This has nothing to do with personal finance, but I was so mad when I heard this report Tuesday, that I had to say something. Congress is pushing a bill that would continue to allow school lunch programs to count the two tablespoons of tomato paste on a slice of school pizza as a vegetable. Under the recommendations set to go into effect, pizza must be accompanied by an actual vegetable in order to be served.

What is wrong with Congress? This is just ridiculous. Pizza is NOT a vegetable. It may have veggies on it, and yes, the sauce is composed of tomatoes, but two tablespoons is not a serving of any vegetable. These new rules, which also limit starch vegetables like potatoes, are meant to improve children’s health. We have a major childhood obesity problem in this country. For some kids, school breakfasts and lunches are the only meals they have. What is wrong with serving them a healthy meal, without the influence of lobbying groups? Studies have shown that kids do better in school when they eat nutritious food. If we want to be competitive in the marketplace, our kids need to learn.

If Congress wonders why they only have 9% approval, they need only look at idiotic acts like this.

Lobbying Under the Guise of Austerity
Why is Congress doing this? Lobbying. The National Potato Council and the American Frozen Food Institute are worried that these new regulations will cut into their groups’ profits. Which they might. However, they were able to get it attached to a spending bill because the USDA rules would increase the cost of school lunches by $7 billion over 5 years, or $1.4 billion a year. When you consider how many children that feeds and how important early childhood nutrition is, that’s not a huge number. One DAY of the war in Iraq cost $720 million. So, this is two days’ worth of war. Aren’t our children worth sacrificing two days of war?

Today we look at one cause of rising food prices that took a long time to create, and will take even longer to fix, if we even can. That’s food shortages. Food shortages have three causes, actually. The first is climate change. The second is a rising global population. The third is the number of people in emerging societies who want to eat like those in developed countries like the U.S.

Climate Change and Food Shortages
Weather has always had an effect on food production. A freak cold snap could destroy an orange crop one year, but produce gorgeous cherries. A heat wave could ruin a crop just before harvest. However, these and other climate issues are becoming more frequent. Australia was once a global bread basket, but several years of drought followed by flooding drastically reduced grain output for several years. In addition, growing regions are shifting. In 100 years, Napa will no longer be able to produce wine, but areas further north will be.  But we’re not set up for the shift of the almond growing region or the peach growing region. It takes more planning than most people or states or nations are capable of. So, instead, we will see foods disappear or their prices shoot up as they become more rare.

At the same time that our climate is making it more difficult to produce food, we’re making more people. Those people need food. However, the increased demand also increases the price, so many of them simply can’t afford it. In the U.S., we get upset if we spend more than 10% of our income. Imagine spending 50% of your income for one meal a day for your family?

The last factor is the economic improvement of those growing populations. When emerging countries become economically stable, they often look to the established nations as guide for their lifestyle. Populations that once enjoyed simple diets with no or small portions of meat, now want to eat as much meat as Americans. People who used to eat local breakfast foods now want to eat toast and tea every day, even if their country hasn’t traditionally produced bread. Although we can all agree that it’s great to try foods from different cultures, we can’t all eat like Americans. Frankly, Americans shouldn’t be eating like Americans!

Solution to Food Shortages: Change Your Eating Habits
Americans didn’t always have meat for every meal. We also ate less food in general, and that was healthier for everyone. So, if food prices are high because of shortages, the solution is to change the way you eat. Skip meat in a few meals a week. It can be any meal, but lunch and dinner are more likely to be meat-focused than breakfast. In addition, reduce your portion sizes. American portions have become ridiculous. You don’t need eight ounces of steak for dinner. Four ounces is a proper portion size. Eat more veggies and fruits, too. They’re more filling with fewer calories and costs.

Make a menu plan based on what you have and what you need to use up, then shop to fill in. Don’t shop and then decide what to cook or you’re likely to waste food. We’re all guilty of it occasionally, but wasting food is as bad for your wallet as it is for the planet. Think about that next time you buy a container of sour cream so you can use one tablespoon in a recipe, and then never use it again. (I’ve done it, I admit it.)

