|One of my favorite wall hangings in our kitchen.|
This pretty much sums it up.
I could think of a million different titles for this post: Committing to Health in 2013, Eating Organic For Less, Quality Food vs. Quantity, Discovering the Hidden Costs of Food...I could perhaps even write a series of posts around such topics. Regardless, I have a hometown friend and blog follower to thank for prompting me to put this into words. She contacted me with some of these goals in mind: "My family and I are wanting to move in the direction of clean eating...cutting out processed foods, refined sugars, add[ing] in more fruits and veggies, lower[ing our] quantity of meat." But she said once they hit the natural foods co-op the sticker shock made her wonder how to do this affordably. Excellent questions.
I'll never claim to be an expert on this topic though I do feel I've gathered lots of resources over the last decade that I'd love to share. We are so fortunate--perhaps spoiled--here in Milwaukee and statewide to have many amazing small farmers, growers, and food co-ops close by. This friend of mine is up against much more limited resources in east central Illinois which is still mostly corn and bean country. So here goes. I'm sure I'm leaving some ideas out and I'm sure others have elaborated on this previously.
My Advice for Eating More Healthfully on a Budget:
Thoughts As You Get Started:
- A major step towards healthier eating is realizing the average American diet could be making you sick. There are countless sources out there discussing why organic may be better, why genetically modified foods could be dangerous, and why we should consider the whole picture including animal welfare, environmental impact, and labor rights not to mention nutrition when we choose what to eat. Remember: every time you make a food purchase--whether at a store, restaurant or farmers' market--you are VOTING WITH YOUR DOLLAR. Essentially you are telling that producer, retailer, or restaurateur "we like this, we want more of this." So if you continue to consume and support that which you truly don't think is good for your body, your children, your community, or your world then perhaps you should reconsider before opening your pocketbook.
- Next step would be a baby step. Especially if this way of eating is completely new to you and your family, the most sustainable way to approach it is little by little. If you go from 3-4 times per week drive-thru meals, microwave dinners, or highly processed staple items, you're likely to be quickly overwhelmed with an immediate switch to raw fruits and veggies, whole grains, minimally processed meats and cheeses--especially when the new numbers run through your monthly budget. As much as I'd love for everyone to clear the shelves of all processed foods, sugary, artificially-flavored, high-sodium products and wake up to a raw smoothie with kale and chia seeds followed by a homemade flatbread wrap with beans, sprouts, and kimchi then dinner of quinoa salad with homemade dressing made with coconut kefir and seaweed (Nutrition Geek Alert: these are truly things I love to eat regularly), it's NOT going to happen overnight in any way shape or form. It didn't happen that way with me so I wouldn't expect it with others.
At the Grocery Store, Farmers' Market:
- Think of food as medicine. If you choose clean, healthy, nutrient-dense foods opting for variety, color, local, fresh it can take the edge off initial price shock to think of it as an investment in your health. Would you rather pay more now for good food or pay loads more later for pharmaceuticals and medical care when your body decides it's had enough? And it's not just about the return on investment down the line. I believe that eating better today will contribute to overall happiness and healthiness that may keep you and your family from missing a lot of work and school. And that can certainly make a huge financial difference financially for some people.
- Don't believe the hype. There are certainly lots of wonderful "health foods" out there, but also a lot of gimmicks. Just because something's labeled "Certified Organic" doesn't mean it's automatically good for you (better than the alternative maybe, but not necessarily "good"). Paul Newman, rest his soul, put his name on organic Oreo-like cookies. Does that mean you should buy them? No. There is such a thing as organic junk food--just because sugar is grown without the use of pesticides doesn't mean it won't still upset your system. Also be careful with terms like "natural." You may be paying for something you're not really getting.
- Know what foods are most important to purchase organically. Carry a list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen when you go to the store. If your funds are limited, refer to these lists and buy the best you can afford. Remember, even if it's conventionally-grown but one of the Clean Fifteen and you're not ingesting the worst part of it, there can still be significant baggage in terms of environmental impact and exploited labor (think bananas.)
