Reflections of the Full Week

Last night we were discussing the budget diet. An epiphany came in the form of even though our portions were fine, we felt more hungry. There are likely a couple of reasons for that…

I think we as individuals were getting to used to eating more than we might need in a given day. I know I was drinking more coffee than I needed nearly every day. I’d grown used to getting lunch at the food window in the stadium or at the corner market most days. If I was tired on the way home I might stop at a drive through or the BBQ place near our house. And ice cream at the end of the night usually sounded like a good idea.

why-the-treatsTaking one day as an example, I had a bowl of Honey Nut O’s (generic) with milk for breakfast (about 20 cents), a peanut butter sandwich with a banana for lunch (about 35 cents), and spinach risotto with black bean bake for dinner (around $1.50 at the portions I dished out. Which left me with just under $2 to put towards a different day, or to use for coffee beyond my allowance in the morning. At the end of the night though, I did choose to add another 10 cents to my spending for some more Honey Nut O’s while watching TV. (To be fair, someone insisted I share a couple.)

I looked at my coffee drinking and tried to figure out how I might incorporate it into my budget. I can use our french press without having to buy filters, which means for about 25 cents I can make the amount of coffee I get in the mornings if I go without cream. So between 25 to 40 cents a day for my morning coffee. Take a look at the $2.05 budget for the sample day, and this is totally possible. Especially on days when I don’t have meat. Were I inclined to do so (and I might be next week), I could reduce the daily budget to $3.60 a day and still get my coffee in the drive through. Since this isn’t fully about the money, I can pay for the convenience and deduct it from my total.

I also feel there is a psychology to it. We know we are eating off of less money than we used to spend on coffee so the subconscious message is we will be hungry. Additionally, when you’re looking at price per serving, you dish yourself out specifically one serving. Which in most cases means we eat less. Not that much less, but that lends into the perception of being denied something.

So I started this to gain a view of the possibilities to live off of that number. Additionally I was looking at if one could eat healthy off of those numbers. What I am finding is that if I can change my point of view, that will not only impact my budget, but also lead me to a healthier diet.

Though I’d still add the kale back into the risotto instead of the spinach.

First Week Musings

First and foremost, I think this is kind of a “soft opening” for my SNAP Challenge. I haven’t had the time to prep for it due to the surprise GenCon trip with Studio 6d6. Also, I forgot our camping trip this weekend with Saturday spent at the Bristol Ren Faire. While I could probably keep it in the $4 budget at the campsite, at the Ren Faire that would be impossible. I’d dehydrate and collapse long after my $4 was gone. Without eating.

I have found a couple of tricks though. Ones worth sharing. Also some pitfalls, which are also worth sharing…

Your New Best Friend

Eggs. Seriously, if you want protein and cannot spare the budget for meat these are your go to. I sprayed down a cupcake pan with baking spray and put an egg in each spot to bake at 350 for about 20 minutes or so. (I went by sight on them and was pretty close to spot on.) Each one cost about 26 to 28 cents. Baked are a bit healthier than fried and can be stored for easy transport. I brought one with my lunch today.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

IMG_0550One of my go-to dishes is a kale and/or asparagus risotto. It takes a while to make, but it is good, filling, and a slightly impressive dish to serve. The problem was the cost of not only the rice, but the herbs (fresh basil and parsley), the kale, and the broth. So my goal was to device a cheaper version of this dish. And what I came up with is about $1 for a lunch serving and $1.50 for a dinner serving.

Spinach Risotto

  • 1.5 cups of arborio rice
  • 32 oz box of chicken broth
  • about 6 oz fresh spinach (2/3rds of a bag)
  • olive oil
  • Italian spices (basil, oregano, dried onion, etc)

I use a mixed blend of spices from an Italian grocery in Racine. A large container usually lasts me a year, about our rate of visiting the place. Olive oil is standard fare from the grocery, nothing fancy.

With the olive oil covering the bottom of your sauce pan on medium heat, throw in the rice until translucent. Toss the spinach on top just before done and cover the saucepan with the cover. Once done, mix with your wooden spoon and throw in some of the broth. Just enough to slightly cover the rice. Cover again for a minute or two to stew the spinach. Keep adding broth and slowly mixing with the wooden spoon. Once a stew like consistency, add some more broth until it is all absorbed. The spices can be added at any time – I add them with the oil to saturate the flavors through the dish.

