Sunday, December 30, 2012

#SNAP Challenge Questions Answered

My #SNAPChallenge posts yesterday garnered a few questions from readers, which I will answer here:
Q1. So, how are you doing the math? Multi serving items only a week at a time? Can the cost be spread out over multiple weeks? (Costco peanut butter might blow through two days total budget but could last for months). [David]

A1. Good questions, David.  Since I will be doing this one week a month this year, I will use items purchased during the SNAP Challenge in January, later on as well - but only if they were purchased for the SNAP Challenge. For example, if I purchase a small container of peanut butter in January and still have some left in February I will use it.  I won't overspend for the week, either -- just because it may last longer than the week, doesn't mean I have more money to spend.  SNAP participants would get $35 for the week and they can't spend $50 just because they will use it for several weeks.  I won't be doing Costco, as I don't have a membership and I would expect most SNAP families wouldn't have one either.
Q2. It would be interesting too to compare the nutritional value for the weeks on SNAP vs. off. Or even just a calorie comparison. And then how that affects you...Mood, etc.... [David]
A2. Absolutely. In my blog posts I will be talking about both my physical experience (starving, stomach growling, weight adjustments) as well as the mental/emotional effects.  I don't usually count calories in my normal life, but I think it goes without saying that the calorie vs. nutrient balance is off when you are restricting your spend.  My goal is to keep healthy options in my diet as much as possible.
Q3. What will you do with the "savings"? Donate? [Anne]
A3. Great question!  Although I am doing this as a "walk a mile in their shoes challenge", there will be personal savings.  I think it only makes sense to donate to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.  I will donate the money that I would traditionally spend on lunch in a given week (about $50) to them.  I highly encourage all my readers to donate money or non-perishable food to their local food bank.
Q4. I would be interested to see how far $5 got you in Chicago vs. $5 in smaller towns (ie more diversity in Chicago, but cheaper farm fresh elsewhere). [Lisa]
A4. Agreed. I am hoping it is a wash. The diversity and ethnic markets may make it a bit easier, but the transportation/import/rent costs may artificially increase prices.  Stay tuned.
Q5. You want me to believe that you aren't going to eat out with friends or host dinner at your house? Doesn't seem sustainable considering your normal life. [Jeff]
A5. Since this is just going to be one week a month, I think this is doable. If I were to do an entire month, I agree that I would really struggle.  I usually eat out for lunch every day and eat out for dinner about 3 times a week.  I am scheduled to have people over for dinner one night during my January challenge.  I am definitely interested in suggestions on how to handle this dinner challenge.  Thoughts?
Stay tuned for recipes and shopping updates.  The official program will start on Wednesday (January 2, 2013).  If any of you are interested in joining me for this week long adventure, I would love to hear about it.  If not, next time you are at the grocery store, just take a few minutes to think of what you are choosing and the cost.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

#SnapChallenge Meal Planning

I will start my first week long #SnapChallenge on January 2, 2013. I will go shopping for the week on New Years Day.  I haven't really done any additional research on prices or recipes. With this list, we will see how off base I am on food and pricing.  I have an idea of what things cost, but am not sure how if my plan below is based in reality.

Since the $35/week is for food and beverage - I will be drinking mostly water (which I do anyway).

I usually fix a frozen fruit smoothie with soy milk each morning.  I don't think this is sustainable during the SNAP Challenge.  Instead of my traditional breakfast, I figure I will eat English Muffins (toasted) with peanut butter.  English Muffins are almost always on sale at my grocery store for about $2.50 for a 6 pack - that's $0.42 a piece.  I will buy the smallest container of peanut butter I can find and hope this will be $4.00 or less.  That means for a weeks breakfast, I have spent $6.50 or $0.92/day.

I want a healthy option for a snack.  I intend to buy a big bag of clementines (cuties) - these usually are on sale for about $5.00 for a bag of 25 or so clementines. $0.20 a piece for a snack - which I can have three each day of the week. Plus these have a high amount of Vitamin C but little fiber or protein.

Based on my estimates above, I will have $23.50 left to spend.  I envision my lunches and dinners to be pretty interchangeable - lunch may be leftover from dinner the night before.  I assume rice will be the backbone of my new meal plans.  I will buy $5.00 worth of whole grain brown rice as my base.  I will need protein and veggies and I have 18.50 left.  I will purchase chicken thighs which are full of flavor and relatively cheap cut of meat - $8.50 for chicken.  I will fill in the last $10 with tomatoes, peppers and some greens along with some beans (probably dried).