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention coupons. I do coupon, but I tend to use them for more for paper and drug items. The food coupons I use are generally for condiments, dried beans, rice, and canned goods that are components of home-cooked meals. They’re great for reducing costs, but only as part of a larger strategy to change the way you eat to a more natural, local diet. Sure, you can get a rock-bottom deal on frozen dinners, but they’re not usually healthy and a long-term unhealthy diet will increase your healthcare costs. That’s a whole other issue!

The second biggest factor in rising food costs are production costs. They have sort of a domino effect: as each part of the food production process becomes more expensive, the end product becomes more expensive.

Rising Production Costs
Water, fertilizer, seeds, animal feed, and everything else are also getting more expensive. Part of this is due to the price of oil, part of it is due to the increasing scarcity of water, part of it is due to patented seeds, part of it is due to using food grains for energy.

Oil is used in several parts of the food production process. There’s the oil needed to transport food to market, or to transport grain to the farm, or to transport crops to the factory for processing. Each line in the chain includes oil costs when selling up the chain, until finally it reaches you.

Water is also becoming more expensive as it becomes more scarce. Think about your own water bill. It’s probably gone up in the past few years. Now multiply that by the amount of water to produce anything, from corn to cows to boxes. That’s built into the price you pay.

Seeds should be cheap. They come from previous year’s crop. Just save seeds from the previous crop, replant them, and you’re good to go. You only pay for seeds once. That’s how it should be, but in this age of Monsanto, that’s not how it works. Now, seeds are modified so that farmers can only use them once and then have to buy new seeds the next year. In some crops, seeds can be saved, but Monsanto sues farmers who do that. So, factor the cost of new seeds into your calculations.

Using food grains, like corn and soybeans, for fuel. When you use food crops to run cars, that food is no longer available for people, which means there are more people clamoring for the same food items, which makes them more expensive.

All of these affect the cost of producing food. The manufacturers have to include all of these costs in each item they sell, which you then pay at the grocery store. You always pay more because you have to pay the combined total of all those other processes.

Solution to Rising Production Costs: Grow or Cook Your Own Food
If you grow your own vegetables in a small patch, you won’t need nearly as much fertilizer or seeds. You can save seeds from the previous year if you use heirloom plants, which usually taste better anyway. Hybrid seeds are built to make the produce stand up to shipping, not for taste. If you don’t want to mess with seeds, or live in a region with a short season, buy plants from the nursery. A $2.99 six-pack of lettuce will grow all summer, and you can pick it as you need it. That’s about what two heads of lettuce cost, so you’re saving a big chunk on your food bill from one small investment.

Once you get a garden established, it’s not too expensive to keep it going year after year. Victory gardens were popular during World War II because food was scarce. They were just part of life during Word War I and the Depression. Now they’re making a comeback. If you can find a small plot of land, or even a sunny balcony, you can grow a small victory garden. Call it a food crisis garden if you want to be trendy.

In addition, it’s time to learn to bake your own bread and switch from ready-made meals to homemade meals. The raw ingredients are much cheaper than the processed version, and you can usually use some of those raw materials for several dishes. Sure, you have to buy a chicken to roast each time, but you don’t need to buy a jar of salt, more herbs, and oil every time. Leftover chicken can be stretched into a soup, salad, sandwich, casserole, quesadilla, or other entree. The bones can be used for stock. Basically, the raw components of any dinner are cheaper than buying a pre-packaged meal most of the time, and healthier.

If you buy the ingredients used to make a loaf of bread, you’ll be able to make multiple loaves for the same cost as a single store-bought loaf, and avoid preservatives. All you need is flour, yeast, sugar (for the yeast), water, and oil or butter. If you bake a lot, buy a three pound bag of yeast from a warehouse store for $3.99 and keep it in the freezer. That investment is about the cost of one loaf, but it will last all year!

Of course, some things are more difficult to make, so you’ll have to keep buying those. Yogurt is easy to make and worth the effort. Butter is more work, so it’s probably not worth the money or effort. You obviously can’t raise your own cow in the backyard. You could, if zoning and space permits, grow some chickens for fresh eggs.

