On Aloneness

I looked at the map and tried to find the most remote place on earth that seemed habitable. In my mind, that place was Baffin Island in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Vast and distant, it seemed to be the perfect spot. There I could be separated from the stress of negative interactions. I would pack all of my possessions with me. Books, electronics, scientific equipment, radios.

On Baffin Island, I would build a warm and secure cabin to protect myself from the elements. On Baffin Island, I could be myself.

Baffin Island was the mental place where I would go to as a child when I was feeling stressed or judged by the world and its people. This is where I would mentally travel when I was sick of acting a role so I could be accepted.

The power of a child’s fantasy is derived from the reality that it is not bounded by the constraints of logic. It is free-flowing with its only requirement being that it satisfies the needs of its creator, and Baffin Island was my fantasy. I knew that I was a loner, an introvert, a person who was happiest in his own thoughts. A person who was delighted to be left alone.

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The preparations started months earlier, although I wasn’t sure what I was preparing for. I wrote pages of lists, watched dozens of YouTube videos, and mentally solved thought problem. I dug through my old camping gear, I gleaned gadgets from my electronics collections, I constructed things with the expert assistance of my friend, Tom.

I have come to believe that these actions were part of a greater coping strategy to deal with my internal anxiety. This statement seems strange, as I don’t consider myself to be an anxious person. I always could restructure my cognition, and when I face a stressful situation, I call upon that fundamental skill to calm myself and move forward. Yet, all of my preparation seemed to have a psychological motivation.

I also admit that I felt guilty about my plan to leave, but logically, I knew that I was adding only a few days to an already established trip. My feelings spawned out of causal comments that Julie said to me since I retired. “Did you have fun today?” She would ask when she got home from work.

I felt guilty that I had indeed had fun. A happiness based on no longer being responsible for the lives of others. A delight based on having the ability to do as I wished for once. I felt guilty that I was enjoying my freedom when she had many years of work ahead of her. I fully acknowledge that my interpretation of her comments was filtered by my personal assumption that the sole purpose in life was to produce.

The reason for my trip to Arizona was so I could clean my daughter’s college apartment and haul back the material contents of the last 4 years of her life. This act was productive, contributing, and even laudable. However, taking a few extra days to visit National Parks along the way was not. Logic told me that my actions were completely acceptable. I claim to be driven by logic, but I am actually ruled by my feelings, and those feelings made me feel guilty.

A psychological solution to my guilt appeared in the form of focused thriftiness. I decided that I would do whatever I could to reduce the cost of the trip and that somehow this action would justify those extra self-indulgent days. I would stay at National Park campsites. I would sleep and cook in my camper van. I would resist the temptation to buy unnecessary things. The thrifty strategy subdued my guilt, but that emotion was soon substituted with another even more ridiculous concern.

By coincidence random videos appeared on my YouTube homepage, most centering around bear attacks. There were instructional videos on how to protect yourself from maniacal bears. There were videos describing tales of loss of limb and life by grizzlies. There was even a video showing a bear using its massive claws to rip through a car door as quickly as one would poke a hole into a taut sheet of aluminum foil.

After watching a number of these videos, I told myself that enough was enough. I reminded myself that millions of people visit National Parks in any given year, and actual bear aggressions impacts a tiny percentage of those patrons. However, just to be on the safe side, I bought a canister of bear repellent and vowed to not smell like bacon when I was in bear country.

My trip preparation continued in earnest. I scoured the pantry for suitable camper food, and I made purchases of Knorr Sides and Spam Singles at the local market. I gathered my photography equipment. I filled my packing cubes with clothing. I put new batteries in my flashlight. There was nothing else that I could do, yet I continued to feel unsettled, and I didn’t understand why.

On the day of my departure, I found myself stalling to leave. Eventually, I pulled myself into my campervan’s cabin, buckled my seatbelt, and turned on the ignition. My solo trip was about to begin.

One mile became ten, ten became one hundred. I dug into my car food bag and munch on chips, mixed nuts, and Smart Pop popcorn. I calmed, but I still couldn’t understand what was really troubling me.

I traveled in external silence, thinking. I thought about making a helpful YouTube video for van dwellers. I plotted out the destinations of my trip. I remembered the contents of my cargo bins. And so it went.

My friend, Tom, would call to check on me, and I was happy about that. I would call Julie, and I was grateful that she seemed glad to talk to me, as I know she dislikes taking on the phone.

A conversation with one of my sisters here, a text message from one of my kids there, an encouraging Facebook comment or two. I was clearly looking forward to these interactions, and I was surprised how critical these touchpoints were for a loner like me.

I have never wanted masses of friends. I have never wanted to be popular. Such scenarios seem more exhausting than exhilarating. However, I cherish a small group of people. Those individuals represent my “Priorities,” and I will do whatever I can to make sure that I am there for them. However, traveling alone illustrated a second purpose to these relationships. Traveling alone had shown how imperative it is for me to be cared about by those who I care for. Traveling alone focused me on the reality that I need people in my life, and that it was the thought of separation from them that was the cause of all of my pre-trip anxiety. I find it curious that it is so easy for me to love, yet so difficult to imagine that others love me.

I don’t want to be cared for because of what I can do for someone, I have spent my life doing that. I don’t want to be included in a social circle only because I am entertaining, funny, or a good listener. Instead, I want to be loved and accepted for who I am. I want to be missed when I’m not around, and I want to be the source of excitement when I return on the scene.

During much of my life, I gained the acceptance of others by being whoever that person wanted me to be. Now, I want someone to see my soul and feel that I am good enough.

It brings me joy to comprehend that those people who I love also love me. As I write this, I am astonished by this realization, and eminently thankful for it.

On one phone call during my trip, Julie asked me if I was having a good time, and I told her, “Yes.” There are many positives when traveling solo. I set my own schedule and spend as much or as little time as I wish to do an activity. I can stay up as late as I choose, or go to bed as soon as I desire. These are wonderful things.

However, I did miss the lack of a traveling companion to share the wonders that I saw. Someone to be mutually amazed at the magnitude of the Great Sand Dunes, or to collectively wonder about the lives of the ancient Pueblo. I wanted to share a new sight, or a sunset, or conversation around a morning cup of coffee with someone that I care about. All of those activities seem sweeter when done with someone who you love.

This great adventure was an exercise in aloneness and was a success, but not the success that I initially imagined. Yes, I am perfectly competent by myself, but this trip illustrated to me how much I need others in my life, not to do for me, but to care for me. I am an introvert, but I’m not a loner.

As a child, I wanted to live on an island in isolation. As an adult, I realize the I am not an island unto myself. I still have much to learn about myself. Life lessons are everywhere. All I need to do is to stop and listen.

Hiking up one of the Great Sand Dunes.
Exploring a Pueblo Cliff Dwelling.
Hiking up a mountain.
Lake Apache.
Violet, my campervan.

More Than You Need To Know about Slow Cookers and Instant Pots.

Today’s entry completes my holy trinity of kitchen appliances. If you have been reading my other post, you know that I believe that there are multiple solutions to most problems, and sometimes those solutions can be quite the opposite to each other. This philosophy is demonstrated by the next two appliances that accomplish a similar goal but in a different way. I consider them “twin” appliances, fraternal twins, that is.

The slow cooker

If there was one appliance that any kitchen should have it is the slow cooker. In its most elemental form, this gadget is simple, cheap and extremely versatile.

Slow cooking has been a staple of meal preparation for as long as there have been cooks. In Colonial times a Dutch Oven was filled with meat and vegetables and placed near an open fire to simmer for hours. More recent cooks use a heavy pan or cast iron casserole set in a low-temperature oven to accomplish the same effect. However, the above methods require some tending. Slow cookers can be left all day unattended without the worry of burning your food.

On a recent winter camping trip my friend made us “slow cooked” stew in a Dutch Oven.

Irving Naxon is credited for the invention of slow cookers, whose conception was based on stories from his mother. She was a Lithuanian Jew and told him of a bean stew that she would prepare for the Sabbath. By religious tradition, she wasn’t allowed to cook on the Sabbath so she (along with her contemporaries) would assemble her stew in a heavy pot and take it to the local baker. He would place it in his oven, and its residual heat would slow cook her meal until the Sabbath’s supper.

With the electrification of the 20th century came many small electric appliances. In 1940 Irving patented an electric pot that mimicked the above cooking method and called it, the “Simmer Cook.” The Rival Corporation bought his company in 1970 and took this invention and re-labeled it as the “Crock Pot,” in 1971.

Initially, Crock Pots were marketed to women who were entering the workforce in higher numbers. They wanted a way to have dinner ready when they came home, and sales took off. Although the device was targeted at working women, it is also perfect for soccer moms, single men, or anyone else who cooks.

In its basic form, a slow cooker is a simple device. The classic design consists of an outer pot that has a heating element which surrounds its bottom circumference. A matching piece of crockery is placed into the outer container. There is a small gap between the two vessels. A switch controls the amount of current that is applied to the heating element, which in turn controls the temperature. On low most slow cookers reach a temperature of around 200F (90C), and on high the temperature is increased to approximately 300F (150C). Some cookers will also have a keep warm setting of around 160F. This setting should not be used for cooking as it does not reach temperatures high enough to cook food.

Slow cookers use very little electricity, and so they are very economical to operate. Also, most would consider them safe for unattended use. Their design is intended to provide slow continuous heat with minimal hot spots, so burning is typically not an issue in regular operation.

Most people know that slow cookers are great for tenderizing tough meat and making soups and stews, but they can do a lot more. Desserts like brownies and cobblers can be easily created. Julie makes a killer cinnamon roll dish that is delicious. Steel cut oats can be cooked overnight to a breakfast ready perfection. Lasagna (using uncooked noodles), Mac and Cheese, roasted chicken, apple sauce, some breads, and even pizza can be made in a slow cooker.

My interest in slow cooking took off when I was a single medical resident. I was at my grocer, and I came upon a Crock Pot for less than $10. It was a small 2.5 quart model with a non-removable cooking pot and simple two-stage control. I was already cooking my meals using other gadgets (like the microwave), but I felt that the little Crock Pot might offer increased utility, and I was correct.

On many mornings I would dump ingredients into the pot and head off for a long day at the hospital. On my return home I would be treated to the smells of home cooking and a warm meal. Many of my dinners used simple ingredients, but the process of slow cooking transformed them from ordinary to memorable.

Most slow cookers continue to use the simple design principles of the original design, but there are also many variations on this theme. In 2019 it is possible to buy a slow cooker for under $20 or to spend over $200 on one making such a purchase confusing to many consumers. I did a lot of research to come up with some guidelines for potential buyers, but I found so many conflicting “expert opinions” that an overall conclusion was impossible. Instead, I have tried to combine this information with my 40 years of slow cooker experience to point potential buyers in the right direction.

This slow cooker is under $20 and should work for most families.
I found this slow cooker on Amazon for a jaw dropping $330!

Time for Q & A!

What brand should I buy?
Most small appliance manufacturers make slow cookers. It was not possible to come up with a clear winner or loser. Companies like Rival and Hamilton Beach make less expensive cookers. More expensive ones come from companies like KitchenAid and Cuisinart. These higher end brands may over a nicer finish (like stainless steel) and/or more features (like computer controls). I could find no evidence that they would have greater longevity. It is reasonable to assume that an original design cooker would outlast a more complicated microprocessor controlled device.

