How to Stick to a Weekly $40 Dinner Budget

I live in Canada, and because our dollar is currently sinking in comparison to the US dollar, many of my fellow Canadians are forced to strike the cauliflowers and cucumbers right off their shopping lists. (To say nothing of my dear compatriots who live far north, where a sack of flour can cost as much as $60.)

I suspect, however, that the struggle between affordable and adequate nutrition is something more global. We might abandon fruits and vegetables altogether in order to make room for the centrepiece of our meals: the meat. After all, we need our protein, right? Well, there might be more to it than that.

I’ve made a list of the ways that help keep my weekly dinners under $40. I’ve also recently had my blood tested, and my vitamin and mineral levels, my cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and even my blood pressure have greatly improved since before I started saving money. These are the simple strategies I keep in mind.

1. Make a List and a Plan

Before I head out to grab my week’s worth of groceries, I sit down and make a plan so I don’t overbuy or end up with eight litres of Dr. Pepper. Usually, the process of making this list takes between twenty minutes to half an hour. I sometimes browse the cookbooks I have on hand, but more often than not, I end up on my favourite websites: websites that offer straightforward, healthful, quick, and inexpensive recipes. Some of my favourites include Oh She GlowsThe Post Punk KitchenThug Kitchen (warning for casual swearing), Vegan Sandra, and Happy Herbivore. Between these websites alone, there are hundreds of uncomplicated, tasty recipes that ask for easy-to-find ingredients.

A typical week of meals for me might include a combination of a stir fry with edamame beans (soy beans), a tomato pasta dish, a hearty soup, roasted vegetables and rice, or chilli. I usually start by cooking the stir fry, pastas, and roast veggies types of dishes first, so I can use all of the leftover vegetables in my soup. And this is simple: I toss the half onion, the almost-limp celery, a carrot, a potato or a yam, and literally whatever other veggie I have on hand into a pot of water with some dried red lentils. I turn the heat to medium-high and forget about it for half an hour.

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The gang’s all here.

2. Forget Pre-Packaged Foods

Am I the only one who spent my adolescence eating whole boxes of Kraft Dinner macaroni and cheese, only to flip the blue box over and discover that I was supposedly eating four portions of the stuff? There was something notoriously un-filling about it. And this seems to be the case with many pre-packaged fares. Those frozen Hungry Man dinners left me feeling paradoxically hungry and sluggish. And this isn’t to shame anyone who consumes these foods. Sometimes it really is the best option available, and that’s okay. But often, we find ourselves getting in a rut, buying the same lacklustre (expensive) products every week  simply out of habit, unaware that making a change could be so easy.

If it’s an issue of convenience, zapping something in the microwave for ten minutes seems like an adequate solution. But those frozen dinners add up in cost. Buying a bag of dried lentils or split peas (which contain a vast amount of protein, by the way), and some vegetables will last a lot longer, and will take about twenty minutes more to prepare. They will also potentially provide you with more energy, instead of delivering that sluggish feeling that makes one want to collide with the nearest armchair.

The environmental aspect is also hard to ignore. All of that pre-packaged food has, well, so much packaging. The apartment I’m living in doesn’t have a compost or a recycling area, so we need either to sneak our recycling to other places, or be very mindful of the trash we produce.

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I like food that comes with its own packaging.

3. Cook in Batches

My partner, Matt, always makes fun of me because I cook as if I’m feeding the whole town. I think it’s hereditary. My dad does the same, even when he only had to feed me and my sister. But his mom had eight kids, so she really did have to cook for a small village. As it turns out, this isn’t a bad reflex to have.

I give myself some much-needed days off kitchen duty by cooking in batches and eating the leftovers the next day. This way, I only cook about four meals all week, but we have healthy food every day. Since each meal takes roughly half an hour to prepare, this means I only spend about 2 hours per week, or 1% of my week, cooking. This leaves me plenty of time to ponder my existential dread.

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I swear these beans are magic.

4. Be Sale Savvy 

I’m not talking about extreme coupon-ing here, because what better way to negate all of the time we’ve just saved in the kitchen? This is just about taking notice of what might be on sale in your particular grocery stores. It also helps if you can extort a relative who works in a grocery store to tell you about upcoming deals. (Just kidding, my sister works in a local chain and she basically boasts about the crazy sales coming up. She once showed up with six cartons of coconut ice cream on sale for $3.99. If you know someone in grocery, you’ll know about the deals.)

