by: Rachel Sandhorst, Food Educator & Co-op Member
When I was asked to write an article about healthy eating on a budget, I jumped at the chance. I love to help people experience good food, and I like demonstrating how affordable eating well can be. But I quickly discovered that this topic is not simple or straight-forward. There are many definitions of healthy eating. There are different ideas of how much one should pay for food. And, predictably, most people are looking for a magic bullet solution to eating healthier and spending less.
After much reading, thinking and talking about this subject, the same conclusion keeps popping up – you have to cook. Making homemade meals is not optional in the quest for healthy, inexpensive eating. When you cook your own meals, you have total control over what goes into your food or stays out. One problem with processed foods is that companies add lots of unusual ingredients to their foods – unrecognizable things that will increase the shelf life or add flavor. Ultimately, many of these things make the food less healthy for you (too much salt, sugar, or fat). I try to stay away from foods with ingredients I cannot pronounce or with more than five ingredients – both signs that they aren’t the best foods for me.
Starting with whole foods and turning them into yummy meals is a crucial piece of eating healthy on a budget. I understand that cooking can be overwhelming for many people, not to mention a time consuming endeavor. But in all honesty, this is where you are going to save the most money and eat the best. Compare the cost of a loaf of bread versus making your own bread. Or pizza. Or muffins. Or granola. By making your own hummus, applesauce or popsicles, you are providing healthy foods at a minimal cost. Below I have a list of ideas to help jumpstart your foray into the kitchen. Start small, gradually add more foods to your repertoire and savor the low-cost, healthy meals you are creating.
Also, by buying whole foods (like potatoes), you are not paying for some large corporation to make, package, advertise and ship food all over the country (like frozen tater tots). There is a big difference in price between the two. Not only are the raw ingredients generally cheaper, there are also ways to help cut down the cost of these ingredients in the first place. See the list of tips that follow.
Cook in quantity
Roast a whole chicken and then use the leftovers for chicken enchiladas or a chicken salad. Make a soup or stock out of the carcass.
Be creative with common, less expensive foods by making them special. Dress up yogurt with granola or cut sandwiches into fun shapes. Spice up plain roasted potatoes with chili powder and cumin or put fennel seeds in the ground beef you’re making for spaghetti.
Use What You Buy
I have a black hole in my crisper drawer in the fridge, which sometimes turns green leafy veggies into black soggy compost, something that’s never on the menu. You’d be amazed at how much money you might save by eating what you buy!
Purchase an all-purpose cookbook like How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman or check out cookbooks at the library.
Find the Joy
Find joy in cooking, whether relishing time to yourself or cooking with others. I have participated in Saturday afternoon cook-fests with friends where we each make a quadruple amount of one dish and then share with each other. We have fun cooking together and everyone gets to take home four meals to freeze for later.
Take advantage of modern conveniences in the kitchen. Bread machines, pressure cookers and rice cookers can all help you spend a little less time cooking healthful foods.
Freeze extra soup, muffins or cooked beans. I often buy a three-pound chunk of cheese, grate it all in my food processor and then freeze it in one-cup bags. When you make a certain dish, double the recipe and freeze the rest for a later meal.
Improvise in the kitchen
By doing this, you can substitute economical items for their expensive counterparts. Consider substituting bottled lemon juice for fresh lemons, canned tomatoes for fresh, short grain rice for Arborio rice, canola for olive oil. If broccoli is on the list for the month, compare the fresh broccoli prices with the frozen bag. Most times these substitutions won’t change the overall taste of the dish.
Co-op Cooking Classes
They’re inexpensive and full of great tips.
If you are going to cook more to save money, you have to learn how to shop to save money. Here are a few ideas.
• Stay away from the interior of a conventional grocery store, and do most of your shopping around the perimeter. The interior of the store is filled with processed foods, often overloaded with sugar, salt and fat, not to mention ingredients that don’t even sound like the plants they came from. The perimeter is where you find fruits and vegetables, unprocessed meats, dairy items, and at the Co-op, bulk foods. At the Co-op, you will find nutritious items throughout the store, not just on the perimeter – fresh meats and breads are not necessarily along the perimeter. However, processed items still exist.
• Make a plan. When you set out to do your shopping, take a list along and stick to it. This is one of the most effective ways to stay within your budget. I have had a lot of success with planning my meals in advance and creating my list from that. Of course that takes time and the desire to sit around thinking of future meals. Try to involve others who eat with you. Once you get into the habit, it can actually be fun!
• Take advantage of the many sales promotions. The Co-op offers monthly sales, coupon books and member sales. Additionally, some companies, like Organic Valley, offer their own coupons.
• Plan your meals around the discounted foods. If salsa is on sale in April, that’s the month to make burritos and tacos. Check out the sales and plan accordingly. Sales are also a good chance to practice your substitution skills. Your recipe may call for Gorgonzola cheese, but bleu cheese is on sale. For most people, this substitution is fine.
• Buy in bulk. You can buy the amount you want and save on hidden packaging and advertising costs. There are many everyday items found in the bulk section – nut butters, pastas, rices, dried beans, granolas and snacks. Spices are the most economical food to buy in bulk. The bulk section can be a bit overwhelming for some people but please don’t be afraid to ask for advice. After one or two times in the bulk section, you’ll be a pro.
• Buy in quantity. You can buy most things in the store by the case or bag and receive a discount. This includes everything from 12 cans of canned tomatoes to 25 pounds of flour. I buy a three-pound box of raisins, fill up a jar and keep the rest in the freezer until we need them.
Just the other day I read an article about Jamie Oliver. I guess he’s trying to shake his Naked Chef moniker, but I’ll always think of him that way. Now Oliver is trying to make his name known in other ways, namely, reinventing the way we eat. He has a new reality TV show coming out in March called Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. Oliver travels to West Virginia and attempts to change the way people eat. He says on his website: “The time is right for people to rediscover the sense of pride, satisfaction and fun you can get from cooking for the people you love… I want to prove that turning around the epidemic of obesity and bad health doesn’t have to be boring or dull in the slightest.”
I hope you find your way into the kitchen and start or rekindle a fun, healthy relationship with food that you create yourself.
6 cups flaked or rolled grains (try some quinoa flakes found in the bulk section for something different!)
1 tsp. salt
1 – 1 ½ cups chopped nuts (walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds)
1 cup raisins (or other dried fruit mixture)
¼ cup ground flax seeds
½ cup canola oil
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
½ cup honey
1 Tbs. ground cinnamon
¼ cup maple syrup
Preheat oven to 300°. Toss the dry ingredients but not the raisins together, then add the oil and sweetener and toss again to coat them thoroughly. Spread the mixture on two sheet pans and bake until golden, turning every 10 minutes so that it browns evenly. When done, after about 30 minutes, add the raisins and let cool. As the granola cools, it will lose its stickiness and become crunchy. Store in a tightly covered jar.
½ cup oil
1/3 cup vinegar (balsamic, white wine vinegar)
2 tsp. sugar (1 tsp. honey)
½ tsp. dry oregano
½ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. dry mustard (or 1 tsp. prepared dijon mustard)
salt and pepper – to taste
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
optional: ¼ tsp. celery seed, 2 T. Parmesan, red wine to replace some of the vinegar, ginger instead of garlic
Mix all ingredients together in jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake to mix thoroughly.