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Food: Good Intentions and the Road to Broken Budgets

[written in August, 2013 through May, 2014, but probably eternal :)]

More than one law student (perhaps even I) ruined the carefully-planned budget by eating too many lunches out and too many dinners from the local pizza and sub shop. And Starbucks hadn't even been invented yet!

First, you have to get the groceries from the supermarket to your dinner table. Lanette Creamer posted a great list of bgasic cooking supplies on Quora (www.quora.com).

What you need to cook: 1. One quality pan. 2. One small and one large pot. 3. One quality chef knife. 4. One quality paring knife. 5. A cutting board. 6. Internet access. 7. Cheap measuring cups and spoons. 8. A mixing bowl. 9. Bonus: A casserole dish and a cookie sheet.

That's it. Literally. You can find online recipes to your tastes and do a great job cooking healthy food to your budget using just these items. A few very simple meals that anyone can make: 26 Foods You Should Learn To Cook In Your Twenties should help you get started.

I've added to Lanette's rules of basic cooking some easy-to-make foods for the super-busy and fairly poor student:

I decided to include some general rules a la David Letterman. Here's the Top Ten Rules of Eating for Law Students.

10. Given enough time, rice will expand to absorb Lake Michigan. Only add rice when you're going to eat it. (If you have a rice cooker, you can steam a bunch and freeze it, but the grains break some when they defrost.)

9. Green peppers double in flavor with each day that they sit in a salad or soup. They don't freeze well either, but you can use a second half a day or two later than the first half if you treat it well (sealed tightly in a baggie or plastic wrap).

8. Many people lack the Mediterranean Garlic gene (a/k/a the Italian Garlic Gene). In these people, garlic oozes from their pores for three days after they eat a garlic-laden dish. If you're one of these people, DO NOT make a three-day batch of whatever; you'll have no friends by the end of the week.

7. DO NOT keep hummus and pita in the house, unless you need to put on ten pounds. There's no ingredient to trigger the "too much" reflex, and studying can go on for hours. Also, there's the "missing Mediterranean Garlic gene" risk.

6. Always keep PBJ in the house; it may not be healthy, but it's cheap and fast, and you know when to stop. But if you go through more than one jar of each a month, you're cheating.

5. Also stock up on canned soup. Buy six, and when you're down to 2, buy more. If you're buying more in the same week, and it's not finals time, keep reading to learn a few recipes.

4. Avoid the Olive Bar. At $10 a pound, you're not saving any money, which is our main purpose here.

3. Candy is your enemy. At a piece per page, you'll graduate law school weighing twice what you weighed when you started, unless you spend more time at the gym than you can afford.

2. Coffee is not one of the four essential food groups. It's a nifty substitute for sleep, and safer than certain other chemicals, but a better plan is to organize your time.

1. Once a month you may break all the rules. Law school makes you martyr enough without having to sacrifice your favorite food splurge in the bargain.

Cooking for a week at a time is probably the first skill you'll learn as a law student, unless you own stock in Domino's Pizza and Top Ramen.

Freezing Stews and Soups

[originally on my facebook page from August 20th, 2013]

I decided to add a bit of panache to my meals this week by making Tum Ka Gai, a Thai chicken soup. So here's the law student or other busy person secret: if you cook the snow peas and mushrooms in the soup, you can't freeze it; they come out a mushy mess. But you can make the broth: chicken broth, water, coconut milk, lime juice, and soy sauce, tamari or fish sauce, some spices. Make a gallon. If you know you're always going to have it with chicken, throw that in with the broth; it freezes fine. Shrimp and tofu don't.

Freeze three quarts. Then you can throw some veggies in each quart and have four meals for the work of one (or eight, if you don't eat all the soup). You can add noodles to make the meal more substantial. Those transparent noodles often called cellophane or glass noodles, which are made from sweet potato starch, are my favorites.

In case you're not a natural cook, here's a recipe pretty much like mine: http://thaifood.about.com/od/thai snacks/r/TomKaKaisoup.htm
I put less sugar, but I do put some to offset the lime juice.

Thou Shalt Not Freeze

Sauces and meats tend to freeze quite well, while veggies, especially crispy ones don't. For the biologists among you, freezing breaks cell walls, turning crisp into mush literally overnight. (The problems of long-term freezing need not concern us here; how likely are you, the law student, to keep ice cream in the freezer for more than six weeks?)

This is a great compromise between fast and home-made. Once in a while, you cook a big bunch of stew meat, ground beef, chicken, sausage. Cook it in or out of a broth, depending on how likely you are to want exactly the same meal again. Freeze it into portions. Periodically defrost some and add veggies, rice or noodles, and you have a quick, healthy, home-made meal.

