Monday, December 1, 2008


I’ve been thinking about rules. They’re orderly, secure, and reduce cognitive load. Well, I suppose they could increase cognitive load if you want to respond to the rule, consider whether to follow it or break it, decide to break it, and plan for not getting caught. That would definitely be harder. But just following rules. Easy. So I’ve decided to make some rules for this endeavor. The general notion is that I have to feed myself for one week for only $25 . But of course, I’m likely to get all wiley and cheat by eating nothing but bacon and ramen for the next 7 days and that’s just not interesting so I should definitely be more stern with myself. Here goes.

(1) Major elements of my plan cannot displease my mother.

For example, skipping breakfast and eating nothing but a hard-boiled egg for lunch does not constitute a meal plan. It’s a great way to save some money, but it really tells us nothing about whether a person can have a reasonable diet for $25. All it would demonstrate is that you can starve yourself even if you have $25. That’s really not interesting.

(2) My food has to come in retail quantities.

If I need 2 tablespoons of butter – I can’t buy a whole pound and then charge myself for 2 tablespoons only. You’ve probably seen those articles: “Feed your family for only $3.00!” The price break down will be listed something like: 2 eggs, $0.29, 1 cup milk $0.24, etc., etc. Last I checked, you cannot walk into a store and buy 2 eggs and 1 cup of milk. If you only have $3.00 – you’re not going to be able to make this $3.00 meal, because you’ll need to actually buy a dozen eggs and a whole half gallon of milk. I’m boring you with this. I’m stopping. The point is that I can’t charge myself a fraction of the price because I only used a fraction. I have to buy in retail quantities and still stay under $25. (Note: If the store offers bulk items, then that’s different and I plan to make ample use of this option, but even natural food stores don’t let you buy a tablespoon of butter in bulk so that’s out).

(3) Now the hardest rule – my diet needs to be balanced and nutritious.

Surviving for a week on $25 isn’t interesting. Even if I ate nothing for one week, it’s unlikely that I would die, so mere survival can’t be the criterion. Getting adequate calories can’t be the criterion either. I could easily walk into the store and buy 10 lbs of rice and easily fulfill my daily caloric needs for less than $25. That’s not interesting either. Eating well for $25? That sounds at least sort of interesting, right? So what should we set as the definition of “balanced and nutritious”? Personally, I’m fond of Michael Pollan’s simple admonishment to “Eat food. Not a lot. Mostly plants,” but it’s hard to evaluate that so I will turn to Pollan’s much-reviled USDA food pyramid. Say what you want about it (and I'd probably agree with you), but it seems like a particularly fitting criterion. If the government says this is what we should be eating, then shouldn’t the governmental stipend for eating be adequate to cover their own rules about what to eat? I agree. It should. So I’m going to make a rule that the food pyramid should approve of my eating habits.

That's it for rules.

I've said this before, but I want to reiterate it to be clear. I’m going to give $25/week every chance to succeed (thus, making a failure, were it to occur, more convincing). To this end, I will shop at multiple stores, compare prices, and choose the lowest price. This is totally unrealistic. Many food stamp recipients don’t even have one grocery store in their neighborhood let alone several. Nonetheless, I promised to try really, really, really hard to eat well on $25, and trying that hard to show the food stamp administrators aren’t assholes requires tipping the scales in their favor. We’re giving them a head start. Let’s see how they do.In the interest of full-disclosure, I plan to cheat. Here are the ways.

(1) I will continue taking a multivitamin and a calcium supplement and will not factor in their cost to my budget.

(2) I plan to steal things – things like little packets of soy sauce and ketchup. I’ll wait until nobody is looking, but I’m not sure they’ll care anyway. There is also an abandoned-looking house at the corner of my street with untended sage and oregano taking over the front planter. I am certain that I will nonchalantly steal some. If it were fall, I would steal crab apples from the park, but it’s not fall. I wish it were.

That’s it for rules and rule-breaking. Next up – shopping.

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