Dear Lucy and Desmond,
This morning, after breakfast, you sat at the table with me when I pulled out this week’s ad for our grocery store. Lucy, you had your head buried in your well-worn copy of Rollergirl. Desmond, you were making your Power Rangers — the ones we bought at the thrift shop last week during their 50% off toy sale — jump from the table. “Cannonball smash!” you shouted as they fell into your hand-me-down Spiderman boots. We had cleared the breakfast table. You were both ready for school early, thanks to the new morning schedule we’ve been trying to pay attention to closely these days. It was a moment of calm.
Lucy, you looked up from your book and said, “What are you doing, Mama?” I showed you the four-page color ad for the foods on special sale this week at the store. “Oh, are we picking out what we want?” you asked me. I’m pretty sure you were hoping a Harry Potter lego set was on sale, so you could pull out the cash from your SAVE jar and buy it in fewer weeks than you had expected.
“Nope,” I said. “This helps us to decide what we need this week.”
I showed you the sales in produce. So unexciting for you, I’m certain. “Heirloom navel oranges are on sale this week. Normally, they’re $1.99 a pound this week but this week they’re 99 cents a pound. What does that mean?”
“They’re less expensive?” you asked.
“Yep. They are. By a lot. Do we eat oranges? How many oranges do we usually have on that fruit plate?” I pointed to the wide wooden platter we keep stocked with apples, oranges, and bananas, so snacks are easy.
“Two hundred thousand,” you said. (Oh, the lovely hyperbole of 8 years old.)
I laughed. “Well, not quite that much. But we usually eat at least 4 oranges a day here. Usually 6, since Daddy and I both have another one before we go to sleep. If we do the math, that means we need 42 oranges a week from December through March. I weighed one of those oranges at the store. They’re about .6 of a pound. So that means — .6 x 42 oranges — we eat about 25 pounds of oranges a week. At $1,99 a pound, we spend about $50 a week on oranges.”
You looked a little confused. That’s a lot of math in one sentence. You stuck with me, though.
“And that’s money well spent. Oranges are delicious, just the right amount of sweetness. All the vitamin C is great for us in the winter. So it’s a good idea to spend that money. But, if the oranges are half off right now, what does that mean?”
You thought about it. “We spend less money if we buy the same amount of oranges we normally buy?”
“Yep,” I said. “If they’re .99 a pound instead of $1.99 a pound, then we’ll spend only $25 for a week’s worth of oranges.”
You gave me your astonished look, mouth open.
“Big difference, right? And more than that, since we know we’re going to be eating oranges through March, we should buy a lot of oranges at this price. They’ll last for weeks. We know we’ll eat them. We could put some of them in the refrigerator in the garage to keep them cold, to make them last longer. So it’s a wise idea to buy a case of them at this price.”
At this point your dad was plucking out the little plastic figures out and convincing Desmond to put his feet into his boots. “And there’s a 5% discount at the store if you buy a case of something.”
“Right,” I told him, then turned back to you. “A case has 72 oranges.That’s about 43 pounds. So 72 oranges will cost us $43, plus another couple of dollars off for the case discount. If we bought those oranges at the regular price, it would be $85. That’s a big difference, isn’t it?” You nodded.
“Plus, if we know we are saving money, we can save more if we only eat 4 oranges a day instead of 6. If we do that, then we will have enough oranges in a case for 18 days. That’s almost 3 weeks. We’ll probably buy another case before the sale ends, to make sure we have enough oranges to last us through March at that price.”
Again you looked a little perplexed at all the math, but you stuck with me. “Hm. Okay. What do we do with the money we save?”
I laughed, knowing you wanted that Lego set. “It just means we spend less money on food overall, which is good. It’s a little game we play to make sure we have enough money for what we need, then we put some into savings. Like your SAVE jar.”
You pointed at the photograph of the chips on sale, a brand we have come to love for the occasional treat. “Could we buy those? And have hot dogs and chips for dinner one night this week?”
I gave you a squeeze, kissing your cheek. “You bet, kiddo. Let’s make those with that rainbow salad we like, since we have so much red cabbage right now. I’ll set up the dough to make the buns in the morning while you’re watching cartoons. We’ll have that Saturday night, when Daddy is at work. How does that sound?”
“Great!” you shouted in your Lucy-joyful voice. And then you grabbed that well-loved Beanie Boo your best friend gave you to babysit the day before and moved toward your backback sitting by the door.
It was a good morning.
Darling kids, your dad and I didn’t always used to be good at how we spend money on food. In fact, we’ve been pretty haphazard and downright wasteful, for years. When we first met, we fell in love through food. (And then we wrote a cookbook about it.) As writing recipes became our career, we started buying foods out of season, ingredients we didn’t really need, and whatever it took to create and photograph those recipes. That meant for weird and expensive shopping trips. Buying ingredients for particular recipes, one at a time, can cost far too much.