I will use some spices in my cabinet to turn these components into a spicy Asian stir fry or a Mexican feast.  If I have any money left over, I will buy some noodles, either rice noodles to make a homemade Pad Thai or an Italian pasta dish.  I would love to include some soy milk in my plan, but I don't think that it is in the cards.

What are your thoughts on my meal plan? Am I crazy when it comes to the prices of these items?  Do you think I will be able to make it a week on this plan?  If you are doing the SNAP Challenge or have recently completed it, I want to hear about it.  I will post my receipts once I am back from the grocery store - we'll see if my estimates are close or are way out there too.

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#SnapChallenge Introduction

Are you familiar with the #SnapChallenge?   I wasn't until just recently.  Basically, it is a challenge to see what it is like to live only on the amount of you would receive if you were on Food Stamps (SNAP = Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).  In Illinois, a single person would receive $35/week - that's $5/day for everything you eat/drink.  I usually spend more than twice this amount on lunch alone.

I have been fortunate enough never to have been on Food Stamps, although when I first moved to Chicago I had such a low paying job, I basically had $20 a week for breakfast and dinner and I would buy lunch for less than $6/day (I felt I needed a bit of a treat and that was my lunch).

At dinner a couple weeks ago and we decided to order another bottle of wine to go with our sushi meal.  The wine (at restaurant prices) was $60. It just hit me, we just decided to spend (without much thought) extra money on something we didn't really need, then I thought about how much a family could do with an extra $60.  We can live on less than we do -- why don't we try to scale back.

I started out by thinking I will do this the first week of January - but what will be gained by this? Then I decided to set a goal of doing this one week each month during 2013.  I think this will be quite tough for me, but then I think about the people who don't have choice to participate - this is their life. I can push myself to do it.

The key to this program is planning. I will need to plan out all of my meals, use everything and steer clear of prepackaged products.  I think shopping at ethnic grocery stores will also be helpful - the fresh produce always seems to be much better than main stream grocery stores (at least in my area of Chicago).  I think most of my protein will be coming from vegetables in lieu of meat - meat can be expensive. Although, I do think shopping at the little ethnic grocery stores can help with this too.  Buying boneless skinless chicken breasts will be a no-go, but perhaps a whole chicken will work.

Progress / Goals
I will be Blogging, Tweeting and Google Plussing about my experience.  I hope to discover (and create) some great new recipes.  My goal is also to eat healthy foods. I don't want to spend 12 weeks this next year living on Ramen and peanut butter.  I will also be working full time - so I won't have the luxury to visit a dozen stores to find the best/cheapest options.

You can see the Snap Challenge guidelines here.  One key part of the challenge is that you can use spices/condiments you already have in stock.  If we had to buy new spices, I think this would be an extremely bland challenge.

Have any of you tried the SNAP Challenge before?  Do you have any recipes to share?  What about guidance on meal planning or shopping?  Stay tuned - my next blog will be my food plan by day.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Thanksgiving in Ireland: Eating in Dublin

Irish Food? I had low expectations. When you think if haute cuisine Dublin isn't the first place that pops to mind, is it?  While we didn't have any meals that were truly world class (our fault, as we failed to make reservations before we left Chicago and all of the highly rated restaurants were booked well into January), we did have several pretty great meals.

Since I landed a couple hours early into Dublin, I had some time to kill while waiting for MS. What better way to kill time than to have a traditional Irish breakfast at an airport buffet.  For €8.99 I could pick 5 items from the buffet and I selected, hash browns, mushrooms, Irish bacon, sausage and a grilled tomato - they threw in some toast as well.  It was all pretty good, for airport food, except the sausage, it was a little too finely minced for me - not much texture.

Once we left Dublin Airport we headed out to Kinnity Castle. We stopped in the small town of Birr for a beer and a little snack.  I had a small ham, bacon and cheese sandwich at a little hotel restaurant in town.  The menu called this a boxty, but from what I understand this isn't really a boxty. It was very good and surprisingly light, which was great since we had a bit dinner ahead of us...

Our first night in Ireland, we stayed at Kinnitty Castle and had a fantastic dinner. I chose the roast duck breast with black pudding and mashed potatoes.  You can see from the picture below, the meal wasn't enormous, but it was amazing. I had three slices of perfectly prepared duck breast - I could have eaten much more, but am glad they exercised portion control for me.  I did not eat the black pudding.

For dessert the first night I had a chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream. It was rich and pretty tasty.  Evidently at Kinnitty they make their desserts fresh every day too.