- Know that "organic" is not the end all be all at the farmers' market. Of course organic certification is something to celebrate as it often takes small farmers loads of time money to achieve this status, but for those who aren't able to jump through hoops or can't afford the certification they may opt out of the process while still upholding organic growing standards. In fact, some local producers might be using "beyond organic" methods as certified organic still allows certain organic sprays that harm beneficial insects. And corn-fed organic beef is still corn-fed, which has raised questions about the effects on the stomach pH of cattle. I'd rather look into eating clean grass-fed beef even if it's not certified. I always tell people to know your farmer. Go to the farmers' market or visit the farm to check out their operations, ask questions, and develop a relationship. They'll likely give you a thorough explanation of their practices and philosophy.
- Buy local. Whenever possible purchase food directly from your local farmer or grower or at a retailer that sells local foods. One culprit of a high price tag on organic produce is trucking it thousands of miles from the green fields of California. Certainly look for certified organic local produce, but otherwise "sustainably grown" local would trump cross-country organic in my book. We're fortunate to have numerous farmers' markets in our city--in the summer one could go to a different market practically every day--and the largest producer only farmers' market in the country right over in Madison. When you buy local more of your money stays in your community and feeds the local/regional economy. I consider this yet another investment in health. A great way to get local fruits and vegetables (and sometimes meat, honey, and other value-added products) for affordably is to join a CSA farm. You're essentially subscribing to 20+ weeks (depending where you live) of fresh, beautiful, clean produce. Many farms offer various sizes of weekly shares that will feed two or four or more people as well as recipes and stories from the farm. When you break down the annual cost of a share it can often be as little as $20/week for enough fresh, organic produce to feed four people. Try doing that at the grocery store. To offset this expense even more, find out if your CSA farm offers worker shares where you essentially "work for food" each week. I've been a worker share with our CSA farm for several years. I began as a field worker/packer where I greatly expanded my gardening knowledge to boot. A few years ago I switched to an alternative worker share writing recipes for the farm's newsletter and being the personal canner for my busy farmer friends.
- Look for other money saving avenues. Whether you're linked into an organic couponing site for your pantry staples, you follow the weekly circulars from your natural foods store, buy in bulk, or take part in a buying club there are other ways to purchase healthier foods on a budget. Sometimes it takes a combination of these. If you're in an area that doesn't have a natural foods store or co-op or even a conventional grocery store with organic offerings there are online sources that can also save big money. I don't advocate taking away from your local independent food retailer, but if saving money on supplements or certain perishable items online allows you to spend more money at the co-op then give it a try. And don't discount good old bartering--I have paid certain friends with preserves or our garden surplus in exchange for acupuncture, babysitting, and home repair; a reverse trade could surely work as well.
- If you eat meat, eat less. We are able to afford clean meat because we have cut way back on the frequency at which we consume it. At home we usually only have meat 1-2 times per week. There are plenty of other options like beans, whole grains, and fish from which we get enough protein.
- Cut back on processed foods. They're expensive, they're often full of preservatives (even "organic preservatives,") and they aren't always the most nutrient dense. The graphic below puts it into perspective a little more. In general, whether food is organic or not, I opt for a product with the shortest ingredient list.
|(From the book sources below)|
In the Kitchen:
- Cook from scratch as much as possible. It may sound like a daunting task for those with busy schedules, but if you can find a basic knife skills class in your area and invest in a basic cooking class or two, you may learn a handful of really valuable skills that'll save money in the long run.
- Use all of it. If you're going to spend the money on organic, not only should you make sure all those fresh fruits and veggies don't rot before they're eaten, but it's also good to know how to use every last bit. It's staggering how much food Americans waste annually. It's saddening when we think of people in third world countries (or even our own country, for that matter) who have access to little or no food daily. But it's also sickening to think about the money that's basically being thrown out. So very rarely does any food go into the garbage at our house. I have learned to maximize every ounce of food--whether that means saving the scraps for soup stock, boiling and pureeing stalks and leaves for "pesto," or juicing odds and ends of fruits and vegetables. Then after that, it goes into the compost, which allows us to meet our own compost needs for the vegetable garden thereby keeping our garden and yard budget in check (but that's another point.) A book that greatly inspired me to cook more economically is by Tamar Adler. I highly recommend it if for nothing else her talent in weaving recipes into prose a la M.F.K. Fisher. We also shop regularly at an employee-owned supermarket where they have "Reduced Produce" on deep discount. This may be a bag of organic bananas that's quickly turning or a bag of pesticide-free eggplants that have minor nicks. I'm not suggesting we dumpster dive like the Freegans (though I commend them for their efforts) but take a second look at perfectly good food that may have a slight imperfection. If you're able to take it home to cook that evening, there's no reason not to grab it.
