Can I tell you how nice it is to be back in Shanghai? It’s always nice coming home after a long trip, but being in Shanghai also makes my Year of Less so much easier. Today, we’re talking restaurants and groceries, specifically, why eating well and spending less on food is so much easier in Shanghai.
First, a confession: I violated my “no new furniture” rule this week. We decided to buy new dining room chairs because ours are so flimsy. We have six chairs currently, and only two of them are sturdy enough to safely sit in. I thought hard about this rule violation, but ultimately, none of us were comfortable sitting in the previous chairs. Injuries will cost much more than a few new chairs.
Other than the chairs purchase, I’ve been pretty good about my Year of Less. I did buy some homeschool materials, a pedicure set, and some Smart Bones for my pup Cisco, but all of these were allowed purchases according to the rules I set up last week.
We’ve been back in Shanghai for ten days, and I’ve already lost the 10 pounds I gained while in the USA. I always gain weight on our USA trip, and I always lose it quickly without really trying once we return to China. Counting groceries and restaurants together, we’ve spent a fraction of what we spent on food each week in the USA, even though food here tends to be more expensive than in the USA.
So what’s different about food in the USA versus Shanghai? Why do I always gain weight and spend too much money on food in the US in just a few weeks? For me, it comes down to five things: junk food, eating out, portion sizes, mindless eating, and variety.
MY YEAR OF LESS…JUNK FOOD
Picture the potato chip aisle in your local grocery store. Countless flavors and types, right? The salty snacks probably cover both sides of a long aisle. We have chips in Shanghai, too, but they are more likely on only one side of the aisle, and that aisle is probably about a quarter of the length of a typical American grocery store. It’s the same story for breakfast cereals, cookies, fruit snacks, frozen dinners, soda, juices, canned soups, boxed dinner kits, dairy products, ice cream…when it comes to processed junk food, the USA runs circles around China.
Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of junk in Shanghai, too, some of it imported from the USA. The difference is, I really don’t eat it much here. For one, imported food doesn’t come cheap. For example, an 8-count box of imported USA Pop Tarts here costs about $7 USD. A small box of Lucky Charms costs $10 USD in Shanghai. If you skip the imports, Chinese junk food includes weird meats like plastic-wrapped chicken feet (toes/claws included) or dried squid or meat-flavored potato chips. I didn’t eat that stuff, even before I became vegan.
So eating less junk food in Shanghai isn’t going to be nearly as difficult as it would be if I were still in the US. I’m not bombarded with food commercials here, and our grocery stores contain less junk food items overall. But for millions of Americans, being around so much delicious junk food makes eating healthy a real challenge. I wouldn’t be nearly so confident about my ability to choose healthy food if I still lived in the US, where consumers are constantly bombarded with junk food ads on TV (pizza, anyone?), billboards, the radio, and even the evening news (it’s Texas State Fair time in Dallas). Add to that grocery stores stocked floor to ceiling with brightly-colored, well-marketed junk food packaging, and you start to wonder if your willpower has met its match.
MY YEAR OF LESS…EATING OUT
Yes, we do eat out sometimes in Shanghai. We have a large variety of restaurants and cuisines here, and I’ve never eaten at one I didn’t like. But school keeps us busy, and unless the restaurant is close-by or offers delivery, we don’t eat out very much. We don’t have or need a car here, so if we can’t walk to the restaurant, we have to factor in travel time via taxi or metro. We go to farther-away restaurants in downtown Shanghai occasionally, usually for school-related social events and mainly on the weekend.
In the USA, we ate out nearly every day, and sometimes even twice in the same day. Of course, we didn’t do that when we lived in Texas, but we always eat out too much on vacation. Eating out is social, and when meeting with friends and family we haven’t seen in a year, the thing to do is to meet at a restaurant. Texas was especially bad for this because we have so many different people to see in Dallas and Fort Worth, and the summer months are far too hot for much outside activity. The DFW area is also very spread out, so anywhere we went involved at least 30-minutes in the car, sometimes an hour or more. After four years living without a car, I have grown to truly hate riding in cars. I even avoid taxis in Shanghai whenever possible.
MY YEAR OF…SMALLER PORTIONS
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and food portions are no exception. In Shanghai restaurants, I can eat an entire meal and still have the energy to walk home. I don’t overeat because the portion sizes aren’t completely ridiculous. When I ate in American restaurants, I almost always over-ate, simply because the food was on my plate. So. much. food. And it’s not just what I order or what’s on my plate. Italian restaurants serve bread and olive oil before the meal. Mexican restaurants serve chips and salsa. Steakhouses serve peanuts salted in the shell. All these were automatically served minutes after we sat down in the restaurant. Whatever meal we ordered usually filled up a huge plate (more like a platter) and contained more than enough food for two people to share.
American grocery stores also offer huge portions. The day before we left Chicago to return to China, we took the boys to Target to buy snacks for the 13-hour flight back to Shanghai. We told them they could each get two salty snacks, two sweet snacks, and one gum or candy. We quickly had to modify the directions when my 11-year old came to us with a 40-pack of Airheads candy and asked us if that could count that as “one gum or candy.”
