WHAT INCLUDES 1 pound of sugar, 3/4 pound of processed cheese, 1/3 pound of dried mashed potatoes, nearly 2 pounds of margarine, and costs $69.49?
A week's worth of "low-cost" meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The menus are spelled out in the Department's "Cost-Saving Plan," a 21-page booklet published in 1978 which is filled with price subduing hints on meal planning, culminating in a complex technique designed by USDA for the citizen to calculate just how much of each of six food groups a person should be eating. The menus, designed for a typical family of four, serve to demonstrate the uses to which all this advice can be put.
Yes, but how would a family react if it were faced with actually eating this stuff?
That is the question I posed to my own family of four when I curled my penny-pinching fingers around the plan. Would a husband, a child of 5 and a toddler of 2 be willing to follow their government's advice for one week, thereby learning how to cut the family's food budget by eliminating frills and waste?
In a spree of patriotism, they agreed.
I began to have my doubts about the government's ability to teach budget-shrinking skills when I paid for the groceries. The nearly $70 price tag, which includes only foods -- no frills like coffee or detergent -- came to $16 more per week than we usually spend. And, like all good taxpayers, we had to subsidize the budget. Cupboard items like seasonings, mayonnaise and vinegar failed to show on the plan's grocery list.
My husband's first inkling of government-controlled frills and waste came as he helped me unload the groceries. "What is this stuff, and why does it say 'whoosh' when I touch it?" he inquired.
"That's white bread." I informed him. "We're supposed to buy five pounds of it, but I couldn't bring myself to buy more than three."
"You're cheating your government!" he accused.
"All taxpayers cheat a little," I justified
On Friday, we started the diet in earnest. Breakfast called for orange juice (frozen), hot wheat cereal, toast and milk. I pulled some honey out of the cupboard (not on the plan) and drew a sticky E on my daughter's and B on my son's portion of cereal. Five-year-old Emma chowed down, but two-year-old Bryce had reservations. He attacked his toast with a spoon, sipped orange juice daintly, misidentified the B and ignored the cereal.
Lunchtime was moved up on request, and Bruce sat patiently on his booster chair while I boiled, peeled and sliced, poured and baked, scraped and served lunch -- sliced egg sandwiches, carrot sticks, milk, and something called called "cereal party snack" that disappeared rather quickly. The series of meals we were adhering to was designed for a "food manager with limited time," a phrase that describes me aptly, yet it seemed like every limited moment I had that week was spent in the kitchen.
Lunch, according to my toddler, was not worth waiting for. Bryce is one of those kids whose world revolves around peanut butter, so his grief when he confronted sliced eggs bordered on the hysterical. Emma, who eats nearly anything, observed gleefully that the eggs were couched in white bread -- a sought-after substance served only by other people's mothers.
Dinner was my husband's first opportunity to sample the government's repast. The meal featured a hot dog, noodle and tomato concoction titled, in basic governmentese, "Franks and Noodles."
"How is it?" I pressed.
"I'm not gagging yet," he replied.
That menu, like most meals in the plan, double dipped in carbohydrates. This adheres to the USDA advice "Most people on tight budgets use more than four servings daily of inexpensive foods from the cereal-bakery product group." Certainly this is the problem to be avoided, I mused, and not the solution to be applied.I passed my husband a refrigerator biscuit.
"It goes 'whoosh' when I touch it." he marveled.
A pass around the table yielded no takers and the biscuits retired to the freezer.
And so it went. Saturday's plan yielded seven opportunities for carbohydrates and four recipes with significant amounts of sugar. I refused to put sugar in tomatoes (my patriotism doesn't stretch that far) but relented with the sweet-sour chicken. The sourness never materialized, and I watched with growing wonder as the family downed half a head of naked lettuce to rid their tastebuds of cloying chicken.
On Sunday we joyfully recaptured the adventure of canned alphabet soup, spelling out the children's names with the exception of an elusive B. That night featured the first dinner taken from a nearly five-pound chuck roast; another dinner and a lunch would follow.
Stretching a roast to fit the budget is an old low-cost trick, but the government's more notable skill lies in stretching the budget to pay for whatever it thinks it wants, as this plan clearly shows. According to its own guidelines, my entire family should eat a communal pound of protein a day -- yet the daily menus call for exactly twice that amount. The chicken we syrupted the night before, for example, was a whole fowl; I usually render at least two and sometimes three meals from a bird.
Overkill extends to other area. The plan calls for a packaged spice cake ("Using prepared mixes . . . adds only slightly to the cost of the home-prepared product") to be eaten half on Sunday night, and half at snack time the next day -- heavy going even for an indulgent family of four.
Other bits of advice, such as the reasons to avoid both commercially prepared main dishes and large numbers of eggs, go down more easily. All the usual approaches to food-budget slimming, from buying in bulk to mixing powdered milk with whole, show up in this booklet, and those unacquainted with the wiles of the supermarket will profit from its pages. Sophisticated shoppers will find nothing new.
Innovation is not a strong point anywhere in the plan's pages, and perhaps intentionally so. It seems to be designed for the average American eater, if statistics about sugar consumption and the sale of bacon and bologna are to be believed. It is not designed to help change these eating habits, emphasizing instead ways that are supposed to lower the dollar cost.
The plan also seems to be designed for someone who is cold. I had the oven turned on every day, sometimes more than once a day, and most meals contained a cooked item -- not always appreciated in June.
Participation, although half-hearted among the four of us, became enthusiastic among the neighborhood kids who inundate us on weekends. They wiped out four sandwiches in the time it takes to say processed cheddar cheese. And even the Smithsonian's pigeons liked Monday's peanut butter and (family subsidized) jelly. They sneered, though, when the kids threw them pigeon-sized bits of apple.
I sneered at the kids, throwing summer-priced apples away at pigeons!
On Tuesday, morale sank with the appearance of beef over biscuits and cooked cabbage. Emma's critique: "Yuk!"
Her mood became even more dour the next morning with an offering of oatmeal ("It sticks together in a funny way, Mom"). But her brother became enamored of the gruel and a deal was worked out between them.
That night's dinner included sugar applied to two separate vegetables ("Dat is candy?" Bryce asked), and an opportunity for family members to refuse oven-fried fish -- an opportunity that has knocked before. This left ample room for gelatin -- fruit filled, wiggily, and fun for Bryce to make.
On Thursday the kids, overdosed on sugar, refused the refrigerator sweet rolls. This put them in a good position to appreciate the peanut butter, carrot and raisin sandwiches for lunch, served on Emma's beloved white bread. Dinner included only one carbohydrate -- a phenomenon so startling that I got up from the table to doublecheck the menu.
Ice milk topped the meal, and while I wiped the chocolate chins, I asked the family how they had enjoyed their government's cuisine.Bryce's memory is still a little shaky, but he remarked that he "wiked dessert and peabutter," while my husband guessed that we all gained-weight on the 2,000 calories per day.
Emma sang the plan's praises, requesting that "even when Jimmy Carter stops telling us what to eat, can we buy white bread? Please."