Notes: I did keep the cost down as the spinach was on sale this week – $1.33 per bag. I also discovered a cheaper bulk bag of the rice that cut the cost by at least 35% for the whole batch. That went a long way to keeping a $1.00 lunch cost. Also, to make this a fully vegetarian/vegan meal, switch out the chicken broth with vegetable broth.

What I Would Change

If there was no budget to consider, I would add in the fresh basil (about a $1.50 hike to the whole batch) and switch out to kale (about another $1 or slightly more to the batch). Additionally (as we are from Wisconsin), I usually add some cheese to it as well. Without the cheese, some salt may be needed for the dish. And finally, meat. Either to the risotto, or served with it instead of the egg.

What I Have Found

This may be an indication of my pre-challenge diet, but I find myself snacking on bananas (13 cents each for my current bunch) and the like because I’m hungry. Also it helps meet my concerns on the amount of fruits and vegetables I am eating. I do have a couple more recipes that I am altering up this week/weekend to address these as well.

The part that really struck me though was the drinking. I have been drinking more water. I have also used a Crystal Lite drink mix in a squirt bottle that runs about 12 cents per 8 oz drink. How much smaller would my meal plan be if I had to purchase ground coffee beans to brew my own coffee? Or pay for the creamer? I set a caveat that my morning coffee would not be included in the budget. My reduced price drink at the drive through is $3.26 after tax. (A trienta iced coffee with cream.) I did go a couple days without it, but had to buy a soda/tea due to the drag effect.

I am not playing around with going cold turkey, because coffee is one of the stages in staving off a migraine before it settles in fully. Between the allergy medication, Advil Liquigels and coffee, without these I would be having a lot of problems this week.

Just in the food reduction (and coffee limitation to 1 per morning), I can see how difficult this budget is to continue under. And why people resort to ramen packets and processed mac & cheese for meals. Eating healthy within these limits is tough. And it definitely limits the amount of meat in your diet.

Officially Day One

Today is the day I begin my SNAP budget challenge. I had planned to begin on August 1st, but I had a surprise visit to GenCon helping out my friends at Studio 6d6. Eating anything at a convention is hard, especially when you’re working. The budget would have been at most a single value meal at Steak & Shake.

Getting up this morning I knew I was in trouble. I didn’t have any food prepared. The salads I had worked up to $1.13 per mason jar were sitting empty at home. Our fridge was a little bare as well. All of this conspired to make my options limited.

Breakfast was my normal peanut butter sandwich. With being away from the puppy for a week, she wanted to taste test my food anyhow. My estimates based on the average amount of peanut butter used and cost of bread per slice is 30 cents per sandwich. I also went out at lunch to buy bananas, which average out to about 13 cents per banana. I did buy a couple of sodas, but I am giving myself a pass on those as I needed the caffeine and didn’t get my caveat coffee this morning. Also those together still cost less than my usual coffee. Not by much, but still less.

Dinner tonight will likely be risotto. I may include some type of meat as I am at 73 cents for the day. So far.

Tomorrow morning I am planning to prep up some black beans to go with risotto left overs. I will likely pick up things to make salads and cereal that is within budget in case I want to vary my diet. And eggs. They are one of the secret tricks to protein as they are pretty cheap to prepare. And I have a ton of recipes for them. Not all include having them on a burger, like I did during GenCon last week.

So I will be ending my day at home with 73 cents spent. Hopefully the other $3.27 will fill me up. Day One is almost in the books. Shopping is next on the list.

In which Zombie Joe considers neither food, nor writing…

This past weekend we spent the anniversary of the day our dog died of cancer taking the newest member of our family (a rescue that really needed our home) to visit Aladdin’s favorite park in Door County. We were actually staying at the cabin we rented just north of that park. Cave Point County Park in Jacksonport, Wisconsin. Door County. No better place on Earth.

ginger-beachWell, we tried to take her to that park. If you’ve been following me through social media, you’ve likely heard me lament that she is agoraphobic and not friendly towards small children or other animals. I’m good, but those fears/aggression might be beyond my skills. So we sat in the truck with the AC on while Robin went to visit Aladdin’s beach. We could take Ginger to the beach behind the cabin. That one is private.

I bring this up because I was considering the number of Represent tshirt campaigns that have been going on lately. And there are many. More than I can possibly contribute to. Choices must be made. But at the same time, the Amells (Stephen Amell from Arrow and Robbie Amell from Flash) have been hitting them one after another for me.

