September 9, 2010

The Produce Problem

A study, Is Price a Barrier to Eating More Fruits and Vegetables for Low-Income Families? by the American Dietetic Association sheds some light on this issue of Eating in 3D. Some of the interesting facts gleaned from this study:

• The dietary guidelines recommend 8.5-9 servings of fruits and veggies a day (Note: this is higher than the 4.5 minimum that I’m tracking.)

• People with higher incomes are more likely to meet these dietary recommendations

• On average, low-income families would have to devote 43-70% of their food budget to meet the fruit and veggie dietary guidelines.

• People who make less than $25,000 a year eat only about 5 servings a day

• Low-income neighborhoods often have higher food prices since these neighborhoods often have fewer and smaller supermarkets, which charge more

• Studies show that it costs about 17-19% more to eat healthier choices (e.g., whole-wheat instead of white bread, nonfat dairy, etc.).

Looking at these facts, it's easy to see why good nutrition isn't economically practical for many families.

Tracking Daily Nutrition and Cost

I don’t wake up every day thinking of what I can add to my already seam-bustingly full life. I certainly don’t cherish the thought of tracking the 16 basic elements of nutrition and serving price of every food item my family consumes. But, following the idiom that you can't understand what you can't track, my new routine includes spending an average of 90 minutes a night chronicling every gram eaten and penny paid.

Fortunately, now that I’ve developed the tools it gets a little quicker each night as the library of food items we routinely consume grows and I spend less time pinging the internet for information. Folks who know me well know that I have a love affair with Excel and I believe that it is the solution to all organizational challenges. I’ve designed kitchens, planned parties, evaluated vacation destinations – you name it – using my favorite little green helper. All those perfectly aligned cells gleam at me from the screen just begging to bring order to the chaos of data needed to execute this experiment. Yet, there are days, when Ed’s lunch choices include Hawaiian BBQ, pickles, trail mix and a coke that I strain to remember my marital vows and even Excel cannot sooth me. I’ve since found a solution for this (no one was harmed in the making of this solution) but that will have to wait for another post.

Here is the basic format that I’ll use to report our daily battle with Eating in 3D.

First ,there is the time-hog detailed food log which includes cost and nutrition information for every ingredient-level item consumed in a day:

This information is gleaned from the food packages themselves or, in the case of produce, from (for price) and (for nutrition data). The trick to not driving yourself totally insane is to – strange as it sounds – actually eat the serving size amounts provided on the labels. It was a leap of faith at first, but it turns out there is a perfectly logical reason that these quantities are called servings. By doing this, you’ll save yourself hours of time slicing and dicing nutritional information for partial servings and converting grams to ounces while trying to nail down the price of a serving.

At the end of each day, I do a quick analysis of how we each ate using visual charts of our day's consumption. Radius charts thrill me to the very core of my hyper-analytical geek soul. In an ideal scenario, we would fall perfectly in line with the inner circle of the radius chart. Reading around the radius from top clockwise are: Cost, Calories, Calories from fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Carbs, Fiber, Sugar, and protein. Although, it is not a problem to get more fiber and protein than the RDA, generally speaking, the larger the overall color blob, the worse we’ve done. You’ll see that each of us tends to develop a consistent blob print – Ed spikes toward protein, Celia toward sugar and I find ways to blow my cholesterol intake. I also track our success with whole grain, fruit, vegetable, core vitamins, milk and protein servings in a separate bar chart per person.
Finally, I add up our expenditure for the day and take note of any lessons learned from the new data.

Starting next week, I’ll spare you the detailed spreadsheets but report on our menu, daily graphs and observations. I make a point of asking Ed and Celia about the day’s food quality and whether they were hungry but they are an easy crowd and I never get any complaints. That may be more of a reflection of Ed and Celia than Eating in 3D.

So, hang in there – you’ll start to see the nitty-gritty of this experiment shortly.

If anyone would like a blank template of the nutritional database with charts, let me know and you too can spend your evening transcribing nutritional facts and berating your spouse’s lunch choice of a 6-topping pizza slice, Ceasar salad and four fruit smoothie combo. Seriously, that would be grounds for divorce.

San Diego Unified gets it.