I’m seeing complaints all over the web about rising food prices. It’s true, food prices are rising, although less so here than in other countries. American actually pay less now than families did in the past, it just feels like more because we got used to cheap food. This week, I’m outline several causes of rising food prices, and some solutions you can implement at home. Today focuses on oil prices.

The Faux Rise in Food Prices
I won’t argue that food this year is cheaper than food last year. It isn’t. Part of that is inflation, part of that is due to the sharp increase in oil prices. However, food isn’t more expensive now than it was fifty years ago. In the 1950s, families spent 21% of their income on food. Today we spend 9%. And still we want cheaper food.

Sure, some items are more expensive, but that’s because we’re importing fruit from Chile and grain from all over the place. In the 1950s, staples like sugar were imported to the mainland, but most families did without fresh strawberries in January. Most families also had to cook their own meals entirely. TV dinners were a new thing, and fairly expensive.

As wages have risen, the cost of food hasn’t kept up, but we have more options than ever. If you’re paying significantly more than you used to, think about where those food expenditures are going and what you ate when you were a kid. It’s probably pretty different. Perhaps if you went back to the basics of home-cooking with whole ingredients (but less fat and salt than cooks used back then!), you’d see your costs drop.

However, there are some factors that will make that 9% expenditure rise, and the first is rising oil prices.

The Effect of Rising Oil Prices On Food Costs
Rising oil prices are partly to blame for rising food prices. Food has always been more expensive in distant locations. Just ask Hawaii. That’s because it costs more to get food from place to place. The cost of transportation is also factored into the cost of raw materials used to produce processed food, so you’re getting a double-whammy.

Solution to Rising Oil Prices: Buy Local
Buy as much unprocessed, local food as you can. Local food costs less to transport fruit 100 miles than it does to transport it 1000 miles, so you can probably get it cheaper, and tastier, by buying it from a local producer. Farmer’s markets are the best place to find local growers, but CSAs and natural foods stores are also options. Your grocery store may even have a local section, but some of them mark up the price because it’s a good sales pitch. If you look, you can find local sources of food that are probably a lot cheaper. Yes, your options will be limited to what’s in season in your region, but do you really need strawberries in January? They do actually grow in my region year-round, but I find they taste better in the spring/summer, so I don’t buy them in January. I buy citrus and apples, which are in season, and just as tasty.


Although I prefer a homemade Thanksgiving, in some case it may be more frugal or more convenient to buy a Thanksgiving dinner at the grocery store. This is especially true if you don’t have good kitchen or much cookware!

Pros of a Storebought Thanksgiving Dinner
The first advantage is that someone else does most of the work for you. Note, I said most, not all. You’ll still need to do a little work. However, you won’t need to worry about basting the turkey or making the stuffing or any of the major items.

Only minimal cookware is required. Depending on the dinner you order, you may need to bake some par-baked rolls so they have that fresh taste. You might also want to make your own gravy or salad so there’s something fresh on the table. If you buy a whole turkey, you’ll probably need to partially cook it. It may or may not come with the tools to do that.

It’s becoming more affordable. With more stores getting into the act, price competition is steeper. Last year I probably spent about $40 for dinner for six. A grocery store dinner would have been around $50 at my local Ralph’s, and $100 at my local Whole Foods for an organic meal.

Cons of a Storebought Thanksgiving Dinner
Storebought just isn’t the same as homemade. Think about a grocery store roasted chicken vs. a home roasted chicken. Although I like storebought roasted chicken, I often find that it’s much saltier than a homemade chicken. It’s also not as large and usually not as juicy. The same is true of most deli items. I can make a better stuffing myself.

You may still have to do some cooking. Depending on the store you order from, they may not have the necessary equipment to cook a turkey all the way. In most cases, it will arrive partially cooked from a central warehouse. You will then have to finish cooking it (usually at least an hour) on Thanksgiving. You may need a pan for that, although you can pick up a cheap roasting pan at Target or Bed Bath and Beyond this time of year. If it’s a smaller turkey, you could even use a rectangular baking pan.

Everything will still need to be reheated. Sure, it won’t take as long, but you’ll still need to do it.

