Archive for May, 2013

Costco: Bulk Savings or Excess Consumption?

I saw this article on How To Get The Most Out of Your Costco Membership and got pretty excited– we have a Costco membership and I have always wondered if it is worth it, considering one of my superpowers is the ability to leave Costco at $50/less and I go typically every six weeks, give or take.

Of course, the very first savings tip- get the Gold Star Membership so you get 2% cash back- is only valuable if you spend over $2750 a year at Costco. (If a Gold Star Membership is $55 more a year, and you get 2% cash back, then I figure if x is what you spend a year, .02x ≥ 55 for it to be worth it. WHO SAYS YOU DON’T NEED ALGEBRA??)

As long as I’m doing the math, though, I thought I’d run through what I spend at Costco and then add up my savings at the end of the year. If they are equal or greater to $55, well, then, our memberhip’s worth it financially. Environmentally–  although the bulk buying you do at Costco is not the ultimate in environmental friendliness- almost everything there is still packaged- it is an improvement over regular packaging. And I’m all about small realistic change. As for health– the frozen waffles don’t have any artificial colors at least? Let’s get real: I am never making and freezing dozens of whole wheat waffles at a time no matter how much healthier it would be for my kids. (OK, maybe if I had a chest freezer. Never say never.)

Costco Haul, 5/28/13

Costco Haul, 5/28/13

Purchased at Costco yesterday:

  • Tortillas $5.89/50
  • Waffles $6.99/60
  • Strawberry Jelly $6.99/64 oz
  • Detergent $13.99/186 oz

The Tortilla Land fresh tortillas are a refined flour indulgence for the whole family– although they only contain flour, salt, sugar and (ugh canola) oil.  (The whole wheat version contains Calcium Propionate, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate, and Citric Acid but I’ve never seen them or the corn ones in stores anyway.) The jelly and the waffles are for the kids.

So to compare I checked out the tortillas at Sprouts (they also sell them at Whole Foods but I didn’t want Costco to have an unreasonable price advantage) and the waffles, jelly (which is also organic and reduced sugar, so not an even match) and detergent at Trader Joe’s.

  • Tortillas $4.19/12
  • Waffles $1.99/8
  • Strawberry jelly $3.29/15.2 oz
  • Detergent $9.99/128 fl oz

Then I did the math. I figured out how much each would cost me if I bought the equivalent amount I got at Costco- so:

  • 50 tortillas at $0.35/tortilla=$17.50
  • 60 waffles=$14.93
  • Jelly=$13.85
  • Detergent= $14.52– not much savings on that one, Costco!

Overall the same groceries that cost $33.86 pre-tax at Costco would have cost $60.80 elsewhere, so I saved $26.94.  One more trip like this and I’m almost at the $55 annual cost of membership- and like I said, I go about every six weeks or so.

So do you have to spend a lot of money at Costco to save money? Heck no. What’s the secret to saving money at Costco? For me, it involves only buying staples. It helps that I don’t buy much processed food– putting most of the Costco groceries off limits anyway.

Do you have a warehouse club membership? Do you think you get your money’s worth?


Using up the CSA Haul- Week of 5/20

There are a bunch of things I like about our CSA, but my favorite thing is that it ensures we’re eating local, seasonal fruits and vegetables more often. Although I’ve been a regular at the neighborhood farmer’s market for years, I tend to plan my week’s meals and then pick up the produce, which means I don’t always buy what’s in season– if I am not expecting it I don’t buy it because I don’t know how I’m going to use it and I don’t want to waste it.  And I am not one of those people who can just go out with no list and come home with a week’s worth of produce- I am a planner and not a huge improviser in the kitchen.

So the CSA deliveries are fantastic- they arrive on Thursday, which gives me time to plan the next week’s menu and then get whatever fill-ins I need at the market (usually seasonal fruit for snacks) or grocery store.  Since joining a year ago, I have become an expert at using every last thing that is delivered (which is probably not a huge bragging right since I live in Southern California, so it’s not like I have to endure a winter of turnips).

A few things that help:

  • my CSA lets you select items you don’t want. We have a lemon tree and orange trees so I never want citrus. You can also preview the upcoming delivery, so if you are totally burnt out on fennel you can remove it from the list when you see it’s in the box yet again. (Sometimes this backfires because you don’t know what the substitute will be- the week we had 2 lbs of bok choy was particularly vexing- but again, you’re never stuck with a box full of turnips.)
  • I keep a Pinterest board  devoted to the topic. One year in, it is super helpful (and interesting) to see what I thought I could use gypsy peppers for last year. (This year I am making pepper vinegar.)
  • I have a good repertoire of vegetarian/mostly vegetarian cookbooks to turn to. Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook is my current favorite, but Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Suppers and Vegetable Soups are indispensable. I also like Jack Bishop’s A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen, especially for what I consider vegetarian recipes for non-vegetarians- it’s very accessible, and the book’s organization by season makes it easier to plan seasonally.

