Friday, March 12, 2010

eating healthy + saving money

I'm new to being a wife, and almost as new to cooking. I think myself rather lucky that I get to start these two things together, at once, because they're both a large part of my life.  I get to learn cooking, as a part of homemaking, as a part of stewardship, as a part of a new marriage, as a part of worship. It's pretty dramatic to think about it that way!  It's basically up to me to make food that will benefit our bodies and our souls, and to make sure our food money is spent in a way that will please God, and get along well with our newlywed budget.  To this end, I really believe that cooking healthy, filling food is just as important, if not more important, than cooking on the cheap.  There is a balance I try to achieve, and it's not always easy, but in the process of being terrified of turkeys and finding things to cook other than stir-fry, I've come up with a bunch of ways to keep us and our budget healthy.

The first step is realizing and accepting that because of a largely irresponsible food system, healthy, quality, simply produced food is often MORE expensive than highly processed, less healthy food.  This is because, I've found out, the federal government subsidizes processed foods and cheap grains, most of which the typical "western diet" is made up of.  Now you also know who to thank for the U.S.'s high rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.  Cheaper is not always better.  (Highly recommended reading: Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. I'll happily lend it to you if you live near me.)  And did you know that because of ruined soil and chemical fertilizers, an average, conventionally produced apple today only provides you with 1/3 of the nutrients and vitamins it did 75 years ago?  You'd have to eat three apples instead of your great-grandpa's one. (And I thought an-apple-a-day was a tall order!)  So even in many cases when we think we're eating healthy stuff, the deck is stacked against us.

For us, the slightly higher price of quality food is something that just has to be factored into our budget.  And everyone has to decide for themselves. Cheaper doesn't always mean lesser quality, but just ask: why is it cheaper?  Because the government helped to pay for and process (read: remove the nutrients from) the flour, or because it's easily, simply produced?  How many ingredients should there be in a loaf of bread?  Was this potato grown in overused, nutrientless soil, or did it come from a real farm? What did that cow eat before it was made into meat: cheap subsidized grain, or its natural diet of grass?  The $3 carton of eggs might look just like the $1 carton...but are the eggs the same?  (On the eggs's helped me to realize that the $1 eggs shouldn't set the standard for price, but it's more like the super-cheapo price, whereas maybe the $3 eggs, produced like they should be, are closer to the standard/normal price. Maybe.) I hope you will look into these issues and draw your own conclusions.

I have a couple of things to clarify before I give you my list of ideas. First, I'm not going to suggest you replace all of your current food with organic food.  Organic does not necessarily mean healthy: what about organic Doritos? (I don't know if they exist, but still.)  There are a few things it's better to buy organic, though...and I usually try to go by this general list.  (Organic milk is one thing I haven't yet decided to splurge on, but Hy-Vee offers a local, antibiotic and hormone-free version that I always's the same price as regular milk.)  Just remember that responsibly produced versions of these crops, which may not be officially organic, may be just as good, or better, than their "USDA certified organic" counterparts. It's very expensive to get certified, and many farms can't afford it, or don't see a need for it. This is where the farmers market will become our best friend.

Secondly, I also don't want to give the impression that quality food=gourmet cooking.  It's as simple as choosing one potato over another, or in the frozen-foods aisle, deciding that the plain organic veggies will suffice over the fancier name-brand microwaveable steam-in-box veggies with gourmet spices and sauces.