Possibly the saving grace of Eating in 3D for San Diego families with children is the remarkable public school system food services department. Late last night, I sent an e-mail into SDU’s Supervisor of Food Management, Sally Spero. In stark contrast to the stereotype of school bureaucrats, Ms. Spero responded to my request for menu item nutritional information at 7 AM this morning. In addition to pointing me to a complete nutritional breakdown of all lunch entrees and salad bar items (, Ms. Spero enthusiastically shared highlights of the SDU program including:

• Lunch is $2.00, today we had a choice of three entrée choices (one is always vegetarian and one is always non-dairy). So today the kids had a cheese pizza slice made with low-fat mozzarella cheese, turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes (“real” potatoes, not dehydrated) and cured turkey and cheese sub.

• All our breads are made with a special albino white whole-wheat which we find the children accept better than traditional dark whole-wheat.

• There are unlimited fruits and vegetables on the salad bar which today was romaine (we don’t use iceberg), fresh spinach, croutons, frozen unsweetened fruit blend, fresh grapes and pears canned in juice with two low-fat dressing choices.

• At elementary school, we do not sell any foods a la carte except milk.

• We do not allow trans-fats, dyes or MSG in our foods.

• We are working to eliminate high-fructose corn syrup but this is quite challenging. We do not accept any new products that have it, however.

• Our Registered Dietitian plans all the menus and does a computer analysis to assure that they meet the standards of less than 30% of calories from fat, less than 10% of calories from saturated fat and they contain ¼ of RDA for breakfast and 1/3 of RDA for lunch of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and iron.

• We recently hired a Farm to School Specialist who will assist us in purchasing more local products for our programs.

Say it with me – wow! You can justifiably complain about innumerable aspects of our public school system but the food available to our children is not one of them. School breakfast and lunch are very good deals both in terms of cost and nutrition – we can learn a lot from the meals they prepare. Our task as parents is to train our kids to make wise selections from the foods offered to them. Celia and I discussed the entrée items for each day and looked over the nutritional data together to pick out the best options. Celia has a 1 cup measure which she uses to estimate a serving of fruits and vegetables from the salad bar – an exercise that we should all master. She skips the chocolate milk for regular milk because it allows her to have more fruit during the day– her preferred source of the sweet stuff.

And, true to the Eating in 3D philosophy, school lunches hit the mark at a low $2.50 (with milk). This expense is further reduced for the 60% of SDU students needing financial assistance. Finally, I am confident that Celia is able to achieve her daily nutrition goals without adding the task of making bag lunches each night to my responsibilities - priceless.

Thank you Ms. Spero – keep up the great work!

Check out the SDU Food Services Website ( There are a number of interesting resources there including their monthly newsletter which includes kid-friendly nutrition information, recipes, etc… Here’s one that we will definitely try:

Recipe Idea to Do at Home with your Children:
Chicken-Spinach Quesadillas
By Rosemary Black

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Serves: 4

• 10-oz box frozen spinach, thawed
• 8 six-inch flour tortillas
• 1/2 cup prepared pesto sauce (in deli section of supermarket)
• 1 cup shredded reduced-fat monterey jack cheese
• 1 cup leftover diced cooked chicken

1. Squeeze excess liquid from the spinach. Place 4 tortillas on a work surface. Spread 2 tablespoons pesto on each tortilla, then top with 1/4 cup spinach.

2. Sprinkle each tortilla with 1/4 cup each cheese and chicken. Top with remaining tortillas and press firmly.

3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and cook each quesadilla until cheese melts and tortillas are golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate. Cut each into quarters before serving.

How kids can help: Measure ingredients; squeeze spinach; assemble quesadillas.

Per quesadilla: 484 calories, 26 g fat (7 g saturated), 770 mg sodium, 44 mg cholesterol.

September 7, 2010

The 4th Dimension?

As I consult the Internet to learn more about nutrition and making ends meet, I am constantly remind of all the many things I am NOT factoring into this experiment.

