Gourmet on a budget

Practical tips, not fuzzy logic

March 4, 2010

Judging by its title, you’d think the venerable periodical Newsweek covers, well, the news. But that’s not all, folks. Like Time magazine, its chief competitor, Newsweek devotes its back pages to Culture: movies, books, trends, and, thanks to contributing editor Julia Reed, food.

Reed is also a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, which may explain the tin ear she has for popular culture. In her Newsweek columns, she’s dissed candy canes as insipidly sweet and reminisced fondly about lavish New York City restaurant meals. She’s complained about the boring blandness of Thanksgiving turkeys and the American insistence on eating eggs only at breakfast. The French, after all, eat fried eggs on their pizza. Très chic, non?

Most recently, in the March 1 issue, Reed bragged about how she and her husband are managing to dine well on only $50 a week. Fifty bucks a week sounds admirably restrained; my household of two adults, plus a baby, a cat, and three chickens, struggles to spend less than $100 each week on food and sundries. Reed arrived at that $50 figure, however, not via penny-pinching necessity but through a bet with a friend. Whoever loses the month-long challenge has to pay for, as Reed writes, “a fittingly extravagant dinner.” Which, presumably, would make up for all that grocery slumming.

Stocking a pantry isn’t free.

Reed doesn’t offer her Newsweek readers economical shopping tips, or even any proof that she’s managed to stick to her $50-a-week budget. Some of her menu suggestions are indeed budget-minded: lentil soup, pasta puttanesca, and braised pork shoulder. But her basic strategy smacks of the recent banking shenanigans that landed us in the Great Recession: fudging the numbers so that debt actually looks like profit.

Reed’s secret budgetary weapon, it turns out, is to raid her well-stocked pantry and write off its contents as “free.” Sure, some of her high-end foodstuffs were gifts (saffron from friends, cheese from her mother), but most she paid for herself: pasta purchased on trips to Italy, vinegars, oils, anchovies, capers, pickled figs, chutneys, and the like. None of these tasty items come cheap from the store. But hey, if you consider them to be free, then by all means do as Julia did and devote your $50-a-week budget to buying watercress, endive, and veal.

In my household, we don’t wait until a tipsy bet to start rummaging through our pantry. We stock it, regularly. We pay for the lentils and rice and pasta we keep there. We also paid for the grass-fed beef (average cost: $3 a pound) we bought in bulk and stashed in our chest freezer, and we paid for the seeds we planted in our garden last year, and we paid for the canning jars and sugar and vinegar we used to preserve our surplus harvest of zucchini, cucumbers, tomatoes, and figs.

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We paid for our three chickens, and the supplies we needed to build their coop, and the organic feed we give them every day. Our hometown of Portland, Oregon, offers a nine-month series of classes in organic gardening for a few hundred bucks a pop, so my husband signed up last year. The city also gets a large wad of our hard-earned dinero every summer in exchange for providing us with water for our garden. And we just paid an arborist more than $400 to do some major pruning, so we’ll have healthier trees and better fig harvests. If anyone wants to pay us for the many hours we spend digging, composting, transplanting, thinning, weeding, mulching, and the like, we’re happy to entertain offers.

In the meantime, we’ve ditched the grocery store. Instead, we plan a week’s worth of meals, then order groceries online from a local chain, New Seasons. The store charges 10 bucks for home delivery, but we spend less every week than if we were bopping around the store, snapping up impulse purchases of lemon curd and chocolate-cherry bread. Online, we can’t help but watch the grocery tally tot up as we add items to our virtual cart — and we’re always surprised how fast we reach that $100 mark. But that’s our new rule for 2010: three digits, and we’re done.

Actually, if we weren’t such picky foodies, we might get closer to that $50-a-week goal. We could buy non-organic dairy products, for example. But we’re not willing to knowingly drink milk laced with growth hormone and antibiotics. We save elsewhere — we eat a lot of red beans and rice, a dish that Reed, a proud Southerner and New Orleans resident, should be familiar with.

Frankly, if Reed weren’t such a picky foodie herself, she might effect real change in the way America eats. Her column slamming turkey was actually an encomium to the less plump but better tasting heritage-breed turkeys — birds that would otherwise go extinct if we didn’t eat them. Her column on eggs offered many good ideas for eating eggs — a cheap, delicious, complex source of good fats and proteins — for lunch and dinner.

But the subversive call to arms gets buried under the extravagant self-indulgence. If Reed took the time to read the front of her own magazine — the one with cover headlines like "Why Layoffs Are Bad for Business" — she might start to get the real message.

Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor.

There are 12 comments on this item
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1. by Jenny on Mar 4, 2010 at 6:20 PM PST

The only thing I can hope for is that the average reader will read Reed’s column and see it for nothing more than what it is--a humorous fluff piece meant to capitalize on where the nation’s interest currently lies (the food industry, its evils, or the romantic tales of Julia Powell and Julia Child).

There was a challenge I caught on the web a few months ago that I think Reed’s little trial actually mirrored--don’t go near a market or grocery store for just one week and use the contents of your pantry. What her piece seemed to capture--at least more than trying to explain how one can dine on $50 a week did--is how much Americans collect and hoard for the sake of having (I also have a collection of books collecting dust after my first thought to read them occurred over three years ago). The better challenge is to use what you already own instead of going out to collect more in the hopes of having fodder for a future fluff piece. Accomplishing that would be well worth the extravagant dinner after “slumming” through my cupboards.