In China, there are lots of flavors of rice, available in bags so huge that I would struggle to carry them out of the store. But rice is a staple here. A huge bag like that doesn’t cost much and will feed an entire family for months. In contrast, I rarely see “family-sized” bags of potato chips, candy, cookies, and other junk foods here in Shanghai. Junk food items like chips and cookies usually just a normal-sized bag or a small snack bag. Oreos, for example, come in a pack of 10 here; in the USA, the typical grocery store size contains 39 Oreos. Oreos are thinner here, too, both in the cookie and the creme. I’ve never seen Double- or Triple-Stuf Oreos here. If you want Halloween-sized bags of candy in China, you’ll probably need to order those online from an importer. Because outside Halloween, why would anyone need a 40-pack of Airheads?
MY YEAR OF LESS…MINDLESS EATING
I used to work with a teacher who ran a mindfulness club after-school for teachers, and one of the sessions was about mindful eating. Mindful eating is consuming food and drink very slowly, allowing your taste buds to savor every single bite. It is focusing your mind on your food’s unique textures, smells, and tastes and the experiencing the pleasure of eating.
The opposite of mindful eating is mindless eating. Mindless eating is what most of us, myself included, do most of the time. This was really bad for me in the USA because of TV. Sure, we have TVs in China. We have a huge 70″ flatscreen right in our living room here. But aside from the occasional DVD or Seinfeld season (I have the boxed set), I really don’t watch much TV in China. This means I mostly don’t eat in front of the TV, either.
So while I enjoyed my six-weeks of glorious American TV, I also mindlessly consumed six weeks of glorious junk. If we weren’t eating out, I could be found eating most of my meals and snacks in front of the boob tube. I could easily put away whole bags of Chex Mix or Salt & Vinegar Lays while watching hours of game shows with my boys. We don’t have six hours of Family Feud in Shanghai, y’all!
MY YEAR OF LESS…VARIETY
I’ve already mentioned how much less junk food we have here. If you don’t offer all that junk food, you don’t really need huge grocery stores. With a few exceptions like Auchan, a large French store comparable to Wal-Mart Supercenter, neighborhood grocery stores in Shanghai tend to be relatively small, about the size of a large 7-11 or QT in the USA.
Having less variety is actually awesome. You might disagree, but hear me out. When you go grocery shopping each week, how long does it usually take? When I lived in Texas, I bought my groceries at a Wal-Mart Supercenter. Counting travel time (about 10 minutes each way), waiting in line, and loading the car, my weekly grocery trip easily took two hours or more. Overspending was super-easy, too. Even though I bought the same basic items and brands each week, the store was absolutely huge. Ridiculously huge. I would find myself wandering around “just looking” at stuff not on my list and all too often buying things I didn’t need. It was easy to spend $200 or more each week on “groceries” because I didn’t only buy groceries. If my list included twenty items, I would return with thirty. Forty or fifty if my kids or husband were with me.
As vegans, my husband and I do not eat meat or dairy products. In the USA, we were happy to try a lot of vegan “fake” meats, cheeses, and butters that I don’t have access to here in Shanghai. We enjoyed Beyond Meat burgers, MorningStar Farms meatless sausage, Smart Dogs vegan hot dogs, Chao and Daiya cheeses, and Earth Balance butter. It’s great that these items are available for vegans in the US, but they don’t come cheap, and they are still highly-processed foods. Natural, plant-based foods like rice, beans, tofu, nuts, fruits, and veggies (bought locally and in-season) are cheap and can be purchased in bulk. Because these items are much healthier than junkfood, they can also potentially lower your overall health care bill.
Having fewer choices makes grocery shopping a snap. I now buy most of my groceries online, but when I didn’t, the stores here are so small that it never took two hours to buy groceries. Lines are short, and since I had to carry my groceries home, I didn’t buy too much anyway. Ordering groceries online makes it even easier because I can click check boxes of items I’ve previously purchased. 15 minutes and…done.
DON’T LIVE IN SHANGHAI? SOME WAYS YOU CAN ALSO LIVE WITH LESS…
So I know most of my readers don’t live in Shanghai. According to Google Analytics, a whopping 84% of my readers live in the USA. It’s not easy living a minimalist life in the USA, but making the decision–any decision–toward living with less is a massive step in the right direction.
So if you are among the 84%, take it one step at a time. If you are looking to simplify your meals and reduce your grocery bill, start small. Maybe you could pack real fruit in your kids’ lunch this week instead of processed fruit snacks. Or maybe you could pack your own lunch three days this week instead of going out for lunch. There are loads of healthy packed lunch options on Pinterest (see my list below). Sunday is a great day to chop veggies for this week’s homemade dinner. Vow to drink more water, which is free and super-healthy. Invest in a Nespresso (which also makes tea and hot chocolate) instead of buying take-out coffee. Purchase dried rice, beans, and pasta, which won’t spoil and can create weeks of meals, especially if you buy them in bulk.
For me, this journey is about baby steps. I’m very early in my journey, and I definitely don’t have all the answers. I do know that I love accumulating stuff–new clothes, shoes, school supplies, books–and this bad habit of mine needs to stop ASAP. Even if I violate my rules (as I did with the dining room chairs this week), I’ve still refrained from purchasing other things. I’m just happy to be moving forward, even if my progress is slow. And I’m over the moon to hear from those of you who are taking this journey with me!