So, having just convinced everyone to spend a little money on quality food, here are some habits I've begun to develop, which allow me to buy quality food, for the same or (sometimes) even less money. And just for the record: I'm in no way an experienced cook, grocery shopper or wife, so I'm not trying to give advice to those who have far more wisdom than I do! I just wanted to share my thoughts--hopefully you will too!--and perhaps help out anyone who's in the same boat I am.
  • My biggest tip: COOK FROM SCRATCH.  I know, it's easy for me to say because I have the time and I enjoy cooking, but the principle works the same for everyone. Reject precut, prepared, packaged or processed options, in favor of whole foods that you fix yourself.  Doing it yourself means you can buy more food for less money, and you can fill the price gap by choosing better food to begin with.  Plus, when you invest time and energy into your food, you're more likely to enjoy it, savor it, and be thankful to God for it.
  • Buy in bulk! You only have to purchase what you need, and bins of organic/unprocessed grains, etc. are cheaper.  I've found that many kinds of organic oats, quinoa and many flours are significantly less expensive at Open Harvest's bulk bins than the off-brand, non-organic ones at Hy-Vee. You'll also use packaging and create less waste this way.  (Make sure you put your bulk stuff in the freezer for at least a few hours before storing it...this kills the little baby bugs).
  • This also goes for can bring your own egg carton to some grocery stores, like Open Harvest, to fill it up with local/organic/free-range/whatever eggs.  Again, less packaging waste, and the cost goes down.  But, because they're a little pricier, we eat fewer of them, which is probably good too. I often go for vegan recipes when I'm making cookies, muffins or cakes, and then I get to save the eggs for when we'll taste them.
  • Buy whole organic carrots instead of precut baby carrots.  We eat a lot of carrots...but chopping them is not difficult.  
  • Try new kinds of produce...especially the humbler, overlooked ones.  Squash, eggplant, turnips, rutabaga...they all have their place, and can be very inexpensive.  In the right recipes they can really shine and provide a lot of nourishment.
  • Eat less meat (I've devoted an entire blog to other, non-financial reasons why this is a good idea). We eat meat few days a week, and it's almost always in smaller pieces, like in a soup or stir-fry. It goes a lot further that way, too. So it's better on the wallet and better for our health. (I'd be glad to lend anyone my vegetarian cookbooks - they have lots of great ideas.)
  • Even if I'm not looking for meat in particular, whenever I'm at Open Harvest, I always check out the 30% off local/free-range meats, near their sell-by date. The meat goes in the freezer until we need it. This allows me to buy meat at a very competitive price...without also buying the hormones, antibiotics or other additives present in conventional meat. 
  • Use the same tactic with quality bread. Or make your own.  I've yet to make a really great loaf of bread myself (they all end up like very tasty bricks), but I've purchased marked-down loaves of good-quality bread and they keep in the fridge just fine.  Or just look at the labels of your usual bread, and see what you'd be paying for. Bread is essentially made of yeast, water, and flour; if there are 50 ingredients in that loaf of "bread" it's best to look elsewhere. But if you recognize all the ingredients as real ingredients, go for it.
  • Buy a whole organic/locally raised/free range/whatever chicken or turkey. The cost per pound is much lower, and can be comparable to conventional pre-cut meat. You can roast the entire thing, freeze the meat you don't need right away, and make a LOT of broth. You'll get a lot of mileage out of it and maybe even save money, because even non-organic broth is pricey.  And not nearly as good as homemade.
  • On a related note, any sort of larger cut of meat is less expensive.  I've yet to learn this well, but if you dissect the bones and meat and fat yourself, you won't have to pay someone else to do it.
  • No need to buy muffin/cake mix. (Still working on this one myself; we love brownies from mixes.) Is it really that much easier to put 3 ingredients in a bowl instead of 6?  Mixes are a waste of money, and they're usually full of preservatives and other stuff.  The blessing of doing it yourself, in this and many other cases, is that the result is usually TASTIER!
  • Instead of bagged lettuce, purchase a whole head of organic/farmer's greens, and just cut it up yourself. (Are you seeing a pattern here? :)
  • Read the labels. Off-brand might not be the best quality, but it isn't the enemy either. You should always know what you're eating, but always check out less expensive options. I buy lots of store-brand things.
  • Grow your own food. This is such an obvious and good idea and I can't wait to do it myself! Start with seeds to save even more money.  This spring I plan to buy started plants and grow them in pots on my little balcony.  I get to control the soil and the quality, and I don't have to grow the veggies we don't especially like. (I have NO experience gardening, so the idea is all I can share with you at this point.)
  • Make your own staple foods, like yogurt, bread, granola, even cheese.  The quality is up to you, as is the option of being organic.
  • Forego premade sauces, dressings and marinades.  Look at the ingredients list on the bottle at the store, and then go home and make your own.  There's a good chance your own will taste quite a bit better.  And again: no questionable or unknown ingredients. 
  • Check out a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm or garden in your area.  Here in Lincoln, we've looked into Community Crops CSA, Common Good Farm and Shadow Brook Farm. You'll pay a certain price up front which helps the farmer pay for seed and equipment, and receive a share of freshly harvested produce throughout the growing season.  If the price looks high, go in together with another family or couple and split the benefits. Shadow Brook Farms even offers a discount for early subscriptions (although we're past that date now...oops), and in addition to produce you can buy cheese, flowers, starter plants and herbs. 
  • Make cuts in other areas, and put the money towards quality food.  For example: we stopped buying paper towels in favor of rags (a couple of old cut-up t-shirts). It's just as easy, and the cost is zero.  
Again, I'm pretty new to this, so...what are some of your tips for careful shopping and quality eating?