For example, the Sierra Club would like you to understand the “The True Cost of Food.” Check out this video ( which the Club takes a family shopping at “Buy-it-All-Mart” is whisked away to uncover the hideously inflated cost of items in their cart when one accounts for environmental impact. A pound of conventional steak = $815 based on factory farm practices reliant on of oil, water, wasted feed, destroyed grasslands and pollution. A single conventional tomato = $374 when you include pesticides, water pollution, and topsoil loss.

How can we afford it? Our taxes subsidize large corporate farms. Today, seven percent of American farms provide over 72 percent of our food. This means food must be transported from centralized farms to the processing plants and retail outlets. Even “fresh” produce travels an average of 2,000 miles from farm to fork, often spending a week in a refrigerated truck. The nutritional quality of produce begins to deteriorate the moment it is picked.

Yikes! The environmental impact of food production is not about to become the 4th dimension in this experiment because, frankly, I don’t think the average American Fox News watching family is going to be persuaded. However, it is a worthy consideration and one that might warrant your own exploration.

September 6, 2010

Household Income and Food Expenditure

Before I take you down the rat hole of macro-economic gobbledy-gook, it is important to remind everyone that statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, what they conceal is vital. At first blush, I found these numbers very difficult to believe but after triangulating the information with Census Bureau data, I have come to accept the dismal truth of our macro-economic conundrum.

To get at how much people actually spend on food, I looked at average expenditure data by households. Here is a good illustration to help visualize where our household incomes go:

Unfortunately, this graphic shows a “before tax income” of $63,091 so technically these folks are already in the hole at their current rate of spendingof $49,638 per year – a fact we know to be true in this country based on our negative savings rates.

The graph suggests that consumers spend an average of $6,133 per year on the physical necessity of food. An average of 56% ($3,465) of the total is spent on food consumed at home, while 44% ($2,668) of it is spent on food consumed away from home. Combined, food expenditure constitutes 12.4 percent of the entire yearly household budget.

If we used this data to establish our daily spending budget, we’d find ourselves in a real pickle. I’m using the 3 whole people in my family while the chart report 2.5 people in this fractional family.

$6,133 / 52 weeks = $117.94 per week = $16.84 per day = $5.61 per person/per day!

Wow! Maybe this will be a good challenge for an upcoming week but, based on my experience so far, I don’t think Eating in 3D is viable at $5.61 per person per day. Or, if it is, it would be so limiting that sustaining the practice would be difficult.

So, for the purposes of this experiment, we have chosen a more manageable $10/per person/per day. Preliminary findings indicate that we can be successful at this expenditure but not without significant changes to our food habits.

Please note, however, that $10/person/day is not remoately viable for many, many families. On a state level, Maryland tops the income chart with $70,545/year while Mississippi trails behind at just $37,790/year. (Link: Imagine - that gives a Mississippi family less than $13 per day to spend on food. Is it a coincidence that Mississippi earned the distinction of most obese State in 2010 with nearly 34% of the population qualifying. (

Do you know what you are spending on food per week? per month? annually?

What is Eating in 3D?

Simply put, Eating in 3D is consuming the proper nutrients – from food – to meet standard guidelines on fewer than $10 per person per day and with fewer than 35 minutes of food preparation time for any given meal.

Dimension 1 - Nutrition Guidelines

For the purposes of this experiment, I have elected to use the standard “Nutrition Facts” format created by the US Food and Drug Administration which is provided on the labels of nearly every food item you purchase. You know the one. Please conserve your energy arguing against the tyranny of the FDA or the inadequacies of this format. When there is one better and equally prevalent, I’ll use it.

Basically we declare daily success if we stay under 100% on the yellow highlighted items (in chart to the right) and achieve 100% or greater on the blue nutrients.

For simplification, I am using a basic 2000-calorie baseline for all three of us (Ed, Jamie and Celia) in this experiment even though age, gender and physical activity levels impact caloric requirements. Logically, my 40-year-old, 213 lb husband ought to consume more per day (2400 – 2800 calories) than and my 50 lb, 9-year-old daughter (1800 – 2200 calories). I get it. But, when you see how complex it is to track daily nutrients at the ingredient-level for three eaters per day, you’ll forgive me for indulging in the blanket 2000-calorie standard. In practice, we have seen that eating healthy foods lowers our caloric intake, leaving us room to spare and creating a phenomenon known to the FDA as “the discretionary calorie allowance.” At our discretion, we can choose to consume some foods and beverages that may contain added fats, added sugars, and alcohol within this allowance. Half of a light beer never tasted so good.