But more than that, we really used to love spontaneous trips to the grocery store. We shopped when we were hungry. We shopped and tried to meal plan in the aisles. We shopped as a way of loving each other. (“Have you ever tried walnut oil? Let’s get Greek feta and French feta to see which one we like better in that pasta.”) When you arrived, Lucy, we used to think of those Saturday mornings you would spend with your grandparents as our date time. We didn’t go out for coffee together. We went to the grocery store.
And then, Desmond, you came along, and we realized we were in an entirely different phase of our life. It took us awhile, but we adjusted. We’re more interested in feeding our family well, on a clear budget, than we are in flouncing down the aisles, pouncing on a tube of pre-made harissa for that organic chicken we threw into the basket.
I think we were an exaggerated form of how lots of people shop. Now that I’m working at the grocery store, I see two different kinds of shoppers. The bakery section, where I work sometimes, is right at the opening of the store. Some people always stop in the same place — that second table of baked goods, across from customer service. I used to think they needed help and I would ask them. Now I know these are the people pulling out their lists.
The other half of the people (and it’s pretty evenly split), stop there because they are hungry and they are madly eyeing the bakery department for scones or doughnuts before they go next to the deli for jo jo potatoes or breakfast burritos. Half of the people have large carts, with their canvas shopping bags folded neatly into one large one, hand-written list on the front section of the cart. The other half have little red baskets. By the time they reach the checkout — where I am working the other half of my time — their hunger has filled that red basket and they have 5 other items in their free arm. They’ll be back, later in the afternoon, at least once more.
That used to be us too.
In the last year, we changed our ways. No change happens fast. It was a little shift each week, first propelled by the fact that we weren’t earning nearly enough money by thinking of this website as our full-time job. The health insurance we had to pay as self-employed people was killing us. That’s why I got the job at the grocery store: to earn a little stable income and for the health insurance for the family. I end up loving it. Your dad started cooking at the restaurant to earn a little more. He’s happier than he has been in years. And suddenly, for the first time in your lives, both of your parents are working outside the house.
Strangely, it has made our lives more calm. I’m not sure you could ever understand what our work was before, especially if we were still in pajamas at 9 am. And if your dad and I want anything for you, besides giving and finding love in the world, it’s that you both know how to work hard to make life better for yourselves and other people. If you never see us work, you won’t know what work is. So we have jobs.
Your loving and grounded aunt Tita (not aunt by family but certainly in love) is the wisest woman I know. She has lived on a moderate income, as a teacher, with your uncle John as a painter, for more than 3 decades. We all seem to have chosen careers — writer, chef, teacher, artist — that are bound to pay us not much for our work. But we love our work. This year, I turned to Tita and asked her to teach me all her ways of budgeting. As you know, she and John are leaving today for a month in Spain, a trip in honor of her 65th birthday, a trip for which they have been saving for a decade. The woman knows how to save. She knows how to live.
I have learned so much from her and so many other wise women and men in my life. And I want to teach it to you.
That’s why I’m writing to you. And why I’m sharing it on this site, public as it is. We can’t be the only ones who need to learn how to spend less money on food and still live joyfully. And so, here we go.
I’ll be sharing plenty of concrete tips with you in the months ahead. But we have to start first with the place that matters most about being on a budget: your mindset.
If you feel deprived if you can’t have whatever food you want, whenever you want, then I’m going to gently suggest you have the wrong mindset. There are so many people in this world — including quite a few of them who shop at the store where I work — who cannot afford much food. 1 out of 5 kids goes to bed hungry every night in this country. 1 out of 5. That means you know some of them at your school. They are getting the breakfast from the cafeteria when they first get to school, the breakfast that intrigues you, Lucy. It’s entirely possible that their families can’t afford much food, which is rising in price every month. So free or reduced breakfast and lunch at your school are the main meals of their day.
My hope is that we’ll raise you with these principles about being on a budget clearly enough that you will want to do more for those folks. If you live on a budget for food, and you earn enough money that you don’t have to worry that much about money, then you can budget money for giving to other people on a regular basis. Put back the French feta and give that money to the food bank instead. We’re in this together.
But if money is tight, as it is for us now and so many people in this country and the world, then focus on food. We can’t control the price of gas. We have no say in whether or not we’ll have to run the heater because it has been a particularly cold winter here. We don’t get to negotiate the cost of the internet service or water. But we can develop a mindset about being on a budget. Make it a game. Make it a challenge. I know how much you love challenges, Lucy. You’re just the right kind of stubborn when given a task that’s hard. And your brother is always learning from you, so I imagine he’ll have that mindset too.
I want you to feel good if you become adept at being on a budget. We have some weird values in this country where we live. So many of us crave things to make us feel good. And so, we feel deprived if we can’t buy more things. We think there must be something lacking in us if we can’t buy a mound of presents for Christmas. But I’m telling you now — this mindset doesn’t bring you happiness.
