Boxed In

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The difficulties of eating well  on a budget in America are legion. I remember going to a grocery store a few years ago to buy a couple of good-sized red delicious apples, only to find that each of them cost over a dollar apiece. Working with college students like I do, I’m always mindful of the “ramen lifestyle” many of them fall into, and ever since theafternoon I bought those apples, I’ve always found myself making ramen-based calculations whenever I shop for produce, trying to figure out how many packets of ramen I could get (even though I don’t eat ramen) for the cost of one piece of fruit, or one vegetable, or what have you. If you’ve never done that before, I suggest you try it out the next time you’re shopping for produce; it’s a real eye-opener when it comes to the messed-up costs of trying to eat healthily in this country.

I’ve been having to shop on a super-tight budget for so long that I doubt I’ll ever shake some of my old habits. After getting a 20% coupon for an order from Target, I kind of made a point of ordering a massive amount of pantry staples with it, stocking up on supplies for the long winter ahead. I did this not only to save money, but also to minimize the number of shopping trips I’ll have to make once winter settles in here in Wisconsin, and I’ll probably be wanting to spend as much time in my warm apartment as possible. I’ve been making lots of those kinds of orders since I moved here, and I don’t even want to think about how many cardboard shipping boxes I’ve opened up these past few months; at least they recycle here. Making the most out of that coupon was just a smart shopping decision, though, and I’m glad that I put in the effort to buy so much stuff for cheaper than I’d pay anywhere else.

What I chose to buy in that order, however, might not have been so smart. In addition to getting things like flour and sugar, I also bought pre-packaged macaroni and cheese dinners and Chef Boyardee pizza kits, and other things like that. Again, saving money is important, but on top of not making the smartest food choices I could in that order, I also can’t help noticing how strong my attraction is to the foods of my childhood right now. (Chef Boyardee pizzas were a huge part of my early years.) I could excuse buying those kinds of things back when I could only get part-time teaching work, and money was super-tight, but I always promised myself back then that I’d start eating healthier as soon as I could afford to do so.

That isn’t to say that I haven’t been making some steps towards that goal. I figure that I need to do everything I can to keep myself warm here in Wisconsin, so about a month ago, I tried out a very low-fat vegetarian chili recipe that’s worked out well for me. Not only is it tasty and filling, but I also bought some microwave soup mugs that let me heat it up in the faculty kitchen when I’m on campus, and that’s been a real help for me. (Yes, I eat tortilla chips with the chili, but I kind of need the fat from the chips to help mellow the heat of the chili.) This past weekend, I used my new slow cooker for the first time to make a minty pea soup that I’m hoping will microwave just as well when I try that out later this week.

Having said that, I also have a growing collection of empty ice cream containers in the corner of my kitchen right now that reminds me every day of how I’m still using ice cream as a crutch. (Mom always gave me ice cream when I got boo-boos back in the day, and I still haven’t been able to shake that association.) Worse yet, the main reason I’m saving those containers is so I can carry cookies to campus inside them (just as soon as I have the time to bake cookies), although maybe it’s a good sign that I want to take cookies to campus to share them with others, instead of hoarding them for myself. Still, I don’t like what I’m doing here with all this food that’s not so good for me.

A full-time teaching position is a lot more involved and time-consuming than part-time teaching is, and I’ve been making a lot of adjustments to my new work and home lives here in Wisconsin these past few months. With my students starting to turn in their final portfolios next week, and me needing to do a lot of reading and grading over a very short period of time, maybe this isn’t the best time for me to be castigating myself over how I’ve been eating here. At the same time, if I don’t take at least a few more steps towards eating healthier now, then can I really trust myself to keep doing that, especially when I have enough pizza in my apartment now to last me through all of the coming winter break?

While most healthier food is more expensive than the stuff I’ve been subsisting on these last few years, that’s only looking at “expense” from the perspective of money. I’m at a point now where I really need to think about the cost to my body that I will continue to pay unless I keep taking actions to eat more healthily here. If I can’t start working on that right now, then I need to do so as quickly as possible. None of this other progress I’ve been making these past few months will mean much of anything unless I’m around to enjoy it, and as much as all those empty shipping boxes serve as proof of how much money I’ve been saving, I’ll probably feel a lot better about things if I could instead point to how much weight I’m losing by being a whole lot smarter about how I eat.

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