So here is what was in this week’s box, and what I did with it:

-3 avocados- ate for lunch, either on a grilled cheese sandwich (with caramelized onions) or just sliced on an Ak-Mak cracker with salt.

-2 onions- used in pasta and risotto (see below) and the sandwich (above)

-2 pints strawberries- roasted and turned into ice cream, eaten for breakfast.

-1 head leaf lettuce- a salad from the Food Matters cookbook. (Lettuce is a challenge for me because I am not always a green salad person, but the Food Matters cookbook has some good ones. I picked up a tomato and two slices of prosciutto for this one and then used leftover feta and cantaloupe in place of the peaches and watermelon, and some chives and basil from my garden for the dressing. It was fantastic.)

Fruity Chef Salad with Mixed Herb Dressing

-4 zucchini- Lemony Zucchini Risotto, also from the Food Matters cookbook. I do have two zucchini left and was going to make zucchini bread but may just use them in place of the mushrooms in this recipe for lunch.

-red potatoes- potato leek gratin which gets bonus points for using up the end pieces of bread. I picked up two pork chops to go alongside this- which was a major indulgence at $12/pork chop.

At these prices we can probably have a full piece pork or beef once a month– which is probably fine, healthwise and environmentally. (A pork chop, at about 8 oz, is almost three servings of red meat. So from this menu, one pork chop and one slice of prosciutto= 4 servings of red meat for the week, or just over half a serving a day. The most recent Nutrition Action Healthletter had a big cover story on six reasons to eat less red meat- recommending going as low as 2 servings a week- so I’ll skipping the red meat altogether the next two weeks. (Because I plan on having some barbeque and maybe a burger when I am in Fort Worth the next week. If you’re going to eat it, make it count!)

-green beans- Spicy-sweet green beans, which I served with pan-fried tofu. I used some of the onion in place of shallot here, too.(I am on a big Bittman kick if you can’t tell.)

-fennel- Pasta with Caramelized Fennel and Onion. I added cream to this and it is hands down my favorite fennel recipe of all time.

-Fuji apples- snacks.

No vegetable left behind this week– phew! But again, not too hard to do with what we got in our box. Next week is a non-delivery week, so to keep the grocery bill down I’ll try to use pantry staples (lentils, rice) leftovers from the freezer (soup, beans) and maybe roast a chicken one night.

Does your CSA box bring out your inner Iron Chef? Are you a planner or an improviser in the kitchen? How efficiently do you use your produce?

Do I Need It: Sparkling Water

“Most people are familiar with S.Pellegrino’s iconic bottle, but not everybody knows its hidden secrets. The beauty of its shape, called “Vichy”, its four labels and its green glass, together with its unmistakable Red Star, are all important emblems connecting the brand to its heritage and values”-

Here’s something I once totally did: get into a Twitter argument with G. Gordon Liddy about bottled water. I am against it, for reasons both environmental  and moral. G. Gordon Liddy is very much for it and views any suggestion that you should even consider reducing your use of bottled water as an affront to personal freedom, America, etc. I do not think I made much of a case with him but I did leave the conversation quite convinced that G. Gordon Liddy is the craziest. (Which I already thought anyway- I read the dude’s autobiography.)

Anyway. I don’t drink bottled water in plastic, ever, but I do indulge in a glass of San Pellegrino with dinner. It’s Italian. It comes in a glass bottle. It’s only $14 for a case at Costco. A simple treat, right? Maybe not.

One thing I am doing is evaluating some of the things I think of as “needs”- starting with my grocery staples. And San Pellegrino seemed like a good first thing to evaluate, because obviously I don’t need it. But on the other hand, some treats are okay, and I wanted to know if this was a treat I could, in good conscience, continue to indulge in.

Budget-wise, it seems totally fine. $14 every 6 weeks or so is not a huge proportion of our grocery budget. And since it’s in glass, I thought the environmental impact might be live-able, too. Think again, Spector. A bottle of San Pellegrino travels about 6,000 miles to get to Los Angeles (I am not doing the math but figure San Francisco and LA are close enough). And that glass bottle is heavy- weighing more than the water inside- so it takes plenty of fuel to get here.

