Recession Diet: Pay Less to Eat, Eat Fewer Calories

Do it for cheese fries on Friday.

I have a lot of experience with dieting. Not the commercial diets, per se, but lots and lots of simply not eating, bowls of Special K, boxes of Lean Cuisine that made me say “Is that all there is?” I drank gallons of Tab in the ’80s and have eschewed white bread for so long I don’t think I could choke a slice down if that’s all there was.

I’m used to the constant juggle: “I’m going out to dinner tonight, so I better just have half a grapefruit for breakfast, minestrone soup for lunch.” “I drank four beers and shared those cheese fries last night; it’s oatmeal day today.”

The only commercial plan I’ve ever done is our country’s most popular, Weight Watchers, whose basic premise is one of banking and earning points, which brings me to the Recession Diet.

We are in lean (pun intended) times, and watching and listening to how people eat now, the food choices they’re making, make me connect the purchasing of food with dieting.

When folks know they are going out to dinner, they will brown bag lunch, forego the $4.34 Starbucks at 3 p.m., saving their cash for the $9 martinis that await them. At the office, I see the same people who will be joining me later at happy hour refilling their water bottles from the water cooler.

Campbell’s and Hormel’s sales have gone up in the last two quarters. Read this as: Chicken noodle soup one night equals $10.99-per-pound artisan cheese and a $2.99 baguette the next; canned chili over tortilla chips is not so bad if you “splurge” on a six-pack of Dos Equis to wash it down.

I am familiar with this juggle, so it’s been fun to watch other novices learn how to conflate their budgeting and food choices. I challenge myself to get costs and calories in sync, which is actually pretty difficult. (Less expensive food is often higher in “bad” calories; fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood are far more expensive than white-flour products, processed cheese, and 20-percent-fat ground beef.)

I’ve become a fan of the boxed organic soups, in flavors like roasted carrot, potato and leek, tomato basil. Less sodium and about four servings for about $2.69.

My friend Marion recommends this protein-packed dish: Heat up a can of Progresso black bean soup. Fry an egg and slide it right on top, top that egg with a dollop of salsa and voila! Filling and fueling for about $1.50 per serving.

Here’s another. Put water on to boil in your pasta pot. Dice an onion and sauté in a little bit of olive oil, with a little bit of garlic. When onion is soft and garlic is golden, add two cans of chopped clams, with their juice. By now, your water should be boiling; make a pound of capellini. Beat one egg with a half cup of skim milk. S-l-o-w-l-y add to your clam mixture, stirring all the while. Shut off the heat, add the (now cooked and drained) pasta straight to the clam mixture and toss. Add a couple tablespoons of Parmesan cheese and toss some more. You have just made at least four servings of pasta in clam sauce for less than five dollars and less than four grams of fat!

Never underestimate peeled baby carrots. You resent them because they were forced upon you, yes, but if you can just approach them with an open mind, now that you’re older, you might see that, on sale for 99 cents a bag, they can’t be beat for crunch and virtuous feelings.

Same goes for oatmeal. Try the oatmeal—any brand, any flavor.

Eat like this all week, and you can join me for a Stoli Doli martini and crab cakes with Dijonnaise sauce on Friday.