You won’t get as much food. Usually, home cooks provide more than necessary. With grocery store meals, they usually try to scale appropriately, so you may find that your meal designed for 8-10 just barely feeds 10 and there aren’t much leftovers.

It costs more. With careful shopping and coupons, you can get your grocery costs down for Thanksgiving. That’s how I spent $40 on the meal. Of course, I also had houseguests, so there was also wine, appetizers, breakfasts, lunches, and additional dinners. All told, I probably spent around $150 for those four days. Not bad, considering.

If you’re considering a storebought Thanksgiving, don’t let someone else tell you that you’re being lazy or untraditional. It’s all a matter of time vs. money vs. convenience. I enjoy cooking, so it was fun for me and I had most of the necessary equipment. My mom brought my grandmother’s roasting pan, but I know have my own $5 roasting pan. If I didn’t have the equipment and was still living in my old apartment with the miserably tiny kitchen, Thanksgiving would have been a different story! Buying Thanksgiving dinner at the store may not be the most frugal choice, but it’s cheaper than going out to a restaurant.

It’s been almost two months since I transplanted my tomato seedlings into the garden. This is the waiting period where it’s growing, growing, growing, but I don’t have much to show for it.

Tomato plants month 2

Staking Tomato Plants
I chose indeterminate tomato plants. Indeterminate plants can be made to grow on a vine, whereas determinate plants will form flowers at the top of the stalk then stop growing. The plant will grow into a bush, which must be contained.

The first step after planting was to wait. And wait. And wait.

Once I saw the first flowers, it was time to go to work. I started by erecting my tomato supports behind it. I’m not sure I did this right, and now it seems I’ll need to buy some poles, but I started with two folding tomato cages. Rather than place one around each plant, I flattened them out and dug them into the ground behind the three plants.

Cost for two tomato cages: $9.86.

I already had plastic floral ties on hand, but heavy-duty twine works, too.

Pruning Tomato Plants
Once you see flowers, it’s time to prune. I cut off everything below the first flowers, but left any leaves above it. I also cut each plant down to two stalks to force the sugar production and growth upwards rather than outwards. I probably should have done this when I transplanted them, but I wasn’t sure which stalks would survive. I think I wasted a lot of growth energy on those unnecessary stalks. There were so many leaves on one plant that finding the stalks to prune was really difficult!

Nevertheless, I pruned them back and then tossed the leaves in my compost bin. The bin desperately needed green matter, so it wasn’t a total waste.

After the initial pruning, you have to be vigilant. If you spot suckers growing out the spots where branches meet the stalk, pluck them out. If you spot dead blossoms, pop them off.

Securing the Plants
I attached the stems to the cages by looping the tie around the stem, twisting it into a figure eight, and then tying the other end to the cage. This weekend I’ll repeat the process for new growth.

My First Tomato!
So far I have precisely one tomato growing. It’s on the earliest producing plant, but the plant isn’t supposed to reach maturity until the end of May, and could be later depending on temperatures. I have what appear to be the beginnings of tomatoes on another plant. I don’t expect to see a real crop until mid-June.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’m a dedicated menu planner. Not only do I plan my menus every week, I keep them in a little notebook, and save past notebooks so I can refer back to what I ate two years ago. (I’m wacky that way.) Anyway, sometimes my menu plan gets thrown off, or I’m away at the end of the week and don’t get to make the next one. That’s when it’s time to get creative. I’ve come up with a few easy meals that I can always rely on to keep us fed in a pinch.

Jerk Chicken with Homemade Tortilla Chips and Fruit
Chicken breasts
Jerk spice mix
Corn tortillas
Seasoning salt

Simply rub the jerk spice mix into the chicken breasts and grill or bake. While that’s cooking, heat about ½ inch of oil in a large pan. Cut tortillas into triangles. I get 8 triangles per tortilla. Fry triangles 5-6 at a time (depending on the size of the pan.) It takes about one minute, including time to flip the chips in the middle. Drain on paper towels and periodically sprinkle with seasoning salt if you want a kick, or regular salt if you don’t. Serve with oranges, grapes, or whatever other fruit you have on hand. Something a little tart is best.

Tortilla Eggs
Here’s another easy one I got from NPR’s The Splendid Table weekly newsletter.

