11 September 2012

Food budget secret: No coupons, ever

NBC's Today show provides a brief list of food budget tips. The one most surprising to readers who are familiar with the "extreme couponing" idea celebrated on reality TV is the view of the author there urging you not to use coupons at all, ever.

Here at Rowhouse Livin', we almost completely agree. But if I had to put a percentage on it, I'd say we avoid coupons for 98% of what we buy. Though I'm no knee-jerk brand loyalist, about two percent of what I bring into the house is stuff I buy very specifically by brand: sugar, hippie toothpaste(note this is not an invitation to debate fluoride), certain feminine products, and one or two shelf-stable emergency food supply items.

It's really important to remember what coupons truly are: they're ads. Look at the coupons in the Sunday paper. It's page after page of products that are new or improved or more conveniently packaged than previous versions or formulations. And they're all convenience foods, things that are processed with more sodium and preservatives, but less vitamins, than what you'd prefer to consume (or what your body would prefer you'd give it, anyway). Note what never, ever shows up in the Sunday coupons: fresh produce, dairy items, and unprocessed grains and legumes. But those are the very items that should make up the bulk of your diet! And you can make most of the convenience foods you see advertised in the coupon section for even less than if you buy them with a coupon. Example: A 4-oz. package of a noodle side dish with powdered sauce costs $2.59. But getting it with even a $1.00 coupon is not a deal! The package will yield just 1 1/3 cups of finished noodles, and you had to add perhaps $0.20 worth of butter and milk to it anyway. Your $1.00 coupon is now only an $0.80 coupon, so your total is $1.79. You have not actually saved any time, because pasta takes as long as pasta will take to cook.

To replicate this expensive convenience food, prepare 1/4 of a 1-lb. box of pasta and serve with a thin sauce Mornay. Boom, you've spent about $0.25 for the pasta and maybe $0.35 for the milk, flour, cheese, seasoning, and herbs or spices. The sauce prepares while the pasta is cooking, so it takes no more time than the packet noodles. Plus, the result won't carry the stale taste you get from starting a sauce with flavor powder. Next question for the hippies at Rowhouse Livin' is whether Knorr includes any scary-sounding ingredients in its flavor powder. I did not find ingredient information for Knorr's alfredo-flavored noodle side dish on Knorr's own website, but I did find similar info elsewhere: Knorr's cheddar-flavored rotini side dish noodles include disodium guanylate and undefined "natural" flavors. The first chemical there is a garden-variety flavor enhancer. As to the second, it's all fun and games with "natural" flavorings until you understand that the FDA does not require food labels to disclose the source of the flavor (21 CFR 101.22). This is a not-so-well-known problem for people with restrictive dietary choices (of whatever nature, whether medical, religious, or other). If you "don't dig on swine" (NSFW), then beware of a package of split-pea soup that includes natural flavorings, because they're almost certainly derived from ham. In fact, just about any soup that is not explicitly labeled as "vegetarian" almost certainly includes "natural flavorings" derived from beef or chicken ingredients.

Thanks, FDA!

But back to the math. Making your own side dish of noodles in the same quantity that you'd buy in a convenience packet costs about $0.60. Less, if you use powdered milk as we do, but we're freaks who don't otherwise consume milk in the house, so we buy only powdered milk and reconstitute it as needed for sauces, desserts, and beverages. But I'll use a cost more realistic for readers, who probably buy fluid milk. To continue, the convenience packet noodles, without a coupon, cost $2.79 prepared. You won't beat the Rowhouse Livin' price unless you find a coupon deal for some $2.00; and then, even if you do find a deal, you'll have to accept the nutritional and freshness trade-offs of using a highly processed food. Or in other words, for the same price as one package of side dish noodles, you can make four from scratch. And in whatever style you like! Basil-spiked, for a creamy American-style alfredo, for instance, or earthy with a smoked sharp Cheddar, mmmm.

My point, and I do have one, is this. I contend that this math is universal among coupon use. The coupons are, in fact, ads for convenience foods, not budget-friendly discounts offered by altruistic food manufacturers. These foods are poor in nutrition compared to what you can make at home. Their preparation is not actually less time-consuming than their home-made equivalents; it's a silly, expensive myth that cooking from scratch takes a whole lot of time. (A huge exception comes to mind: the granola barswe keep on hand for emergencies and days with weird schedules.) So quit couponing. Better to keep a price book so you know when certain things cyclically go on sale, and make dishes from fresh, scratch ingredients at home.

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