June 16, 2012

Eight Ways to Make Healthy Eating Affordable.

They got the nickname for a reason.

If eating healthy, organic food is important to you, the sky’s the limit in terms of cost.

Looking for a $25 pink Himalayan sea salt? You’ll find it. $10 hydroponic watercress? Check. But most of us are trying to balance healthy eating and silly things like…oh, paying our mortgages! Healthy eating has become synonymous with expensive food in our country. In fact, this is a frequent reason people site for not being able to eat healthy food.

I remember seeing an overweight homeless man as a child and wondering (innocently) to my mother, “If he doesn’t have much money, how come he’s fat?” I’m sure it embarrassed her, but I was baffled.

Now I get it.

The cheapest food in this country is usually highly-processed crap. You would think that it would make sense, given the shambles of our health care system, that we would make more of an effort to make healthy food accessible to people—but that’s another blog altogether.

If healthy food choices are important to you, here are eight ways to make them work on any budget:

1. Get to know the “dirty dozen” and the “clean 15.”

I would love to buy exclusively organic food, but financially, it’s unrealistic. As far as fruits and vegetables go, Environmental Working Group’s guides are a great starting point. If it’s on that dirty dozen list and I want it—I buy organic.

If it made the clean 15 list:

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Avocado
  5. Asparagus
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Mangoes
  8. Eggplant
  9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cabbage
  12. Watermelon
  13. Sweet potatoes
  14. Grapefruit
  15. Mushrooms

I’m a little more flexible, and would buy organic only if it was a good deal. Pesticides are the only consideration here, and certainly there are other concerns with some of these items, which brings me to number two.

2. Think local and seasonal.

I love my farmers’ market. It’s as much a social event as it is about shopping, but if you are smart and go for what you need (instead of just fun extras like local salsas or cookies) it can help budget-wise as well.

The bonus here is that your local farmer may not bother to go through all of the hoops necessary for organic certification, but you can often talk to him or her about the growing methods, any pesticides—and get great tips on how to use vegetables you may not have tried before. (Fiddlehead ferns. Wow. If you’ve never tried them, I highly recommend them!)

3. Say no to boxes as much as possible.

Besides the issue of excessive packaging, if it’s in a box, it’s going to cost you—financially and nutritionally. Okay, I have kids and I’m not a total meanie, so we do buy some eco and organic packaged snacks. I’m picky on this front. If the item in question contains more than two types of sweetener, it doesn’t really matter if they are agave, or honey or “organic cane sugar,” it’s probably something you don’t want to eat often. If you make it yourself you will be getting a higher quality product for less money.

4. Fall in love with the bulk foods aisle.

What’s cuter than a bunch of Mason jars full of quinoa, dried beans and homemade granola? I’m a huge fan of bulk foods.They have less packaging waste, they are less processed and more fun overall. Whole Foods and most local natural foods stores have a bulk section. Plan before you buy and know what you’re buying. Dried beans will last indefinitely, but some nuts and seeds go rancid quickly, especially in warm weather. It’s not a good deal if you end up throwing it away.

5. Do it yourself (or do it with a friend).

Love to cook? Batch cook on a Sunday afternoon instead of buying organic convenience foods. Throw beans in a slow cooker before you leave for work and then freeze them in smaller portions once they’re done. Make tomato sauce, salsa or jam and can it or swap it with a friend. Have a recipe that everyone loves when you bring it to parties? Make enough for two families and ask a friend to do the same and swap.

6. Go meatless whenever possible.

Okay, for many of us, it’s possible all the time. Even if you aren’t vegetarian or vegan, reducing your number of meat meals can have a big impact on your budget as well as your carbon footprint. I think it is wonderful that so many alternatives exist to factory-farmed meats and dairy products, but it is a huge expense. I would also add—don’t load up on meat substitutes. They are often just as expensive and not much healthier.

7. Eat at home.

This one should be obvious. The most recent statistic I found said that Americans eat out and average of four to five times a week. That was entire meals, not just coffee or a snack. Add that in—and try to make healthy restaurant choices instead of fast food—and it’s no wonder we think we can’t afford to eat healthy.

In Righteous Porkchop, Nicolette Hahn Niman discussed how people often balk at the cost of a dozen organic local eggs (which would last for several meals) but spend the same amount—or more—on a coffee beverage that will be gone in a few minutes. Good restaurants are fun and can definitely be part of mindful eating, but homemade meals save you money, are a more appropriate portion-size and, best of all, you know exactly what’s in them. When you make an occasion of eating out, you will appreciate it much more.

8. Keep it simple, sweetie.

Some of the most enjoyable dinners are simple, seasonally-appropriate foods. A thick white bean and kale soup in the winter with homemade bread. A giant “little bit of everything” salad with local wine and cheese in the summer. My kids love dinners where we do a smorgasbord of veggies, fruits, nuts, cheese, hummus and pita bread and they can pick and choose what they want. Talk about fast food! Stir-fried veggies plus rice or quinoa are always a hit too, and usually take half an hour or less to make.

Don’t get caught up in some cultural idea of what dinner is supposed to be. Simple is good.


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