Stale corn tortillas (put them in the oven to dry them out) (about 2 per person)
Eggs, lightly beaten, about two per person.
Jack cheese, cut into smallish chunks
You can also add other veggies like chopped bell peppers if you have them on hand.

Cut the tortillas into strips. Film the pan with oil. When it’s hot, add the tortilla strips and the onion. Fry until strips are crisp. Slide them to the side and drop the eggs in the middle of the pan. Scramble the eggs until they reach your preferred consistency. Sprinkle with jack cheese. Serve with salsa on the side.

Homemade Pizza
Yes, it’s easy to order a pizza, but this will taste better.

Ingredients for your preferred pizza crust recipe
Toppings of your choice

Mix the crust by hand or in a stand mixer. If using a yeast crust, let rise for 20 minutes or so. Bake until set at the temperature called for in the recipe, about 7 minutes. Top with your preferred toppings. Bake another 20 minutes until the cheese is melted and slightly browned.

Shrimp Fondue
If you don’t even want to go to the effort of cooking, this is the easiest recipe in my arsenal.

Defrosted shrimp, shelled, tail-on (about 4 ounces per person)
Chicken broth (about 1.5 cups per person)
Lemon juice
Dipping sauces of your choice

If you have an electric fondue pot, this recipe couldn’t be easier. Pour chicken broth into the pot. Smash a garlic clove and drop it in. Add a teaspoon or so of lemon juice. Heat, but do not boil. Each person attaches their own shrimp to their fondue forks. Place in the pot and cook until shrimp is pink and curled. It takes a minute or two. Remove, dip in sauce, eat, and repeat with more shrimp. I usually serve this with a mustard tartar sauce and a sweet and sour sauce. A salad and a side of rice fills out the meal.

Fried Rice
Some people say fried rice is best with leftover rice, but I don’t usually have leftover white rice. This is easy to throw together in a pinch and always tastes good.

White rice
Eggs, lightly beaten (about ½ per person)
Chicken or pork, browned and cubed (about 4 ounces per person)
Green onions, diced
Cashews or peanuts, toasted
Snow peas, regular peas, green beans, green or red peppers, whatever you on hand, cubed
Soy sauce

Cook the rice and set aside. Toast the nuts and set aside. If you’re using a veggie that requires a long cooking time like snow peas, steam them and set aside. Film a nonstick pan with oil. Drop in the green onions and the eggs. Scramble until set. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the chicken or pork to the pan. Cook through. Add more oil if necessary. Add the rice to the pan. Heat through. Add the veggies. Heat through. Add the nuts. Add 1-2 tablespoons of soy sauce per two cups of cooked rice. Test after each tablespoon because it varies by brand and your personal preference. Add the eggs and green onions. Heat through. Serve with potstickers, egg rolls, a salad, or eat it alone. It’s certainly got everything you need.

I find that if I keep most of these ingredients on hand, I’m always able to come up with a meal in a pinch if our plans change or I don’t have time to make a menu. Some weeks I’ll just look in the freezer and pantry, see that they’re full, and declare a “creative kitchen” week. I promise you we never go hungry.

Happy holidays! After today, the blog will be dark until Tuesday. I’m taking a few days off to relax. I’m done my shopping, baking, and wrapping, but here are a few quick tips if you’ve still got work to do:

When shopping for last-minute gifts, remember your budget!

Need a last-minute gift and don’t want to shop? Try these quick gift ideas.

Suddenly in the mood to bake? Try these cookie recipes.

Now put down the wallet and eat, drink, and be merry.

So your holiday season is chugging along merrily, and then you get thrown for a curveball. You might get invited to a last-minute gift exchange, or realize that you’re supposed to bring a gift to a party you were invited to long ago. But you don’t have any extra gifts lying around. You can come up with something in a flash with some things you have around the house or in the kitchen.

Homemade toffee is fast, easy, and delicious. If you don’t know what to give, cook a batch and then break it up into a tin, or even a square gift box lined with cellophane or plastic wrap. Trust me, it will all get eaten.

Print out this easy toffee recipe just to have it handy. You might want to mix a batch up for no reason at all.

