The Cost of Culinary Convenience

As I convalesce after a total hip replacement, I am a prime target for the convenience market. Because of my grocery shopping limitations, I decided to finally try a couple meal delivery services. Falling for the introductory deal pitches, I tried both Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. Quickly, though, Hello Fresh became more of a hassle than a convenience, as my promo code didn’t properly process and then I had to contact them for a refund. They promised a refund and gave me a credit, which subsequently led to another online chat session with customer support. Because I am off work at the moment, I was able to monitor and follow up on my account charges. If I was my normal working mom self, a huge demographic for these services, I may have not had the time or emotionally energy at the end of the day to communicate with customer service, which would have resulted in eating the extra costs along with my meal.

Financial Costs
It is not easy to see on either site/app how the promotional deal will shake out and what your weekly cost will be. There is a reason for this. Convenience is not cheap. Even with my “discount,” my second week of Hello Fresh would have been over ten dollars per serving. And this is for the “basic” offerings. More premium meals are offered at a higher cost.

Because of the costs, I quickly went down to one meal service. I dropped Hello Fresh first, as Blue Apron had the better meals and selections. At least better selections that did not come with additional charges. My Blue Apron meals were ones I would have not have likely made on my own: crispy curry chicken with mustard seed sautéed zucchini, cauliflower stromboli drizzled in hot honey, and a Beyond Burger topped with poblano peppers, Monterey cheese, and guacamole.

They were great meals to learn about cooking and new flavors. My 10-year-old son helped me make the crispy curry chicken, which was a fun family activity. Because of this, financially I could justify this as a fun occasional indulgence.

Environmental Costs
While I enjoyed putting together and eating these new dishes, I could not help but be horrified at all the packaging required to bring these meals to my door. My Beyond

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Burger meal ingredients were separated into seven packages, not counting the shipping box it came in. When I considered the travel fuel, ice packs, and packaging, ordering these meals stood out as my most wasteful environmental action for the week.

While studies point out that these meals reduce food waste, this was not the case for me. Some parts of the dishes I could not finish or eat, such as the pickled radishes. Also, it will only reduce food waste if this is an issue in your household. Ordering a meal kit could solve this, but so could better meal planning.

Final thoughts
Overall, meal kits can be great resource for the busy and homebound. They are a fun way to try new foods and expand one’s cooking repertoire. However, be aware that promotional pricing only lasts so long and may not be as cheap as you are led to believe. In addition, if possible, I would advise individuals to look for local kit providers to reduce the environmental impact of these services. Because of the convenience costs, now that  I am now four weeks post-op and able to push a cart, I’ll be returning to Pinterest and the grocery aisles to put together my meals.

The Polar Vortex and Other Broken Systems

Two years ago, I was doing aerial splits on the trampoline. Today, I cannot get through grocery shopping without limping and holding desperately onto the handle of the shopping cart. I’ll forever remember this winter as the season that made no sense. The weather has added to the surreal experience, the broken polar vortex offering a nice metaphorical symmetry to my own internal system break down. In the record-breaking wind chills, I ventured to the orthopedic doctor to be told I needed a new hip at age 41. My life has been frozen by unseasonable forces.

The winter howled, iced, and snowed us in for the past month. We have had record snow day cancellations. The symbiosis between the external and internal environments of my body has left me feeling a bit witchy, as if nature is mourning my broken system as well as its own. We are aging poorly, accumulating irreparable damage, but we can’t stop the world. After I returned from the doctor, my son asked if we could go to the bowling alley/arcade because snow days are supposed to be fun. My children, thankfully, have no concept of tragedy. Mom is always going to be alright because she is mom. So I went, limped around, buried the horror, and built a new plan for myself.

My new bright-eyed young physician therapist claims we won’t stop until I am back to 100%. Perhaps I will experience a physical therapy miracle once my hips are realigned and my muscles are stretched and strengthened. I don’t know and the fog of pain and uncertainty shadows my daily life. As much as I want to maintain the persona of the plucky heroine who faces adversity with grace and humor, I sometimes need to let the mask slip sometimes and pout at my aches.

The hardest part is all the ways my life has gotten smaller, how fear of pain has infused itself into my decision-making process. The circumstances create a sort of existential claustrophobia. My only recourse is to pedal the bike at the gym, to pull and push on the rowing machine, to regain the feeling of strength and control over my body. I try to remember that life is bigger than my problems and that my ability to contribute to it does not require physical perfection. But I do not like limitations.

The Sad Reality of Fuddrucker’s

I remember the commercials fondly – the upbeat music, the dazzling array of toppings, and the promise of the world’s greatest burger. Fuddrucker’s. Of course, we never went there. We were marooned in the rural spread known as the Thumb of Michigan. We also rarely ventured into the realm of casual dining, staying firmly in the fast food division.

Years later, I passed the billboard for Fuddrucker’s every time I returned home from college. I am not sure why it continued to captivate me, especially as I was not particularly fond of hamburgers. Of course, I never stopped. I had school loans and a mild eating disorder, so I could not afford the indulgence.

Today, though, a childhood fantasy finally became a reality. We were on our way home from one of my husband’s sporadic BBQ catering jobs when the children decided that they were in danger of starvation. Travelling in a vehicle full of pulled pork, ribs, and brisket does have a way of stimulating one’s appetite. Their raging hunger happened to coincide with the Flint exit for Fuddrucker’s.