Should I get a removable inner pot?
Rival introduced the removable inner pot in 1974, and most recent pots come with this feature, which makes it easier to clean. However, my original crock-pot didn’t have a removable inner pot, and it wasn’t a big deal to wash it after use.

What material should the inner pot be made of?
Many reviewers cite the advantage of the heavy crock-like inner pot. They note that such a vessel acts like a heat sink that embraces its contents with heat without having hot spots. This makes perfect sense… but.

I bought our most recent slow cooker about five years ago at Walmart. It was a GE brand that has an aluminum inner pot. The cost of the gadget was under $30, and it is the best slow cooker that I have ever used. I have never had a hotspot or burn problem using it. To me, it seems that better design trumps conventional wisdom.

What size should I get?
That depends on how much food you plan on making. The most popular family sized cooker is 6 quarts with an oval-shaped crock that fits cuts of meat nicely. When I was a single medical resident, I was quite happy with my 2.5 quart round pot.

Generally, for best results, your crockpot should be filled about two thirds. Too little and it won’t regulate the heat properly, too much and it will steam more than a simmer.

Do all pots use the same technology?
No. Most follow the same concepts of the original design. However, some pots heat from the bottom, rather than the sides. Other pots use a thermostat and/or probe to regulate the temperature, and some pots offer various levels of computer programming. In theory, a thermostatically controlled container will provide more consistency, but I have had decades of successful results using basic models.

Should I get a pot that I can program or one that I operate with my smartphone?
My current slow cooker has a few built-in programs. For instance, I can have it cook on high for an hour and then switch to low for the remaining cook time. I do use this feature, but Julie uses high and low settings.

I would not overbuy; an overly complicated pot may offer little extra benefit and could intimidate you from using it. What could be simpler than a three-way switch that says, “high, low, and off?”

Should I pop for extra features?
Most are unnecessary. Some pots feature programming abilities that you will likely not use. Many stainless steel finishes are constructed of low-grade materials and don’t offer additional beauty over time. Multi-purpose devices often perform weaker than dedicated ones. One feature that I like is a locking lid. This is very useful if you transport your dish (think pot-lucks).

Can I use my multi-cooker as a slow cooker?
Many electric pressure cookers offer a slow cook function with several heat settings. However, the highest setting is below the 300F of a typical slow cooker set at high. Besides, you will likely want to buy a glass lid to use instead of the pressure lid that comes with your cooker. The bottom line is that you can use your Instant Pot type device as a slow cooker, but a regular slow cooker will be more versatile.

At a low cost, a basic slow cooker is a handy, flexible and worthwhile device!

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Cooking under pressure

The fraternal twin to the slow cooker is the pressure cooker, made famous by the Instant Pot. Where a slow cooker uses low heat over a long time, the pressure cooker uses very high temperature over a short amount of time.

You may recall that water at sea level boils at 212F (100C). Any additional heat will not raise the temperature of the water beyond 212F, and the additional energy will result in higher production of steam. The atmospheric pressure determines water’s boiling point. If you live high in the mountains, the atmospheric pressure is less, and water will boil at a lower temperature. If you lived below sea level, the boiling point would be increased. A pressure cooker is a sealed vessel that builds pressure by heating liquid (water), and this simulates a pressure that is 1 bar higher than atmospheric pressure (15 PSI). At sea level, this causes water to boil at around 250F (121C) instead of 212F (100C). It is this higher temperature that causes food to cook faster.

With the recent Instant Pot craze, you may think that the pressure cooker is a new invention. In actuality, the pressure cooker was invented in 1679 by French physicist Denis Papin. Commercial pressure cookers were manufactured in Europe as early as the mid-1800s. US companies started to make pressure cookers in the 1930s, and the National Presto Company introduced their pressure cooker at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Pressure cookers are closed devices with a sealing gasket between a secured lid. On the top of the lid is a vent hole that has a pressure regulator placed on it. Units built during the WWII years were of inferior quality, which led to the reputation that pressure cookers were dangerous pressurized time-bombs. However, after the end of WWII quality improved and safety features were added making their rational use very safe.

When I was growing up, my mother used her stove-top Presto 4 quart pressure cooker several times a week. The unit was purchased in the early 1950s and was still in operation at my sister’s house until last year when it was finally destroyed by operator error. When a Presto reaches pressure, it indicates this by having the regulator rock to one side to release the excess steam. This steam-letting cycle jiggles the weight back and forth giving this type of pressure cookers the nickname, “jigglers.” Presto pressure cookers continue to use this type of pressure regulator to this very day. A variation on this theme is the Indian manufactured pressure cooker. This device also uses a weight system, but when the cooker reaches pressure it “whistles” with pressure releases. Second generation cookers (mostly manufactured in Europe) use a spring device instead of a weight. These cookers typically have a visual indicator that pops up when they reach pressure and (depending on the brand) may quietly hiss or be completely silent when operating.

In 1991 the electric pressure cooker was introduced. This plugin appliance initially used a manual timer, which was eventually replaced by digital controls. In 2008 Robert Wang of Canada developed the incredibly popular Instant Pot. His gadget is just a standard electric pressure that has a few other programmed sequences added. Many of them are simple timers for common foods like chicken. However, many cooks choose to set these times manually and avoid the pre-programmed buttons.

Making a bean soup using a leftover hambone and my Mealthy electric pressure cooker.
After 45 minutes I had a delicous ham and bean soup.

There are a few other pressure cooker programs that allow you to use these devices as non-pressurized pots. For instance, you can heat the cooking vessel to a low 110F to incubate cultured milk to make yogurt, or to around 200F so that your instant pot can act as a rudimentary slow cooker.

Most electric pressure cookers achieve a pressure between 10-14 PSI resulting in a lower cooking temperature than a stove-top pressure cooker. This fact means that it will take a bit longer for them to cook a dish. The bottom line is that if you are converting a pressure cooker recipe from a stove-top unit to a table-top one you will need to add some time and vice versa.

I have always had a stove top unit, and many years ago I bought my first electric unit, a Nesco. Although it didn’t have the yogurt function it did allow for both high and low pressure, could be set to brown/saute food, and to operate as a steamer and slow cooker. So programmable pressure cookers have been around for a long time, and Mr. Wang’s Instant Pot is just a variation of a theme. My Nesco went to its greater reward when its lid got damaged in a counter fall. It was replaced by a 6-quart Mealty model whose functions are very similar to the more famous Instant Pot.

Depending on the food a pressure cooker can shave two-thirds off the cooking time making it reasonable for the busy chef to make homemade stews, soups, and sauces. However, just like a slow cooker, you can make many types of food in a pressure cooker, including a killer cheesecake.

More Q&A

What size pressure cooker do I need?
The most common size is 6 quarts and is suitable for most families. A popular size for singles and couples is between 3-4 quarts. With that said, home pressure cookers come in sizes that range from 1 quart to 8 quarts. If you need more capacity, you can purchase a canner, which is a pressure cooker used to can foods.

How high can I fill a pressure cooker?
Just like a slow cooker you should only fill a pressure cooker about two-thirds full (less for certain foods like beans). However, the reason for this is different. If you overfill a pressure cooker, you can potentially block the vent tube which can cause improper cooking and the release of steam through the cooker’s emergency release system. Also, if you don’t have enough air space in the pot, you may not build an adequate amount of pressure.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of a stove-top pressure cooker?
Stove-top units are relatively simple in construction and with proper care can last for decades. They cook at a full 15 PSI, which offers faster cooking times. Since they are heavy pots, they can also be used for regular cooking. Growing up we often used our pressure cooker (without the regulator) to pop popcorn. Its heavy bottom prevented popcorn burnage (no one wants that!).

A stove top unit may be slightly intimidating the first few times that you use it. However, once you are familiar with it using a stove-top pressure cooker is quite simple and safe. However, you shouldn’t leave it unattended.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of an electric pressure cooker?
The Instant Pot has made pressure cooking fashionable, but its basic design has been around for decades. I read that its creator, Robert Wang spent 18 months perfecting the device which leaves me scratching my head as he took an existing product and added a couple more presets. However, I am grateful that his product has been so successful, as it has introduced pressure cooking to a new generation.

The main advantage of an electric pressure cooker is that you can set it and forget it. Push a few buttons, and the pressure cooker does the rest. After it is done cooking it will automatically go into a keep warm cycle. Amazing!

Electric pressure cookers have a few disadvantages from their stove-top siblings. They typically cook at a lower pressure (often 10-11 PSI) which means that you will need to cook your food for a bit longer. In addition, they are limited to household current at 120 volts (in the US), which reduces the amount of heat that they can produce. Therefore, if you are cooking something with a thicker liquid, it may burn on the bottom of the pan before the cooker can make enough steam to pressurize. On the rare occasion I have had to transfer my meal to a stove-top pressure cooker because of this.

What brand should I buy?

For a stovetop unit, Presto offers excellent value. Fissler is considered top-of-the-line, and Fagor provides quality at a decent price point. I have a Kuhn-Rikon Duromatic which I like. A stove-top unit could last you for the rest of your life if you properly take care of it.

As far as electric pressure cookers are concerned, I have used models from Instant Pot, Nesco, and Mealthy and performance among them appear similar. Also, several other brands seem to be made at the same Chinese factory. However, If you like accessories you may want to go with the Instant Pot as its popularity has caused third-party companies to make all sorts of gadgets for that brand.

Is it worth buying the top of the line electric model from a particular brand?
I would suggest that you consider buying the base model as opposed to more expensive one as overall performance and functionality should be similar. Expect a much shorter lifespan for an electric pressure cooker compared to a stove-top unit as their more intricate design means that they have more components that can fail.

Do I need all of those functions/buttons on an electric pressure cooker?
No. Most cooks avoid the pre-programmed buttons, and they enter times manually (which is super easy). Most pressure cookers will offer some non-pressure options. Some of these options include slow cook and a yogurt maker. If these are things that you want, then look for those buttons. However, it is easy to make yogurt without an electric pressure cooker, and a real slow cooker is much more versatile than the program built into electric pressure cookers.

What is the gasket, and why should I care?
The gasket is a rubbery O ring that seals the lid to the pot which allows steam to build. My mother’s old Presto used a rubber gasket that would fail every few years. She would send me to the local hardware store to fetch a new one, and changing it out was a simple task.

New pressure cookers use silicone gaskets that are more durable and are less likely to retain odors. If needed, they are straightforward to replace. Just make sure that you get the gasket designed for your model. If you cook a lot of sweets in your pressure cooker (cheesecake and the like) you may want to consider getting a second gasket for them, so you don’t contaminate your treat with the taste of onions or garlic.

I always remove the gasket and hand wash it after use to increase its longevity.

Do pressure cookers explode?
Pressure cookers made in the 1940s were constructed and designed poorly, and there were reports of the devices popping their lids and spraying the ceiling with their contents. However, for decades pressures cookers have been designed to higher standards and have incorporated safety features. If you follow your manufacturer’s directions, you need not worry. In almost 50 years of using a variety of pressure cookers, I have never had a pot flip its lid.