Not only that, but San Pellegrino is owned by Nestle, which is not a company I want to support in terms of its water business.  So  it’s in the budget, but not environmentally or morally sound. Scratching the Pellegrino was a no-brainer– especially after learning the water in that bottle is carbonated after it is bottled. There go my fantasies of drinking a fancy mineral water straight from some sparkling spring. (I don’t think those are the hidden secrets of San Pellegrino their website refers to.)

So, no luxury beverages for me? We’ll see. I still drink plenty of coffee and iced tea, and during lemon season get to drink plenty of fresh squeezed lemonade (distance traveled to my kitchen: a few dozen feet, maybe?) I think I’ll survive. A soda stream seems tempting but also unnecessary.

What’s your beverage of choice? Also, do you think G. Gordon Liddy has me on some sort of hit list?

Reading Log: “Is It Time to Bag The Plastic?”

I read articles like this and my smug-ometer goes up into the Gwyneth zone. I mean, really. People are still using plastic bags? (Kidding! I am not judging you plastic bag users. OK maybe a little bit.)

Key points I found interesting:

  • plastic bags can’t be recycled in general recycling. (And if you put them in your regular recycling, they will jam up the sorting machines and even damage them. And they ain’t cheap to fix.)
  • New York City’s annual plastic bag toll- $10 million a year, 100,000 tons of plastic bags in landfills.
  • Volume of plastic bags in landfills: soaring exponentially
  • Bag taxes and bans are the most effective way to reduce plastic bag consumption– but no one likes them.

As a long time plastic bag avoider, here are some tips to make it easier remember your own bags:

  • Shop at stores that give you a bag credit. (This only helps if you are a cheapskate like me- but Whole Foods and Sprouts both give 5 cents credit for each bag. Ralphs gives you Ralphs Rewards points which is BS since I never rack up enough in a month to get a gas discount- bring back the 5 cents bag credit, Ralphs!  Trader Joe’s lets you enter into a drawing for free groceries which I have never won but which I fantasize about like some people fantasize about winning the lotto. I imagine the sesame honey cashew binge I will go on and it’s a heck of a motivator.)
  • Keep bags in your car/bike basket/main means of transportation at all time. I have not bought a reuseable grocery bag in– ever?– because they hand them out as freebies at conferences and whatnot. Anyway, I keep them in my car trunk and even if I forget to bring them in to the store I can still skip the plastic bag- I just tell the checker to put the groceries straight into the cart and bag them when I get to my car. Easy.
  • Buy once, use less. I keep a Riesenthal reuseable shopping bag in my handbag at all times. It folds up to about the size of a packet of tissues and keeps you from getting caught buying something without a bag to put it in. I like the kind that folds up and has the elastic strap more than the one that folds into a pocket- less to fuss with.
  • Just say no. A lot of times, like if I have misjudged how many reusable bags I will need on a grocery run or if I’m getting a flat of berries at the Farmer’s Market, I’ll get offered an extra bag. I am fine carrying that extra box of cereal or holding the berries- just say no!

And one extreme tip from my friend Amy, who is on a mission to go totally plastic free:

  • Save old bread bags and reuse in place of plastic bags when buying bulk items or produce. (I have produce bags but they are often in use and/or in the wash- so I tend to get my produce loose. But I also do have plastic bread bags each week because I am not going to bake my own sandwich bread when House of Bread and Homeboy Industries do such a good job…. and while this tip smacks of Depression-era frugal lunacy, it does keep you from using plastic bags for your produce or your bulk beans.)

How many plastic bags come into your house each week– and how far are you willing to go to reduce your bag consumption? Would a bag ban make you change your ways or would you not even notice?

Peer Pressure: Cupcake Wars

Angry Cupcake

Angry Cupcake

My kids attend/ed a wonderful preschool that I love in every way except one– the holiday extravaganza gift exchanges. (You know the ones I mean. The type where parents give every other kid in the class a goodie bag for Valentine’s Day, and Easter, and Halloween, and St. Patrick’s Day, and Christmas, and probably this year some overachiever will give everyone a Memorial Day gift bag with an American flag and whatever the most patriotic candy is.)  I am pretty good about not participating- we do cards at Valentine’s Day and that’s it, because who cares? My kids haven’t noticed and if other parents are resenting the lack of a mini candy bar and Oriental Trading Company toy for their kid I’ll give them $2.