In addition to the standard “Nutrition Facts” line items, we track our success with five additional core FDA guidelines.
1. 2 cups of fruit per day
2. 2 1/2 cups of vegetables per day
3. 3 or more ounce-equivalents (1 oz = 28g so 3 oz = 84g) of whole-grain products per day, with the rest of coming from enriched or whole-grain products.
4. Consume 3 cups (24 oz) per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products.
5. Consume less than 300 mg/day of cholesterol
6. Keep total fat intake between 20 to 35 percent of calories – we use 30%.

Dimension 2 – Cost

I’ll provide greater detail on the specifics of how we came to the per person/per day food expenditure allowance in another post. For the experiment, we are sticking to $10/per person/day. Although the number strikes many people as impossibly low, at over $10,000/year, this daily spend rate is in fact more than most American families can afford.

We tally up the cost of every item we eat including ounces of olive oil, dabs of butter and sprinkles of parmesan. When we use vegetables from our garden we assign the market price. Of course, gardening is one solution to the cost issue, as is belonging to a community supported agriculture project but I don’t consider these practical assumptions for everyone.

When we eat at other people’s homes we still track our nutrition (although it is harder) and assign reasonable costs. Warning - high ticket items become irresistible while eating in 3D. Try to refrain from sucking the juices from our steak bones, inhaling the cocktail shrimp and pocketing the Danish cheese plate when no one is looking.

We do NOT include the expense for alcohol in our daily total nor do we track our consumption of beer, wine and spirits. These are not substances necessary to meet nutritional guidelines. I like to throw them into the “discretionary calorie allowance” at the end of the day. And if you really hold back on your calories, your liquid allowance will pack that much more punch!

Dimension 3 – Time

This dimension of Eating in 3D is very important to me personally. There are a number of ways that you could achieve the cost goals of this experiment. I am ruling out many of them on the basis that they are ridiculous for most people. For example, go ahead, buy half a cow to get the per pound price of your sirloin down. Of course, you’ll need a walk in freezer while you are at it. Better yet – just hunt down your protein. For a not so nominal fee ($100+ for out of state residents) you can bag your own load of *free* lean venison. While freezing your day-glow orange ass off in the woods in November is classified as recreation by many, fewer sportsmen engage in the tedious, time-consuming and face it – highly gory – process of dressing, skinning, butchering and preparing the meat themselves. For that there are processing houses. Deer go from car hood or truck bed to a combination meat packing plant/taxidermy operation. Out come frozen, packaged, refrigerator-ready chops, loins, and chuck – for a cool $75 ($20 more if you’d like the trophy capping service – a euphemistic antler scalping procedure.) Or, you can skip the bloody bits to purchase a variety of quality protein sources from the local Safeway for not that much more.

On the same grounds, for this experiment, I have ruled out common “saving” techniques that are especially time-consuming. Sure, we could all make all your own bread, pickles, jam, etc… I predict the nation’s botulism numbers would skyrocket and exploding pressure cookers would quickly surpass meth lab explosions in the generation of ER visits. You could raise chickens, pant a vegetable garden and dig your own taters. You could drive all over town with the weekly advertisements and a shoebox of coupons to buy fractions of your groceries on sales at five different stores. You could do all of these things. But does it really have to be that hard?

As a working mom with dinner-making responsibility, I find it impractical to prepare any meal that takes longer than about 35 minutes of my attention. If something can be prepared in 35 minutes and then slow cooked for hours – rock n roll – as long as it doesn’t take my presence. So, for the experiment, I’ll only offer meal suggestions that meet this 35-minute prep rule.

Eating in 3D: The Objective

Face it. America is busting at the seams. Or more specifically, American’s are busting at their inseams. In the 20-odd years that I have been an adult, the obesity rate has swelled to enormous proportions. For the record, obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. BMI is calculated from a person's weight and height and provides a reasonable window into one’s propensity for serious health problems including cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer, and type 2 diabetes. What is your BMI? If you haven’t checked lately, do so

In 2009, thirty-three states claimed an obesity prevalence equal to or greater than one in four citizens; nine of these states (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia – hush puppies, anyone?) had a prevalence of obesity equal to or greater than 30%. Only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%. What is going on?! Check out the handy-dandy animated fat maps provided by the CDC at These bring whole new meaning to Red States and Blue States.