Are there things that I shouldn’t make in a pressure cooker?
Pressure cookers use heat and liquid for cooking, so food will not brown in a pressure cooker. Also, heating a quantity of oil under pressure sounds like a horrible idea. Sometimes it is easier to use alternative methods. For instance, you can cook frozen vegetable in a pressure cooker, but it is easier to pop them in the microwave. Read the manual that came with your device and understand it for the best results.

Should I buy all of those accessories?
Probably not. The majority of things that a pressure cooker cooks well requires no accessories. At times I have used a trivet in the bottom of the pot to keep a chunk of meat out of the liquids at the bottom. If you don’t have a trivet, you can improvise by using an inverted heat-proof saucer or a pot steamer insert.

Once you are familiar with cooking in your pressure cooker, you will know what types of dishes that you use it for. At that time you may consider one of the many dozens of accessories that are available.

Using a slow cooker and/or pressure cooker is a way to ease your cooking burden and to make it more likely that you will cook at home regularly. Start cooking!

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Dear reader, I am about to embark on a trip where I will have little access to the internet. Therefore, it is likely that I won’t be posting for a few weeks. Spoiler alert: I think that I’m going to write about one more kitchen appliance that I find indispensable when I return from my trip. Since I have already written about my holy trinity of kitchen appliances, I’ll give this other gadget the designation of “Honorable Mention.”

The Absolutely Amazing Food Processor

This is another post on how you can save money by cooking at home. In this post, I’ll explore the second device in my holy trinity of kitchen appliances, the food processor.

The food processor was invented in 1971, and the original French design was refined and introduced to the US home market in 1973 and branded as the Cuisinart. Initial sales were slow, but they took off after an article in “Gourmet Magazine” praised the machine.

Within a few years, other small appliance manufacturers were selling their own versions of the device, some of them worked well, others less so.

In its basic configuration, a food processor resembles a squat blender, but it has a much broader base and larger/flatter S-shaped cutting blade. Its design is intended to work with more solid foods, where a blender excels at blending liquid foods.

The primary tool of a food processor is its cutting blade which can be used to chop, blend, puree, and do a variety of other tasks. Also, food processors come with disks that can be used to slice and shred foods. Most household food processors have a bowl capacity between 7 and 14 cups. Processing food is rapid, and in many scenarios, it is simple to do multiple batches in a smaller unit to achieve the desired quantity of product.

A sibling of the food processor is the food chopper. These gadgets look like baby food processors and typically have a bowl capacity of 1.5 to 3 cups. They don’t have the power or utility of a regular food processor, but they are small, inexpensive, lightweight, easy to store, and easy to clean. They are often used to chop softer foods and are great for chopping up vegetables for any dish that calls for them.

A food processor and/or food chopper are an essential small electric appliance in my kitchen, and I have both.

I am continually using my 3 cup Black and Decker food chopper to mince vegetables, nuts, and fruits for recipes. It is small, lightweight design makes it easy to grab from my cabinet, and its 3 cup size makes it very easy to clean. Since it has a limited capacity, it isn’t uncommon for me to run several batches to get the desired amount of chopped product, but since each batch only takes a few seconds, the process is hassle-free. I bought the Black and Decker almost 15 years ago for under 30 dollars. That is less than $2 for a year of use.

My trusty Black and Decker food chopper is no longer available, but there are other good choices, like the Ninja.

A decent food processor is significantly more powerful than a food chopper, and it is possible to perform many additional tasks because of this. Besides, a food processor comes with slicing and shredding disks which add to its utility. On the downside, a decent food processor is more expensive, bulkier, and a bit more challenging to clean than a little chopper. For simple jobs, I pull out the chopper, for larger and more complicated ones I use the food processor.

My history with food processing is long. Fascinated by the prospect of exploring a new gadget I purchased a Sunbeam model (when Sunbeam was still a respected company) in 1978 and quickly set myself the task to exploit the small electric to its full potential. After a few years, I wanted a Cuisinart, which was the state-of-the-art machine at the time. I combined my Christmas and birthday money with a stash of cash that had been saving for the purchase and bought a 14 cup Cuisinart DLC 7 SuperPro. Eventually, I saved for some of the accessory disks to see what they could do. I purchased this gadget when I was a poor medical student. Yes, I really love my gadgets! I used my DLC 7 for all sorts of tasks. In fact, I often used it to knead bread dough so I could have homemade bread.

The number of different processes that you can do in a food processor is impressive. Not only can you chop foods, but you can also make a cake, create nut butters, blend mayonnaise, puree soups, make salsa, shred cheese, slice tomatoes, and the list goes on.

When I married Julie over 25 years ago, we did some kitchen rearranging. She became our principle cook, and my Cuisinart was transferred to a shelf in the basement. After a few years, I bought a smaller Cuisinart 7 cup Classic Pro, which we have used ever since. Its lighter weight made it easier to grab from our lower cabinet, and its smaller size made it less intimidating. It has been a great machine that has served us well for decades.

My trusty 7 cup Pro Classic.

I use my chopper and processor regularly. In the last week, I chopped up vegetables and shredded cheese. Julie finely chopped lemon peel for a cookie bar recipe. I grated Parmesan Cheese, made homemade biscuits, mixed cornbread, and this morning I blended flour, brown sugar, and butter to make a streusel top for an Easter morning coffee cake. With a food processor, you are only limited by your imagination. In fact, after St. Pat’s day I chopped leftover corned beef, potatoes, and carrots into a delicious corned beef hash.

Below are answers to some questions that I have been asked about food choppers and processors over the years. They may be helpful to you if you are considering purchasing one.

What brand should I buy?
One reviewer may love a particular model, and another one may not. In general, the Cuisinart and Kitchenaid brands seem to be well regarded. If you have the cash, I would stick with a model from these lines.

The Hamilton Beach brand also has good reviews on Amazon and could be a budget option. Many years ago I bought a different Hamilton Beach model for the sole purpose of seeing how it compared with the more premium brands. The model had a large capacity (12-cup) and a high wattage motor. On the surface, it seemed to be the equivalent of a significantly more expensive Cuisinart. I found that it did a decent job at light duty tasks like chopping vegetables, and it was OK at shredding cheese. Cutting fat into flour for biscuits was a bit more challenging, but I did it. When I tried to make a small batch of pizza dough the machine really struggled. For comparison, my 7 cup and lower wattage Cuisinart has no problem doing any of these tasks.

Likely not for heavy duty jobs, this Hamilton Beach is highly rated on Amazon.

As far as food choppers are concerned I would avoid no-name brands. Expect to pay $20-$30 for a 1.5 cup model and $20-$40 for one with a 3 cup capacity.

What capacity should I get?
Experts recommend a capacity of 10-12 cups for the average family. However, I really love my 7 cup processor because it is smaller and easier to handle. If I need a ton of chopped veggies, I just do them in two batches. With that said, I now used a mixer when I make bread, cakes, and cookies. If my food processor was my lone appliance, I would probably opt for a larger size which would make it easier to make those items.

As far as a food chopper is concerned, I think that a 3 cup size works well for both singles and families.

How many features are needed in a food processor?
A lot less than you think. You can accomplish just about any task with the S-blade and a couple of disks. Some processors will include a dough blade, which is helpful if your processor has enough power to knead bread dough (you can also just use the S blade). The more complicated your processor is to assemble or clean, the less likely you are to use it.

Cuisinart now sells a more budget-friendly line (Cuisinart Essentials) that gives you a lot more extras (like an adjustable slicing disk) than their more expensive models. These units have gotten good reviews, but they are mostly plastic (including the drive shaft) which could make them less durable. Some large capacity units have an additional small work bowl for tasks like chopping garlic. Other units have special and complicated attachments that let you do things like cube vegetables. If these functions are essential for you, go for it. However, I believe in KISS (keep it simple, stupid!).

Many years ago, my sister Nancy purchased an all-in-one kitchen gadget. It could be converted into a mixer, food processor, blender, juicer, and a few other things. I recall the two of us spending an extraordinary amount of time trying to figure out how to assemble the darn thing. The unit had a million little parts, and we kept on having to refer to the written instructions just to put it together. Needless to say, she never used it after its novelty wore off.

You can often buy specialty discs at additional cost, but do you need them?

What is the most essential control on a food processor?
The one button that you should remember is the pulse button. This control allows you to power the food processor in short bursts. Any kind of chopping should first be attempted using the pulse button.

How many speeds do I need?
My Cuisinart has one speed, which works great. Some machines have a lower speed which is useful if you are new to food processing as you will be less likely to turn soft/wet veggies (like green peppers) into mush. However, once you get the hang of pulsing, one speed will do it. Having many speeds in a food processor just complicates things.

How should I clean my food processor?
Most components are dishwasher safe, but I usually wash them by hand. Always clean the blade/disks by hand as washing in a dishwasher can dull them. Be careful, as they are super sharp.

Can I use my food processor as a blender?
Well… sort of. You can undoubtedly puree soups and the like but follow the machines guidelines. My 7 cup machine can only handle 2 cups of liquid at a time before it leaks its contents all over the countertop. Some newer machines are designed to handle more liquid.

Technically, you could make a smoothie or milkshake in a food processor. However, a good blender would do a better job. If you attempt to do this make sure your bowl is perfectly clean. You don’t want your strawberry smoothie to takes like yesterday’s garlic chicken.

Can I whip egg whites or heavy cream in a food processor?
Surprisingly yes (follow your machine’s instructions). However, you will probably get better results using a hand mixer.

Can I make cookies, brownies, and cakes in a food processor?
Yes, although your method will be a bit different than traditional baking.

Can I knead dough in a food processor?
Yes, but follow your machine’s instructions. My 7 cup machine can easily make dough enough for a pizza. In the past, I regularly made 2 loaves of white bread in my 14 cup Cuisinart. The end results were good, but I now make bigger batches and use different equipment. Lower quality machines will have difficulty with even small quantities of dough.

Are there foods that I shouldn’t process in a food processor?
If a food it too hard to cut with a knife it is too hard to process in a food processor.

Can I make my own breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan Cheese, or cornflake crumbs in a food processor?
We do it all of the time. The resulting product is not only cheaper also but tastes better.

Should I buy a professional unit?
I think cooks often make the mistake of thinking that a professional cooking appliance (stove, fridge, small electric) is better than a residential one. A real professional device is typically designed for durability rather than convenience features. When a manufacturer labels a consumer level product as “professional,” it is done as a marketing strategy that is based on their opinion rather than any standardized specifications. Appliances modeled after professional ones can be a disadvantage to home consumers as they can be cumbersome, difficult to clean, and often take up an enormous amount of counter space.

What are the two biggest mistakes that cause undesirable results?
Overfilling the bowl can cause uneven chops and may even stall the motor. Overprocessing can turn a mince into mush. A food processor is straightforward to use once you get the hang of it. When chopping always start with the pulse button.

I want one, but I don’t have a lot of cash.
A food chopper or starter food processor is not very expensive, but if the cost is too high for your budget consider asking for one as a holiday/birthday gift. Also, remember that the small expense of buying one will be mitigated after a few home-cooked meals.

The secret to making cooking at home a regular event is to identify those tasks that serve as a barrier to doing this. When I’m in a hurry, I don’t want to spend the time preparing food and using a gadget to do this work gets me in and out of the kitchen faster.

Chopping shallots in my 15-year-old food chopper.

