Quantified Self: a year of grocery data

I started tracking our grocery expenses when we decided not to sign up for a community-supported agriculture program. I’d tracked several seasons of the CSA, and I wanted to see if we would still eat lots of vegetables without the bi-weekly commitment of a farm share. I also wanted to get a sense of what we bought.

I started scanning my receipts, and I found an assistant who could type them in. I set up a spreadsheet where he could type in the dates, stores, and line items (including quantity, unit price, and total). There were occasional typos, but I could find and fix them. I used a look-up table to match the line items with friendlier names (ex: RDPATH SUGAR is white sugar) and file them under categories.

The data below isn’t complete because there were a number of receipts that slipped through the cracks. If I let too much time pass between data updates, I couldn’t remember what some things were. Still, it should give a general idea of how the year went. The data covers April 2012 to March 2013 and includes 1223 line items.

Here are some questions I wanted to explore:

  • A. How much did we spend in various categories, and how does that vary month by month? For example, how much do we spend on vegetables? Is this in line with what we want our diet to be?
  • B. What items do we spend the most on? This could point to better ways to economize (buying in bulk, finding cheaper choices) or show us where it’s worth spending on better quality because we use so much of it.
  • C. How frequently do we buy certain items? Can we predict consumption patterns or sale patterns, and stock up when things are on sale?
  • D. What are the normal prices and the sale prices for various items? When and where does it make sense to buy different things?

So, let’s see! Click on the images to view larger versions.

A. How much did we spend in various categories, and how does that vary month by month?

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Grocery expenses worked out to be $422/month for this family of three in Toronto, Canada. We ate pretty well, enjoying our favourite foods, the occasional snack, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and buying organic milk (which turned out to be a large part of the budget, but probably worth it). Because we cook in bulk, some months have larger grocery bills and some months involve more freezer-raiding. The standard deviation was $160.

We spent the most on meat ($59/month) and dairy ($53/mo), but fruit ($47/mo) and vegetables ($46/mo) also made a respectable showing. Vegetables worked out to $22 every two weeks, which is less than what we were paying for the CSA box. That could be accounted for as a pricing difference between conventional and organic produce, and we still bought extra vegetables when we were in the CSA. Paying attention to our increasing vegetable spending helped us learn lots of ways to prepare food. Yakiudon turned out to be a house favourite, and other stir-fries are great too. We haven’t been able to get our vegetable spending to overtake meat, but that’s probably because of the occasional indulgence in lamb korma.

The month-by-month pattern made me think there were bigger differences, but because stocking up and bulk cooking means our monthly patterns probably aren’t a good source of information. Our vegetable spending is positively correlated with our overall grocery spending (0.7), which means that ~50% of the ups and downs are explained by the ups and downs in our grocery bill (maybe we just bought less).

Anyway, I feel pretty good about how the proportions worked out. There’s hope for us yet!

B. What items do we spend the most on?

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We buy milk because J- likes it. It turns out that Canada prohibits the use of artificial growth hormones for dairy cows and antibiotics are also controlled, but we still get the organic version for extra safety. Lamb shanks from the butcher are a splurge when it comes to making lamb korma. We found that Metro often has the lamb cuts we want, though, so we check there first now. Shrimp sees a lot of use in pad thai, stirfries, and other wok-based dishes, plus our occasional wonton marathons. My standard breakfast is rice and fried egg, and we use lots of eggs in baking and stirfrying too. I was surprised that much butter (and we do, even though we try to stock up during sales!) because of baking, and that grapes made it into our top ten despite being something we don’t eat that often. We buy grapes only when they’re super-crisp, and sometimes we forget to eat all of them before they soften. Also, we usually buy chicken legs or drumsticks, but it was interesting to see that whole chickens turned up on this list even though we don’t buy them frequently.

C. How frequently do we buy certain items?

A block of butter, a carton of 18 eggs, and a bag of 4L milk every 1.5 weeks (eggs and milk feel more frequent than that, though…)
A 2kg bag of white sugar every ~2 months, a 1kg(?) bag of demerara sugar every ~6 months

It’s a little harder to tell how often things go on sale and how much we want to stock up, because we skip sales if we still have stuff in stock (ex: butter) and we shift our buying patterns depending on what’s on sale (ex: 30% on a particular meat package that’s nearing its best-by date). It looks like butter is always good to get on sale, though, and that seems to be every other month.

D. What are the normal prices and the sale prices for various items?

Hmm, I think it might be useful to remember which ones sometimes go on big sales, so then it makes sense to postpone until things are in season.