Another option is to sign up for community food boxes. These programs run under different names, but for me, both here and in Montreal, it was called The Good Food Box (or Bonne Boîte, Bonne Bouffe, to be bilingual). This is basically a program that requires a payment between $7 to $16, either bi-weekly or monthly, for fresh, usually local produce. I’ve gotten lettuce, onions, potatoes, bananas, grapes, carrots, leeks, squash, beets, and more in my boxes. It’s a good way to overcome food deserts, where the nearest grocery store might be inconveniently far away.

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The downside: food boxes don’t get delivered. 

5. Forget the Meat and Dairy

Oh, yeah. You may have noticed something missing in this list. All of this talk of vegetables, beans, and lentils took the focus away from those extra-lean chicken breasts. Well, to be honest, I find meat and dairy to be the most costly aspects of any meal. I’ve mentioned my partner, Matt, before. (He’s the one who makes fun of me for my massive-scale cooking operations, remember?) Matt loves his chicken wings, his buddy burgers, and his nachos. And he still eats these things sometimes. (Hey, I’m not the boss of anyone.) But even he has been impressed by how much money we save when we drop those chicken breasts, the bricks of cheese, the containers of yogurt, the steaks, and the ground beef from our shopping list. And according to him, the food I make without these things still tastes good. (Go ahead and ask him to be sure, though. There is the off chance he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings.)

“But what about the protein?” is the question I most often hear when people discover I don’t eat meat or dairy. Luckily, in reality our foods aren’t divided by macro-nutrients. That is to say, if we eat whole foods, we don’t really have one thing that’s just carbs, one thing that’s just fats, and one thing that’s just protein. Whole foods contain a mix of everything. For instance, brown rice gives a lot of carbs and a lot of protein. Even steak will give us plenty of fat with that helping of protein (not to mention cholesterol). Oh, and speaking of cholesterol, plant-based foods don’t have any. You’ll only ever find cholesterol in foods that contain something from an animal. You can gorge yourself on chilli and rice and never eat a bit of cholesterol. So by eating a varied diet filled with different nuts, grains, seeds, vegetables, and fruits, we can get all of the protein we need. It’s a good way of getting our greens both on our plates and in our wallets.

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I like my animals for cuddling purposes, anyway.

If you have any questions eating plant-based foods, making the switch to plant-based foods, or thoughts about how to save money on groceries, feel free to leave a comment, or contact me by email at dualmindguides@gmail.com. Happy eating.

 

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How to be Alone

For many of us, the difference between isolation and solitude is more than a simple matter of semantics. Solitude is often a choice — the peaceful walk in the woods, or the quiet morning meditation. It’s Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in which he builds a cabin near a lake and proceeds to live there for two years and two months. Solitude is that treasured time we take alone to reflect and learn about ourselves.

Isolation, meanwhile, is often thrust upon us, and research shows that it can actually be physically painful to experience. (This explains why “not fitting in” in high school was such a wretched experience.) Human beings are social creatures who depend on connection. We need to understand and to feel understood. Due to different circumstances, however, we may not always have the amount of human interaction we need. While living like this is not ideal (in fact, social isolation can lead to mental illness and premature death), there are ways to minimize the suffering we feel, should we find ourselves in an isolating situation.

1. Reach out However you can
It is somewhat fashionable to bemoan the advent of social media and online video games as the End of Real Human Interaction™. Political cartoons and satirical websites are rife with images depicting couples at dinner glued to their phones, or children swiping away their childhoods on the touch-screen du jour. While the debate on whether and when to unplug certainly has merit, we should be cautious not to glorify too much the “good old days” where we had to show up at a friend’s doorstep in order to share the latest gossip. (Some things never change.)

For those of us in difficult geographical circumstances (all of us astronauts, for instance), and those of us with physical or mental disabilities, being able to plug into online communities brings about some relief. For example, because of my ongoing battle with depression, it’s not always possible for me to get dressed and zip over to my much-beloved friends’ houses. When simply getting out of bed presents a challenge, I’m grateful to be able to chat and even laugh with a friend on social media.