An appliance is only useful if you use it. When we moved my original Cuisinart to the basement, it became a hassle to get it, and we mostly did without. If you have counter space, keep your appliance there. If you don’t, find a cabinet spot where you can easily access it. Make it a point to use your food processor, so it can be easily integrated into your daily cooking routine.

Bon Appetit!

Think Again About Microwave Ovens

This is the next post in my series on how to save significant money by cooking at home.  In this post, I will tell you that you should spend some money so you can save some money.  A counter-intuitive idea to be sure.

Let me backtrack a bit first.  You can cook almost anything with elementary and inexpensive cooking gear.  In 2012 I had several recently divorced men in my psychiatric practice. When they moved from their homes into apartments, they knew to buy a couch, big screen TV, and other creature comforts.  However, they purchased little to no kitchen equipment and spent what discretionary cash that they had on restaurants and fast food. I made a Saving Savvy video for guys in similar situations, and in it, I looked at the minimum equipment that they would need to go beyond reheating and to start cooking.  I’ll link that video at the end of this post for those who are interested.

However, today my goal is to get you cooking, and the easier the process is, the more likely that you will not only try cooking but also sustain cooking.  It is only when you do the latter that you will see the many benefits of cooking for yourself.

I am a gadget fanatic, and one of the activities that give me pleasure is exploring the pros and cons of electric and mechanical creations.  Many years ago I bought a sewing machine. I can’t sew so such a purchase would seem odd on the surface. However, my buy was with intent, it was just that my purpose was different than the obvious.  I wanted to understand how such a complex machine worked. It is with a similar zeal that I have explored the potential of small electric cooking appliances. How do they work? Are they worthwhile time savers or simply shelf warmers.  What else can they do beyond their commonly used utility?

The microwave oven is one of the appliances in my holy trinity of necessary kitchen gadgets.  If I were suddenly forced to leave my house with only the clothes on my back one of the first appliances that I would buy for my new dwelling would be a microwave oven.

The microwave oven is an amazing, versatile, and inexpensive appliance.  Everyone knows that you can reheat leftovers and make bag popcorn in a microwave, but many believe this is where the device’s utility ends.  This is not the case.

Teaching my daughter how to bake a cake in her new dorm microwave. Part I.
Teaching my daughter how to bake cakes in her new dorm microwave. Part II.

When I was a single resident, I discovered that a microwave oven could be used to make all sorts of food.  Meats like fresh fish and chicken can be cooked to deliciousness. Vegetables can be done correctly. Baked items like muffins or cakes can be successfully created. Rice and pasta take about the same amount of time as on the stove, but you don’t have to watch the pot continually.

I made many meals from this cookbook when I was a single medical resident.

The process of microwaving is most similar to steaming, and so you can’t expect your foods to be brown, but there are many workarounds to make your dish look appealing. However, since a microwave is super quick, it is not the right choice for foods that require long/slow cooking to tenderize (like stews).

Smaller amounts of food cook quicker than larger amounts making the microwave perfect if you are preparing for one or two. A microwave can be a kitchen in a box if you live without a formal kitchen.

Quick oats, dried blueberries = instant breakfast!
Breakfast is served!

When microwaves were new and expensive, they came with thick cookbooks that not only were chocked full of recipes but also had a lot of useful general information on cooking methods. Unfortunately, newer microwaves usually just come with minimal information. It is definitely worth your while to learn basic microwave cooking techniques. Buying a microwave cookbook or researching on the internet can be the right places to start.

As amazing as microwave ovens are the device has detractors. Some dislike them because they expect a microwave to do things (like brown foods) that it is incapable of. Others have a fear that microwaves are bad for you. This latter group often sites information whose only authority is a rumor. The next section of this post tries to address some of the concerns that people voice when it comes to microwave cooking.

Search the internet for the dangers of microwave ovens, and you will come across countless “authoritative” sites that say the wildest things. Here is just one quote from a website called “Health-Science.”

Continually eating food processed from a microwave oven causes long term, permanent, brain damage by “shorting out” electrical impulses in the brain [de-polarizing or de-magnetizing brain tissue]

Now, someone is going to read this and believe it. I’m telling you that as a physician the above claim is not only ridiculous, it also makes no medical sense.

Let’s spend a little time talking about the science behind the microwave oven and some of the common concerns about cooking with this device.

Microwaves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Various parts of this spectrum include radio waves, visible light, and ultraviolet light. When living tissue is directly exposed to concentrated electromagnetic energy, it can be damaged. An example of this would be getting sunburned from spending too much time in the sun. However, we are continually exposed to a lower level of this energy daily, besides, many of the devices that we use create this type of energy. Your cell phone, your computer, your radio, and your TV are just a few examples of devices that generate low levels of electromagnetic radiation. No one would advise you to directly expose yourself to highly concentrated microwave energy. Microwave ovens contain this energy in the cooking chamber, which is a metal box. Your smartphone exposes you to significantly more microwave energy than any microwave oven.

Microwaves heat food mostly by energizing the water molecules in the food. The active water molecules start to vibrate and rub against each other. This movement creates heat by friction, just like rubbing your hands together creates heat by friction. It is this friction heat that actually cooks your food. Most other cooking sources (like your stovetop) provide energy indirectly to the food which makes these devices less efficient and slower. Since the power is applied directly to the food the only residual heat in the oven is a byproduct of the hot food, as opposed to a heated cooking element (like the burner on a stove).

Let’s explore some common microwave oven concerns:

Microwave ovens cause cancer
FALSE
I have heard many variations on this theme, but the basic idea is that foods that are microwaved cause cancer. I think that this idea is because folks are confused by the term “ microwave radiation.” Radiation just refers to how energy (or particles) are emitted. The sun radiates heat, a radio tower radiates radio waves, and so forth. Nuclear radiation is very different from microwave radiation, and it is dangerous because it contains so much energy that it is ionizing, and can damage cell components like DNA. Microwave energy is non-ionizing, and its effects on food are just to cook it like any other source of heat.

Microwave ovens denature the protein in foods
TRUE
I read a blog where a woman refused to use a microwave because she understood that cooking food in a microwave denatures the food’s proteins. This is absolutely true, and on the surface, it sounds scary, but it isn’t at all. Proteins are twisted chains of amino acids. Heat in any form can untwist these chains to some degree which changes their properties. When you fry an egg on the stove the albumin protein in the egg white is denatured and goes from transparent and liquid to white and solid. Denaturing is what cooking is all about and is in not exclusive to microwave ovens.

Microwave ovens destroy the minerals and vitamins in foods.
MOSTLY FALSE
When we talk about the minerals that we need to survive, we are mainly referring to salts of elements like calcium or magnesium. These type of elements are fundamental, and they do not change.

Vitamins are organic compounds needed for healthy cell metabolism. Prolonged heat can destroy vitamins, and any cooking method has this potential. However, since microwaves tend to cook faster than other cooking methods they actually can have a less adverse impact on vitamins than other cooking methods.

Making vegetables in the microwave is not only easy, it is more nutritious.

Microwaves don’t brown food
TRUE
Microwave ovens produce heat by energizing water molecules which then vibrate and create heat by friction. This process is similar to steaming food and does not provide the dry heat that is needed to brown. There are many tricks that a cook can use to make a microwave cooked food look more appetizing. Coating chicken with BBQ sauce, topping a meatloaf with catsup, using a naturally dark cake batter (like chocolate), or running the cooked food under a broiler for a few minutes are just some of the techniques.

Microwave ovens don’t cook evenly
TRUE
The pattern of microwaves in a conventional home oven is uneven which is why most microwaves have rotating platters. However, you still may need to stir food or rearrange items during the cooking process to have them cook more evenly.

Microwave ovens cause EMF (electromagnetic field?) sickness
FALSE
I read a post on a website that said that microwave ovens caused EMF sickness and listed a bunch of generic malaise symptoms (like fatigue). Remember, that microwave ovens are designed to be a Faraday cage (a device that does not let electromagnetic waves out). Cooking a frozen burrito is considerably different than working on a microwave transmission tower!

It is dangerous to cook chicken in the microwave
FALSE
Just like in any other cooking method you need to make sure that chicken cook to the proper temperature and then is allowed to rest for a bit before eating. I could find no credible reports that could confirm that properly cooking chicken in a microwave was dangerous.

Microwaved baby formula is bad for the baby
TRUE…but
It is not recommended that you warm up a baby’s bottle in the microwave. This is because microwaves heat unevenly and portions of the milk could be overly hot.

Microwave ovens can cause heart attacks
FALSE
Decades ago you would see signs around public microwaves warning pacemaker wearers about the danger of being too close to a microwave. Since 1971 all microwaves have to meet stringent guidelines as far as microwave emission, and the FDA now advises against such warnings.

We are surrounded by sources of electromagnetic radiation from devices that range from your cell phone to your computer. Modern pacemakers are very shielded from external sources of radio waves, so don’t worry.

What about microwaves causing heart attacks? I think that non-experts made the wild leap between the old pacemaker warnings and myocardial infarctions. There is no link.

Microwave ovens are dangerous for pregnant women and can cause infertility in men.
FALSE
This rumor exists because strong EMFs may have a negative effect on developing babies and may cause a reduction in viable sperm counts. Remember, microwave ovens are basically Faraday Cages, they don’t release EMF. Typing with your laptop on your lap is potentially a much higher source of EMF for those regions, but before you get too concerned about this, there isn’t good evidence to support even these claims. Don’t worry, be happy.

Microwaved water kills plants.
FALSE
True urban legend. By the way, why would anyone microwave water for plants anyway?

Whether you choose to use a microwave or not is up to you. However, make your decision based on fact, not fiction. In our house, the microwave oven is a constant and convenient appliance that makes our daily cooking chores easier and faster.

The cheapest way to start cooking is by using just the basics.

Start Cooking And Start Saving Big

In the year 1900 less than two percent of meals were eaten outside the home. In 2010 more than fifty percent were. Less than one-third of all families will sit down together for a meal more than 2 times a week. Forty-six percent of Americans eat their meals alone.

Research has shown that people who cook/eat at home are happier, eat fewer calories, and consume less sugar than those who eat out. Eating as a family improves family communication and cooperation. Children feel more emotionally stable when their family eats together at home.

Preparing your food at home can save significant money. If you use a restaurant delivery service, you may be paying up to five times the cost of making the food yourself. The simple act of bringing your lunch, as opposed to buying your lunch can save the average person up to $2000/year. Even fast food dining is significantly more expensive than making your meals from scratch. Food prepared at home can be customized to your particular needs, and cooking simple meals is not only delicious; it is easy.

With so many reasons to cook why is it that so many people choose to eat out? Lack of time seems to be a significant factor. If you work more than 35 hours per week, you are less likely to cook: if you have a long work commute you are also less likely to cook. In addition, the less you cook, the less likely you are to cook. This latter fact may be due to lack of skill, confidence, available staple ingredients (an empty pantry), or cooking equipment.

Julie was our main chef when the kids were younger. She eventually returned to the paid workforce, and our dinners were transformed from homemade to frozen pizza, fast food, and delivery. Our kids were in an uproar, as they sorely missed home cooking. After some thought I took on the cooking challenge with one caveat, I would not do it alone, I would also teach my kids how to cook, and this is how “Cooking with Dad, Thursday,” started.

Teaching my kids to cook has been a real joy.