Last year, after our latest stint of cursing cancer, Stephen Amell did another run of his Sinceriously “Fuck Cancer” shirt. While I spent July last year stating “Today was a good day” and “we’ve all got jobs to do”… I spent the better part of August saying “fuck cancer” pretty much daily. And this past Friday, I was wearing my Captain Amell Fuck Cancer shirt.

I’m going to skip past Stephen Amell’s second charity shirt (even though it struck solid for me too), and talk about the one going on right now. Robbie Amell posted a link through Twitter to his Camp Hometown Heroes charity shirt. I clicked it simply because, as a fan, I wanted to see what he was supporting. The charity is a free summer camp for the kids and younger siblings of fallen soldiers. As if that wasn’t enough it is in Grafton, Wisconsin. I remember seeing a news report about Aaron Rodgers taking a group of kids from the camp out on a boat a while back.

Children’s charities are my thing. Children’s cancer charities… forget about it. I’m there. Much like how I knew Ginger needed a place like ours to heal from her mistreatment the first year of her life, I could see how these kids of service members could really benefit from this camp. So you know I will be picking up a shirt from the Robbie Amell “Camp Hometown Heroes” page when I get home tonight.

You should too. It’s a sharp shirt. And a really great cause.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, I hear they are giving away a shirt that is signed by both of the Amells.

Short Update on Budgeting

The cookbooks aren’t even at my house yet. I am still at least a week from flipping the switch on this. And yet I am noticing the change in my view of things already.

krispieThis afternoon I decided to go out for a soda and a rice cereal treat. I brought leftovers for lunch and I’ve been having a rough week. Also, I had taken note that my Chobani yogurt I brought with me this morning on sale was 25% of my daily budget (keeping in mind I am not yet on that budget).

You know what else is 25% of my daily budget on sale? That rice cereal treat from the convenience store on the corner. Granted they go on sale every week for a day. You can set your calendar to it. But that is still $1 when my total budget for the day will be $4. So this is a luxury I won’t have for a long time. And look at it, consider that I just called that a luxury.

cherry-pepsiDon’t even get me started on the soda. If we still had Coke machines in the stadium I would still be dropping $1.50 on a bottle – around 37% of the daily budget. But at $1.79 a bottle (plus tax), that is about half the daily amount I have to spend. Even if I find a sale, the lowest price I am likely to get is $.25 per can of soda. Which means I will get one can a day at best. I should be drinking more water anyhow.

Last – and by no means least – is beer. I was listening to the morning show talk craft beer with the owner of Trixie’s Liquor on the morning show. This lead to me making a mental list of the beers I wanted to pick up for our family vacation to Door County this weekend. A bomber of Trixie’s Forbidden Fruit (a grapefruit IPA made by Mob Craft for the store) is around $8.99. You see where I’m going, right?

Mrs. Zombie and I have been working budgets for a number of years now. The idea is to pay off all debts, a goal we should hit in 5 or 6 years. The mortgage being the only debt the last 4 of that. So even though we can afford more than $4 a day, and can afford to pick up that six pack of craft beer for the trip this weekend (much less the trip itself), this is a really strong exercise in seeing what it’s like on the other foot. Without relying on the memory of the “Mac and Cheese Days” long past.

naptime-gingerNot to mention if we’re going to take our budding new rock climbing puppy out to Aladdin’s favorite park on the anniversary of his death, you better damned well believe I will be having a beer that night. Of course, realistically, Ginger will probably look more like the photo here all weekend long. Which is fine. I have work to do.

One More Caveat

I also came across one more caveat that I need to enter into the challenge. Every week I go to my writer’s group on Thursday. We meet at one of two spots where we can get coffee and a bite to eat. Many times I will just get coffee and a cookie or tart because Chocolaterian makes some of the best treats and their coffee is something brewed by Walter White. Seriously, that shit is addictive! And more over, as we use their space every week I feel it would be rude to not “pay the rent” in some fashion. Especially when I am able to. So I will have dinner when I get home (in budget), but at the cafe I will partake of coffee and a cookie.

And in “payment” for this, I won’t get coffee on Thursday mornings on my way into work. So really it isn’t one more caveat to the project, but an addendum to an existing one.