p.s. A few days after I published this, I've found two very wonderful blog entries on another site, with lots of great ideas in the comments!
Finding Time to Cook from Scratch
Whole Foods on a Budget


  1. i really like your last comment the most. to us, things like cable, video games or going to the movies aren't nearly as important as eating well. it all depends on your priorities and making sure you're being a good steward of what God has given you.

  2. Sarah - that is such a great perspective. I struggled with what example to use in my blog, because we do sacrifice in other areas as well. I guess I was afraid of offending someone or sounding stuck up, so I chose something really small. :) I think you are right that it's about priorities and stewardship. Thanks so much for reading and commenting...and I'd love to hear any tips you've discovered in your own experience (which is much greater than my own)!

  3. It is a great task to plan healthy meals, buy healthy foods, and use our money wisely all at the same time. Add living in small town Kansas without health-food stores and with high-priced groceries, and I have had to learn to shop all over again. I have just recently become more aware of how we spend our money and how we waste it. When I plan our meals for the week, I try to use some of the same ingredients in all the dishes so I am not going to have to throw away perishable items. Thanks for some more tips.

    Oh, and my favorite piece of advice....find another woman to learn from. I just spent 5 hours at a lady's house yesterday and she taught me new things about cooking and food. We baked bread, tabulah, & granola in 2 hours then just talked about food for the other 3!

    Sorry for the loooooong comment.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Heather! I like comments so I don't care how long they are. :) So you plan out all your meals for the week? Does that take a lot of practice? I imagine I'd have to do that if I was working full time, or if I had any kids.

    I agree that it's good to ask for advice. I'm a learn-it-on-my-own type of person, so taking lessons of any kind is sort of against my nature...a good reminder for me especially.

  5. Hello!

    You don't know me from Adam, and this isn't actually about your entry, but I saw a post that was linked on Simple Organic where you mentioned something about a really good black bean and quinoa veggie burger recipes... and I was intrigued enough to follow the virtual breadcrumb trail here to ask if you might be willing to share it!

    Have a great day,

  6. Hey Aydan! I'm planning to make my veggie burgers again tonight so I can write down what I put in them...I'm not really a recipes sort of person, so I kind of just threw them together last time. I will write up a recipe and put it on my blog...and I'll give you a heads up when it's online. :) Thanks for stopping by! Your blog looks great!

  7. Great blog! I really enjoying eating healthier and more from scratch too. I also enjoyed In Defense of Food (as well as The Omnivore's Dilemma) and I would recommend Real Food by Nina Planck if you are interesting in the science behind a lot of the problems in the food industry and our "western" diet and diseases.
    Thanks again for this info!

  8. Nikki - Great post! I agree with Sarah. We have to have the right priorities and sometimes that means making sacrifices. A lot of times people don't understand the sacrifices you are making and that makes it difficult, but the benefits are so enormous that it is worth it!
    I love your blog! I have just become a follower!
    God Bless you!
    Angela @ Domestic Godliness