I have to admit that I had some initial fear about returning to the kitchen, and it did seem overwhelming in the beginning, but I eventually got my sea legs. What seemed difficult soon became second nature, and it has been fantastic fun to cook with my children. We plan our meals, shop, prepare, and clean up together. Over the last 4 years my kids have become both confident and competent in the kitchen.

It is important to remember that cooking becomes more comfortable over time. With experience, you understand what to look for when you prepare a dish. Don’t be discouraged if your first few attempts don’t go as you had planned.

Here are some suggestion to help you transition from being a meal buyer to a meal creator. The ideas below can benefit you if you are cooking for one, or an entire family.

Buy a basic cookbook
Why buy a cookbook in a world of internet recipes? General cookbooks are full of information for a new or returning cook. They define cooking terms (do you know the difference between mince and dice?). They educate you about the different cuts of meat. They show you what to look for when a dish is done, and much more. Also, their recipes are pretty foolproof, and they generally use readily available ingredients. I like the general cookbooks from Better Homes and Gardens and Betty Crocker.

A general cookbook is worth the price.

Follow the recipe
When you are just getting back into cooking, try to follow the recipe for the best results. Once you get comfortable with cooking, feel free to substitute, add, or omit as you see fit.

Have the right equipment
You only need basic equipment to cook just about any dish. In my next post, I’ll explore that equipment, and I’ll also look at small appliances that could ease your workload and speed up your prep-time.

Small electrics can make your job easier.

Gain cooking skills.
Practice is the most critical factor here. For additional understanding read your cookbook, watch YouTube videos, or ask your mom (or dad).

Have the ingredients
When you start to cook, you may become discouraged with the lack of ingredients that you have on hand. Purchasing your initial stockpile of staple items like spices, flour, oil, and sugar all at once can make it seem like cooking at home is more expensive than going out to eat. However, it is important to remember that you are stocking up. Staple items go a long way and make many meals. Buy only the basics at first, and build your larder a little at a time to reduce sticker shock.

Make sure that you have the ingredients before you start cooking.

Start simply
Instead of immediately committing to making three meals a day, seven days a week, start slowly. Commit to cooking one or two days a week. Or consider only making breakfast at home, or packing a lunch every day. As you gain confidence and efficiency expand your cooking commitment to other days or meals.

Have a plan
To arrive at a destination, it is always best to know where you are going. Devise a workable meal plan. One option could be to eat a particular category of food based on the day of the week. Taco Tuesdays, Pasta Thursdays, Soup Saturday, etc. Having a little structure makes weekly planning much more manageable.

Taco Tuesday!

Understand yourself
Can you eat the same thing for lunch and dinner? Can you eat the same meal 4 days in a row? Know your personal preference, so you don’t waste food. If you hate eating the same thing several days in a row freeze your leftovers for a future meal. If you can eat the same food every day, make a big batch one day and reheat and relax on the other three.

Divide and conquer
You can save money by baking an entire chicken, but only if you don’t eat the whole bird in one sitting. When I was a resident physician, I had almost no money. I had to make every penny stretch, and I had a minimal food budget. I didn’t have the money to prepare food in quantity, but in those days there weren’t any cookbooks out there for single people. However, there were some books for cooking for two. I would make a double meal portion and immediately split the second half of it into a Tupperware container that would go in the fridge. The next morning I took that half to work for my lunch. I had a great meal that not only saved me money, but it took almost no time to prepare.

Don’t leave leftovers in the fridge with the idea that you will eventually eat them, plan ahead. Consider dividing up your leftovers in microwaveable containers. Some can be refrigerated for successive days, other portions can be frozen. Consider other uses for your leftovers. That leftover roasted chicken can be portioned off for a casserole meal, and its carcass could serve as a base for a soup to be served at another time.

Save money with combinations
Just about every culture has delicious ways to stretch meat. Soups, casseroles, stews, and stir-fries are just some examples. You should try to employ these foods in your meal plan. They are easy to make, ingredient flexible, and soul-satisfying. Some of my absolute favorite meals growing up were combination foods.

Soup is a perfect combination food. Our Thanksgiving turkey carcass made enough soup to feed an army.

Learn the art of the sandwich
A cheese sandwich is OK, a grilled cheese sandwich is yummy, a grilled cheese, ham, and tomato sandwich is a dinner.

Consider breakfast for dinner
Breakfast food cooking is easy and straightforward. There is no reason that you can’t have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner, or homemade waffles, or French Toast. My kid’s absolute favorite meal that Julie makes is Swedish pancakes (crepes). Making them is labor intensive, but dirt cheap.

Cheap, time intensive, delicious!
Delicious crepes!

Consider alternative breakfasts
Sugary cereal in a bowl is… well, it is crap. You can eat anything for breakfast, including yesterday’s leftovers. Some simple, cheap, and quick options include: quick oatmeal (not instant) made by the bowl in the microwave in under two minutes, or apples with peanut butter, or toast with peanut butter and banana, or scrambled eggs (which can be done in a cup in the microwave if you are making a single portion), or homemade muffins or quick bread… and the list goes on.

A piece of fruit with peanut butter is a lot more nutritious than a bowl of sugary cereal.

Make meat a condiment
Meat is costly, and we all probably overeat the stuff. You can reduce the amount of meat that you use in a combination dish and still have a great dinner. Hamburger is the perfect meat stretcher as it can be combined with other ingredients to create meatloaf, meatballs, and a hundred different dishes.

Consider meatless meals
I grew up Catholic, and in the day we weren’t allowed to eat meat on Fridays. This never posed a problem as my mom had dozens of delicious meatless recipes that ranged from mac and cheese to homemade mushroom soup. Consider making one or two days a week meatless. You will have a more varied diet, and save some money.

A delicious meatless meal.

It is OK to substitute once you have a little cooking experience
Don’t have noodles? Toss in rice, or broken up spaghetti into your homemade soup. Out of fresh vegetable for your casserole? Consider using a bag of frozen. No one is the boss of you!

Ponder having a prep day
A lot of people who regularly cook will prep on Sunday. They may prepare a big pot of something or a large casserole that they can serve for several meals the following week. Conversely, they may freeze some of it, so they have a stockpile of food at the ready. Others will prep up ingredients that can be combined into many different dishes. They may brown hamburger, or cook up chopped vegetables to use during the week as a base for other recipes.

Use it up
Before you go shopping, shop your fridge and pantry first. Plan your meals on what you have. If something is still good, but nearing the end of its prime make sure that you cook it and not waste it. Items like somewhat stale bread can be converted into breadcrumbs, croutons, or French Toast. Overripe bananas can be quickly turned into banana bread. Softening veggies can be tossed into a soup or stew.

Avoid portion distortion
Know what a regular portion/meal is and try to stick to that amount. You will not only save money, but you will be healthier.

Just the right amount.

Learn how to bake
Baking is simple and rewarding. Don’t pay $3 for a muffin or cupcake, make them for pennies. When I stopped eating concentrated forms of sugar a few years back, I stopped eating muffins. However, I missed them, and so I found a variety of excellent muffin recipes that were no sugar added. I would make a dozen and freeze them. In the morning I would take out one or two and give them a quick zap in the microwave. They tasted like they were just baked and I had my muffin fix.

It’s easy to bake muffins that will cost a fraction of what they would at a bakery.

You can make cookies and freeze them in portion sized ziplock bags. You can also freeze the raw cooking dough in cookie-sized balls on a cookie sheet. Once frozen place the balls in ziplock bags. Take out what you want and bake… instant goodness.

I read a post from a mother who would make triple batches of cookie dough which she would freeze into cookie balls. Every day, when her son came home from school, she would take out a few and bake them in a toaster oven. Her son had freshly baked cookies every single day. I’m sure that she was mother of the year in his mind.

Consider cooking entirely from scratch at times
Sometimes it is clearly cheaper and/or more flexible to make a dish entirely from scratch. Sometimes it is just more convenient to use some prepared foods in your recipe (like condensed soup), and the cost difference isn’t that great.

Cooking from scratch is not as hard as you think.

Find your comfort level. However, the advantage of thoroughly cooking from scratch lies in basic ingredients. If you have flour, you can make cakes, cookies, gravy, bread, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, muffins, and dozens of other things. If you have a cake mix you can just make a cake (yes, I know that you can mod cake mixes… but, hopefully, you get my point).

Singles, be kind to yourself
If you are a solo eater, it has been shown that singles who eat out tend to lack core nutrient foods like vegetables and fruits. Do yourself a favor, and start cooking!

As I mentioned above, I cooked most of my meals when I was a single medical resident. I found ways to streamline the cooking process, and I think that I ate better than most of my more affluent cohorts. I learned a lot of tricks to accomplish my cooking goal. If I needed a little hamburger for something, I would defrost and crumble a frozen hamburger patty. I became a competent crockpot cook. I found that I could cook surprisingly good food in a microwave (no kidding). I would make extra of inexpensive accompaniments, like rice, and use them in future dinners so I could save prep time. Solo cooking doesn’t have to be a drag.

No kitchen, no problem!
I’m trying to reduce my grocery bills because I’m retired, and would prefer to spend my money on other things. However, for many spending less on food isn’t an interest, it is a necessity. If you are on a limited budget, you may also have a compromised housing situation. You may be renting a room, or live in a makeshift basement apartment. Perhaps you reside in a tiny studio flat that only has a mini-fridge and a microwave. You can still make your own food using the cooking equipment that you have or by purchasing some inexpensive small electric appliances.

Cooking in a hotel room without a kitchen.

A while back I read a blog about a woman who lived in a very tiny NYC studio. She didn’t have a kitchen, but she did have a few very inexpensive appliances. She had a hot plate, a small rice cooker, a coffee pot, a toaster oven, a dorm style fridge, and a small microwave. Her building’s wiring was so old that she could only run one appliance at a time or she would blow a fuse. She would typically make enough food for 5 days in one sitting.

On the particular week of her post, she had tofu scramble with sautéed onions and peppers for breakfast. She pre-cooked the vegetable and portioned out the tofu so she could quickly fry up a daily hot breakfast. For lunches, she premade a mock tuna sandwich filling, which she then loaded onto her bread on the morning of use. Her dinners that week consisted of a homemade stir fry accompanied by rice. Five portions of her stir fry were divided into Tupperware, as were 5 portions of cooked Jasmine rice. Lastly, she made a pot of coffee and stored it in her fridge for a daily morning cup. She had a very tiny sink in her bathroom (and no kitchen sink), so she washed her dishes in the shower. Her example may be extreme, but it does illustrate that if you have a will, there is a way. She was able to eat vegetarian, shop at Whole Foods, and stay on budget.

Small electric appliances make it possible to cook for one, or a crowd. Every year I cook our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco Roaster, and we have anywhere from 15-20 people for dinner. Using the roaster frees up our oven for all of those yummy side dishes.

We make our Thanksgiving turkey in a Nesco roaster.

Mindset matters
If you think of cooking as drudgery, it will become drudgery. Find the cooking style that works best for you. Listen to music or a book on tape while you are preparing food to make the time fly. Prep with someone and turn cooking into social time. Celebrate the fact that you are eating fewer preservatives. Think of cooking as a job where you get paid (by saving money) instead of paying out more cash for cold carryout. You won’t need to work that second job because you will be spending less.

