Kris and I had dinner last night with our new acquaintances friends, Chris and Jolie. Dinner was fun. This was in part because our hosts made a point of preparing a frugal meal. “If you bring wine,” Chris told me on the phone, “bring something cheap. I can’t tell any difference from the good stuff.” I happily complied.

I love good food and good conversation, but the truth is I’d rather have a great talk with friends over ramen noodles than have a gourmet meal filled with awkward silences. Fortunately, we had both good food and good companions last night — and it didn’t cost a fortune.

Cooking one meal a year
For dessert, Jolie served some fantastic chocolate candies. “These are great,” I said. “Did you make them?”

“I did,” she said, grinning. “They’re just chocolate chips melted in the microwave and then topped with raisins and cranberries.”

“Well, they’re delicious,” I said. You can never go wrong with chocolate chips.

Our conversation turned to food preparation, and how different families have different habits. Some spend a lot on food. Some spend very little. Some prepare all of their meals at home. Some never cook at all.

“My mother only cooks one meal a year,” Chris said.

“One meal?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah,” said Jolie. “The only meal she cooks is Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s quite a production. She has a spreadsheet that lists everything that needs to be done. She has columns for everyone who is helping her, and rows that show what each person should be doing at any given moment.”

Kris and I were awestruck.

“She’s an engineer,” Jolie explained.

“What does she eat for the rest of the year?” Kris asked.

“A lot of Domino’s,” said Chris. “And Burger King. That sort of thing.”

“That must be expensive,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Chris. “But both of my parents are engineers. They can afford it.”

“And was it like that when you were growing up?” Kris asked.

“Yup,” Chris said. “Pretty much.”

The notion of eating out for every meal is foreign to me. I’m sure that people do it, but I can’t imagine the cost. When I was a boy, my family rarely dined in restaurants. My parents couldn’t afford it. We were poor. Now that I’m older, I eat out much more often — sometimes too often. But every meal?

McDonald’s every day
“I think Chris had quite a shock when we started eating at home,” Jolie said. “He grew up eating in restaurants. In college, he ate on campus. Then we spent four years overseas at a job where there were communal meals. Other people did the cooking. Eventually, though, we had to make our own food.”

Chris nodded. “When we got married, my goal was to be able to eat at McDonald’s every day. If we could do that, I thought we’d be rich.”

“McDonald’s?” Kris asked, screwing up her face.

“Those were my early days of goal-setting,” Chris said, and we laughed.

“You have to understand,” Jolie said, “when we got married, we had a budget of $30 a week for food. For both of us combined. That’s not very much. When your food budget is that small, you learn to pinch your pennies. Chris ate a lot of raviolis. I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese. And I’d buy the Wal-Mart brand because it was 33 cents per box. Kraft macaroni and cheese was better, but it cost twice as much.”

“Right,” said Chris. “And we each got $3 a week from the $30 to spend on special treats.”

“Little Debbies were 99 cents!” Jolie said.

Chris smiled. “I ate a lot of Zebra Cakes.”

I smiled, too. I was thinking of how I used to buy boxes of Jiffy muffin mixes when I was in college. Who needed chocolate cake or apple pie? Give me a 25-cent box of blueberry muffin mix and I was a happy camper.

30 bucks a week
Our conversation reminded me of a website that a friend sent me recently. 30 Bucks a Week is a blog chronicling the adventures of one couple in New York as they try to squeeze all of their home-cooked meals out of a $30 weekly budget. (This isn’t a militant experiment — the couple still eats in restaurants about once a week, and occasionally has alcohol. Those costs are not included in the $30.)

Reading 30 Bucks a Week, and speaking with Chris and Jolie, makes me realize how much lifestyle inflation has affected my eating habits. As I’ve earned more, I’ve spent more on food. My appetite has grown to match my income.

But expensive food doesn’t necessarily make me happier. Some of the best times Kris and I have had were when we were scrimping and saving, living on chicken noodle soup and Jiffy muffin mix. Though fine food can be a wonderful thing, the real pleasure of dining comes from the people you’re with. Good food doesn’t have to be expensive.

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