Thoughts on Stuff and Food and …other stuff

We stopped by the library this morning and I picked up two books by Peter Menzel –“Material World,” which (I’ve not read it yet, only scanned it enough to get the idea) compares the worldly possessions of various people around the world. The second, which I’m almost half finished with is “Hungry Planet,” which is a comparison of what various families around the world eat in a week. It’s absolutely stunning, in the whole sense of the word. Currently, I’ve been revamping our family grocery budget and going back to meal planning after way too long depending on last-minute nutritionally void things like peanut butter sandwiches and macaroni and cheese and frozen pizza. What I’ve discovered from personal experience is that it’s actually far cheaper to eat crap than it is to eat healthy. I no longer wonder why so many low-income families are overweight. When you’re living a busy life and can’t afford to go to places like our local “Main Dish” that allow you to assemble healthier meals to be frozen ahead (an ingenious idea, by the way –one I wish I’d thought up), it’s easy to get stuck in a rut of frozen pizza and sugar- and sodium-laden meals in a box. Food stamps will buy you a lot more twinkies and cheap TV dinners than they will fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grain bread (ask me how I know…), and when you’re shopping with children (something I generally try to avoid), things like Teddy Grahams and cheeze puffs tend to fly into the cart a whole lot more readily than they do otherwise.

I have a love/hate relationship with Aldi. For the non-midwesterners, Aldi is the low-income salvation of many a grocery budget. They have about 95% store-brand items, almost all of which are far below regular grocery prices. White bread can be bought for under 75 cents a loaf, a box of graham crackers for 98 cents, a frozen pizza for under 2 bucks, a large bag of pretzels for around 98 cents as well… The problem is, there’s just so much cheap junk food and processed food there that it’s easy to justify filling a cart with things I wouldn’t normally buy just because, hey, I can “afford” it here! So far, I’ve managed to keep it to a minimum –just buying staples like white flour, sugar, butter (usually around $1.75 a lb. –far below other stores), white bread for grilled cheese, yogurt, milk, cheese, chocolate chips, animal crackers …okay. You see what I mean?

Where was I? Oh. Food and world hunger. And Peter Menzel. Anyway, it’s really convicting to see a picture of a week’s groceries for a family of six in Australia (think lots of frozen fish sticks, sausage, soda –oh, and did I mention the family is overweight and diabetic?), then turn to a week’s groceries for a family of 5 in Bhutan. Whoa. Talk about extremes. For the homeschoolers out there, this would be a fabulous book for a unit study for upper elementary kids, by the way –lots of opportunities for doing charts and graphs and comparisons… Even before I cracked the book open, I’ve been concerned with the amount of trash we’ve been generating lately. It’s been around 4-5 bags a week. Probably not a lot for some, but for us, that’s quite a bit more than normal. Lots of food packages, which means we’re probably eating too much processed stuff. I’ve been inspired by the book to work toward more cooking from scratch, less empty calorie snacks (which probably account for my extra 10 lbs…), and thinking more about my attitudes toward food.

I did Weight Watchers early last year and managed to lose almost 15 lbs, 5 of which I’ve regained over the summer. The whole “weight loss journey” was started by a fast from “junk food” and desserts for a weekend. That experience taught me a lot about my attitude toward food, and let me know that something had/has to change. I, for some reason, have come to think of food (specifically snack food and desserts which make up far too much of my diet) as entertainment and a luxury rather than nourishment. I know that what I eat directly affects my health, mentally and physically, but somehow, I don’t want to carry that out to living in light of the fact. I’m quite comfortable ignoring it and going on, sick of being overweight, sick of being short-tempered and sugar-crashed, but not so sick of it that I will stop buying Pringles or quitting after two chocolate chip cookies. Doing Weight Watchers taught me that I don’t have to live that way, and dropping Pringles from the shopping list and eating fewer cookies has a very real payoff in my energy level and my attitude. 

However, I’m not sure that was the answer in and of itself. Basically, their plan is a well-organized system of the only diet lifestyle that works: Eat Less (or at least better) and Move More. I don’t feel like paying money for someone to tell me that any more. Somehow, though, not having a weekly weigh in and keeping a record of what I eat has not helped me this summer –there’s 5 lbs. more of me than there used to be. The old attitudes crept in again. Accountability is, I think, one thing that helped keep me on track.

Bringing it full-circle, I think reading this book helped wake me up to the fact that what I view as needs and moan about not having really isn’t that essential after all. Tonight, my little victory was squashing the urge to call for (or make) pizza and instead using the eggs that are going out of date and the leftover cooked brown rice in my fridge to make a souffle (in case you’re interested, it’s the “Cheese and Rice Souffle” in the “More With Less Cookbook” published by Mennonite Central Committee) …which, by the way, tasted pretty good. And it means a few less things to haul to the curb next Friday after I’ve had my weekly frustration session after cleaning the fridge of all the forgotten items I meant well to save, but didn’t use because I ate what I wanted instead of what I should have (“ooh! cottage cheese! Darn! That was supposed to be in a lasagna …three weeks ago! Aaargh!”). Somehow, I don’t think they have those problems in Chad… I have such a long way to go.