Beans and veggies freeze poorly, making soups a bad thing for long-term planning, in general. But lentil and split-pea soups DO freeze well, since the bean is supposed to get all mushy!

Buy it Frozen

Those bulk food stores we all know often have meatballs, won tons (or the same thing called meat or vegetable dumplings), and unbreaded fish or shrimp. Any of these can be bought, kept frozen, and thrown into some broth. You can buy chicken, beef, or vegetable broth. If you're not used to looking for broth, it often comes in a rectangular box like the kids' juices, instead of that round can you remember your mother (grandmother?) using.

If you want to get fancy, follow the rules above for "Thou Shalt Not Freeze." Noodles with dumplings are probably a bit too heavy on the starches.

Burritos and Wraps

[August 23rd]

Recipe #2 is the tortilla or burrito. Buy 5 pounds of ground meat; cook it all with some spices and divide into sealable baggies. (I put about 12 ounces in a bag, but I can't eat beans or rice. If you're going to use beans, you can cut the meat to 8 ounces (one measuring-cup cup). Buy some canned beans, the salsas of your choice, and tortillas you can keep in the fridge. Some cheese (I like the jalapeno jack) will stay good for about 2 weeks, so don't buy too much. Shredded greens (cole slaw mix or broccoli salad mix are healthier than just lettuce) last about a week, so one bag is plenty. If you like you can add sour cream, which will also stay good for a week, and guacamole, which lasts for the night you opened it, so skip it if you're trying to save money.

With all those ingredients, this is DINNER. It takes time to set up and clean up. But it's healthy, cheap, and reminds you of those good old college days when a 45-minute dinner was no big deal. More importantly, it saves you shopping time. One trip to the store and one frying pan of meat can prepare two to four meals.

BTW, you may have noticed this is "Ethnic cooking 101." We'll have pasta, won ton soup, Stroganoff, omelets and quiches. We will not have mac'n'cheese, PBJ, Ragu, except on emergency lists (a/k/a finals). I don't eat them, and you probably already know how to make them. (If you must use a jar of spaghetti sauce, Classico garlic sauce is one of the few with no sugar. But consider the Mediterranean Garlic Gene problem.)

I WILL recommend any kind of instant food that you can keep in a locker and nuke when you stay at school later than you planned. Tea bags are also a good idea, as is protein powder or cocoa that you can mix with milk. If you can stand instant coffee, go for it. You can save as much as $10 a day by eating most in-school meals from ingredients in your locker.

On the "What to eat" board, I have, at great personal sacrifice, compared the Burger King Bacon Double Cheeseburger with the Wendy's Baconator. Wendy's costs more, but you definitely get more protein and fewer carbs for your money.

The ubiquitous chicken breast

[September 1]

You buy skinless boneless chicken breasts on sale. You cook a humongous batch, and freeze two to a baggie. Before you leave for school in the morning, you throw a baggie in the fridge or the sink, depending on when you'll be back. Buy any kind of canned sauce — Alfredo, garlic and red pepper, salsa — and a veggie or two, and you have a good meal in less than an hour. And if you buy prepared sauces, you don't need to learn about spices.

White sauces are good with leafy greens, green beans, sliced tomatoes. Red sauces are good with stronger flavors — broccoli, bell peppers, cabbage, green olives. Mushrooms and Spanish black olives (the canned kind) go either way.

These are way healthier than frozen dinners. Companies put so much filler — starch, corn syrup, etc. — into each package that you gain weight and have no idea why. Rice-a-roni is good and Hamburger Helper bad for the same reasons. With Rice-a-roni you know you're buying starch; with Hamburger Helper you have no idea how much starch is in something that sounds healthy.

If a lot of your ingredients come out of cans, lay off the salt; most canned veggies are "brined," a high-salt processing technique.

Polenta

[September 12]

Polenta is Italian grits. You can buy it in the refrigerated case already cooked, or dry in a box or bag, near the corn meal (and hush puppy mix, if you're in the south).

It cooks in about three minutes and should be as thick as peanut butter. Spread it on a cookie sheet. Then, when it cools, it's thick enough to cut with a knife. Top it with or without a sauce, meat, veggies, etc. Press in lightly, heat in the oven for about 10 minutes.

You can make a big batch of polenta and cover it tightly, and it will last about 2 weeks in the fridge. I like Classico garlic tomato sauce, spinach, black olives, sausage meat or pepperoni, and mozzarella, but you can like what you like. The advantage of this is that it's healthier than pizza, cheaper, and fresh every day.

