allowing the budget to change

Dear Lucy and Desmond,

Twelve years ago from the day I am writing this letter to you, I sat down at my computer and started typing. I had no idea that the act of opening my white laptop and typing the words “gluten-free girl” into the header of a website would change everything for me. But that’s the way of life — rarely do you know that you’re going down a different road when you start walking. Every “important” decision I have made has started with spontaneity and some feeling that this might be something to explore. No more. The decisions I fret over have been paths that ended in stumps and rocks. So don’t fret. Keep walking and talking and see where it leads.

When I started this site, on May 30th, 2005, you weren’t here yet. I met your dad a little less than a year later. I certainly never, ever imagined that I would be writing cookbooks someday. Or meeting so many people across this country who would tell me that my work had helped them. I dreamed of kids, at 38, but I mostly thought that chance had passed. Certainly, that day, I didn’t imagine you two sitting on my lap, listening to me read you books and laughing. The life we live now didn’t exist then.

Newly diagnosed with celiac and starting to feel good for the first time in my life, I started to write. Writing is what has always mattered to me most. To quote Wallace Stegner, from a piece that made me sit up straight this morning, “You take something that is important to you, something you have brooded about. You try to see it as clearly as you can and fix it in a transferable equivalent.” That’s what I have been trying to do here, these past 12 years, in both essays and recipes. Take something that matters and find the words that will help you understand that something the way I do. It’s hard work. I’m not done. I’m never going to stop writing.

For months during the winter and spring of 2005, my friend Dorothy called me Sick Girl, since I had been so ill. I’m glad you haven’t seen me like that. It was terrible. I couldn’t eat much. I had no energy. I was always in pain. I feel such empathy for any mom or dad out there trying to take care of kids and feeling that horrible. I’m glad I hadn’t met you yet. When I was diagnosed with celiac, Dorothy rejoiced with me. “Now you’re the gluten-free girl!” So I typed gluten-free girl into the header. Why not? I liked the alliteration. I never thought anyone would read it. That decision started a chain of actions and reactions that has created the life I live now. I’m grateful for that day.

When I had been so sick, I was living on baby food and warm olive bread from the bakery down the street. Who knew that bread was what had been making me so ill? After I recovered, I lived on vegetables from the farmers’ market and meats from the grocery store across the street, then added beans and eggs and a few stiff baked goods from the one bakery in Seattle that made gluten-free treats. I didn’t eat out for the first 3 months. Then, as I began cooking every day and writing down the recipes for this site — recipes written in my own idiosyncratic form, mostly moments after eating them — I started going to the grocery store every day. When I met your dad, we went to the store as date time, grabbing whatever appealed in the moment. When we were writing cookbooks, we often had to buy produce out of season and multiple times in one week as we tested recipes again and again. When you were little, Lucy, we took you to restaurants all the time. (We still talk about the time an older woman at Bouchon in Napa asked if she could take your picture, because she was so impressed by “…the gourmet baby,” eating scallops and boudin blanc.) When you grew older, your dad started working in a restaurant again, so we ate there so you could see him at least once a day. After you arrived, Desmond, we tightened our belts and put ourselves on a pretty strict budget. We love you, little guy, but you’re at that handful of an age that makes eating in restaurants not much fun anymore. Soon, you’ll sit in a chair and not need to run off until the food comes, so we’ll go back to adventures at the table together. Right now, we go to the grocery store every Sunday afternoon to stock up on peanut butter and jelly, strawberries and apples, dairy-free yogurt, and sliced ham and havarti for Lucy’s sandwiches. Our grocery list is fairly familiar, mostly the same each week, other than the seasonal produce. In another couple of years, we might be more daring again.

You’ll notice that in these letters I’m writing to you about creating a budget for your food life, I haven’t talked about numbers. I won’t tell you an amount you should be spending each month or a percentage of your salary that should go to food. That’s not my way. If you are, as adults, anything like you are now, then neither one of you will be the kind of person who likes a set way of being and wants to stick to it for decades.

There’s a woman who comes into the grocery store every Monday morning. She’s lovely, articulate and thoughtful. I like talking with her every week. She comes through the line where I bag her groceries a few moments before 10 am. That means she drops her kids off at school, then drives to the store immediately after. She brings 7 sturdy white canvas bags, which she told me she bought at Target 15 years ago. Every week, as we talk, I note that she buys the precise amount of food to fill those 7 bags full. One week, I noticed with amazement that I needed an extra paper bag. When I mentioned it to her, she said, “You know, I noticed that my son has been going back in for seconds after dinner every night. He must be in a growth spurt, because I need more food this week.” This woman knows her kids, knows her pantry, and knows how to shop on a budget. I admire her.