Butter is usually $4.97, sometimes $2.88. Salami is sometimes $4.20 off ($5.29), clementines are sometimes $3 off ($3.99), and bacon is sometimes $2.58 off ($2.97). Sometimes we can get Japanese udon noodles for $1 instead of $2.19. And then there was that time that Campbell’s condensed chicken soup was on sale for $0.50 instead of its usual $0.97, and we bought a lot. =)

In general, our neighbourhood No Frills supermarket has pretty prices for stuff, although some things necessitate a special trip to the Sweet Potato organic food store or the Welcome or Oriental Harvest ethnic supermarkets. Metro also stocks some sauces and lamb cuts that are hard to find elsewhere. I sometimes look up prices from my records, but the difference is usually pretty small.

 

So that’s roughly a year of data. Hmm… Should I continue? Maybe I’ll scan and stash the receipts, but I might not have someone type in the information until I have more questions I want to ask. It was interesting to collect that data over a decade, though!

Comparing Plan B Organic Farms with Cooper’s Farm CSA

After two seasons with Plan B Organic Farms, we’ve discovered a range of new recipes and learned that we can survive an invasion of beets. This winter, we decided to experiment with a different community-supported agriculture program. We chose Cooper’s Farm because they offered delivery, which will be handy when it starts snowing.

Plan B Organic Farms has a depot a block away from our house, and offers a box of organic produce for $25 a week. Cooper’s Farm offers delivery for $24.86 (including the delivery fee).

We received our first delivery from Cooper’s Farm this morning, neatly packed in a box. In total, the produce weighed 10.19kg, for a cost of $2.44/kg. Here’s the breakdown:

carrots 1476g
cabbage 3494g
onions 1380g
potatoes 1468g
sweet potatoes 651g
tomatoes 844g
turnips 878g

In comparison, here’s today’s box from Plan B Organic Farms (total: 5.85kg, $4.27/kg):

lettuce 355g
broccoli 734g
cabbage 1923g
tortillas 270g
onions 516g
acorn squash 989g
blueberries 170g
tomatoes 393g
apples 416g
garlic 83g

During the fall season, we received an average of 6.57kg from Plan B Organic Farms (stdev = 1.12kg), composed of 11 different types of produce on average. The fall shares included some imported items (kiwi, avocado, etc.) to add variety.

Plan B Organic Farms produce was generally good, but occasionally of poor quality: squishy tomatoes, apples with soft spots, and so on. Still, it helped us get more vegetables into our diet, so it was worth it. Cooper’s Farm CSA has been okay so far (except for one potato that we ended up chucking), although the produce required a lot more scrubbing.

It looks like Cooper’s Farm CSA gives us more local produce for our buck, but with less variety. We’ll see how the rest of it goes this season!

First foray into community-supported agriculture

W- borrowed In Defense of Food from the library. I read it with him, dipping in and out of the book when he read nearby. Now we’re tweaking what and how we eat: buying organic vegetables, checking out a nearby butcher, and preparing lighter summer fare.

We signed up for a local spring share from Plan B Organic Farms. The way that community-supported agriculture works is that you buy a share in a farm’s produce and you get a portion of whatever’s being harvested. Plan B Organic Farms works with several farms, so you can get a good selection of food (and your risk is probably lower, too). We signed up for a bi-weekly regular-sized share to see what it’s like. We’ll probably sign up for a weekly half-share for summer, as the garden will yield fruits and vegetables too.

After much anticipation, we picked up our first box yesterday! It contained:

  • lettuce
  • baby kale
  • living sprouts
  • pea tenders
  • apples
  • shiitake mushrooms
  • potatoes
  • parsnips
  • beets
  • apple cider (mmm!)

I rinsed and tossed handfuls of lettuce, baby kale, sprouts, and pea tenders with vinaigrette. I added dandelion leaves from the garden. (Mwahaha! It’s extra-satisfying to pull up weeds for munching.) A sprinkling of pine nuts on the greens, and tada! Salad.

Meanwhile, W- cooked the sausages and prepared pasta with store-bought pesto. (Haven’t started our basil plot yet!) We added some sage, oregano, and thyme from the garden – just a bit, as the plants are still small. Yummy!

Working with a random assortment of fruits and vegetables is a lot more fun now than it was back when I was a student cooking for myself. I used to get the Good Food Box (another organic/local produce subscription service) when I lived on campus. Identifying the vegetables that came and figuring out good recipes for them that wouldn’t result in too much waste – that was quite a challenge! I remember losing the list of the box contents and then flipping through the pages in my full-colour fruit and vegetable identification book (a gift from my family), trying to figure out if I had beets or rutabagas. (Beets, as it turned out.) Now, W- and I can bounce ideas off each other, we have more flexibility and a better-stocked pantry for quick meals, and we have the freezer space to handle odds and ends if needed. Yay!

I’m still looking forward to getting our garden growing. The plants look promising. I’m learning how to pack the garden more densely and to grow more kinds of food. But it’s great to enjoy lettuce and all these other things while the garden gets started, and to get fruits and vegetables we won’t be growing ourselves.