2. by David Silva on Mar 5, 2010 at 9:23 AM PST

I see the points in both arguments, but I agree with Jenny. Especially being in New York, when those “chic pantry items” are an even prettier penny.

3. by jillblevins on Mar 10, 2010 at 12:26 PM PST

Any article mentioning both saving money and New Seasons has my complete attention. When I lived in Portland, I had my $50 weeks and it was tough without a full pantry and other cheats. That’s why, although admirable, when Kulongowski goes on his week-long living-on-food-stamps publicity tours, I laugh. Clean out your pantry, don’t eat from any other source, and you’ll earn my respect.

Thank you for injecting chickens and other realities (“three digits and you’re done” is genius) into the discussion. You are effecting the real change many of us want to see in the world, chicken by chicken, click by three digit click.

4. by Anne Zimmerman on Mar 10, 2010 at 1:32 PM PST

Interesting take on the economical gourmet issue. I can’t help but think, however, you’re being a bit harsh on Reed. I am so thankful to have a pantry lined with occasional food splurges -- usually jams, oils and vinegars, and spices purchased as a special treat on vacations or a luxurious afternoon out. Yes, they up the average of my weekly food budget (which is lean), but isn’t that the point of stocking up? Buy some great treats when times are good so you can eat well when they aren’t? Or is that just my philosophy?

5. by Jenny on Mar 10, 2010 at 2:18 PM PST

Anne -- I completely agree and hold onto that philosophy as well. When able I will go ahead and pick up a jar or two or a box or three of something I wouldn’t normally pick up. It’s like saving up for a rainy day. I found Reed’s article an entertaining piece.

6. by Mark Capriotti on Mar 10, 2010 at 2:28 PM PST

Yes, Anne, that is just YOUR philosophy. If you can call that philosophy. Does anyone really stock up on walnut oil “when times are good” and not use it? Think about that...it’s just insane.

If anything I would say that this article isn’t harsh enough on the chicanery Reed tries to pass off as “savings”. Reed is out of her mind if she justifies using items from the pantry as a money saving technique. The gifts aside...she PAID for those items. It’s simple math. She needs to account for the cost of those items whatever meal she is preparing.

Here’s my favorite part:

“I have also vowed to lose 10 pounds so that I may be able to shop my own closet. I have to. I need something chic to wear to the big dinner I’m about to win.”


The only thing more insane than this article is that Reed is a contributing editor for two major magazines.

7. by jill randall on Mar 10, 2010 at 7:33 PM PST

Since cracking down on the grocery budget this year for our family of 2 adults and 3 children, I, too, decided to shop online for groceries. Although the store does not deliver in my area, the $6.95 fee I pay for pick-up is well-worth not having to troll around the store, saving me from undoubtedly picking up this or that -- splurges that are not on my list. Weekly specials are noted on the page, and the price per ounce or unit easy to figure. When I go pick up my order, already sacked up and ready to go, I smile knowing I saved time and money, all from the comfort of my computer chair.

8. by Lisamary Wichowski on Mar 11, 2010 at 1:33 PM PST

Brava Caroline. My allotment and the care it takes are not free. Neither are the supplies from canning what comes in from them and the farmers markets. I too, adore NS online shopping for that reason-and believe that their annual buy in bulk sale is coming up! That shopping “trip” will be over three digits!

9. by AsTheNight on Mar 12, 2010 at 11:13 AM PST

If I hadn’t just come in from turning over the garden, I’d give you a standing ovation. Well said!

10. by zegg on Mar 16, 2010 at 8:37 AM PDT

While I agree that living off the contents of your lavishly stocked pantry is not living on a true budget, nonetheless it does prevent food going to waste. I think learning to not waste things is an important part of living frugally. We might buy something we only need a spoonful of for a particular recipe and then trying to find ways of using it up before it spoils can be a challenge. Anything that reduces the amount of food thrown away is a good idea.

11. by Patricia on May 19, 2010 at 5:28 PM PDT

Excellent appraisal of the article. Perhaps Ms Reed is planning to run for office one day soon.

12. by Rita Jacobs on Dec 3, 2012 at 6:28 AM PST

I can’t get grass-fed beef for under $6.00 per pound! How did you find it? I see cows grazing around here perhaps I should knock on a door? But then I’d need a way to get it someplace to be butchered and they charge by the pound for that too. Honestly, I am rarely pleased when I see someone claiming to have the answers for eating better for less. They are not aimed at those of low enough income to need food stamps. I am right above food stamps myself. I admire you for being able to eat ethically on a small budget. I also realize that what you do to achieve it is not possible in Government Housing, an apartment, a house with a small lot. So while you look at her and go, “WHAT!” Others can look at you and say the exact same thing! It just is not possible in their location, situation, with their income, etc. I try to purchase whole foods myself. I am going to try and find some meatless meals my family will eat but they are very picky. I’m a mom and I do not know enough about Vegetarian nutrition to just start making meatless meals and throwing them at family in a hit or miss fashion. So a few helpful books are in the mail.

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