Entering the restaurant felt like entering an abandoned amusement park. All the remnants of fun and kitschiness remained, the neon signs, the Pinball machine and air hockey table, the collection of Americana/pop culture memorabilia. However, the people were gone. We were one of a handful of families. It seems Fuddrucker has gone the way of Beanie Babies and Jelly Shoes. Or maybe, it has simply gone the way of the rest of Flint.

Like Jelly shoes the experience did not meet the hype. The burgers in their fresh-baked buns were tasty, but the fries were not kid-friendly with their coating of black pepper. That was for the best, though, because the fry portion was so small. Because business was slow, the topping bar was a wilting disappointment, a sad collection of chopped up vegetables that would most likely end up in the trash can.

So sad was the environment that my children did not even ask to visit the small arcade in the back. With Fuddrucker’s, the overpriced burgers are so suppose to be justified by the atmosphere. They were not.

I tell my children never to believe the hype of products they see on television. However, I understand how deeply commercials can target our deepest desires. For me, as a child, it was the lure of a suburban childhood, a place full of sidewalks, family nights out to the movies, arcades, and the world’s greatest hamburgers.

The Many Virtues of Frugality

While other children grew up collecting baseball cards and stickers, I grew up collecting coupons. At the library we would sort through a virtual box of money, extracting coveted name brands and the promise of free food if we timed our purchases right. Long before I studied rhetoric as a graduate student, I was a practitioner of the ancient rhetorical concept Kairos. To employ kairos in a speech, you must be aware of the mood of your audience, the context of the situation, and any atmospheric influences. Timing is more than simply showing up and reading from an index card at an appropriate place. The same goes for shopping. In this way, frugality is a difficult concept to apply for those who like to make a grocery list and enter and exit the store as quickly as possible.

Yesterday, I spent nearly two hours scouring their aisles of Meijer and contemplating my choices. It was a moment when the discount stars were aligned in my Meijer world, total purchase mPerks and credit card discounts that could be combined, plus Mother’s Day specials. On a different day, I would not have splurged on the higher end hanging baskets. However, when all the discounts and sales combined, I felt justified in my purchase.

This lengthy foray into the world of bargain shopping would not have been possible before my winter semester of teaching ended. In work intensive times, the variable of convenience reins, which is part of the problem with American life. When we are wrapped up in the hectic life of work, children, and activities, we become less mindful at the stores. We grab our grocery carts and rush around the stores, our minds engaged on what else we have on our agenda. A few weeks later we are presented with a credit card bill for $2,000 and wonder how it is possible that we spent so much money over the course of a month.

Being raised pinching pennies, I am mindful of every dollar I spent. I can recall every item that I spent too much money on by rushing my purchase, as I have constantly rehashed it (which isn’t really healthy either, but that is a reflection for another time). Because of this, I have never had issues with my credit card, paid off my student loans six months after graduation for both of my degrees, and have a healthy savings.

This success has bled into other areas of my life as well, a phenomenon that is well explained by the Marshmallow Test. In the Marshmallow Test, Walter Mischel led a study where children were given a marshmallow. They were told if they did not eat the marshmallow before the researchers returned that they would get an additional marshmallow. One third did not eat the initial marshmallow, practicing the willpower skill of delaying gratification. This ability to delay gratification was a predictor of future success. Frugality is essentially going through the marshmallow test every time you go to the grocery store. You have a choice, you can either get an item that is not on sale and end up with less groceries for your budget, or you can wait until an item is on sale, so that you can buy more food for the same amount of money.

I write this to remember these lessons and how they shaped me, as since I have had children, I have begun to prioritize convenience over saving money. This is not always wrong, as some weeks, you need what you need when you need it. It is being mindful of when you are making a necessary purchase and when you are making one just because you are in a hurry and your willpower is depleted. It is also about creating financial literacy for my children and teaching them the value of waiting.

Pinning My Ideal Self

We all know that through social media we create a veneer we want the world to see. Here is the gorgeous sunset from my last vacation, here is the perfectly plated dinner I made, and here are my stylish, well-mannered kids smiling with their arms around each other. We take fifty selfies in order to pick one we like. And even that it is not good enough—we then need to apply most flattering Instagram filter before presenting this “based-on reality” version of ourselves to the world.

Social media is also how we pursue our ideal or future self. For me, this is done most notably through Pinterest. I am convinced that one day I will make my own soap, become an accomplished chef, and travel to Japanese gardens. I even have a board for my ideal husband called “honey to-do list.” It has little resemblance to the scribbled Post-It notes or random texts I actually send my real life husband.

Today, though, I briefly lived my Pinned life. I found myself with a rare gift this morning, a spare 10 minutes, and I completed the recipe I have meant to try for the past two weeks, a Greek Chickpea Salad. Of course, by this point, red onions I bought had already gone bad and my children ate all the cucumbers. I discovered the Kalamata olives I bought had pits. Still, I soldiered on with sweet onions, green olives, and celery in place of cucumbers. I stared at the can of chickapeas unsure whether or not they were recipe ready. To be safe, I rinsed and microwaved them.

Overall I was pleased with the end result, though I will lower the amount of salt and tahini the next time I make it.

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