You don’t need much to be happy. The four of us sitting together at the table for dinner, and a game of Yahtzee afterward, then a Beyonce dance party after? The dinner cost us about $15. The Yahtzee cost $3 at Granny’s, the thrift store on the island where we go every week for your toys and books. The time together, the 4 of us, on a Thursday night, plus whatever friends join us that week? There truly is nothing better. We don’t need another thing.
More than that, however, is this. Think about the way you spend money on food as your relationship with food. Do you buy food haphazardly? Do you feel deprived in other parts of your life so you tell yourself that you deserve that expensive dinner out at what turns out to be a pretty mediocre restaurant? Do you buy a lot of chips and soda and gluten-free doughnuts at the last moment because you feel not-so-great about other parts of your life, so you need the comfort? That’s not a good relationship with food.
As we have already told you, your dad and I fell in love with each other almost immediately. We both knew at the end of the first date that we had met the right person for us. It took us two more dates to admit it to each other. And we have a good relationship, nearly 11 years later. There have been hard patches and plenty of times we needed to work out stuff. But we do work it out. And we’re much stronger for the broken places. I’m hoping that the fact that you see us loving each other, joking all the time, supporting each other and listening, means that you will choose people who are good for you someday.
But the fact is, I had a lot of not-great relationships before I met your dad. I stumbled and had crushes on men wholly not good for me. He pined and spent time lonely and made mistakes. We found each other at the right time.
Look, at some point, you’ll be both be teenagers and beyond. (Goodness, that seems unbelievable now that you are 8 and 2.) At some point, you’ll fall madly in crush/love with someone and not be able to think about anything else. You’ll go through the high of huge love, the drama of a heart-stomping breakup, the weeping entries in your journals (or messages on whatever app is in demand at the moment), the wishing for more. It’s biological, this sweep through dramatic emotional relationships. I’ll be here when you need to talk.
So it’s okay if you spend some of your adult life splurging on not-great food and eating out more often than you should. As I so often tell you, this is not about being perfect. What in this world is perfect? to quote Mary Oliver. It’s only about being good enough.
And a good-enough relationship with food, it turns out, is the same as a good-enough relationship with another person. Love. Clear boundaries. Lots of checking in and talking. Beautifully mundane. Mistakes. Sticking with it, even when it’s hard. Persistence. Small treats, on a regular basis. Knowing that what you are doing is tough work and messy and real and absolutely worth it. Having a clear goal in mind. Being willing to learn, every single day.
Be the person who stops at the front of the store to pull out your list, your grocery bags ready to be filled with good, nourishing food and more of what you need than what you want. That’s not only a great relationship with food for your budget but also for your body, the environment, the people around you, and your mind.
Make sure there is chocolate on a regular basis, too.
I love you both,
Let’s start with one change that anyone on a budget can make: stop buying bottled salad dressing.
Vinaigrettes and dressings are so easy to make — the one we are giving you is here is more complicated than most and it still doesn’t take much time — that it’s a shame to buy one in a bottle. Besides, the ones in bottles are not only expensive, but they’re also full of gums and preservatives to keep them shelf-stable. You can do better.
Easiest good salad dressing in the world? Put 1/4 cup of any good acid — lime or lemon juice, any vinegar you like, or a combination — into a jam jar. Add a teaspoon of mustard, a teaspoon of honey, salt and pepper, and about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of oil, depending on how sharp you want the vinaigrette. Put on the lid tight and shake it all up. Salad dressing.
This one is for when you want a slightly more complex flavor. I love the sweetness of the honey softening the apple cider vinegar with the tang of the rosemary. If you don’t have a blender, use that jam jar.
We mostly use olive oil for our dressings, in part because we buy it by the gallon at a restaurant wholesale store. But use whatever oil you can afford. There’s nothing wrong with canola if it’s what you have. You can also blend canola and oil or grapeseed oil. That is up to you.
If fresh rosemary is too expensive right now, you can use 1 teaspoon of dried rosemary for the fresh rosemary here.
A good salad dressing is great for greens and slaws but also on grains, roasted vegetables, roast chicken or fish, and as a dip for fresh vegetables. This is the kind of batch recipe we make for Feeding Our People, our recipe subscription service for people who love to cook in community. Having something like this in the refrigerator makes simple meals delicious, all week long.
Cook the shallot. Set a small pot over medium heat. Pour in 2 teaspoons of oil. When the oil is hot, add the sliced shallot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the shallot has caramelized — warm brown everywhere but not burnt — 10 to 15 minutes. Add the rosemary and cook until the scent releases itself into the room, about 1 minute.
Pour in the apple cider vinegar and stir up the shallots and rosemary. Add the honey and stir. Simmer the vinegar for a moment then take it off the heat.
Make the vinaigrette. Pour the vinegar mixture into the blender. Add the mustard. Put on the lid. Turn the heat on low. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the remaining oil until it is fully incorporated.
Taste the vinaigrette. Want it sharper? Add more vinegar. Softer? More oil. Sweeter? More honey. Make this yours.
Pour the vinaigrette into a jar and save it in the refrigerator to use it any time you want.