on saving money on groceries! What in the world cereal are you eating for $1.00/box? Where are you getting it?

Lion of Zion said...


"And washing those dishes sure takes my time away from my kids, so I do use disposables on a somewhat regular basis . . . Also, there are costs to washing dishes, such as hot water and soap, but those items are subsumed elsewhere in the budget so you're not factoring them in as dishware costs."

thank you

Lion of Zion said...


"what REALLY costs more is the drinks at $1-2 a piece"

at famous pita (coney island ave and ditmas), pay once for all you can drink from the fountain sodas.

"a 2 liter bottle is 64 oz"

that's pretty funny

Anonymous said...

thanks for not talking about the other expensive trash item--- diapers! :)

We're the only family on our street with babies. Not one baby, but TWO. Everyone else puts out 1-2 bags of trash a week. We put out 8-10. Diapers are a necessary evil and I just can't imagine the time and effort (and laundry power) needed to wash cloth when I'm home alone with 2 eighteen month olds.

You look at our trash, and you'd wonder what we eat because it's bags and bags of used diapers. *lol*

But yeah, Pesach we put out even more trash because that's when we use disposables (still haven't bothered buying Pesach dishes yet--- where do people store them?!)

Looking forward to hearing about inexpensive meal ideas!

Anonymous said...

Disposables and their effect on the environment are what really get me. I have a very hard time throwing a plastic fork in the trash, knowing that it will sit in a landfill someplace long past the birth of by great, great grandchildren. I just can't bring myself to use these on a regular basis. You should have seen DH's face when I informed him that we wouldn't be using disposables this past Pesach. Disposables? With no dishwasher. But we survived.

Yes, doing dishes is a pain, and yes, we both work full time outside of the house and we have little kids, but I just can't justify the disposables.

Of course, I put diapers in the trash but this is the one place where DH put his foot down. When I was pregnant with our 1st, he informed me that it was fine with him if we use cloth diapers but he wouldn't be changing them. So disposable diapers are our one vice (and he changes plenty of them). But other than that we've found that for the most part, being "green" means saving green.

As for quick, healthy, relatively cheap meals... we stock up on Morning Star Farms veggie chicken nuggets and sausage patties when they're on sale. We pop these in the microwave and serve with whole wheat pasta (cooked ahead of time on Sundays) and some frozen veggies (also bought on sale). It takes only a few minutes to prepare and our kids pretty much live on this stuff.

Anonymous said...

Buy a freezer chest! I learned this from our Rebbetzin when we lived waaaay out of town and had to fly (!) our meat and cholov yisroel in from LA.

I cook HUGE batches of everything you can imagine (even mac and cheese) and freeze it in portion sizes. We almost always have soup, meatballs, lasagna, turkey, chili, etc. to take out the night before and serve with a veggie and starch.

The main point is the planning. I bulk cook once a month and it has really saved our lives. Let me tell you, Shabbos is a breeze when most of it is waiting in the freezer on Thursday night.

Anonymous said...

Ari- I agree that the topic you suggested should take priority over the ones I suggested.

Morningstar Farms products are great, but are not palatable to everyone. I overdid it with the Morningstar Farms products at one point, and for a while I couldn't bring myself to eat anything of the sort. Thankfully, I'm starting to enjoy those products again; they're lifesavers for quick, relatively healthy, affordable, filling meals.

Certain elements of a healthy diet can cost more than their "less healthy" counterparts, such as whole wheat pasta. However, plenty of healthy items are affordable, like oatmeal. Still, for those who don't wish to consume too much tuna due to mercury levels, items like fresh salmon can be on the more expensive side, especially if one wishes to purchase wild salmon for its lower content of some potentially toxic elements. Organic produce can be more expensive, but isn't always worthwhile. It's a balancing act, of course. I chose to cook my own meals instead of utilizing my school's meal plan. It might not have been cheaper to cook my own meals, but it certainly was much healthier.

I should clarify one of my earlier statements; rarely do I go out to eat during the week for a meal instead of cooking a meal for myself. I do go out to eat with my friends with varying frequency, depending on the time of year. When I go out to eat, it's for food that's actually worth it, food that I wouldn't prepare on my own- like sushi! Drinks in restaurants can indeed be pricey, jlan.

My vice: FreshDirect. My schedule (and lack of a car) really doesn't allow for traditional trips to grocery stores. I can either spend an inordinate amount of time waiting in line at one store to save money, and then lug the groceries back to my apartment, or get ripped off at the local kosher stores. Instead, I shop online at my convenience and the items are delivered to my door at the time of my choosing. No time wasted standing in line to check out, going to or from the store, or selecting produce (they select top quality produce for me, and issue refunds if anything is not right with the order). I can shop from my previous orders, loading up my shopping cart with just a few clicks of my mouse. Yes, it's expensive, but it's still within my budget, and I need the time to do well in school, which is my main priority at this point in time.