Reassess
You may come up with a great plan, but a theory is different than practice. If something doesn’t work, feel free to change it.

Progress not perfection
As I have said in previous posts, we are not perfect, and we don’t live in an ideal world. Any changes that you make are good. If you go from always eating out to making dinner two nights a week (even if one of those nights is leftovers), you will save money. If you go from always buying lunch to packing a lunch, you will save money. Just do something!

Dear readers, let’s get cooking!

How To Save Big Money At The Grocery Store

This is part two of my series on reducing your grocery costs.

I returned to cooking regularly a couple years ago. A few years before then I decided to make dinner for two of my kids. I found an interesting recipe on the internet, and I planned some side dishes. I went to our local Jewel grocery store to buy my ingredients. The dish required unusual olives, special spices, and choice meat. I also bought bread crumbs, fresh vegetables, and Parmesan cheese for a side dish. I purchased salad fixings, French bread, and a frozen appetizer. The grocery bill was about $85, and I recall thinking at the time, “Wow, we could have gone out to dinner for this price!”

I had always thought that making food at home was less expensive than going out. However, my above experience seemed to prove me wrong.

Is it less expensive to eat out? I consulted with multiple sources when I was writing this post, and the consensus is clear. It is significantly less costly to make your own food than to eat out. This fact is true whether you are eating in fine restaurants, or buying fast food. Also, in many, but not all cases making food from scratch is less expensive than buying it partially prepared.

So why was my dinner so expensive? The recipe that I chose used a lot of ingredients that were exotic and expensive. Items, like one use spices and other unusual ingredients, were purchased and their remains were never used again. Instead of seeing what things we already had that could be substituted, I went out and bought everything new.

I think the above is a common problem for people who think of cooking as a special occasion event. However, if you do a little planning, you can save significant cash by cooking at home.

In my last post, I talked about saving over 20% of your food cost by not wasting food. In this post, I’ll explore ways to reduce your grocery bill directly. I’m sure that you have heard some of these ideas before. My effort is to put them together in one convenient post.

As humans were are imperfect. We don’t need to be perfect shoppers to save money. Pick and choose from the following tips that fit your own personality and style. Feel free to add and subtract from these suggestions. Remember, any positive change in behavior will yield more money in your pocket, and it is better to make a few lasting changes than to attempt radical changes that you won’t sustain over the long run.

To coupon or to not coupon? That is the question.
My wife sometimes uses coupons, but I rarely do. Yet, coupons can be a useful way to stretch your grocery dollar. It makes the most sense to save coupons for items that you regularly use. Use a paper clip to secure them to your grocery list, so they are at the ready.

Cycle your way to savings.
Grocery stores rotate sale prices on food items in a 6-week cycle. If you can learn about your store’s sales cycle, you can save some extra cash. Non-perishable items are easy to stock up on. You don’t need to buy a case of pasta sauce to save money, you can still benefit from just buying an extra jar or two when they are on sale.

It’s OK to be at a loss.
A loss leader is a sales strategy where a store will actually lose money on a food product in the hopes of attracting customers who will come in and then buy other more costly items. Sometimes a loss leader may be constant, like an always low price on milk or eggs. Customers may think that the other foods in the store are at bargain prices and transfer their grocery shopping to that store.

Sometimes loss leaders are temporary or seasonal. I recently went to the store to buy corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day, and I was happy to find great prices on most of the items needed to make that traditional dinner. If I had chosen to do so, I could have picked up another bargain corned beef brisket to pop in my freezer for a later date.

Become avoidant.
A surprising amount of floor space in a grocery store is utilized for non-food and junk-food items. Products like dish soap and garbage bags can usually be found cheaper at big box stores. Junk foods like chips, soda, and other snacks can occupy more floor space than staple items, and their purchase can quickly escalate your check out bill. If you don’t go down an aisle, you can’t buy the things in that aisle.

Take a kiddie holiday.
If possible, shop without your kids as they secretly work for grocery stores, and will do anything possible to get you to buy things that you don’t need.

Never wear a “growl” fit when you go shopping.
If your stomach is growling, you will buy more. Never go hungry to the grocery store!

Pen your grocery dreams.
One of the most important things that you can do to save money is to write a shopping list and stick to it. Studies have shown that if you do this, you will spend much less. If you are like me, you won’t be in the embarrassing situation of going to the store for a gallon of milk and returning home with $100 of groceries and forgetting the milk!

Using a list forces you to check your onboard house supplies. Using a list makes you do at least some meal planning. Using a list protects you from impulsive purchases.

All rules don’t apply to you.
Certain processed foods can actually be less expensive than some unprocessed foods.
Frozen vegetable and frozen fruit can be significantly cheaper than their fresh versions. In some cases, they may be more nutritious as they are quickly processed and haven’t spent long periods degrading in a warehouse or on a shelf. Canned fish is much less expensive than fresh fish. Canned vegetable, including canned tomatoes, can also be real bargains.

However, you still need to be a savvy shopper. Basic frozen kernel corn may be downright cheap, but your price advantage could disappear when you opt for the same item upscaled with butter sauce or other additions. Stick with the unadulterated version for the best price and the greatest flexibility. Another great thing about frozen produce is that you can use only what you need, and reseal the bag for another day.

Back to basics.
Some fresh vegetables and fruits and always good values. Bags of Russet Potatoes, broccoli, onions, sweet potatoes, carrots, green cabbage, bagged spinach, and butternut squash are usually economical. Bananas, oranges, frozen berries, cantaloupe, kiwis, and apples can also be good values.

I love Honeycrisp apples. Unfortunately, they cost about $3 a pound where I live. I did a Google search to find apples that are similar to Honeycrisp, and several other varieties popped up. One of them was Fuji apples, which happened to be on sale for $0.99 a pound at my local market. In other words, they were one-third the price. Are they as good as Honeycrisp apples? No, but they are not bad either.

Staples-that was easy!
Flour, sugar, cooking oil, and other stables are inexpensive. You should have them on hand as they are the foundation of many meals. Beyond the price, I find little difference between the house brand and the name brand.

Other essential items like milk and eggs are real bargains at most stores. Dried pasta is often a dollar a box. Foods like oatmeal, rice, and dried beans/lentils are super values. Although canned beans are cheap, dried beans are more economical. Cook them in a slow cooker overnight and portion/freeze them for future meals.

Say cheese!
Cheese is a beautiful addition to many dishes. Check prices, but you can usually save money by buying it in a block and cutting/shredding it yourself. Pre-shredded cheese is usually dryer, less flavorful, and has cellulose added (think wood) to prevent it from clumping in the bag. If you love a particular type of cheese, consider buying it at a warehouse club. My friend, Tom loves Gouda and buys a big wedge at Costco for roughly the same price as a little slice at the grocery store.

Where’s the meat?
One great way to save on meat is to eat less of it (more on this in a later post). Beef is usually the most expensive meat, followed by pork then chicken. You can sometimes save money by cutting up meat yourself. A whole chicken can be less costly than the sum of its parts, but make sure you check the price per ounce first. Remember, it is often possible to substitute one meat for another.

On a recent shopping trip, I picked up a package of turkey lunch meat for my son. One pound was over $5. Thirty feet away was a freezer case filled with frozen turkey breasts at $2.50 a pound. It is easy to put a thawed turkey breast in a crock-pot and let it cook on low for 5-6 hours (or until done). Some of the breast can be carved for sandwich meat, some cubed for a salad or an easy stir fry, some can be shredded for bbq chicken sandwiches, and so forth. Freeze what you won’t consume in few days in meal-sized portions.

I just watched a video where a woman purchased a ham for less than a dollar a pound. In 17 minutes she cut it up into 11 potential meals for her family. She had slices for sandwiches, cubes for main courses, crumbles (remnants) to add to eggs, and the ham bone to make a bean dish. Each meal size portion was sealed in a Zip-Lock bag, and all of the bags were kept together in a larger Zip-Lock bag. By immediately portioning out her food she assured herself that none of it would go to waste.

The above technique can be applied to any other “bulk” purchase. I bought a large package of chicken thighs in preparation for making homemade soup. Half of the chicken was kept in the refrigerator for the soup, and the other half was frozen for a future meal. Total time for me to split the chicken up? About 3 minutes.

Bulk up
Many stores now have aisles of bulk food where you can buy the exact amount of an item that you need. Also, prices can be less, and you avoid a lot of random packing. These aisles are great for singles or couples who often have limited space, limited money, and limited time.

Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink?
Water is good for you, and it is free! You don’t need to buy exotic sounding bottled water that has its true origins in a municipal water supply. If you don’t like the taste of your water consider using an inexpensive filter to de-funk it.

According to a 2016 US Department of Agriculture study, Americans spend more money on soft drinks than any other food item. People may be drinking less soda, but they have replaced it with special waters, and other expensive non-alcoholic drinks. In this category, I would also include a lot of fruit juices, which are basically sugary flavored water. Giving up pop could save you over 7% of your yearly food bill!

Store crazy.
Where you shop can have an impact on the overall cost of your groceries. Where I live, we have costly stores (like Whole Foods and Standard Market), expensive stores (like Jewel) and less costly stores (like Aldi, Walmart, and Costco). Baring a discussion on quality differences, if you want to save money shop at a less expensive store.

You can save money even if you shop at only one store, especially if you get to know that store’s sales cycles. However, you may save even more money by shopping for the best values between two stores. In our area, a local greengrocer chain (Fresh Thyme) offers great produce, which is often on sale. Costco is fantastic if you want a bargain broasted chicken, large quantities, or convenience foods like a stack of frozen pizzas. Walmart and Aldi are the places to go for cheap basic groceries in more normal sized quantities.

Be agnostic…brand agnostic.
You may like the taste of a particular brand. However, if you stretch your taste boundaries a little, you can save big money. We sometimes used condensed mushroom soup as a base ingredient in casseroles and slow cooker meals. Campbell’s Mushroom soup is an economical 0.99 cents a can, but the Walmart version is an incredible $0.50 a can. When all the other ingredients are added, no one will know that you went with the house brand.

I eat an enormous amount of peanut butter. I buy large jars of the house band at around seven cents an ounce. The brand name versions range from nine to thirteen cents an ounce, and the gourmet premium peanut butter is an astounding fifty cents an ounce! I’m sure the gourmet brand tastes better, but not seven times better.

Expand your vision.
Grocery stores place more expensive items at eye level and cheaper items above or below eye level. If you want an in instant bargain look up or down.

One ounce at a time.
Packaging is often deceptive, and a box’s size is not a reliable indication of the volume of its content. Most stores will list a price per ounce (or unit) of a product which allows for easy cost comparison. If your store doesn’t do this just use the calculator function on your phone. Divide the cost of the item by the total ounces. Lower is cheaper.

Best value and cheapest cost have different meanings.
Sometimes the cheapest isn’t always the best. I recently bought a very inexpensive dishwashing liquid. It smelled good and was nice and thick. Unfortunately, it didn’t do a perfect job cleaning, and I had to use almost triple the amount to clean the same number of dishes as I would have used with a better product.

When I was growing up, I recall my father buying an entire case of an off-brand canned spaghetti. In those days I liked the Chef Boyardee stuff for lunch. The off brand that he bought was absolutely terrible, and I wouldn’t eat it (which is saying a lot). It would have been much better to have just waited for a sale on the brand name.

