Memories have a funny way of popping up when you least expect them and without provocation. While I was out running Saturday morning, the name of a college friend, Tonette, and a brief conversation we had more than a decade ago came to mind. We had both been living in Japan for at least two years by the time we had our little chat. I was here for work, while she was here earning her PhD in engineering.
A few months before Tonette completed her doctoral thesis and went back home, she came over to my place to be my food tester (I was just learning how to cook and she agreed to share my table – one brave woman). She brought a box of strawberries, which led me to comment on how expensive fruits and vegetables were in Japan. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Thanks for the strawberries. I still can’t get over how expensive vegetables and fruits are.
Tonette: True. Which ones do you often buy?
Me: I don’t buy much. Too pricey.
Tonette: Do you buy chocolates?
Me: Yes I buy chocolates, but now I’m trying to cut down on chocolates.
Tonette: How much is an apple?
Me: Between 150 yen and 200 yen depending on the season.
Tonette: Do you find that expensive?
Tonette: How much is that bar of milk chocolate sitting on the table?
Me: That brand is about 150 yen.
Tonette: Do you find that expensive?
Me: I don’t think so. Actually, I never thought about it.
Tonette: We usually complain about the price of fruits and veggies but not the price of chocolates. And we buy more chocolates and potato chips than we do apples. Why is that?
Yes, why was that?
I’d like to say it’s finances, that apples are more expensive than chocolates and potato chips. But it really is a question of value and choice. At that time, I placed more value on chocolate (and milk chocolate at that) than I did on fruits and vegetables, and my distorted sense of food value dictated most of my food choices. I didn’t consider the fact that cheap milk chocolate provides short-term enjoyment for a lot of calories, while an apple (also sweet and can just as easily ease a sweet tooth) is also enjoyable, has fiber and is more filling, has fewer calories, and has vitamins and nutrients that a bar of milk chocolate does not have. Looking back, I also remember getting all excited about going to buffets, because I thought that I was getting a lot of value for my money. But plates of mediocre food, gallons of soda, and tons of calories, not to mention an aching stomach, later, one had to ask whether that really was good value at all. For the same price, can a mountain of forgettable food really trump a much smaller meal of wonderfully cooked food? More than ten years ago, I would have said yes.
Quality food usually costs more than commercially manufactured meals, which makes it tempting to grab frozen dinner or a doughnut. We are not all financially well off and most of us live on a budget. This, however, does not mean having to sacrifice real value in favor of cheap imitation, at least not most of the time. But we have to do some research on where we can find cheaper ingredients, do our homework on what healthy meals we can prepare, and learn to cook, with the aim of minimizing our reliance on processed food, and fast food diners and chain restaurants, while keeping within whatever financial limits we may have. For example, my husband and I have no qualms at looking at the “has been” bin and buying a cheap bruised or warped zucchini instead of its “perfect” but more expensive brother. We can also be more adventurous in trying unfamiliar animal parts or vegetables, as many of them can be cheaper than the usual fare. In the process, we help minimize food waste (but that’s another topic).
What many of us may not be aware of is that we may not need so much food to be satiated. From my experience and those of people I know, good quality food is usually more gratifying (taste-wise and nutrition-wise) than processed food, such that you don’t need to stuff yourself to the gills to be satisfied.
Paying attention to quality food also translates to better health, which in the long run is where true savings lie. It is false economy to eat cheap commercialized products that are terribly lacking in nutritional substance in the hope of saving a few dollars (or yen, in my case), only to have to shell out more later on for doctors, hospitals and medications to deal with failing health and nutritional deficiencies. Plus, who wants to spend most of their later years unable to go anywhere or enjoy life because of bad health?
By the way, I remain a chocoholic, but a reformed one (yes, that’s not impossible). Only, I no longer eat cheap milk chocolates. I now only go for 75% (or higher) chocolate, for at least three reasons. First, it’s so rich and filling that I don’t go through a bar in one sitting anymore. Second, it’s more expensive, so I make a bar last. Third, it’s chocolate, so I get my fix. My weight stays the same, my taste buds are happy, and I get my chocolate-induced endorphins with just a small piece of good quality dark chocolate.
Quantity, not quality, has become the standard of value for one’s money. Let’s try to flip that and instead focus on quality, not quantity. Quality eating takes time and effort, and may test our budgetary limitations, but our health and that of our family, quality of life, and in the long run our bank accounts, will be grateful for it.