If you make a baking pan (cookie sheet) full with veggies and sauces, you can wrap, freeze and microwave, so this is a good now and later meal.

Don't Buy it Frozen

Whole dinners and snack foods tend to be cheaters. They have way too much starch and sugar. Yeah, they sound good: pizza, pot pies, chicken tenders, Salisbury Steak with Garlic Mashed Potatoes, breaded fish filets (and an extra caution here: a lot of breaded food is breaded and raw. You still have to cook it.

The frozen French fry or hash brown is an exception. You already know what you're getting, and it's hard to add starch to a fry. In fact, because you bake them, they're often healthier than the ones from McD's.

Omelets

[September 14]

Omelets are easy. You need 2 or 3 eggs and your favorite cream of whatever soup. Cheese and bread optional. Oh, some butter or oil for the pan.

Whip your eggs in a bowl. Heat the pan with butter or oil. Pour the eggs in until they cover the bottom of the pan. If you know how to flip a pancake, wait until the edges stop looking runny, then flip. If you know you can't do that, put a lid on the pan so the eggs will cook through.

Spoon some of the soup right from the can onto the eggs. Add shredded cheese if you want. Cheddar goes well with asparagus, Swiss with mushroom, muenster or provolone with chicken. Fold in half or just put the lid back on until the cheese melts. Slide it onto a dish and viola! Fancy dining in 10 minutes.

Pasta and Pizza, and Pan (bread)

These are late on the list for a reason: if you rely on them too much, you'll gain a lot of weight. The occasional sandwich won't hurt you, but a steady diet of them is a bad idea. They ARE good for lunch if you have a reasonably cold place to keep them. (When I visited Richmond Law School in April 2014, we noted a fridge in the student commons, and were told that, as I suspected, your name on the bag gave a 50/50 chance of finding it there in three days. So be sure to add a date as well. People are less likely to think something's "left over" if it has today's date on it.)

Salads and Spices

[May 25, 2014]

Tuna salad, egg salad, tuna and egg salad, chicken salad, can all be eaten with or without bread. For most people, though, mayonnaise is essential, although I have managed a nice olive oil and lemon juice dressing on the tuna. For the true novice, Mayonnaise and Salad Dressing (Miracle Whip) are not the same. Salad Dressing has sugar, Mayonnaise doesn't. Also, for the regionally displaced: Hellman's Mayonnaise is Best Mayo in other parts of the country.

At its most basic, any of these salads is mashed up protein with mayo. Seasoning optional; added ingredients optional; bread optional. Added ingredients tend to follow the list for white sauces above (in the chicken breast section). Broccoli or celery and black olives go with any of them. Mushrooms are a touch-and-go with eggs or tuna. Raw broccoli can technically go with any of them, but I don't like it with chicken. (This probably has something to with its being raw; I like cooked broccoli with my chicken recipes.)

Spices are too personal to generalize. Nutmeg on spinach salad. Cayenne on anything. Dry mustard, but not wet, because wet has vinegar. Your best bet is to find something you like at a deli counter or friend's house and ask what's in it. Another, if you have a good nose, an imagination or olfactory memory, and a bulk spice section at your food store, is to smell the spice and imagine it with... Rosemary with tuna? Ick! Anise with chicken? Please, no!

A reasonable start is to find spice blends with names: poultry seasoning, seafood blend, Italian spices. But be sure to read the labels. If there's sugar, starch, MSG, etc., you're better off trying one or two of the spices instead of buying the blend. And if your store has a bulk spice section, you can buy a tablespoon of the stuff for a quarter and see if you like it.

Pasta or Grain Salads

Hey, wait — didn't I say no pasta? Not as a meal in itself: too much carb, too little anything else. But pasta salads can be a great compromise.

If you're willing to eat the same thing four days in a row, start with a pound of pasta; otherwise, look for the 8 to 12 ounce pack. Ronzoni and Barillo tend to be the favorites of Italians; I dare not speak for others, except to acknowledge that allergies to gluten or wheat may force other choices. Add at least the same amount of frozen veggies, either just defrosted but uncooked or very lightly steamed; when you start stirring, you start mashing.

The true foodie will make sure the veggies and pasta are roughly the same size; baby elbows or miniature shells with peas, corn, carrots; Penne pasta (small Ziti) Rotelli or Rotini with green beans, broccoli florets, carrot wheels.

For the sauce: a can of cream of whatever, mixed with the same or a slightly smaller amount of mayo. (DON'T try this with Miracle Whip; pasta and sugar rarely go well together.) Diced chicken, tuna, or salami are optional. Salami goes particularly well with green beans or broccoli. In that case, you might want to try that olive oil and lemon dressing.

