That Makes Me Stabby: Faking Frugal Food

The New York Times has done it again, this time in their Bitten blog. What, you may wonder, am I so upset about? I’ll tell you – fake frugality. I know life is more expensive in New York City. It’s pretty darn expensive in Los Angeles, but at least our food is fairly cheap because we grow it here. Still, this is the second time in recent months that they’ve “challenged” themselves to create a “frugal” dinner or dinner party on a budget that most of us would consider lavish. Look, if you want to be hoity toity, be hoity toity, but don’t whine that your big budget is a serious challenge. It only makes the rest of stabby.

The $50 Dinner Party
Earlier this spring, many newspapers and TV news shows challenged reporters to live on a food stamp budget. That is a worthwhile challenge. They consulted frugality experts for tips on eating healthy on a very tight budget and shared that with the audience. This is valuable information and good reporting.

The New York Times took a different approach. They gave two reporters $50 each and charged them to serve a dinner party for 6 with that money. Note: the $50 didn’t include alcohol. $50 for six people? That’s a challenge? Please. I spent about $100 a week for the two of us to eat 14 dinners, 10-12 lunches, and 10-12 breakfasts. We’re not exactly eating ramen noodles. In fact, many bloggers spend far less than we do for more people. I don’t claim were the pinnacle of frugality – we consciously chose to spend more on food.

One of the reporters did come in under $40, which is becoming more reasonable for dinner for 6, but I think the average person could spend less than $30 and still provide a satisfying, somewhat fancy menu with appetizers and dessert. This assumes it’s dinner for friends, not dinner for the boss you’re hoping will give you a promotion and a raise. That’s a whole different ball-game.

The $20 Dinner for 2
Next, a blogger for the Times Bitten blog, which I love decided he would “challenge” himself to cook dinner for at least 2 people for $20, including alcohol. Once again, dinner for 2 people for $20 bucks? What are these people smoking? I believe my average dinner costs $5-$8 for the two of us. Yes, that includes alcohol, because we don’t drink a whole bottle at one meal. He spent most of that $20 at the Union Square green market, which partly accounts for the price, and bought fish, which also gets spendy at the green market. That’s why I don’t buy fish at the farmer’s market.

Any halfway decent frugality blogger would look at these challenges and scoff. In fact, so did most of the commenters on these posts.

Subway and Homemade Cost the Same
Then there’s Marie Claire. I normally love this magazine, but their tips for saving money on food usually miss the mark widely. Case in point, they wrote a cute little piece claiming a homemade lunch costs the same as a $6 Subway meal and call themselves prudent. In order to come up with this $6 sandwich lunch, they used prices from an online grocery store. Please. Even Zabar’s is going to have better prices than an online-only grocer. They then proceeded to buy all the fixings pre-sliced, except the tomato, which was organic. They rounded it out with a soda from a six-pack (the second most expensive way to buy soda), and an organic apple.

So, yes, if you buy everything pre-sliced and organic, then your lunch probably will cost $6, but I guarantee you that Subway is not serving organic tomatoes and apples, so it’s not a fair comparison. It’s a way of justifying a convenience you don’t want to give up. And that’s fine, but don’t claim that you’re being frugal because of it. And if you’re going to claim you’re being frugal, you might want to check in with the world outside of New York City first. Otherwise you just make us all stabby.

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