I chose not to use disposable dishes and cutlery primarily because it felt more dignified to eat with "real" cutlery and dishes. I'm only one person, so it doesn't take that much time to wash my dishes each day.

Anonymous said...

Many store brand cereals are $1 a box, but have no hashgacha. Malt-O-Meal cereal is $1 a box, and is sold in big bags for very little. It's only labeled K, but is backed by UMKosher which is reliable.

As for the audit, the main thing I see in garbage cans in frum areas that gets me is all the single serving bissli and bamba bags. Snacks like those are VERY pricy. For the cost of some plastic ziploc bags, you can bag your own snacks for a lot less.

Anonymous said...

LOZ: I see your point of diminishing returns, but there is a happy medium. Of course making your own bread is the cheapest, but it is simply too time consuming, and I don't know many people who keep some hens in the backyard for their eggs...
I think what SL is refering to are not the food basics (meat, milk (not getting into the CY drama), bread, vegetables, eggs, grains and beans, etc) but extras (burrekas, blinzes, ice cream, junk food, chips, soda and juices). That's where the real savings start. I guess to lower the costs the first thing to do is separate all foods into 2 categories; basics and extras. Start by cutting the extras.

Sadly, to save money you need the time to cook, there is no way to get around that.

For the many people who ask about freezing food; buy an extra freezer and start experimenting. I do it all the time. Cook a dish, freeze one portion, then a week later try it and decide whether it's worth freezing again. You would be surpriced at how many things survive the freezer. I barely ever buy canned beans, instead I cook a whole bag one day (1 kg = over 2 lb). which takes several hours, then freeze them in individual bags. So to make a dinner in 30 minutes I take out from the freezer of pasta (cooked pasta freezes well), one of beans, cut up some veggies, season it and pasta salad is ready.

Maybe a post to share recipes of low cost meals would be great, people can post tips, etc.

Commenter Abbi said...

Frozen pasta? Why not just get an electric kettle (kumkum) that boils water quickly, pour boiling in a pot and cook the pasta that way- cuts out about 20 minutes of pasta cooking time- and seems a lot more palatable than freezing it.

I store cooked pasta at least five days in the fridge, but freezing it seems to be pushing it.

I have to laugh about the Morningstar Farms thing- the equivalent here, Tivol, is considered "junk" food that single pple live on. I fully admit to keeping it in our freezer and i make a few meals out of it during the week (the kids love the veggie hot dogs). One woman's healthy veggie meal is another woman's junk food. :D.

ProfK said...

Abbi, the key to freezing pasta is to not cook it to mushy before you freeze it, only to just al dente. It freezes wonderfully and is a very handy thing to have for the "dinner is in 20 minutes and I just got home and what are we going to eat" times. Ditto with rice and barley.

Re the cereal for $1 a box, it doesn't have to be only the store brands. Post cereals were on sale at Shoprite a few weeks ago at 2 for $5. I had coupons worth 75 cents for each box. Shoprite doubles all coupons under a dollar. The two coupons took off $3 from the price, so each box cost me $1. National brand coupons can make a big difference.

Anonymous said...

Of course making your own bread is the cheapest, but it is simply too time consuming, and I don't know many people who keep some hens in the backyard for their eggs...

I actually do make my own bread most of the time and find it to be not *too* time-consuming (it can rise in the fridge overnight).

I had to laugh at the comment about the hens. My husband wants to get a couple of hens! We do eat more than 2 eggs/day overall though.

We got a pasta maker from someone who was getting rid of it. It is fun though time-consuming, but the pasta is SO much tastier! My kids like cranking that thing.

I haven't taken the time to figure out how much it costs to make a batch of pasta though. If anyone wants to figure it out, it requires 2 cups flour, 3 eggs and 1 tsp salt.

Anonymous said...

"Why not just get an electric kettle (kumkum) that boils water quickly, pour boiling in a pot and cook the pasta that way- cuts out about 20 minutes of pasta cooking time- and seems a lot more palatable than freezing it."

That was my question.

In college, before I lived in an apartment style dorm (with my own kitchen), I had a single room in which I kept multiple electric kettles. One of them was actually my macaroni and cheese electric kettle, and was very much milchig by the time I was done with it. Having a separate kumkum and pot sounds much more polite, though.

Ariella's blog said...

Just for the record, I wish to point out that what the sticker says may not be what your neighbors paid. I sometimes get a little jolt when I see the sticker for over $4 on a box of cereal in my own cabinet. But I didn't pay that. I got it on sale either for "buy one get one free" or some other offer that brought the price to $2 and change per pound. And the chalav Yisrael ice cream with the sticker price of $7.99 may have been bought on sale for $5.99, $4.99 or even (rarely, though) $3.99. And BTW my husband (who is not chalav Yisrael) declares the Mehadrin Mocha Fudge flavor to be the equal of any non-chalav Yisrael ice-cream.

