Cooked: A Book About Why You Should… Cook

Consider the following questions that you may have asked yourself recently:

  • What can you do to consume fewer calories while eating healthier food?
  • How do you get your family to spend more time together, talk, and connect?
  • How do you get the public to care more about what they are eating, which in turns forces the food corporations to improve their standards?
  • What can modern super-specialized citizens do to feel more in touch with nature and self-sufficient?
  • How can you save some money?

I’m sure the title has given it away by now, but the answer is to cook! Specifically, cook at home for yourself and your family, as close to from scratch as possible. At least, that’s the lesson from the book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. A previous post expanded on the health benefits of cooking at home, and the book examines cooking as broken down into the four elements: Fire (BBQ), Water (Braises), Air (Bread), and Earth (Brewing).

Indeed, why is it that we seem more obsessed by food than ever (Food Network, Cooking Channel, Yelp, Food Bloggers Everywhere) at the exact same time that fewer and fewer people actually know how to cook? The food industry is betting that the current generation of kids will have hardly any idea of how to cook even basic dishes, as it means even more $$$ for them! A quote from consumer researcher Harry Balzer:

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Auto Insurance Quote Comparison Results: State Farm vs. GEICO vs. Allstate vs. Progressive vs. Liberty Mutual

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Inspired by reader experiences, I set aside an hour today to obtain auto insurance quotes from the major providers in my area. Insurance companies provide different quotes for “new customers” and “renewals”. Guess which one is usually lower? Also, many insurers choose to focus on specific types of customers such young, high-risk, or low-risk. Finally, I’ve also moved around a lot so I’ve noticed that my quotes change significantly based on where I live. The bottom line is that insurance prices vary for a lot of different reasons, and the only way to know which one is cheapest for you is to compare quotes directly.

It will help to gather the following information first:

  • Personal information. Full name, birthdate, occupation, education level, accident history. None required Social Security Number, but others might.
  • Car information. Many pull this from DMV records automatically. Year, model, date of purchase, own/lease/finance, and security system details.
  • Driving patterns. Is the car primarily used for work/commute/pleasure? How many miles driver per year?
  • Insurance details. Have your current bill handy to know your specific coverages, limits, and deductibles.

The Results!

The totals shown are 6-month premiums for two cars and include liability, personal injury, collision, and comprehensive coverage. Exact same limits and deductibles for all insurers.

  • State Farm (existing) – $665 per 6-month period. This includes various discounts like accident-free, multiple-cars, etc.
  • GEICO – $479. The cheapest quote by far, beating State Farm by $186 per 6 months, or $372 a year. This follows anecdotal evidence that GEICO is pricing their insurance very aggressively for new customers.
  • Allstate – $693. Slightly more expensive than State Farm. I noticed that they have a lot of optional “bells and whistles” features like accident forgiveness. They also offer a discount for electronic bills and auto-pay from bank account. The price shown includes these discounts.
  • Progressive – $849. Way higher than State Farm. Their claim to also provide quotes from other car insurance companies was also very disappointing. They couldn’t provide any other quotes at all. After changing my existing insurer, they said State Farm’s rate would be between $696 – $5,922. Not helpful.
  • Liberty Mutual – $568. Cheaper than State Farm by $194 a year. Not bad but higher than GEICO for me.
  • USAA – ???. I tried as I’ve heard good things about USAA, but I do not have the proper military affiliation to be eligible for their car insurance.

$372 a year is pretty significant. I’m definitely intrigued by this cheap GEICO quote, but I have to do some more research as I also have homeowner’s and umbrella insurance from State Farm and I’m not sure how the total package price would differ.

Optimize Your Cell Phone Plan: The Wireless Efficient Frontier

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The other day while I was trying to help someone find a cheaper cell phone plan, I realized two things:

  1. There are way too many different options these days. Most are MVNOs that buy bulk minutes and data from the major providers, and many of those are simply clones of each other.
  2. Trying to find the best cell phone plan is similar to the efficient frontier concept in investing. There, you try to achieve the highest return for a given amount of risk, or you try to minimize the risk you have to take in order to get a given return. Anything else is sub-optimal; here’s a quick chart illustration.

In the case of cell phone plans, you’re either trying to maximize features (coverage, phone selection, minutes, texts, data allowance) for a given budget, or more often you’re trying to minimize the cost for the features that you “need”/want.

I’ve mentioned several good deals from various providers, covering everything from a $2.50 a month basic plan to simply saving $10 a month on your “name brand” major provider plan via corporate or student discounts. Below, I’ve placed them all on a single chart of cost vs. features. This is a work-in-progress, but hopefully this will help folks find better alternatives and save some serious money over time.

The Details

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Cooked: The Health Argument For Cooking At Home

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I’m roughly halfway through Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan. Although the book covers a variety of topics ranging from chemistry to religion to anthropology, the overarching theme is examining the practice of cooking meals for yourself (and your family).

