Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Learning to accept my frugal fuel needs

I’m up to 56.6 pounds lost since Jan. 18. Which means it’s time to cut my food intake again, according to the Weight Watchers plan I‘m following.

It’s weird to come to grips with just how little food I really need to sustain the smallish frame underneath all that padding I’d accumulated. As a food lover, it’s been quite an adjustment. But as a frugal person, it’s like trading an SUV in on an economy car.

I’m learning to accept that food is fuel, but I like the idea of concocting my own formula for the most satisfying mix of nutrients. Among my favorite fuel components thus far:
    -- a tablespoon of peanut butter (2 points) with six chocolate chips (half a point), either on a spoon or a thin whole wheat bagel (2 points)
    -- half a cup of fat free refried beans (1 point) topped with salsa (O points) and maybe a tablespoon of salsa con queso (1 point)
    -- a three egg-white omelette with veggies and ketchup or salsa (1 point).
    -- raw spinach and half a slice of cheese on two slices of low-cal bread (2 points)

These components provide the framework of my daily fuel intake, and because I like all of these things a lot, I don’t feel deprived. I do sometimes set aside a few points for a special “spotlight” food, such as a cup of Great Value fat free ice cream with a tablespoon of peanut butter and a tablespoon of Hershey’s chocolate syrup (5 points) or a Wendy’s baked potato with margarine spread and reduced fat sour cream (7 points).

The funny thing is, the line between the fuel framework and the food taking the spotlight inside that “frame” can be blurry. Though I usually reserve my peanut butter ice cream sundae for Monday nights, after my Weight Watchers weigh-in, points-wise, it falls within accepted parameters for a meal. So this morning, when we were out of milk, I decided to add 1/4 cup of dry oatmeal “sprinkles” to my peanut butter sundae for a tasty six-point breakfast that, while technically a dessert, still provided protein, calcium, fiber and a smattering of vitamins. (Not to mention a whole lot of satisfaction.)

Framing foods can also be a great way to deconstruct them in such a way that they begin to lose their power over you. Take McDonald’s quarter pounder with cheese. Every once in a while I’ll have one of these on Monday nights, when I’ve saved most of my points for after weigh-in. But I don’t have them as much as I used to, because I’m no longer convinced this burger delivers 12 points’ worth of satisfaction.

The problem is the bun. I love bread, and could never deal with the Atkins diet for that reason. But I’ve always preferred breads with substance over poofy white clouds, and now whenever I find myself holding a quarter pounder, I can’t help thinking how many points you could cut out of this sucker with a whole grain thin bun. It would taste better, too.

And as for the burger itself, I’ve had some mighty fine veggie burgers in my day. After you load on the cheese and veggies and condiments, it seems like all you really have is a protein disk underneath. So is it really necessary to kill an animal and consume extra fat, calories and cholesterol for one kind of protein disk over another?

Nearly a century after some now-forgotten vice president* quipped that what this country really needs is a good five-cent cigar, I say it’s time to up the ante: What this country really needs is a really good whole-grain vegetarian version of a quarter pounder with cheese.

*Thomas R. Marshall, a democratic governor from Indiana who, unlike Evan Bayh, went on to become vice president. He served under Woodrow Wilson, from 1913 to 1921. 

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

‘No New Clothes’ update

I finally found a tank top to go with my favorite orange running shorts, at Salvation Army, where they group shirts according to color. Wouldn’t it be easier if regular stores did the same? You need an orange shirt, you look in the orange shirts section. What could be simpler?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Cheap emergency ice for the cooler

I really hate the way you can bargain-shop for kids’ sports treats, and then wind up spending your savings (and more) on ice for the cooler.

Ideally, we harvest ice cubes from trays and bag them for storage in the second freezer for just this purpose. But the last time we were supposed to bring snacks for Ben’s baseball team, I only had five trays’ worth of cubes to stock our vintage Playmate cooler -- and because Colleen had an earlier T-ball game, we had to leave the house three hours before game time on a hot, muggy night.

Needless to say, most of the ice melted before Ben’s game even started. Determined to avoid buying a bag of ice, I stopped at a convenience store and filled a 44-ounce cup with ice for a dime. It was just enough to keep the drinks cold until after the game.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The misery-index gift registry

When it comes to finding gifts for middle-aged people, I no longer think in terms of what we can buy or make them, but how we can reduce their misery index.

I got the idea while talking to an older relative whose birthday we usually try to acknowledge, though often in a haphazard, after-the-fact fashion. We were discussing his birthday, which happened to be of the milestone variety, when he mentioned that he spent it in a very unsatisfying fashion, feeling obligated to attend an event that made him miserable. Though we wound up slipping a pizza discount card in his birthday envelope, it occurred to me that what might have been more useful, and made him happier, was offering to track this particular noxious event in the coming year, note the date on which it was to occur, and suggest alternative ways he could book that time slot on his schedule so that he could say he was busy and couldn’t attend.

When you live with someone, of course, you have a much greater knowledge of their misery index. So when Father’s Day arrived this past Sunday, it wasn’t so much a question of trying to think up ideas as simply settling on one of the many possibilities. The kids and I decided to tackle the tool problem, which really amounted to a two-part gift:
    1. Finding all the tools that the kids were always spiriting away and then misplacing in various odd locations.
    2. Clearing out the garage, especially all the junk piled on top of the workbench, so that Bob could finally set up a neat, well-organized tool area, especially desirable now that he’s actually developed a knack for using said tools.
    As a bonus, Rowan settled on an independent study project clearing out a room that we’ve been intending to convert into Bob’s office.
    Not surprisingly, Bob reported that this might be the best set of Father’s Day gifts he’s ever received. And we didn’t spend a penny.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Still more weird crap for the compost stew

According to its website, Prima water bottles are made from 100 percent “plant material.” Corn, actually. They’re supposed to biodegrade in a commercial composting facility, though I‘m guessing a bottle left lying in the grass would be there for an awfully long time.

