Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Cheap Healthy Good and the Triangle of Compromise

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with a friend who works with computers. After our fries were finished, we started talking about his job. “Here’s the thing,” he said, “and I think it happens with a lot of different occupations. When you work with clients, they want your work to be quick, cheap, and thorough. And you kind of have to tell them to pick two.”

“Why can’t they expect all three?” I wondered.

He phrased his response carefully. “Well, you have other clients who demand your time. And competition is always pretty fierce.” He sipped his Guinness. “And it’s kind of the natural order of things, you know?”


“Um, well. Think of it like this: If they want it done fast and cheap, the standard of work isn’t going to be very high. If they want it done fast and right, they’re going to have to fork over money for the extra manpower. And if they want it done cheap and right, it’s gonna take awhile.”

"Like a triangle."


“So getting all three is impossible?”

He shook his head. “Nope. You can get a little of everything if you’re willing to compromise. It’s kind of that sweet spot in the middle.”

“But getting people to compromise is tough.”


I nodded. The triangle idea made sense in a work context. And, when I though about it, it started to make sense in other contexts, too. “You know, it’s kind of like finding a New York apartment, except the parameters change a little.”

“Okay." More Guinness. "Go on."

“If you want a place that’s cheap and in a great neighborhood, it’s going to be a rat-infested hellhole.”

“Like your old place.”

“Right,” I continued. “And let’s say you have kids, and you want a place that’s cheap and nice. It’s going to be a gabillion miles from any subway stop. That’s why all our friends end up in Jersey.”

He finished my thought: "And you have to be making Derek Jeter-caliber money to live in a nice place in a good neighborhood."

"Right. Jeez. That guy."

Later that night, I tried to apply the idea to Cheap Healthy Good. And it got harder. Because here's the thing:
  • People say you can buy cheap and healthy food, but it won't taste any good.
  • People say you can buy delicious, healthy food, but it will cost a bagillion dollars.
  • People say you can buy cheap, delicious food, but it will give you ten successive heart attacks.
I disagree with all of those conclusions. Like my friend, I believe that compromise is key to maintaining balance between the cheap, the healthy, and the good. I believe this is possible:

Paying a little more will get you healthier, scrumptious-ier food. Adding a little butter won't cost you much, and will keep food from tasting like lawn scraps. And actually preparing it yourself – not a ten-course State dinner, but y'know, a casserole – will cost less and give you a good chance of making it into your 80s.

(Of course, adding "time" or "effort" into the equation would be a logical extrapolation of this theory, but it turns the 2D drawing into a much-harder-to-understand 3D pyramid, which would simultaneously blow my mind and tax my pitifully scanty knowledge of graphic design to its breaking point, so we'll ignore it for now and get back to ruminating.)

So there you have it. The CHG Triangle of Compromise. It's exists to remind us of three things:
  • We need not engage in extreme, black-and-white thinking when it comes to eating inexpensively, healthfully, and well.
  • Compromise is the key to eating inexpensively, healthfully, and well.
  • I am bad at Photoshop.
Readers, what think you? If you have any geometrically-based theories, I'd love to hear 'em.


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aprilblake said...

I also apply that triangle to home contractors' work. I always want it done well, so depending on the project depends where I compromise the cheap or quickly aspect.

If you watch How I Met Your Mother, there's a pretty LOL episode in which Barney describes the cheap-fast-good triangle. Which one, I cannot remember but it's worth watching them all to find it!

I'm So Pretty said...

This is wonderful!! I totally agree - I'm sitting here right now, eating a spinach, ham and feta salad. The salad was uber cheap, the ham and feta were free after coupons, and I'm getting a delicious and healthy lunch out of it. I have a lot of friends who insist that eating healthfully means shelling out huge bucks for organic hand-fed lamb or some such, but it doesn't have to mean that and it doesn't have to be drop-dead expensive but still taste yummy.

Anyway, really great post!

Laura said...

No geometry theories on my end, though I will agree that effort is a big part of the cheap/healthy/good equation. I think that's also the part that most people are not willing to put in - let's face it, Americans are lazy.

I LOVE this post though. A lot of things can be put into this triangle context.

Kris said...

@aprilblake: I totally didn't know that about HIMYM! Just started watching last year, and really like the show.

Organic said...

Great triangle. When it comes to eating out, I always focus on the top of the triangle.

Paige said...

Completely agree with the Triangle O Compromise. It's possible to do, as long as you don't put ridiculous restrictions on your diet or have super high expectations of yourself. If you want every single morsel of your food to be local, organic, or fair trade, you can either spend a billion dollars on food, you can grow your own food, or you can eat very simply and have minimal processed foods. It is all up to you.

Ali said...

A professor I had my first year of college told me that you could do only 3 things in college. but if you wanted to do any of those things well, you had to pick 2.

Those three things were: study, sleep, or party.

It's kind of social life suffered when I studied and slept, and my sleep suffered when I partied and went to class. Fun theory!

Bob said...

@Ali - my solution to that vexing problem was to party and sleep!

Jaime said...

Maybe your trouble with Photoshop was that you were actually using MS Paint?

(Jk, jk, I love the illustrations, and the spirit.)