In large, anonymous cities in which we hitch a ride on a subway with strangers, sit at a desk for eight hours, and come home to an empty apartment, we may also find some respite in our Twitter feeds.

Ideally, we would all hang out and hug and talk about Star Wars in person, but sometimes we are presented with less-than-ideal circumstances. My point is, don’t let purists talk you out of opportunities to connect. If it’s all you can do right now, pick up that phone and ‘like’ your friend’s picture. You’ll feel better.

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Like this plastic tree limb, branch out. 

2. Keep Busy
When we think of survival movies, we’re often presented with characters who use their time in isolating situations to make and reach goals. A recent example of this can be seen in the book-turned-movie, The Martian, in which an astronaut left behind on Mars gets really busy doing math and planting potatoes.

In real life, CBC News journalist Melissa Fung was abducted in Afghanistan in 2008. She was kept in a hole underground and watched by her captors, whom, obviously, could not have been the best company. To survive this ordeal, Fung made plans about her future. She planned a dinner party, she planned what she would do when she got back to Canada.

Moments of isolation require us to make plans and keep busy as much as we can. With mental illness, this can be a real challenge: how do you make goals when you have no motivation? It’s hard, but everyones’ goals will be different. If all we can do is shower and make breakfast, then we can start there. Circumstances are always changing; what is challenging today might not be as difficult tomorrow.

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The busiest guy in my house.

3. Watch Movies, Read Books, Listen to Music
Speaking of keeping busy, getting a start on that “books-to-read” list is a great way of going about this. While some might argue that books, movies, and music simply present ways of numbing the pain of isolation by offering distractions, there’s likely more to it than that.

When a movie makes us cheer for the protagonists, a book presents us with characters so real they feel like friends, or a song makes us shaky-shoulder sob (I’m looking at you, Adele), we’re experiencing the emotions we feel when we have a human interaction. The magic of art, is that we get to find those kindred spirits and as a result, we feel less alone. As a teenager, during my most painfully lonely time (and, I suspect, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way), I found solace in songs about misfits and books and movies, like Ghost World, about strange girls who skip town. So find the art that speaks to your soul, and hit repeat.

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What better reason to read comics?

4. Make Non-Human Friends
A few weeks ago, I was waiting for the bus in my hometown (trivia: I don’t drive), and a woman in a hot pink toque with a shopping cart full of Walmart bags sat beside me and started up a conversation, as friendly people waiting for buses in smallish towns sometimes do. The conversation was standard post-holiday small talk, until we somehow veered onto the subject of her guinea pigs. She informed me on the multi-generational commune of guinea pigs she took care of. Their cage, apparently, took over half of her living room. She was able to train them — one of them earned a certificate because he could literally jump through hoops. Lady, if you’re out there, I would love to see a video.

Peoples’ eyes light up when they talk about their pets. This isn’t surprising, when we consider that the chemicals we release when we hug a loved one or, in fact, give birth, the same ones we release when cuddling up to our pets. That dose of fuzzy-wuzzy feel-good cocktail can be therapeutic when we feel alone.

And when buying and caring for a traditional pet isn’t an option, we can always get creative. Plants, apart from decorating a room and purifying the air we breathe, can also give us the feeling we crave in a symbiotic relationship. Caring for a plant and watching it grow just feels good.

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Seen here: my humiliated Spaniel and my smirking sister.

5. Enjoy your own Company
Let’s cut to the core of it: this won’t be easy if we’re constantly berating ourselves about not being _____ enough. Who wants to spend time with an asshole who won’t shut up about our weight, our lack of productivity, our undesirability, and our giggle-snorts?

Self-acceptance takes time and practice. We have to gently retrain our minds, like so many cute puppies peeing on the carpet, to speak to ourselves the way we would speak to a loved one. But it’s a practice that’s well worth the effort. When we’re able to hang out in our own heads without criticism and instead with encouraging thoughts and rational suggestions for improvement, we edge closer from the pain of isolation to the peace of solitude. We can’t always control our circumstances, but we can decide to cut ourselves a break and say something nice for a change.

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Fear not the gratuitous selfies. 