- Learn food preservation techniques. Whether you take a local class, learn from a friend or relative, or teach yourself via a library book this is a tremendously valuable skill. You don't have to hot water bath or pressure can your foods to preserve them--drying and freezing are also options. You can capture the flavors of the season and take advantage of the season's best prices when local veggies are at their peak and abundance at local markets and farms. There are also health benefits in eating less food out of plastic containers or BPA-lined cans when you preserve them in reusable glass jars. On that note, there are also environmental benefits...I could go on for days about the advantages of food preservation.
In the Garden and at Home:
- Try gardening. Even if you simply grow your own herbs, organic tomatoes, or salad mix at home or on a community garden plot it's a healthy start for both body and pocketbook. Look for basic gardening classes in your area and when purchasing seeds or seedlings, consider how much you can afford to lose if nothing grows at all. My first gardening season I wagered $20 on my container garden. I ended up saving hundreds of dollars without really knowing what I was doing. After that you can only improve. You might be pleasantly surprised at how green your thumb actually is and you'll know exactly what's going into/onto your food (if anything.) You may also gain a better appreciation for professional growers and perhaps further understand the higher, true prices of food. And you'll get some great exercise and therapy...so go ahead and cancel that expensive monthly gym membership.
- Prioritize. Choosing to eat better, cleaner, healthier, more wholesome food has to be part of a bigger picture. We have made food a huge priority in our lives. I'll spend as little as possible on what I put ON my body (though still in a sustainable way), but I try not to cut corners on what I put INTO my mouth. We've chosen NOT to have fancy cell phones, cable TV, live in a big house, take annual extravagant vacations, drive gas-guzzling cars, eat out regularly more than 2-3 times per month, wear fancy clothes and jewelry, maintain luxurious grooming schedules, etc. in order to afford the best food we can. One day someone will point out the irony that Vera is wearing handed down hand-me-downs but bringing organic pastured chicken salad with homemade mayonnaise in her lunchbox. If a healthy lifestyle is what you want on a tight budget, you've got to make certain sacrifices when it comes to material things.
- I would also like to point out a few things I think you NEVER have to buy again: salad dressing (shake equal parts oil and acid in a jar with salt and pepper, maybe some herbs), roasted nuts (5 min. at 350F and they're delicious), baby carrots (I'm guilty of this myself, but really, how hard is it to peel and cut up some regular carrots...that's really all that baby carrots are anyway.) Invest in a food processor and never again will you purchase mayonnaise, shredded cheese, slaw mix, pesto, pureed garlic. The list goes on.
- There are books out there that tackle the topic of organic on a budget: Wildly Affordable Organic, Good Meat, and Organic Food: Eating Organic on a Budget (available on Kindle). And documentaries galore including Food Inc., Forks Over Knives, Hungry For Change as well as Genetic Roulette that may give you some insight into factory farming and the conventional food industry.
The only thing I may not have directly addressed above is my friend's question about cutting out refined sugar. To that I would repeat "baby steps." Try to substitute honey, maple syrup, sorghum, or stevia when possible, or start weaning yourself altogether. Hopefully you'll be so busy eating naturally sweet fruits and filling your belly with nutritious foods that keep your sugar cravings in check that you won't want an artificially-sweetened treat afterwards. Truth be told, sweets will always be my vice, but I try to make healthier choices.
I'm sure this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are many more sources and ideas. There's always more for me to learn and the bar keeps being set higher. For now we all do the best we can.