Our only breakfast at Kinnitty was a traditional Irish breakfast and as the day before, I had Irish bacon, a grilled tomato and the same type of finely ground sausage link that I had on the first day.  I love grilled tomatoes and Irish bacon.

MS added the (overly) poached egg and the beans to his breakfast. The egg was way over done for his liking. I opted to steer clear of the eggs and beans as I knew I wouldn't eat them - why waste it, right?

The first night, after the Guinness tour we opted to have a dinner at a place called Bobo's Gourmet Irish Burgers. We ordered a Guinness but the waitress said if we ordered a burger a Guinness was included -- she failed to mention that it wasn't a pint but a tiny little glass of Guinness.  The best part is that all burgers are cooked well done in Ireland. Love it.

After our amazing Bike Tour, Brian and Cian suggested a couple of restaurants. We picked the place that came with the highest recommendations and coincidentally was closest to the bike locker.  I had a very flavorful and perfectly prepared order of Irish Fish and Chips with one of the best homemade tartar sauces I've ever had.

For lunch MS had a chicken and potato dish which he at every bite of.  The restaurant was called Le Bon Crubeen and even though it was a French restaurant we had some of the best Irish food on the trip.

For our final meal in Ireland we stopped off at a little pub called Davy Byrnes. We had no intention of eating here, but shortly after we sat down a guy sat next to us and he said he and his wife come to dinner her every Saturday night.  After we ordered, our new friend said that he finds the food at this pub to be very acceptable.  Suddenly his winning recommendation just sinks and we were quite nervous for dinner. I ordered the fish and chips again and they were just like our new friend said: "Acceptable".  We had a really nice time chatting with this Irish man and his wife - he was a Physics professor with a fascination with America (he was quite pleased we voted for Obama).

The food of Ireland wasn't anything to travel for, but once there you can easily find food that will satisfy you.  One think to note, Ireland is full of GREAT hang over food -- might as well give it a try.

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Thanksgiving in Ireland: Walking Tour of Dublin

We spent part our last afternoon/night in Dublin by visiting Trinity College.  We wanted to see the Book of Kells - actually my mom really wanted to see this, but since she chose not to join us on this trip we decided not to spend a whole hell of a lot of time here.  We walked around the College grounds for a bit, then worked our way into the library to see the Book of Kells.  Like the Guinness tour, this is something I am glad I did, but you sure don't need to spend a lot of time here.  The College is beautiful though.

I was using TripAdvisor and the TripAdvisor Dublin App to help find restaurants and sites and plan our travels and I stumbled across a self guided walking tour. Since we've become big fans of the Frommer's Self Guided Walking Tours we decided to give the TripAdvisor App a try.

We started out walking over to Christ Church Cathedral. The church itself was founded in the 11th Century.  This building is what I'd consider the quintessential Dublin church - look at it. If this doesn't screen medieval Irish architecture, I don't know what does.

MS taking a picture of Christ Church Cathedral

The TripAdvisor App directed us from the Cathedral down Wood Quay where you will find bronze slabs along the pavement, indicating the location where ancient artifacts were found.  We continued to the  new Dublin City Council building, which is a modern building with what appears to be an old Atari Logo, don't you think?

We continued to walk to the Temple Bar area of Dublin, which is home to hundreds of little pubs and restaurants.  We walk down Dame Street past the Olympia Theatre which has an amazing (albeit restored) cast iron and and stained glass canopy.

Dame Street with the Olympia Theatre on the left
Restored cast iron and stained glass canopy

Our quick walking tour ended as we entered Temple Bar and we decided to hit a few pubs, for some Guinness and ultimately some dinner, which I'll write about next time.  We had a really great time and this impromptu TripAdvisor walking tour. The app indicates this tour takes half a day -- it took us much less than two hours.  These tours (not only on the app, but in various travel guides) always seem to have so much extra time built into them -- I've never taken nearly the time the guidebooks say I should on these self guided tours.

Our walking tour was quite nice - our own pace, spending as much time was we want at each location and if necessary, spend only a few minutes at a location.  All in all, the walking tour app was good for what is was, plus it is a hell of a lot lighter than lugging around a tour book.

Next up...the food of Ireland and it's not all mutton and shortbread.

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Thanksgiving in Ireland: Dublin City Bike Tour

One of the best ways to explore a City is on Bike and Dublin is no exception.  With it's flat landscape and ample bike lanes, Dublin is a perfect City for bike explorations.  We contracted with Dublin City Bike Tours and met them a small hostel not too far from the Gibson Hotel (where we were staying).

There was a bit of a hiccup as Brian, our tour guide had forgotten the keys to the bike locker and had to return home to get them.  We still left on time, so there was no harm no foul but I was concerned that if he forgot something as key (pun intended) to this tour, what else would he be forgetting.