If you’re feeling isolated right now, take heed: you’re not alone, and this situation won’t last forever. If you can, reach out to someone— however you can muster it. Make plans for your future. Find friends in books, movies, music, and meet some friendly plants and animals. Above all, treat yourself like the worthy and worthwhile person that you are.

Settle

stare from window sill at streets
made narrow, strangled by the jagged
angles — concrete towers stab
through cloud or cloak of smog

they rise as you rise
from itchy bare mattress
(cheap sheets forgotten
at a former address)

wade through clutter
shudder at the boxes
that tower from the floor
push past, find the door

outside the boulevard is black
from rain. stand, soaked
shrug off that you heard
the sound of your name

How to Feel Settled in a New Place

Whether it’s for school, work, family obligations, or simply an attempt to leave a stagnant routine behind, most of us experience the disorienting business of picking up our belongings, and setting them down somewhere new. This action can take place on a small scale, such as when we leave our noisy, cockroach-infested downtown apartment for something a little quieter, if more rustic, on the outskirts of town. Or, it can be a massive move overseas or across the country, complete with an unknown language and a staggering sense of alienation. Regardless of the scale or reason, it’s difficult to conjure up those familiar adjectives about a new place — cozy, restful, Netflix-coma-inducing — and feel settled in a foreign environment. There are new neighbours (some maybe a little too friendly), new smells (hello, pulp mill), and new wildlife (that spider may be venomous). The following are some tips on how to feel settled in a new neighbourhood.

1. Surround Yourself with Familiar Objects that Bring you Comfort and Joy
Of course, this doesn’t mean schlepping every possession you’ve ever owned to your new abode. The key here is quality. It could be an evocative piece of original artwork, framed photos of loved ones, or perhaps a collection of rare beanie babies from your childhood (comfort is not about judgment). Ideally, display these objects in a place you will see every day. If they are well-chosen, they will remind you that you are still you, even if your new dig has hideous pastel wallpaper.

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Some of my favourite belongings: my plants, a hand-painted gnome, and 90 kilograms of books.

2. Go for a Walk in the Area Immediately Surrounding your House
Not only will this pilgrimage help to orient you, it will allow you to uncover the hidden gems in your neighbourhood that can often be missed when traveling by bus or by car. Perhaps there is a park nearby where you can direct your good intentions to go for brisk morning jogs. Or, maybe there is a corner store that sells emergency chocolate or wine. You may realize you live near a haunted-looking empty lot and make a mental note to avoid it after dark.

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Closed-up shops looking more than a little sinister on an eerily quiet Sunday afternoon.

3. Know your Amenities
What sorts of amenities does your new neighbourhood have? It is helpful to know of organizations such as immigration welcome services, women’s centres, LGBTQ support centres, government buildings, police stations, hospitals, and recreation centres. In many cases, it’s useful to simply strut into these places (if you think you qualify for their services) and introduce yourself as new in the neighbourhood. Often, you will be loaded down with information pamphlets, business cards, activity guides and, if you’re lucky, free welcome candies. This can be a gateway to finding relevant resources, such as community food box programs (because honestly, fresh produce should always be relevant).

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This intimidating amount of fruits and vegetables comes from my community’s fifteen-dollar Good Food Box.

4. Draw a Crude Map of your New Surroundings
You can now beautifully render the amenities you found out about and re-name landmarks to better suit your purposes and personality. This also becomes a handy mental image to have on hand when old friends and relatives ask how far the nearest grocery store is from your new house, since, according to your map, it’s roughly three concrete buildings away from the public square, which is a gas-station away from your house. You will be giving lost drivers directions to nearby hotels in no time.

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Here is the most accurate map I’ve made of my new town.

5. Keep in Touch with Old Friends
Just because you’ve moved on to a glamorous dorm room or an urban studio apartment doesn’t mean you should forget those who have supported you through your humble beginnings. Through the magic of social media and good old-fashioned phone calls, you can report back all of your fascinating adventures. If you want to make it even more retro, invest in a pack of stamps and mail letters and postcards to your loved ones. Most people appreciate receiving mail that isn’t related to the third final notice regarding their student loans.

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Pictured here: a fresh pack of good intentions.

So there it is, five simple steps towards feeling more settled in a new neighbourhood. If you have any advice you would like to add, please comment below. Stay tuned for a related poem on the topic of “settling in”.