Spices: tend toward the more ethnic but mild: marjoram, cilantro, black pepper. Mint, especially spearmint, does surprisingly well here.

Other grain and veggie recipes include tabouli and African chick pea salad. If the chick peas are too time-consuming, you can make the same with lentils to great effect. Since the main difference is the spices, you can trade one for the other at any time. Speaking of lentils, don't forget the lentil soup, supra. (Yes, a very bad pun.)

Since all of these are multi-day recipes, remember the Green Pepper and Mediterranean Garlic Gene rules.

Sandwiches

What's wrong with sandwiches? Nothing except cost, calories, and repetition. Good lunch meat costs at a minimum $5 a pound. You can buy chicken breast for $2 a pound. Do the math! Then there's bread. Do you buy the cheap, nutritionless kind that goes moldy, or the good, expensive, why-are-we-spending-this-much-on-a-sandwich kind? You're stuck with that pastrami for a week, and unless you live in a very special place, it's not even good pastrami.

When we were kids, we loved making hoagies (subs, to most people). But you need four kinds of lunch meat, 2 kinds of cheese, greens, tomatoes, onions, rolls... the time in the supermarket is more than the law student can afford. On the other hand, if you have three to six good friends, this can make a great monthly splurge. I warn you, though, that for reasons biochemists have yet to discover, neither beer nor wine goes well with a sub. (That may be the reason sub shops proliferate; no liquor license needed.)

If you're used to eating your chicken/tuna/egg salad with bread, consider using a lettuce leaf wrap, or stuffing a tomato or green pepper. It's cheaper and healthier, and you're more likely to use up that lettuce before it turns to brown muck.

And to Drink

Micro-brews cost a fortune. I'm afraid to put them even on the once-a month list, since you never drink just one.

[Much of this is copied from the "budget" page]

Coffee

Learn to make coffee and tea. Instead of going to Starbucks, buy a coffee maker, You can buy a single-cup pot for $15 or a super-duper fancy model for less than a hundred bucks! The advantage of that super-duper 12 cup model is you can ask someone special if they'd like a cup. You'll never find a law student who declines!

And how much money will you save? A cup of Starbucks costs $2 to $8, according to baristas in the know. Assume the slightly frugal $3 cup, once a day, 5 days a week x 14 weeks, the standard semester. 70 days time 3$ is $210. Buy the super-duper, the hazelnut fake cream, the fanciest to-go mug, and you'll still break even after one semester. Then the other 5 terms you have only the cost of the coffee grinds. More than one cup, more than $3 worth, and you save even more. And I PROMISE YOU Starbucks isn't in your FAFSA budget.

Water

Buy a water filter and refill a travel cup instead of buying bottled water. The ecology will love you as much as your budget will. (I linked to Amazon because they seem to have more single-faucet filters, while eBay has more whole-house filters. If you worry about hard water and your skin, you might prefer them.

Other Bottled Drinks

Coke. Red Bull. Gatorade. Vitamin Water. If you must have them, at least get them by the case from your discount store.

SoBe, Arizona, Green Tea, sound better for you. They're probably better than Red Bull. But then, diluted arsenic might be better than Red Bull, from what I hear. Look at those fancy ingredients: peach oolong tea with ginseng. I have those ingredients at home, or I can buy tea bags from Celestial Seasonings or equivalent tea company and brew my own.

What About...?

Yogurt. Mashed potatoes. Biscuits and gravy. Celery stalks.

I have nothing to say. If you already eat them, you'll keep eating them. If you don't, my telling you that yogurt is healthier than Biscuitville is like telling lifelong smokers that they should stop. Totally wasted words.

There's also a lot of other really great food we could talk about. But our starting point was "Law Student Meals." Cheap, fast, healthy. You want Weiner Schnitzel, Chicken Cordon Bleu, Beef Stroganoff, google it. But worry about your homework first.

Humility

I know that eating Top Ramen, packing a lunch, and having your own coffee machine isn't nearly as cool as heading to Starbucks. I know that the sandwich or yogurt in your lunch bag isn't half as trendy as that cute new teriyaki place. But if you remember that your job is to impress your professors with your grades, not your peers with your ability to waste money, you can be happier by $5,000 or more — just in coffee and KFC.

You won't be able to do all these things. Some schools won't have a fridge, others won't have a place where you can make your own coffee. Most will have a locker where you can keep food with bug-proof seals. And all of you can bring water, that first cup of coffee in the giant thermos cup, and a snack of some sort from home, and save a couple thousand dollars.

So go, my children; be tired but healthy and solvent.

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