We’re dumping this one in the compost, where it will join “the world’s first 100% compostable chip bag” (Sun Chips), some allegedly biodegradable balloons and a cardboard pizza box, along with some of the more typical natural ingredients you find in a compost brew.

Friday, June 11, 2010

How nature recycles leftovers

Cassie found yet another example of thrift in nature the other day: caterpillars eating their own shedded skin for the extra protein boost. She got this from "Lanie," an American Girl book by Jane Kurtz. And we found this photo of a caterpillar in skin-eating mode on

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The anti-grocery list

Ten things I refuse to buy in the middle of the week, even if I run out:
1. Dishwasher detergent -- whether it’s the commercial kind, or simply the ingredients for my homemade version, I always figure there’s no reason I can’t do dishes by hand until Friday, when I get my next week’s supply of grocery money.
2. Sandwich bags -- You can always swathe sandwiches in plastic wrap or make a bag out of the bottom of a cereal-box liner. Better yet, maybe I’ll finally buy one of those plastic “sandwich keeper” containers.
3. Coffee filters -- Two napkins laid so that eight corners are exposed do just as well. In a pinch, I‘ve even reused the filter from the day before.
4. Band-aids -- Almost any injury requiring a band-aid can be handled with a square of folded-up Kleenex and some packing tape.
5. Bread -- Make your own!
6. Cereal -- My kids get a cereal allowance, and just like their money, when it‘s gone, it‘s gone. The only exception: My husband‘s Raisin Bran, which is as much a part of his diet as bamboo to a panda.
7. Jam -- Put fruit on your PB in place of the J. Lettuce is nice, too.
8. Toilet bowl cleaner -- There’s almost always something around I can use instead: a can of Coke, bleach, borax. Bob‘s had great success with that heavy-duty citrus orange hand cleaner.
9. Deoderant -- The next time we run out of this in the middle of the week, I will finally be inspired to investigate how one goes about using baking soda as a deoderant.
10. Pasta -- You never really run out of pasta or noodles if you’ve got a little flour, oil and an egg in the house. Mix it up, roll it out, and cut into strips.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Celebrating shrinking

How do you celebrate losing 50 pounds in 21 weeks? (The official tally: 51.4). My first thought was to order a pizza, having restrained myself to just one skinny slice the night before Monday‘s weigh-in. After not eating much all day, I figured I had enough Weight Watchers points saved up for half a large cheese pizza from Pizza Hut.

On the other hand, I had a bunch of veggies and whole-wheat tortillas at home to make myself a customized personal pizza. So I bought some mozzarella cheese and indulged myself by using half a cup, twice as much as usual. Very tasty, very satisfying, and only a fraction of the cost and calories of a Pizza Hut concoction.

I followed that up with my usual Monday night ice cream sundae, what I think of as a stripped-down version of a Dairy Queen peanut buster parfait: One cup of Great Value fat free ice cream, 1 tablespoon of chunky peanut butter and 1 tablespoon of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. It’s only five points instead of the real thing’s 16, but it pushes all the right buttons in the reward center in my brain. And I didn’t have to buy anything -- all the ingredients were leftover from a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Emergency rations for hungry guests

Coming back from a movie the other day with an extra “kid” in tow (my daughter’s boyfriend, Kevin), I was panicking because I knew everyone was hungry but wasn’t sure what I had on hand. Like a true brainwashed consumer, I kept thinking pizza was our only solution. Then I remembered we had a box of Velveeta-style cheese and a couple of loaves of bread. A big platter of grilled cheese sandwiches did the trick.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The compostable bag that wouldn't die

The "world's first 100% Compostable chip bag" is proving to be one tough nut to crack in the compost heap. We dug this Sun Chips bag out of the compost over Memorial Day weekend for an impromptu photo session, and discovered that after 69 days -- just under seven weeks, half the time it's supposed to take to decompose -- it didn't look much worse than it did in Week 1. We could probably run it through the dishwasher and reuse it. Then again, maybe that would jump-start the composting process. Hmm....

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Improvising a cheeseball on deadline

I made my first cheeseball about 15 years ago, when I was trying out some of my grandma’s recipes in the months after she died. It was a hit, not just with relatives on my mom’s side, who appreciated the sentimental connection, but in a couple of other circles as well.

I’m still asked to bring cheeseballs to parties, so naturally I’ve spent some time thinking about how to reduce the cost of a dish that could easily top $10, depending on where and when I bought the ingredients. But this weekend’s cheeseball set a new record in cost-effectiveness, probably because I had to improvise under deadline.

I’m not going to suggest this as a recipe, because it wasn’t the best cheeseball I ever made. But it worked, and here’s the secret: As long as you’ve got a cream cheese base, at least one  tangier cheese to mix in, and some garlic powder, it’s pretty hard to screw up.

In this case, I started with the remains of an 8-pounce brick of cream cheese, about 3/4 of a package. I usually stock up on these when they’re priced at $1 or less. I added some swiss almond cheese spread that had been hanging out in the fridge for weeks (maybe even months), and -- sad but true -- a chunk of store brand Velveeta-style cheese. Pressed for time, I forgot to put in the garlic powder. And yet people still ate it.

Total cost? Less than $2.