Spice up your life.
The use of herbs and spices can turn a mundane dish into a memorable one. However, spices can be expensive. You can often find a better price by buying the same seasoning in the store’s ethnic aisle. Likewise, ethnic stores can be an excellent resource for spices. Avoid buying spices in a giant container from places like Costco. Will you really use all of that nutmeg? Spices in bags can be significantly less expensive than the same quantity in a cute little bottle.

Learn to substitute. Fresh spices taste great, but you can certainly use dried ones with good results. Remember that dried spices are more concentrated, so only use about ⅓ the amount that you would use for fresh. You don’t have Italian Seasoning? Use some Oregano. Out of garlic? Substitute some garlic powder (not garlic salt).

Spice/seasoning combination products are often more expensive and more specialized than individual spices. If possible, stick to the basics for greater flexibility and cheaper costs. Do you really need to buy cinnamon sugar when you can make it in about 2 seconds, and for next to nothing?

We’ve got an app for that!
Some apps will find coupons, determine which store is selling an item at the lowest price, and keep track of your grocery list. You can use your web browser to check a store’s weekly ad, so you know what is on sale before you walk in.

Is bigger better?
I always thought that buying in quantity saved money, but that is often not the case. Buying in large quantities tends to make me use more, waste more, and eat more.

How many times have I bought a large box of something only to find that I didn’t like it. My wife, Julie is quick to remind me of my warehouse store purchase of some abysmal breakfast sandwiches that languished in our freezer until I finally threw them out.

Sometimes a bigger item may actually cost more per ounce. At other times it may be the same cost as a more convenient smaller size.

There are times when buying in bulk can be a good idea. Do you eat rice every day? Are you a regular baker? Is cheese a central part of your meal life? If you are going to use it, why not save a few bucks by buying in quantity.

Dig deep.
Stores bring the oldest products to the front of the shelf, for obvious reasons. If you want your food items to be the freshest (and last the longest) reach towards the back.

Become a member of a secret society.
Stores follow protocols, just like any other business. Perishable items that are nearing their expiration date are usually purged on a store-specific schedule. Learn this secret time and save big.

Yesterday’s bread is often discounted early the next morning. Meats and produce nearing their expiration date can be deeply reduced in price. Use them in a day or two, or freeze for future use.

Most stores have a clearance section for items that they are trying to offload. You can find great bargains here but use some caution. There is a reason no one bought that peppermint flavored Spam.

Oh, you impulsive you!
Your grocery store wants you to buy, and they would love it if you purchase high margin items. We have all stopped to grab a free sample. An item that can taste delicious in a tablespoon sized sample may be less impressive when you get home and try to eat a bowl of the stuff.

Stores use music, colors, posters, eye-catching end-caps, and just about anything else that they can think of to get you to buy more. Resist!

Portion distortion
When tourists visit the US from other countries, they are often shocked at the huge portion size of our meals. We associate supersizing with value, but is that really the case? Eating regular sized meals not only save money, but they are also healthier for you. Buy less and save more.

It’s not a fast, it’s a feast.
If you are desperately low on cash, your main grocery buying goal should be to achieve basic nutrition at the lowest possible cost. However, most of us have a little extra money to spend. If you feel that you can’t get by without some soda or chips, buy less than you usually would and build a “treat” cost into your budget. Consider snack alternatives. Homemade popcorn (not microwave popcorn) is super cheap and tastes much better than the old stuff they sell in bags.

Be as flexible as a Yogi.
We eat 21 meals a week, they all don’t need to be Pinterest perfect. Substitute and experiment, within reason. Fusion taco bars have sprung up in my town, their selling point is the use of unusual, but tasty ingredients placed in a taco shell. Substitute shredded cabbage for lettuce? Why not. A sauce instead of cheese? OK. Leftover pot roast instead of ground beef? Sure.

Every meal doesn’t need to be nutritionally balanced as long as you meet your daily requirements during the rest of the day.

By allowing yourself to be flexible, you open yourself up to a new saving horizon.

I am hardly perfect when it comes to grocery buying, but I am genuinely trying to become a better grocery buyer. Why don’t you join me and adopt a couple of the above suggestions to see if you can become a more savvy shopper?

A loss-leader dinner!

How To Instantly Save 20% On Your Grocery Bill

Monday night, at 8 PM, and I scan the kitchen. There is one, another one over there, I find more in the fridge.

A couple of over-ripe bananas, and a soft tomato on the counter. A few slices of dried out delivery pizza, and a half-filled Tupperware container of homemade soup in the refrigerator. On the fridge’s door, I spy some milk that has gone bad. I take a look in our bread bin and come across a third of a loaf of very stale bread.

I gather my waste together for disposal. The milk carton gets washed out for recycling in mostly an ecologically symbolic gesture. The other items find their way into the garbage. Perfectly good food turned into waste. Do I feel bad or guilty about this waste? Sadly, no. I’m so used to throwing out food that my weekly kitchen purge yields about the same amount of emotion as cleaning the toilets.

On average Americans waste about 20% of all the food that they purchase, or almost a pound of food a day. This is in a world where about 800 million people are chronically hungry. In fact, the amount of food wasted in the US could feed 2 billion. That is a sobering number. Also, wasted food consumes 30 million acres of land and 4.2 trillion gallons of water to produce.

In general, all farming has an impact on the environment. Food waste has increased by 50% since 1974, and in fact, food waste now accounts for 19% of landfills. This organic material decomposes to produce greenhouse gasses that have a direct impact on climate change.

There is no good reason to waste food, yet I do it week in and week out. For me, there are a variety of reasons. Sometimes I will impulse buy an item and not like it. Other times I’ll make too much of something and grow tired of eating it. I’ll leave leftovers in the fridge because I have a taste for something else. I’ll forget that I bought something. The list goes on.

When I was actively working as a doctor, I didn’t really think about the cost of groceries. Now that I’m retired I am trying to change my food behavior. Eliminating food waste would put thousands of dollars back into my pocket every year. Money that could be spent in better ways.

I know that there are many simple things that I can do to achieve this goal. I should think about what food we have in the house to eat, as opposed to what I have a “taste” for. I should break meal stereotypes. Who says I can’t have leftover soup for breakfast or waffles for dinner? A cheese end can be added to a frozen pizza instead of being tossed. Stale bread can be made into French Toast. A soft tomato can be tossed into a pot of chili. These no efforts steps can go a long way in drastically reducing what food I discard.

Altruism can sometimes elicit a change in behavior, but cold hard cash is often a more powerful motivator. I would urge you to consider your food waste. A little planning and a slight change in behavior can help pay for a vacation, start a rainy day fund, or pay down a credit card bill.

The Great College Admissions Scandal And Why You Should Care.

My 50th birthday coincided with another significant event, a need to buy a car.  I had always purchased conservative vehicles, but I had a secret desire for something grander.  I wanted a doctor’s car, and in my mind, that meant a Mercedes.

I accepted the fact that this was strictly an emotional purchase, and that it symbolized that I had arrived as a professional.  The Mercedes that I purchased was dark metallic green with a tan leather interior. I thought it was beautiful, in an understated German way.

I felt like every driver was watching me as I drove it off the lot, and my chest swelled with pride to own such a luxurious vehicle.  That euphoria faded with the realization that my Mercedes was intrinsically no different than the Ford that I previously owned.

After my car’s warranty expired, I was gobstruck with the enormous expense of maintaining my Mercedes. When I would bring the car in for a simple repair the cost would escalate as the dealership’s customer service writer would always find something else that needed repair.  I would bring the car in for an oil change and leave paying a $1000 bill.

After a few years, I had enough of my luxury experience and traded in my low mileage doctor’s car for a simple Honda.  The Honda delivered, while the Mercedes only promised. The experience was an excellent life-lesson.


The news has been abuzz with a new celebrity scandal, this one involving parents cheating the system so that their underperforming kids can get into selective colleges.  The scandal consists of a man named William Singer, and his sham non-profit organization. Individuals of power and means paid Mr. Singer enormous amounts of money for him to work his magic with their unscholarly offspring.  His deception went above and beyond ghostwriting personal essays. He created false identities, photoshopped prospective student heads on stock photos of athletes, had test proctors change answers, and bribed various university officials with cold hard cash.  He claims that he has helped over 700 students cheat their way into college.

It would be naive to think that he is an island unto himself. Common sense dictates that this case is just the tip of a much more massive iceberg, its specifics made more interesting because celebrities, such as Felicity Huffman, and Lori Loughlin are involved.

I have a daughter who is a freshman at a large Midwestern university.  When my wife asked her what she thought about the above scandal she seemed insouciant noting, “How is that any different from donating money for a building which then gets your kid accepted into that school.”  She was, of course, correct. People with clout have always had a higher chance of getting their children accepted into a selective college, as opposed to those who lack influence. In fact, a legacy applicant has a three-fold better chance of getting admitted into a selective college than an applicant who doesn’t have such lineage.  

I recently read an NYT’s article on the heels of the above story.  It involved 4 excellent students and their efforts to get into highly selective colleges.  One of the case studies currently is a student at the high school where my kids have attended.  This girl achieved a near perfect SAT score and had a GPA of 4.8 out of a possible 4.0. She was active in clubs and organizations.  She was involved in leadership positions. Yet, she was rejected by her first choice, Harvard. I can’t imagine that there was anything else that she could have done to have been considered. When you look at her impressive credentials and compare them to lesser students who were accepted, it makes you wonder about the real value of such an education.  

There are over 5300 colleges and universities in our country, yet many students feel that they have to attend only a selective few. In a world where college tuition and fees are extraordinarily expensive, these colleges go above and beyond and hit new heights as far as costs are concerned.

Does attending these schools significantly impact the future of a college student?  This is a complicated question, but the bottom line is generally, “no.”

At this point, you are probably recalling the frequently quoted study that noted that students who attended the most selective colleges have been shown to have significantly more earning potential than those who attended the least selective colleges.  This statistic may be accurate, but the cause and effect association is not as direct as you may think. Other important factors need to be added in. For instance, the caliber of a student at a highly selective college is likely higher, as is their socioeconomic position, and their family connections.  In fact, if you take a look at the wage gap between students from highly selective colleges vs. less selective colleges the earning difference disappears with students with similar SAT scores.

Other statistics worth noting is that the majority of CEOs from the top 100 Fortune 500 companies did not attend an Ivy League school. When Wall Street recruiters were asked where they found the best candidates, it wasn’t from Ivy League schools; instead, they listed the University of Illinois, Arizona State, and Purdue.

Most universities are bursting with highly academic faculty; there is no shortage of PhDs in the college world.  An undergraduate experience includes a wide diversity of classes, usually presented at an introductory level. Is there a significant difference between English 101 at a local college vs. a highly selective school?

We are currently dealing with an artificially created frenzy where admittance to an ultra-expensive highly selective school becomes the ultimate prize for both the student and their proud family.  However, I have to think that an education at such an institution may feel similarly to my Mercedes experience. The initial euphoria can quickly give way to frustration once you realize that you are paying 4-5 times the cost for something that is not 4-5 times better.  

As parents, we need to help our kids see the reality of their life decisions.  College shouldn’t be an experience, like a holiday vacation, it should be an education for the future.  Part of being an adult is making wise decisions, including the value and benefit of a school.