Why so fat? There are innumerable factors at play – from insidious corporate conspiracy theories to shamefully inert lifestyles. Yet, if I had to ascribe our cumulative budge to just one factor, I would go to the source. The industrialization of food has radically changed what we consume and how much our food costs. In 1949, Americans spent 22% of their income on food, whereas in 2009 they spent a meager 10% (with significant city-by-city variation - check out

I’m all for saving a buck but this free lunch is anything but free – we are paying with our poor, fat-saturated lives. Less expensive food is often the product of factory farming and industrialized processing. With jumbo size products being sold cheap, the American food dollar may go farther, but, ironically, expanding waistlines simply displace these dollars to healthcare spending down the line. Today’s go-large value meal is tomorrow Lipitor prescription.

I found a video that perfectly summarizes this shift in American food habits. Take a look.

Did anyone notice the corporate sponsorship of this educational video montage? Anyone? Yes – Whole Foods. It shouldn’t surprise you to find that “Whole Paycheck” is in support of Americans increasing the amount of money they spend on nutritious, fresh, …well… whole foods. This brings me to the nut of the matter.

Asking American families to spend more on their food is not a viable means to a healthy end. It’s my blog and so it’s my opinion but I don’t think we need to take a survey to validate this premise. If I asked four families outside the Chula Vista Von’s what they would do with a $25 savings on their shopping trip, “purchase more fresh fruit,” “substitute organic milk for the gallon fortified with bovine growth-hormone,” and “spring for the free range chicken breasts” are not likely responses. I’m not sure I want to know what the responses would be.

Why am I blogging the obvious? Yes, we are fat and growing fatter. So what?

When I started this experiment, I didn’t think eating in 3D was possible. I am still not convinced it is totally sustainable but that remains to be seen. Without a doubt, it is incredibly difficult to achieve a health diet under the economics outlined in this experiment. It would be damned near impossible for individuals lacking basic understanding of nutrition and skills to accurately track consumption. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine assessed 200 patients’ ability to reading nutrition labels on food packages. Although 77 percent of the people had at least ninth-grade literacy skills and more than two-thirds had at least some college, many participants had trouble with basic math calculations. As a result, only 32 percent could correctly calculate the amount of carbohydrates in a 20-ounce bottle of soda with 2½ servings in the container. Only 60 percent could calculate the number of carbs in half a bagel when the serving size on the package was a whole bagel.

Without an indictment of our educational system, suffice it to say that Americans needs help. The food industry is impenetrable behind a fortress of lobbing armor. For producers and processors, more nutritious foods are directly correlated with higher prices. Consumers with discretionary dollars will pay more for organic, whole grain, fat-free goodness. Thus, these players are not the most likely participants in a project designed to tell America how to get nutrition at costs roughly equivalent to boxed mac and cheese, spaghetti-os and frozen burrito (mmmm…three favorite staples of my youth).

So, I turn my attention to the grocers. What self-respecting supermarket lacks the now-requisite organic produce section? The kosher case? The family-sized frozen entre section? Clearly, grocers find ways to group foods in logical and attractive ways to assist consumers in making buying decisions. Have you ever seen a section that unites affordable, highly nutritious food products? I have – it is called a Trader Joe’s. Regrettably, Trader Joe's is not an option for everyone.

I’d like to see Vons, Albertsons and others feature Eating in 3D end cap displays which offer the ingredients for a $2.00 - $3.00 meal (per person) which meets 30% – 50% of a person’s recommended daily allowance of key nutrients and which takes fewer than 35 minutes to prepare. It’s possible, I’ve proven it. But, on your own, it takes more diligence, creativity and will-power than humanly probable. With help at the point of food purchase, our sheep-like instincts can take over. In-store marketing will lead us to water and we might just choose to drink to our own health.
I'll be sharing our meal plans, results and observations along the way. Let me know what you think - better yet, join us!