The class parties, though, are another matter. It’s hard to not participate but man alive, there are so many of them. And they all require paper goods and extra snacks and cupcakes, all store bought. (I once signed up for healthy snack and thought I would just bring in some apples and oranges and cut them there and it was fine except for the one parent who sniffed at me because “healthy snack means CRACKERS or STRING CHEESE.” Apparently a child will be majorly malnourished if they only have an apple and a cupcake in between breakfast and lunch? No, I am not still bitter.) So what I am saying is, I pretty much just sign up for paper goods and am done with it. (I figure they are using paper plates regardless so the net environmental impact is slim. )

Today, though, they were celebrating James’ birthday (which is actually in June, but no child goes uncelebrated! This is nice for James especially since his mom is normally such a grump) and I was on the hook for cupcakes. I’ve read about other parents going to elaborate lengths to comply with school regulations while bringing in a healthy, fun treat but I had work to do during the party and also my kid had been asking to bring in cupcakes for a month.


Not Pleased With Prospect of Cupcake-Less Party

So the forces of the cultural norms of the preschool combined with my own kid’s wants led me to buy $12 worth of cupcakes. I think the cupcakes are junk and full of chemicals, and I don’t know why they all have to come with plastic rings on top of them now, but– it’s not a battle I’m picking. Soon enough he will be in elementary school and I will reap the benefits of a summer birthday- homemade cakes for life, kid!

What’s your stance on school treats? Am I just a big buzz kill?


Recently I downloaded the Buycott app, intrigued by the prospect of boycotting products that profit Monsanto and the Koch Brothers. Of course, the joke that went along with that was that you’d wind up buying nothing at all. And I thought– well, is that a bad thing?

A whole host of forces have converged to make me want to consume less over the past few years. So this here blog is going to be my attempt at chronicling my successes and failures in consumption, as well as examining what consumption means to me. I am a pretty normal suburban mom– we are not going to go zero waste or live off the grid– but I do want to be more mindful of what we consume. I worry I am going to get absolutely insufferable about this, I am not going to lie. But look at my reasons:

  • Environmental. I come by my environmentalist streak via my mother, who has been bringing her own cloth bags to the grocery store for 20something years and was recycling long before it was curbside. (Jan’s a trendsetter, what can I say?) Obviously, the less you consume the less waste you generate and the better it is for the planet. But I don’t think I realized until reading The View From Lazy Point just how harmful the manufacturing of all the products we consume is. (And how unnatural our consumption rates have become.)
  • Health/Wellness I have been eliminating processed food from my diet for the past six months, inspired by 100 Days of Real Food, Food Matters (and the other recent work of Mark Bittman), Michael Pollan and Michael Moss, etc. I am quite convinced that highly processed food is unhealthy and a mostly plant-based, real food diet is best. It’s easy enough for *me* to eat that way but working on my family (which includes two children who would prefer to live off the Trader Joe’s snack aisle) is difficult. I’m looking to strike the balance between throwing up my hands and letting them live on granola bars and being the crazy mom who feeds her kids nothing but lentils. So for them, not eliminating junk but minimizing it.
  • Financial. We started using the You Need A Budget method last year and I am a drink-the-Koolaid kind of person with just about everything and this in particular. I read the blog regularly and listen to the podcast and even took an investment course. While I think the idea of saving money by not spending it is kind of wishful thinking, I do like the idea of spending your money purposefully. My hope is that continued and focused attention to some of the unnecessary consumption we do as a family will allow us to be more purposeful in our spending. (This is part of the “Do More.”)
  • Spiritual/emotional. One of the lessons I really struggle with is the fact that stuff doesn’t make me happy. Things are not a source of contentment. I know this from experience, I’ve read about this, and I believe this, but I forget this pretty much the minute a J.Crew sale email hits my inbox or I scroll through Pinterest. And even though I struggle with it, it still makes me bonkers to see my kids wrestle with it- when they start asking for another new toy two minutes after getting a new toy, or when they are asking for new shirts despite having a whole drawerful. I’m hoping that paying attention to this- choosing to not consume and trying to channel my time and energies into things that do lead to happiness- will make it easier to remember. (And give my children a foundation so they aren’t grownups thinking that next purchase will solve everything.)
  • Moral. I’ve put off reading Overdressed for a year now because honestly, I didn’t want to know. But the Bangladesh garment factory collapse was impossible to avoid– and for someone who has a closet full of $3-20 sale dresses, shirts and more from the Gap and Old Navy it’s hard not to feel my shopping habit has left me with blood on my hands. Like processed food consumption, I think restrictions on cheap fashion consumption will be easier to implement for me than for the kids.

It all seems so compelling written up like that. But it all falls apart on a single trip to Target. Coming up, some of the hows. (Probably one of the hows: never go to Target.) I’d love to hear your thoughts- are you reducing your consumption? Why?