Peppermint Bark
You can find tins of peppermint bark all over the place. Williams-Sonoma sells it for $28 a pound! And while I’ll admit that their peppermint bark is nothing short of bliss, that’s pretty steep for candy. So, make your own, either for yourself or for a last-minute gift. As with the toffee, package it in a tin or a box lined with cellophane or plastic wrap. If you want to get real fancy and have the time, mix toffee and peppermint bark in the same box. Try this recipe from Epicurious. If you don’t have peppermint extract and can’t find it, one commenter suggests using mint chocolate chips. You can also skip the peppermint extract, for a slightly less full flavor. You can also substitute different types of chocolate. I like dark chocolate, so I’d use that instead of bittersweet.

Wrapped Candle
Most people have lots of candles around. I have many that I received as gifts, but never opened. So dig into your closet to find a wrapped candle, or at least a candle that hasn’t been burned and isn’t dusty. Wrap with ribbon or cellophane and you’re good to go.

Have you baked several batches of cookies already? Assemble some in a box or bag and you’ve got a ready-made gift.

Mix in a Jar
These are always popular. Start by figuring out what you already have on hand, then visit this page to find a mix that will go with what you have.  Layer it all into a mason jar, add a label with instructions, and tie with a bow.

As I’ve said before, truffles are my go-to gift. They’re easy to assemble, but most people think you did tons of work and are nothing short of amazed.

Most people will happily receive any of these gifts and never realize it was a last-minute gift. One caveat if you know people with food allergies: make sure you give them something they can eat. If you give cookies to a person who can’t have wheat (unless they’re wheat-free), they’ll know you weren’t thinking of them when you made the gift.

Christmas is next week, which means many bakers will be pulling out their pans and getting to work this weekend. If you’re a holiday baker/candy maker, here are a few tips to help make your holiday bake-a-thon go a little smoother.

Gather Your Recipes Now
If you have them online, consider printing them. If you have them in a binder, pull them all out. If you have them in various cookbooks, put Post-Its on the pages. If you have them in your head, I envy you.

Pull Out All Your Ingredients Now
The last thing you want to do is get everything laid out, reach into the cupboard for that one last thing, and realize you’ve run out. For example, I just pulled my last two pounds of butter out of the freezer. I don’t know how I managed to use four pounds of butter in two weeks, but clearly I need to restock. (No, I take that back. I realize now that Thanksgiving ate all my butter.)

Organize your ingredients, then compare them to the recipes. Make sure you have enough for everything you need to bake. If you don’t, make a quick run to the store. Even if you go couponless and don’t visit the cheapest store, do it now. This is about convenience!

Pull Out the Pots and Pans
If you need several containers for storing, mixing, or baking, pull everything out and put it in one place.

Make a Schedule
Now go through your recipes. Figure out which need to be refrigerated overnight, which have a long resting period, which require precise timing, etc. Now decide which pans you’ll need for each. If you need the same pan for two different dishes, you’ll need to space them out. List everything you need to bake in the order you need to prepare it. If you’ve got a dish with a long resting period, slot another item (or lunch) into that space.

Choose a Start Time
Unless you want to be baking until midnight, choose a start time for this endeavor. Since everything will take longer than you expect, you’ll have a nice pad to still get done relatively on time.

Bake the Easiest Things Last
Put the simplest or quickest item last on your list. That way you’ll be able to whip it up in no time at the very end, or pull it together after dinner one night next week if you run out of time this weekend.

Forget Perfection
No one cares if your cookies are a bit dented or your truffles are oddly-shaped. They still taste good and they’ll still be impressed that you made them yourself. In fact, you might like the “homemade” look a little better. For example, the first time I made sea salt truffles, I didn’t temper the milk chocolate coating. The truffles started to melt and became Frankentruffles. They tasted amazing. This time I tempered the coating and perfectly applied it. They looked great, but I preferred the taste of the Frankentruffles. The flavors were better balanced, despite their ugliness (although, let’s be honest, chocolate can never truly be ugly.)

What’s the best part about making a plan? Getting everything done without collapsing into a pile of goo afterwards. That’s what Christmas is all about.

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