New Project/New Challenge

I became aware this week, that this time last year I was elbows deep in a project to do 30 short stories in 30 days. That worked out to only 23 short stories, but over 50,000 words for the month. During one of my worst months in a really long time. But what am I doing this year?

Sure, I’m still doing book reviews, my bi-weekly game and helping out with the monthly D&D at Pegasus Games here in town. But I was doing most of that last year too. I’m feeling like I need a goal… a specific project… to light a fire under me. So I came up with one.

$4 a Day

good-and-cheapFor a while now I have been considering the challenge that some politicians and other public figures have done to eat on $4 a day – the amount that people on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) live on. Though this year I found the book Good and Cheap by Leanne Brown. Not only is it a cookbook to guide you through this process, but it has a program where if you buy a copy, a copy is given to a program or person in need that cannot afford it. Which appeals to me, because if you’re using SNAP or just living on $4 a day up-assisted, chances are you don’t have the money for a cookbook.

So I ordered the book to work with the mason jar meal cookbook I also picked up. And decided to go on a challenge to hit the $4 a day for a month. I figure this is also a good way to get my kitchen and pantry in order. Plus, I think my wife is secretly getting tired of risotto (my newest go-to dish to make).

The Caveats

I have two caveats that are for the protection of others as well as myself. My $4 a day limit does not include my morning coffee. If I don’t have that, someone will get hurt. That limit will prevent me from grabbing a green tea lemonade on the trip home though.

Additionally, my wife only is bound by the $4 a day meals if I am making them for her. My lunches will be made with this in mind, and I will not be going out for lunch at all. She isn’t bound by that, because I don’t want to get hurt. And if she wants a coffee on the way home, I can get her one. Just not one for myself.

The Reasons

Mostly because I want to. I have lived through hungry times. I called them The Mac and Cheese Days™. And honestly, I have family members living in those days right now. I want to prove to myself that it is possible to eat healthy at that amount. Limit the sugars, starches and salt in the diet. Limit the processed foods too.

The Reality

latteLast night, while going through the bookstore on the way home, I picked up the books I needed, a latte, and desert for after dinner. Partially it was a craving for something I knew I wouldn’t be having for a long time, and partially it was a peace offering for the wife I was about to put on rations. (Sort of… let’s face it, she can get seconds if she wants.)

Consider the triple venti latte I picked up in the cafe last night. It was an after-thought to get a coffee with my books. A little extra to keep me going. And it cost $5 to get it – a full 25% higher than the daily amount of money I would be spending on food soon. It tastes more like a luxury if you consider it a day and a half worth of food.

cheesecakeThen there was the blueberry cheesecake we had for desert. Without even considering the fact that it was a heavily processed food (lending to high sodium and fat content), it was $4.50. Just over the daily amount of money for food. Again, much more decadent factoring in that would soon be all I would eat in a day based on budget.

Grocery shopping is different though. You’re getting steaksfresh food that you’re making yourself (or at least you have the ability to do so). And you can get foods on sale, purchasing items when they’re  in season and such. But the bacon-wrapped sirloins I picked up last night were on sale 5 for $10, or $2 each. So that one small steak is half the budget for a day. Possible, but that does restrict what you can do with the rest of the day.

The Format

I will be posting updates as I go, possibly including some of the recipes as I post. I’m Italian, we don’t do well sticking to the script. Of course, when I have to calculate the cost per meal, I will have to curb that as much as possible. Which leads me to the summary per meal.

thug-kitchenAt the end of each post on meals – including the cost per meal – I will be posting revisions. In the event I have more than $4 to spend on a day (due to budgeting days previous or simply opening the budget back up again), I will list alterations I would do to the recipe as shown. Like upgrading the cut of steak (or size) used. Adding fresh basil into the risotto instead of sprinkling in the dried herbs from my pantry. You get the idea.

Also, in addition to the mason jar cookbook I have, I will be looking into some of the recipes from the Thug Kitchen. While the title is what originally drew me to it, the content held me there. The idea of cooking/eating like you give a damn what you’re stuffing in your hole is one many of us have gone away from. I intend to make the trip back.

The Timing

The cookbook will be at my door Friday. Though we are also taking Ginger on her first Door County trip this weekend. We’re going to see how well she likes Aladdin’s favorite park. She did show signs of wanting to be a rock climbing dog this past week. So the actual budgeting and diet will likely start the last week of this month, or the first week in August. I’m sure you’ll notice when this happens.