Adrienne said...

I think compromise is pretty much the key to life in general- it's pretty rare that you can have the very pinnacle of *anything*, much less the best of three things at once. But you also have to have high enough standards to not accept things that suck... then you can compromise.

Karen L said...

I've long had a rule of three for real estate also. I called the corners price, location, and "house" (where house is a catch-all for size/state-of-repair/amenities...).

I'm with Laura though, in that, fast/easy need to be in the equation for food. A lot of people are totally willing to compromise cheap, healthy AND good for fast and easy. Maybe not for THIS website, but in educating people about food in general.

There are something that are just *not* worth the time. For me, that includes homemade noodles and gnocchi. Homemade bread is a treat.
Perhaps and interesting ask-the-audience: What is not worth doing home-made?

Kris said...

@Karen: I love that question. Consider it next week's Ask the Internet.

Laura said...

@Kris Yay! Excited and already thinking about what I will and won't make from scratch that other people do/don't.

lateraleating said...

Excellent post! (although I'm currently looking to move houses and it made me a bit depressed because the real estate bit is so, so true).

Jen @ Dear Mommy Brain said...


Autumn said...

I like the triangle model, but I think lots of not CHG readers have issues with the time. It took me a while to learn that I could do other things while cooking. I could check my email while the pasta was cooking, empty the dishwasher while searing chicken or steaming veggies. Lots of my co-workers (with kids which I don't have yet) are always saying they wish they had time to cook more or their grocery bills are so high. I just can't say (cause they will reply "you don't have kids so what do you know") that the hamburger helper takes as much time to make as something else.

Jenna said...

In my case, I tend to look at it a bit more like trying to find the center of the square - because in food, time takes a big factor.

You can get cheap, healthy, and good... but it's going to cost you a chunk in time. You can have 3 of the 4, but at least one of those is going to have to be sacrificed a bit.

(This is weighing a bit heavy on my head at the moment - today was the day I had to grind my week's grains for flour, get some stock ready for the freezer, and generally do the slog work to make cooking gluten free cheap, good, and healthy. 7 hours later, I'm good for the week - but there is a definite cost!)

Miriam said...

for years I've subscribed to a version of this for design--it can be cheap, comfortable/sensible, attractive triangle. For example, you can buy cheap and attractive shoes, but they will hurt your feet. You can buy Michael Graves for Target appliances but something won't make sense about them (for ex. my crock pot which takes up WAY too much space for no reason--if the design had been expensive they would have figured out the answer to that one). Or else you have the real Michael Graves stuff which is expensive. This is true about all kinds of desgin & engineering. You can see it in many things, big and small. I used to see small examples when my daughter was a baby. MIL would buy her cheap clothes from Kmart that were often surprisingly cute--but if they were cute, there was some design flaw, like not having buttons & snaps in the right place. & hate to be rigid but sometimes you can't compromise on this and you need smart design--but then it will be either expensive or less attractive.

Chris said...

The whole Cheap-Fast-Good triangle of home improvement was on the L Word once.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree! Although I have never thought of it as you just put it, I live my life exactly the same way. Everything is a compromise to make me happy AND healthy.

Like those people who say "I can't lose weight because I can't live on salads." So extreme! Why just salads, why just bacon, why JUST anything? You have to find that place, THAT place, in the triangle.

Dee Seiffer said...

@Autumn - I raised 5 kids and worked. You can eat/cook cheap, healthy & good when working and raising a family. It takes planning. Of course, everything in your life with 5 kids takes planning (esp when one has Crohns & two are lactose intolerant). Were there days I drove through Boston Market? Yep. But not very many.

Kris - love the post. I'm a semi-retired empty-nester in my 50's and I'm still finding that balance. I think as your life changes, you keep reassessing what's important in each phase.

Feeding just two of us, cheap isn't as critical. But old habits die hard. And why spend money you don't need to spend? $12/lb for grass-fed beef is okay when you don't need a 3-lb roast, but it still makes me wince.

SCS said...

I agree, but you discount the fact that the only real currency we have by definition is time. So if it takes two hours to get a meal that I could buy in a ten minute run to the store, that's two valuable hours I could be doing something else. I love love love your blog, but I certainly hate cooking. And I hate it because it kills the rest of your night.

GrowingRaw said...

I agree with Jenna and SCS that the third dimension is time. If I take a half day each week to get a whole lot of food harvested and prepared then the family has a foundation of healthy eating for the week. That's possible at the moment because I'm working from home. I'm not sure how feasible it will be once I return to work. I already know that whenever I pick up part-time work the freezer supplies get drawn on more often.

Unlike SCS I enjoy cooking - that really helps because preparing food is part of my unwind time rather than an additional chore on my list. It must be a real drag to dislike cooking... my Nana is the same, she'd rather wash dishes than cook.

Rhodia said...

Just the other day Trent at the Simple Dollar said there are 4 factors, the 4th being time, and you can have 3 out of 4. See the bottom of this post.

Kris said...

@Rhodia: I saw that. He's right - most people don't want to invest the time, which is understandable. Still think there's a compromise between the four. Interesting post, nonetheless...