The community-supported agriculture shares will be a great addition to our kitchen, encouraging us to be more creative with our cooking and more diverse in our diet. It’ll be fun – and it will be good eating!

Shanghaippy birthday, John Grimme! Recipe: Lumpiang shanghai

John Grimme, my sister’s fiance, celebrates his birthday tomorrow. (Well, today already, given time in the Netherlands.) He gets this bad pun because of his deep love for lumpiang shanghai, and because I’ve decided to get lots more drawing practice. =) Makes me wish I thought of making birthday illustrations like this earlier! Oh well, I’ll just have to do some drawings for other family members on other occasions.

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He probably doesn’t need this recipe, but here it is for other people who are curious.

Lumpiang shanghai

These ingredients can be changed quite a bit. Experiment!

  • 500g ground pork (fat is okay)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • a few cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 medium-sized carrot, grated
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • spring roll wrappers: look for packages with photos of golden-brown deep-fried delicacies on them if you need to be sure, as rice wrappers don’t work as well as the other kinds do
  • egg, beaten (for sealing)
  • plum sauce (for serving)

Mix everything but the egg, the wrapper, and the plum sauce in a large mixing bowl. Test the seasoning by frying some of the filling in oil until the pork is cooked, then tasting it. When the filling tastes good, make the spring rolls.

Take a spring roll wrapper and spread it on a plate or saucer. Put a teaspoon of filling slightly below the wrapper center, in a long finger-width line. Leave space on either side of the filling so that you can tuck the ends in. Fold the near corner of the wrapper over the filling. Fold the sides inwards. Moisten the far edges of the wrapper with some of the egg, then roll up your wrapper until you reach the end, rolling it as tightly as you can.

(*Optional: Wash your hands, browse the Internet for a video on how to make it, then get back to making lumpia.)

Make as many as you can until you run out of wrappers or filling. If you run out of wrappers first, you can turn the rest of the filling into meatballs or little patties. If you run out of filling first, you can use the wrappers for other fried goodies.

If you want to freeze any of the lumpia, you can do so now. (When Tita Gay came over for our wedding, we made well over 300 pieces of lumpia. Everyone had all the lumpia they could eat, and we enjoyed the extras for almost a month afterwards.)

When you’ve made a batch of lumpia, heat 1-2 inches of oil in a frying pan until a piece of bread sizzles or until the oil smokes. (This is why we don’t make lumpia often – frying can be  scary!) Fry the lumpia a few at a time, turning or rolling them so that they cook evenly. Avoid overcrowding them, and give the oil time to heat up again between batches. Lumpia is done when it turns crispy and golden brown. Let them drain on paper towels or in a strainer, and break one open to test if it’s cooked inside. If it is, eat the evidence. Stop yourself from eating more. Fry up another batch. Test those for quality, too. Remember to leave some for your guests.

Serve warm, with plum sauce.

Taho

From Sunday:

When I was growing up, we often had taho for breakfast. Manila had many magtataho who roamed the streets each morning, with two aluminum buckets hanging in balance from a pole. One bucket had tofu, and the other had compartments for tapioca pearls and sugar syrup. Yaya would have glasses filled and brought upstairs, where they would wait under crocheted glass-covers for us. Sometimes I lucked out and had two glasses of taho, like when I knew other people had finished breakfast already. Sometimes we had taho for afternoon snacks, too. It was fun watching the vendors work: swiftly scooping the tofu into a glass, spooning tapioca pearls in, swirling the syrup and mixing everything together.

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There are no taho vendors in this part of Toronto – or perhaps anywhere in Canada. But we can get silken tofu and tapioca pearls at the Lawrence Supermarket on Black Creek Drive. After five years of only having taho on my trips home, I found a recipe on the Internet and made taho for the first time. It’s simple: a syrup of brown sugar and water, tapioca pearls, and warm silken tofu.

It tasted like the quiet mornings of childhood.

Taro

I joined other recent hires for an evening out that ended up at a bubble tea shop. I ordered taro bubble tea with tapioca. Someone asked me what taro was, and I paused as I tried to describe it to people who had never had taro before.

For me, taro bubble tea is wrapped up in all sorts of memories: standing in long lines to bubble tea shops as the craze swept through Manila, finding out that one of my university teachers was in a car accident because he jaywalked to buy a cup of bubble tea, going to Quickly with my sister and poking the thick straw through the taut plastic that was just added by their special cup-sealing machines, rolling my tongue around the spongy tapioca that took me back even further to innumerable glasses of sago’t gulaman quenching childhood thirsts.

I remember copying my sister after she ordered taro with large tapioca pearls. Years later, it’s still the flavour I return to.

“Taro?” I said. “They’re roots.”