Cooking food has become one of our most outsourced tasks. Everyone is busy. But is letting huge for-profit corporations prepare what we eat really worth the time savings if it costs us our health? Consider what studies have found:

  • When we cook meals ourselves, we eat less than when we outsource to frozen meals or restaurants.
  • Obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation.
  • Regular cooking is correlated with superior health and longevity.
  • Poor women who routinely cooked tended to have a more healthy diet than richer women who did not.

In the book, food industry expert Harry Balzer (who knows exactly how often we actually eat out, not just how much we admit to… which is a lot!) put forth some insightful diet advice:

Cook it yourself. Eat anything you want – just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.

Essentially, eating unhealthily these days is mostly the byproduct of eating out, including meals-in-a-box and frozen dinners.

There are many other potential benefits of cooking for ourselves, stay tuned for a full review. Together, I’m hoping they’ll convince me to start cooking regularly again!

Mint.com Budgeting Tips & Tricks

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While I don’t believe everyone necessarily needs a tracked-down-to-the-dollar budget, I do think a major problem is that many people simply don’t know where their money goes. That makes it quite hard to know if your spending habits match up with your priorities. I’ve been using Mint.com (free, ad-supported) to track our household spending for a while. (I used to be a Yodlee guy, but they’ve been left behind with slow and clunky updates.) For those starting out, here are some practical tips that may be useful.

Using Credit and Debit Cards
The primary advantage of using a service like Mint.com is that if you pay for things with a linked credit or debit card, then important stuff like the date, merchant, and amount are immediately recorded so you don’t have to do it manually. No receipts, no typing, no writing. That’s a lot of time and mental energy saved.

Auto-categorization Training
After Mint imports your transaction information, it will provide its best guess as to the proper spending category. McDonald’s will be “Fast Food”, for example, but it also thought my water company was a clothing store. You can correct the category, and also create a rule that always changes the category to what you prefer. For example, I always set Sam’s Club and Costco as “Groceries” because that’s mostly what I buy there.

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The Perfect Thing: What Is Your Little Obsession?

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I’ve been thinking about another excerpt from investor Charlie Munger’s biography about his father Al Munger:

Though he could not be described as a lavish spender, Al Munger savored just the perfect thing, whatever it was he needed. Al had learned the joy of artful living from his mother. She shopped for the very best coffee beans, then took great pleasure each morning in grinding them for fresh coffee. It was a Tao philosophy, Midwestern style. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tse urged seekers to regard the small as important and to make much of the little. “The little obsessions,” Charlie called them.

This is an appealing idea. Only a select few can afford a Ferrari or Bentley, but most people reading this can afford a great cup of coffee. Instead of focusing your energy on the crazy-stupid-expensive “bests” like an Hermes leather handbag or Patek Philippe watch, why not enjoy the best cheesecake in the city?

Personally, I’m not sure I connect with this philosophy. I like good coffee, but I just buy whatever is cheap and nearby on the days that I need it. I like craft beer, but will drink Bud Light happily. Maybe I have to work on this artful living thing. :)

On the other hand, I did buy what may be the world’s best nail clipper for under $16. Also, my wife makes what I truly think is the world’s best roast chicken based on a really simple recipe by famous chef Thomas Keller. Follow the directions carefully, and it will turn out amazing. Bake some root vegetables alongside it, and you have a perfect meal for under $10.

Do you have an example of something that you enjoy the best of, but it still costs say under $25?

Don’t Squander The Power of Adaptation

Over the weekend I read all 73 posts of Arctic Dream, a blog written by the family who took a DIY sabbatical from their comfortable American life and spent a year living on a small Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle with only 180 residents. Besides quaint stories of smoking fish, there were some life lessons:

And that’s probably our biggest lesson from this year: people adapt very fast — much faster than they think. The new normal sets in and new routines established quickly.

They had no car. No cell phone. No TV. The village had no cafe, no Wal-mart/Target, not even fresh beef. But they were very happy. From the post Learning To Live With Less:

Humans have an amazing skill: the ability to adapt to a new environment without affecting our mental well being. Our ancestors honed this skill for millions of years before we emerged and became the most adaptable species ever to roam the earth. But too often, we forget that we have this skill, this genetic gift, and we squander it and make decisions in life as if we’d fall apart under adversity. And many of us sacrifice gravely in order to “maintain standard of living.”

My feeling is that humans can adapt very quickly, but they usually only find this out if they are forced to. Studies have found that those with permanent disabilities like being confined to a wheelchair are often quite happy. Conjoined twins tend to be happy the way they are. Adaptation also works both ways. People who earn more than $60,000 don’t get any happier.

However, if we are given the option, usually we’ll stay with the status quo. But think of how much more flexible your life would be if you were more confident of your ability to adapt. You could live in a smaller house, live in a new state, live in a new country! You could drive a used car, drive one less car, or have no car at all. It’d feel weird at first, but you’d adapt and still be happy. By spending less, you could build some F-you money. Instead of constantly fretting about losing the steady paycheck of your current so-so job, you can spend your time reaching for that next, better job.

I need to remind myself not to be afraid of positive change. I can adapt.