Our tour group had 11 people and two tour guides.  There were 5 women in their 50-60s from Scotland, a family with two college aged kids and parents from Birmingham, England and me and MS.  Brian and Cian were our tour guides - Brian was the leader and Cian brought up the rear to make sure everyone stayed together.  This is a great model, unlike in Barcelona where we lost someone and to sit around for about 20 minutes while we looked for this guy.

The bikes we used were single speed folding bikes.  I was a bit concerned at first, but since Dublin is so flat and we kept at an easy pace we didn't need bigger wheeled multi-speed bikes.  I couldn't imagine using this bike for the Bike and Wine Tour in South Africa though.

Brian and Cian unfold the bikes
Safety was a priority on this tour. Not only where we given helmets (which I require anytime we are on a bike), but we were also given a florescent yellow reflective harness. Cars would have to WORK to not see us on the street.
Safety First
Prepped and ready to Ride
We started out heading south of the river and stopped to talk about the Great Potato Famine and the Mass Emigration from Ireland to the US and Canada.
Replica of the boats that took the Irish
away from their home to Canada and the US.
The Famine Memorial depicts several starving Irish people in rags walking towards the dock as they leave Ireland.  There is an equivalent memorial in Toronto, but in Toronto the people are walking away from the dock towards their new home.

Famine Memorial
The next stop was the Samuel Becket bridge over the River Liffey designed by Santiago Calatrava. It was a hinged bridge that swing from being perpendicular over the river to be parallel to the river allowing larger boats to cross.  The bridge hasn't swiveled since it opened though.  In the background of the picture below you can see the modern convention center (the cube building with a glass cylinder offset inside it).  This building is also called God's Guinness or the Stiffy on the Liffey.

We continued to the docklands area and stopped outside of the Bord Gas Energy Theater and heard about the rehabbing in the area, the financial and real estate collapse and the history dating back to the time when the area had a leper colony.  An interesting story came from this area - the men who worked on the dock worked near the leper colony and they would often be quoted as saying "I wouldn't touch that person with my dock pole", which was a 10-foot pole used on the docks.  Hence the phrase "I wouldn't touch that with a 10 foot pole."

These red posts represent the 10-foot dock poles
Mix of Modern and Classic architecture in the Docklands

We continue the tour away from the river and docklands south.  We stopped on a corner and peered up, seeing this woman (statue) climbing the building.  This building housed the Irish Treasury.  The thought was that this woman was attempting to climb up and break into the building to steal the money.  According to Brian, this is now where the IMF is based when they are auditing the Irish books.  The story is now that this woman is trying to escape from the IMF investigators as there is no money left in the Treasury.

We saddle up and continue to Merrion Square, a large Georgian Square on the south side of Dublin.  This beautiful park is home to a street lamp museum -- no two street lights are the same.

The square is also home to a statue of Oscar Wilde - one of the worlds greatest writers, poets and drunks.  Some of my favorite quotes are attributed to Mr. Wilde.  

A seductive statue with Mr. Wilde lounging on a rock in the background.

We stopped by the old home of George Bernard Shaw, but then was turned into a museum that depicted his home when he lived there.  Unfortunately, there wasn't enough interest or money to keep the museum running.

We continue our ride through the City and came across Saint Patrick's Cathedral. I didn't see a single snake or a snake memorial for that matter. We did hear that Saint Patrick was able to fully explain Christianity and the Holy Trinity to the polytheists of Ireland by using a three leafed shamrock.  If that's the case, then why is a four leafed clover lucky?

Many foreign dignitaries were set to be in Dublin while we were there and mostly working at Dublin Castle.  We snaked our bikes through the limited castle grounds and spent just a few minutes gazing upon this 12th century structure (most of it dated from the 19th century though).

As we finished the tour, both Brian and Cian gave us a great list of recommendations - fantastic restaurants or pubs with food and live music. They even drew a map of the route we took and outlined the highlights of the tour and pinpointed other locations we should visit.

Map and route of our tour
If you want a larger version of this map, let me know and I will email you the full sized file.  Brian and Cian did an absolutely amazing job.  I would argue this is probably the best city bike tour I've ever taken.  The worst part of the experience? I left my gloves in Chicago and my hands were quite cold by the end of the experience.

If you are visiting Dublin you must take this tour. If you have a week or just a day, you need to reserve your spot. You will not be disappointed.  If you decide to do this, send my greetings to Brian and Cian - and let me know what you thought about the tour itself.

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