For the ultra-rich spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is insignificant, but such a debt can be life-altering for a typical 21 year old who has graduated only to find that this overwhelming burden is preventing them from realizing their personal American Dream. Adult life does not start in college, it happens afterward.  That is the time when our offspring need to be free to explore options.

It is my hope that the above scandal helps potential students and parents alike examine their higher education goals, and to explore all rational options. There is a big difference between true value and hype.

Anger, Guilt, Fear, Eurphoria

I like routine, so these early weeks of retirement have been confusing and a bit scary for me. My life roles are changing, as our my time obligations. I am in a metamorphosis, but it is still unknown if I’ll emerge from my work cocoon as a butterfly.

My title of doctor has always garnished a certain level of respect from others, and over the decades I have gradually assumed that being treated respectfully was the norm. I know that many individuals don’t have such privilege, and my change in status has subjected me to people that demonstrate a lack of relational humanity. These experiences have been disturbing, but empathy building for me.

Case in point, dealing with Medicare.

Medicare charges good earners a significant penalty/surcharge based on that individual’s previous income tax (This surcharge is called an IMRAA fee). At the beginning of this year, I had to decide on my Medicare insurance plan, and I made that decision with the help of an insurance broker. I chose to contract with an Advantage program based on my general good health and the fact that we also needed to secure additional insurance for the rest of our family. Advantage plans tend to be less expensive than regular Medicare and they include Part D at no additional cost, or so I thought.

Based on my 2017 income tax Social Security charged me a substantial penalty for Part B of my Medicare insurance. I understood this and made my first payment last month. I then received notice that I was going to be penalized for not having Part D insurance when I turned 65 last year. I didn’t have Part D coverage because I had insurance through my employer. This typical scenario seemed to be incomprehensible to our government, and I had to fill out forms and provide proof that I was not trying to secretly defraud the USA…Gads!

Monday morning I received my April bill for my Part B. I opened up the envelope to find that it was over $200 more than last month. I was confused as it seemed like that Social Security placed me into even a higher penalty category, and besides, they were charging me for Part D. I immediately called my new insurance provider, and the customer service rep could only suggest that I call Medicare directly. I placed my call to Medicare and got the usual, “Due to the high volume of calls…” message with and a warning that my wait could be a long as 15 minutes.

I was on hold for almost 30 minutes before Latisha picked up. The name Latisha means joyful and happy, my customer service representative definitely did not fit that description. Latisha was outright rude, and her demeanor was accusatory and condescending. “We know how much money you are making because we are directly connected to the IRS,” she barked. She offered no information on how to appeal such a decision, or why I was now being charged for Part D. It was an alarming call which gave me insight in how people can be treated when the customer service agent has ironclad job security and no repercussions for callous behavior. After being subjected to her abuse, I said to her, “Latisha I want to inform you that I have agreed to take a customer satisfaction survey at the end of this call at which point I will clearly state how you have been treating me.” I could hear a bit of anxiety in her voice, and her outright condescending manner softened slightly. She is a person who should not be working with seniors.

Unfortunately, I am now stuck with a huge Medicare monthly payment and no known recourse at the moment. It disgusted me the way she treated a senior, and I can only imagine how she intimidates less secure callers. With that said, I was not about to let her rudeness dominate my emotional well being that day.

Tuesday morning at 4 AM my friend, Tom pulled up in his white Ford Flex. I donned my coat, slipped out the door, and climbed into his passenger seat; off we went. Tom stopped for gas and then pulled into a Dunkin Donuts and got both of us coffee. We were on an adventure as he was driving me to a favorite breakfast diner which was over 2 hours away in Wisconsin. His generous gift of time was a continuation of my 66th birthday celebration. After a delicious omelet, we traveled the 2 hours back home. Our trip symbolizing friendship and our willingness to take care of each other.

Now back home I had to deal with a concept new to me, open time. I have been busy most of my adult life, and I have always had to deal with a lack of unstructured time, not an abundance of it. There were things that I could do, but they were wants not needs. I started to feel guilty, as I now had free time while my wife, Julie had to work. In the past I identified with overworking, and in many ways my constant drive to accomplish things gave me validity. I tried to think of some major project to work on; I resisted that urge. I felt tired, and I decided to take a short nap. Thirty minutes later I awoke feeling refreshed.

I decided to tackle a fun project: How to interface my computer to a two-way Amateur radio. As is usual with such projects things didn’t go smoothly, but eventually, I was able to solve the connection problem and program the radio. There was a particular joy in having the time to approach the problem, take a break, and then resume. In the past, I would have focused on how to solve the problem as efficiently as possible. My new project timeline turned this activity from stress producing into fun. For me, there is nothing as exciting as learning something new.

After my radio adventure, I had another urge to be productive in an effort I to justify my lack of paid employment. Guilt was on the rise. The house was reasonably tidy, as I had cleaned it on Sunday. I put a few dishes away and swept the kitchen floor. It was then time to meet my sister, Nancy.

I pulled up to Panera Bread at 6:59 for my 7 PM meeting and met Nancy in the parking lot. We were restarting our weekly creativity night after a brief break caused by mutual travels and an unwanted upper respiratory infection.

Nancy was upset at the beginning of our meeting. Her feelings precipitated by a disappointment perpetrated by an acquaintance. This led to a conversation about people who we can depend on. For both of us, the number was small but reasonable. In the end, we concluded that we were both fortunate to have people in our lives who we could depend on, and even though our close connections didn’t consist of legions, their numbers were indeed more significant than what many others have. I suggested to her that she focus on those people who care about her rather than wasting energy wondering why a random unimportant person failed her.

We proceeded with our meeting of conversation and study as I munched on a half of a Cuban sandwich and a cup of chicken noodle soup. I was happy to re-initiate our weekly get-togethers as I enjoy spending time with my sister. It felt good to have this structure re-enter my week. At the end of the meeting I said to her, “Nancy, I have no idea what to write about this week.” She offered a few suggestions, but none of them rang true. I decided to write about my present state of mind, and that flow of consciousness is what I am inking on paper now.

This Wednesday morning I found myself questioning if I should go on my morning walk. It was raining, and I was still tired from my previous day’s adventure. Lacking a defined work schedule when I woke it took me a few moments to realize that it was Wednesday, not Saturday. I forced myself up and meandered to the bathroom to prepare myself for the day.

I located an umbrella and headed out the door. When I reached Starbucks, I ran into an acquaintance who had picked up his coffee and was heading out the door. “You’re late today,” he said in a joking manner. “Yeah, I guess the rain slowed me down,” I responded.

I procured a Tall Veranda and found my usual table at the front of the store. Out came my computer and earbuds and I started to type this post. I rarely know what I’ll type when I start this process, I just sit and let my fingers do the talking.

Tom and I had spent a lot of time together on Tuesday and I didn’t expect him to be at Starbucks today as he was working on a project that was geographically in the opposite direction of the coffee shop. Since I anticipated his absence, I had planned my morning accordingly. Tom used to have a habit of pulling away from me when he got too emotionally close. I am familiar with that pattern of behavior, as I have been known to do the same thing. However, we have both become more secure in our friendship and this pattern is now rare.

Some of the morning coffee regulars came up to me and engaged in conversation. Kathy stopped by to congratulate me on my full retirement and told me of a ski trip that she just took with her husband. John came up to me to also congratulate me on my new status. He is an executive for a large corporation who is dealing with the immense stress of being in such a position. We chatted a bit about my new life and his current work situation. I then continued to write this post, but soon it was time to return home.

I now sit at the Ram dealership as Violet the van’s instrument panel has been flashing me a request to have her oil changed. So here I am in the dealer’s showroom finishing this random post of an ordinary few days in the life of a retiree.

I have been awash to so many feelings over these last few days. Anger, at being treated as a non-person by Medicare. Guilt that I am not longer filling every moment with work for pay. Sadness, at my changing status from doctor to citizen Mike. Peace, as I am no longer responsible for the lives of others. Confusion, over what to do with my new found free time. Euphoria, over having free time to be confused over.

I am becoming aware of a need to expand my horizons. I much prefer having intense relationships with a few people rather than causal relationships with many. However, it would be unreasonable for me to expect those currently close to me to completely replace the social connections that I had garnished from my worklife. My experience this morning at Starbucks suggests that there are people out there who would be fine with spending time with me, and that the major limiting factor in this social regard is me.

My siblings have their own lives, my kids are busy with school and friends, my wife works, my friend Tom has a construction business to run. So where do I look to expand my horizon? I don’t necessarily need additional intense relationships, but I should probably explore more casual connections. Clubs, volunteering, social groups, all are possibilities. I am awash with both fear and excitement, and I’m OK with having both feelings. Onward, one foot in front of the other. Every day is a new adventure and offers the potential for personal growth.

A special omelette with fried, Tom.

Deciding to walk in the rain.

Solving a technical problem.

Retirement, After One Week

It happened just about a week ago. I knew that it was coming, but I still was surprised. That’s the way life is.

My last day of work was anticlimactic. I was working from home and signed off my enterprise level conferencing system with little fanfare. My workplace had already had a reception for me the week before.

That was a Thursday, and I spent Friday gathering my thoughts, spending time with my friend, Tom, and packing for a mini trip to Arizona. Julie was taking me to Tucson to celebrate my retirement as she felt that a trip would be an excellent transition tool.

Early Saturday morning we arrived at Midway airport and started the arduous process of preparing to fly. Fortunately, we had pre-check, and we breezed through the TSA. I have to say that I don’t really like flying. I don’t have a fear of airplanes, but I find the whole process unsettling. Julie understands this, and we now arrive for flights with plenty of time to spare, which helps ease my mind. At 6’ 3” I am cramped in tiny airline seats and on two of our three flights I had big guys sitting next to me who did not understand the concept of personal space. In the past, I would try to squeeze myself onto the far edge of my chair to give them as much space as I possibly could. However, my attitude has changed. I don’t want to be even more cramped, and if they have no problem pressing up against me, then I have no problem pressing up against them. It is a dog eat dog world when you fly coach.

The actual trip was delightful. I have been to Arizona many times, but this was the first time that I was there during winter. The temperature in the mornings was cool, but by afternoon the temperature was a perfect 70F.

It was wonderful to visit with my Kathryn, who will be graduating college from the U of A in a few months. Julie got to attend a book fair, and I was able to wander with a camera in hand and photograph Tucson and the surrounding areas. It was a peaceful and delightful trip.

On my return, I helped my friend, Tom with a couple of things and spent several days photographing a house that he just finished building. Last Friday I was the event photographer for a daddy/daughter dance. Today (Sunday) I saw an excellent production of “The Producers.” As you can tell, I have been busy.

I don’t expect every week to be this hectic, and I’m learning to go with the flow. I’m lucky as I rarely am bored. I always seem to find something to occupy my time.

I’m still having dreams about work, and I still have not accepted the fact that I’m now on a permanent vacation. It is all a little frightening but in a wonderfully frightening way. Week two is now upon me, and I can’t wait for that adventure to begin.

Hiking in Arizona

Pretty Arizona.

Working as the event photographer for a daddy/daughter dance with my niece, Jenny.

One of the architectural shots I took for Tom.

Another architectural shot.

Doing some cooking. In this example butternut squash soup.

Random thoughts and my philosophy of life.