Anonymous said...

Abbi: If you want dinner in 30 minutes or less, 20 minutes for pasta is too long, so you learn to push the limits of the freezer ;)
I'm trying to make an example of how to make dinner without using too many processed foods in a very very short time. I make my pasta fresh unless it's an emergency.
Profk; I've never tried to freeze cooked rice, I'll have to try it, thanks for the idea!

About breakfast cereals: I think of them as a necesary evil. The fastest way to east breakfast, but very very expensive (if you compare their price per pund to other foods it is really really expensive even if it's on sale)
I often make my own granola at home. It comes down to a third or a quarter of the price of the store bought, plus you can make it a lot healthier and less sugary. It takes 10 minute preparation, 30 minutes in the oven and it keeps fresh in the refrigerator (I'm sure it can be frozen too, but my freezer is full of frozen pasta and watermelon to try it). Search for granola recipes online

Anonymous said...

I admit I buy cereal at Trader Joe's. Those Barbara cereals are so healthy I don't mind if my kids make a lunch or dinner meal out of them occasionally. They are decently priced when you compare to Supermarket regularly priced cereals and way more nutritious.

As far as the food bill goes, I know what my demons are:

1) way too much animal protein per meal (cheese or meat). It's just so easy to cook!

2) about 5 gallons of AJ/week

3) once a week a prepared food like frozen pizza or bourekas to get through erev Shabbos or Sunday afternoon.

4) my family drinks nothing but seltzer (other than AJ and also some milk). We easily spend $10/week on just SELTZER.

4) Related to #1, I hate to cook -- preparing veggies is particularly odious to me -- and have never been able to successfully cook and store meals in my freezer. I'm not sure why not.

BTW -- Cook's Illustrated has a very large cookbook on cooking meals ahead of time. They have actually cooked mac & cheese about 100 different ways in order to figure out the exact recipe to use if you plan to freeze it. Apparently it requires extra liquid because the freezer dries it out, etc.

Anonymous said...

Quick minestrone soup:
Saute 2 sliced carrots, 1 cubed potato, 1 chopped onion and 2 chopped garlic cloves for two minutes. Add 1 can rinsed kidney beans, 2 cups plain tomato sauce or marinara sauce, and water to taste (some like the soup thick, some like it soupy), and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook about 25 minutes. Now add 1/4 pound of small pasta and 1/2 cup of frozen peas. Cook until pasta is just done and serve.

The point here is not to tell me that you don't like kidney beans or that homemade marinara sauce is morally superior to ShopRite's OU sauce in a jar, but to get easy, inexpensive meal ideas. You can add or substitute different vegetables, whole wheat pasta if you prefer, even other grains such as barley. Per serving I think this soup is cheap, plus it's very easy, and it's homemade.

Anonymous said...

1) I have the same problem, so I try to make at least one meal a week vegan or almost vegan, just to force myself to not rely on animal protein.

3) If you know you need things like bourekas to survive certain days, you can prepare them and freeze them. I have done that with potato bourekas and they came out a lot better than the store ones. I made close to fifty in one batch and froze them.

4) would something like this help you?
It would same a tiny bit of math to figure out if it's worth it for you.

Do you know the name or ISBN on the cooks ilustrated book? It sounds very interesting!

Anonymous said...


DEFINITELY get a seltzer machine. There are good relatively cheap machines that will allow you to make seltzer for a fraction of what you're paying now. We don't drink seltzer, but our neighbors do and swear by their machine (and the money they save).

Lion of Zion said...

my son and i drink mostly seltzer. i keep on saying i want to get a machine

SaraK said...

You can use your crockpot to cook frozen meats that you buy on sale. You can also use cheaper cuts of meats, because the long cooking time tenderizes the meat. This blog is awesome and many of her recipes are kosher or can be adapted for Kashrut.

Anonymous said...

Seltzer machine is a GREAT idea. It would certainly save us big $$$. I also like the make-ahead boureka idea. Thanks!

And Tesyaa, I can do your minestrone soup one better :-). 1 can pizza sauce, 1 bag frozen soup veg, 2 cups water in my rice cooker.

I love to cook stuff like soup in the rice cooker. It cooks faster than a crockpot and will eventually go off by itself even if there is liquid in there as is the case of soup.

Here is the full title of that Cook's Illustrated book:

The Best Make-Ahead Recipe (The Best Recipe) (Hardcover)
by Cook's Illustrated Magazine

The claim to fame of Cook's Illustrated is the extensive testing they do on not just recipes, but all kinds of kitchen-related activities. I recall seeing a reference to an article where they described their research on the best way to clean fruits/veggies. (answer: 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water beat plain water and soapy products)