Let me tell you a story…

The past month I have been finding myself having problems writing. Something about forwarding a middle grade storyline is just not sticking with me. The last time this happened, I realized there was something in my head plugging up the works. Something I had to get out. This past week I may have identified it.

While watching the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions I was hit at the end of the acceptance speech for Lou Reed, given by his wife, Laurie Anderson. At the end of it, after saying the last of the list of three times you die is after the last time your name is spoken, she called for one more and the gathered crowd called out in unison, “Lou!” This past year was one of the few times since I was a kid that I didn’t stop and process the hurt. My friend and companion for the last 15 plus years was gone. And in the five weeks or so before we found a mistreated dog that needed our help, I hadn’t sat in the silence of an empty Tuesday night and processed it. I ran from it.

Now we are coming up on 11 months since we lost him. I can feel it approaching on me. Clinging at me while trying to pull me down. It has made me wonder how diffcult it would be if – like many of my friends – I suffered from depression. Which snowballs into me worrying about them and pushing off my own shadows again.

I have no idea why, but this reminded me of The Lost Story. I have a folder with most of my first writing from high school. Anything and everything was worth keeping. Who knows? There might be something useful in there now that I have the experience and skill to write it. Maybe not, but I still saved it. All but one.

I have never read this story aloud. I never turned it in to my creative writing class. Nobody has ever read it. This includes my wife of nearly 25 years or any of the people involved in the story. It was written the first time that I was plugged up like this. My first “memory” of the darkness from inside needing to get out. But this story has a prelude to it. An explanation into the evolution of it.

Above I put the word memory in the literary equivalent of air quotes. Since leaving college I have been through a number of changes. One of the major ones was meeting the business end of a dump truck at about 45 miles per hour. I suffered what they had then called a concussion, but what doctors have identified in the post-war era as a TBI or Traumatic Brain Injury. This had three major effects on me – 1 physical and 2 mental. Probably more than 2, but who really wants to deal with that level of introspection?

The physical effect is that the frequency and intensity of my migraines would increase. A rather helpful nurse practitioner informed me this would likely include a near constant low-grade headache. She followed this with the date and street on which she had suffered hers.

Mentally, I had forgotten how to memorize numbers. I used to do so in a relational method, by plucking patterns out in the number strings. That annoying guy that could count pi out to more digits than years you’ve been alive? Yeah, that used to be me. It is so alien to me now, I can’t even accurately describe how I did it. Good thing I became an English major in college.

Additionally, I lost my memory of the week prior to the accident,with my first solid memory being in the hospital watching Highlander reruns late night. Though they tell me I was hallucinating, so who knows what I was watching. This also included just over four years of memory from further back. Middle to late 80’s, or high school.

Now if you’ve heard my stories from high school (the Lost Story being one of them), this is because I remember them. But it was like if I read it out of a book. I remember the words to the story. I even remember how to vocalize it to impart the meaning behind it. I just don’t remember being there. Since that time I have had flashes of memory return. Usually with a stabbing headache or migraine along with it, but a few have popped back. One of which was having a pair of ribs kicked out of my sternum at 16 years old. Another being the incident that spawned the Lost Story. So any potential positive from having substantial memory loss was completely gone. Thanks, karma.

In my creative writing classes I was attempting to write fantasy. Probably because between school, a full time job, martial arts classes 2-3 times a week and a girlfriend, I had no time left for Dungeons and Dragons. I wouldn’t pick it up again until college. So I was trying to write high fantasy and all of this darkness was hanging over me. What I wrote, I wrote for myself.

What I have come to see today, nearly 30 years later, is that what I wrote was similar to many of the stories I was watching. Spoken word poets writing about their pain and torment, storytellers at The Moth reliving the painful tales of the past – the Lost Story was mine. It was cheaper than therapy (of which I was highly allergic to in my teens), and easily done. And to free myself from the shadows of it, once I had decided not to share it, I remember taking the pages and burning them. Giving that story and my emotional attachment to it a viking funeral.

The odd part? Even though I can’t remember walking across the stage to receive my diploma in 1988, I remember this story. I remember the catalyst in vivid detail. And today I am going to put it back down to paper. I may post it here as a serial, or I may take it to The Moth in Milwaukee (depending on the theme that month). For all I know this copy will never be told aloud or read either. I’m just hoping it leads me towards processing the pain that is stopping me today, so that I can finish my fantasy story tomorrow.