Best Sunscreens in 2013 – Consumer Reports

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The problem with choosing between sunscreens is that they all claim to do everything. The July 2013 issue of Consumer Reports magazine again tested a variety of sunscreens against their claims. For example, one important thing that CR tested for was protection against both UVA and UVB rays. UVB causes sunburn, but UVA damages and ages skin on a deeper level. Some major brands are notably weaker in protecting the UVA part of the spectrum. New labeling and test requirements from the Food and Drug Administration have also added specific requirements before a sunscreen can claim “broad-spectrum protection” from UVA/UVB. Other factors like water-resistance were also tested, as there really is no such thing as “water proof” or “sweat proof”.

Consumer Reports used to say that anything above SPF 30 doesn’t get you much extra protection, but this year’s test results suggest that going up to SPF 40 can actually help. Above SPF 40, it will likely wear off before it makes any difference. Instead, reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or sweating.

2013 Consumer Reports Best Buys
Equate (Walmart) Ultra Protection Lotion (SPF 50, $0.47 per ounce)

2012 Consumer Reports Best Buys
No-Ad Lotion (SPF 45, $0.59 per ounce)
Walgreens Continuous Spray Sport (SPF 50, $1.30 per ounce)

2011 Consumer Reports Best Buys
The Target Up & Up spray (SPF 30, $1.16 per ounce)

The Consumer Reports test results haven’t always been consistent over the last few years. CR has noted that their testing on UVA/UVB effectiveness has varied from year-to-year with the exact same product, even though the manufacturers claim the formula hasn’t changed. A brand that had one of the highest tested SPF in 2012, tested last in 2013. In addition, I noted last year that the Target spray which was a 2011 Best Buy wasn’t even tested in the 2012 issue. It was included again in 2013, again taking the top score rated “Recommended” although it didn’t win the Best Buy rating due the higher per-ounce cost.

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Top 10 Frugal Fruits: Which Fruits Offer the Most Nutritional Value Per Dollar?

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(Update: Doh! The original version of this post contained a basic mathematical error. I have corrected the rankings.)

When I wrote about What are the Cheapest Vegetables Per Pound?, reader Brady kindly pointed out the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) as a measure of relative nutritional value. Which got me to thinking, which vegetable or fruits provide the most nutrients per dollar? I decided to start with fruits first.

The ranking calculation is detailed below, but here are the top 15 fruits ranked by nutritional units per dollar:

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Live Below The Line Challenge: $1.50/Day Lessons

Last week I successfully completed the Live Below the Line challenge along with thousands of other people around the country, eating for 5 days on just $1.50 a day. Here are my takeaways from the week:

My challenge experience. In terms of doing the challenge itself, it wasn’t all that difficult. I planned my menu carefully to make sure I got at least 2,000 calories so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by hunger. My food was bland, but relatively nutritious. I usually drink mostly tap water anyway. To satisfy the somewhat arbitrary rule of only buying entire containers, I bought most of my ingredients from bulk bins and markets by the pound. If I was allowed to buy in bulk, I would have been able to eat even better.

I did feel a low-level hunger, which grew gradually as the week went on. I think this meant I was running a small caloric deficit as I kept up my usual light exercise routine. I lost roughly a pound. By the 5th day, the repetition of eating the same thing over and over was starting to grind on me. In other words: 5 days was fine, but 50 days would have been incredibly difficult.

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Live Below The Line Challenge: $1.50/Day Menu Pictures, Cooking Tips, and Taste Test

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I’m now nearly halfway through the Live Below the Line challenge, and here are some pictures and additional cooking/eating commentary about my $1.50 a day menu. Please also refer back to my menu and ingredient list and my nutritional information breakdown.

Breakfast

These banana crepes/pancakes are pretty big at nearly 8 inches in diameter. At 300 calories each, each one has about the same calories, fat, and (update: half the) protein as an Egg McMuffin at McDonald’s but at only 10 cents each they are less than 5% the price and have no added flavors or preservatives. If I added another egg, it’d be 15 cents each and the protein would be equal. (It’d be even better if I used whole grain flour.)

I have to prepare them from scratch daily, but I timed myself and cooking time including prep was only 15 minutes. I know that may still be too much time for some folks, but waiting in a busy drive-thru line can take 5-10 minutes on its own. I simply whisk .75 cup flour, an egg, 1 cup water, and a little salt together to make a thin batter. Then add one sliced banana. While frying the second pancake, I clean up my mixing bowl, whisk, and measuring cups. When done eating, I simply wash my single plate and rinse/wash the nonstick frying pan.

They actually taste good; I would eat them on any given weekend. I don’t really miss the milk found in the original recipe. I do wish I could alternate between apples and bananas, but apples cost too much for this challenge. For a bit more money, the variety would be nice.

Lunch

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What are the Cheapest Vegetables Per Pound?

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While doing research about getting the most nutrition for my dollar, I ran across an interesting report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture called How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost? [pdf]. The overall goal of the study was to better understand why Americans don’t eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Here are some neat charts of vegetables ranked by price per pound, as well as ranked by cost per edible cup equivalent:

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