I will never be like her.

Instead, I have a pretty clear idea of what we need each week. Sometimes it’s 2 bags of food. Sometimes it’s 8. (That varies with recipe testing, of course, because our food needs are not like people who do not write cookbooks.) We like to play with our food more than most people.

This is what I want to tell you:  your budget for food will change as you change. You’ll go through phases where you eat out often. And then you might want to stay at home and hibernate. You might want to travel. You might go through a phase of diving deep in Filipino food or learning to bake pies. You might have a consistent budget but your health takes a bad turn and you don’t want to eat. Be willing to change how you eat and shop with each phase of your life.

Here’s what I recommend to you: make a good, clear budget in your mind and on paper, something reasonable based on the fierce and wonderful need for good food in your lives and what you are earning that month. Don’t dictate a dollar amount to yourself, arbitrarily. Have clear boundaries. And within those boundaries is freedom.

I love this succinct, scientific answer from Neil DeGrasse Tyson on how food creates the energy that keeps us alive.. We spend our lives eating food. You bring it in and the energy is available to you to keep your body at nearly 100 degrees, which is where we need to be to function in the world. This is why we eat food. When you think of it that way, eating good food is truly the most important action we can take, three times a day. And what luck that it can be so joyful. Let’s enjoy this.

We choose to not be penurious, to pinch every penny, to buy the cheapest food we can find. That’s not the point of our lives. We choose. That’s the key. We choose the food that suits us right now. And then we allow ourselves to change.

I hope the same for you: conscious choice, joy, surprise, a constant honest conversation with yourself and the ones you love the most, recalibrating what you do based on who you have become. And a lot of great food, shared with people around the table, laughing and feeling loved.

All my love,








8 comments on “allowing the budget to change

  1. Ilsa

    Thank you for this post. It came when I really needed it to be okay that this month’s budget went a bit over. This month there were graduation and birthday treats to make which in turn required more, butter, eggs, sugar, and of course chocolate. I am blessed to live where I have the option and ability to bake for those I love. Thank you, happy eating and sharing.

  2. Sue Hawkins

    Shauna, you write in such a beautiful, real way that it is a always a pleasure to read every new post. Your focus on thoughtful consumption feels so relevant right now, and I love how you encourage us to find our own path. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. rebecca

    Is that a crumble? Recipe please?

    You must be a lot more disciplined than I am. I have to give myself a hard boundary. I like the envelope method…I put the money in an envelope and when it’s gone, it’s gone. It makes me accountable because like you, I love good food. If I use a debit or credit card, it’s too easy to overspend.

    Love this blog and I’ll be around to read more of your wisdom.

  4. Tammy

    Sometimes I’m completely on budget and other times I slip. That’s life. I do much better than I used and I don’t succumb to junky stuff just because it’s labelled “gluten free” like I did in the past. I buy in season, use coupons, visit farmer’s markets, compare prices but every so often I do splurge on something special.

  5. Marie

    Budgets are important for sure. When I was scraping by in earlier years, I actually had an envelope labeled “extras”. I’d plan for rent, utilities, gas, and food. If a purchase wasn’t from one of those categories, it had to come from the extras envelope. When that was gone, it was gone. I also trained myself to leave my credit card at home. Too tempting.

    I look forward to reading more from you! How’s that book of essays going?

  6. Annie

    Wonderful post. I am a household of one and a few years ago I quit a well-paid job to go back to school and work in a startup. My income was low, but I discovered the joy of cooking and soon my food budget became my main expense after rent and bills. People were shocked how I could afford to shop at the best grocer in town, but it was as simple as that I choose that as my priority. With no dependents, I had the freedom to chop and change the food I brought home, and it became how I spent my time as well as my money; I no longer cared for clothes shopping or nights on the town, I took pleasure in mastering homemade pasta and recreating Indian curries. My spice rack became my jewellery collection, my three-hour perusals of the market and subsequent hauling home of goodies on foot became my favourite workout. Every month I would do my books and grimace at how much I was spending on food. But the feeling was fleeting and I’d tell myself it was an investment in sustenance and self-development: I’ve learnt so much from my cooking endeavours, including how wonderfully freeing it is to make from scratch instead of buying packaged products as much as possible. I recently quit work altogether to focus on my general self-development for a while, and living with my parents now I want to continue contributing to what goes in, and comes out, of the kitchen, if not in money but in the skills and recipes I’ve gathered over those few budgeted-but-indulgent years exploring my single kitchen.

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