Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Eating Well For as Little Money as Possible...

(Be sure to read comments in the posts below. There are some really good ones. And there are one or two who have posted their own thoughts and lists at their blogs. If you do this, be sure to let us know!)

This is a difficult list to write. It's just my list, reflecting my values and priorities and is not at all intended to be some kind of food doctrine for everyone or anyone. We all try to live within the bounds of what we think is important. And what I consider important for eating well is not always inexpensive. Real food, fresh food, delicious food is not always easy to find in this modern food culture where things are processed, refined, and altered to a degree that many people have no idea what honest, good food tastes like anymore.

To give just one example, cream, which sours fairly quickly (a week), is commercially altered (ultrapasteurized) to the point it can have a shelf life of months. The healthy bacteria has been destroyed so that the cream will not spoil. Real, raw, fresh cream is yellowy and sweet. Processed cream is shockingly white and waxy in comparison. Everything living, which is much of what is good, has been removed from many foods in order to increase its "lifespan" (an ironic choice of words).

Produce that has been picked, often before it is ripe, and is then refrigerated and shipped long distances, has lost much of its freshness, taste, and nutritional value long before it reaches the grocery store shelves and then your table. Anyone who has had a juicy tomato or peach that was picked when perfectly ripe and ready to eat, knows how truly wonderful fresh food can taste. Produce that has been harvested within a day or two of eating (and always very best if it can be picked from a garden just beforehand) tastes infinitely superior to anything that can be bought in a supermarket. Nutritional value wanes considerably, too, with early picking and long transport. Not much flavor in your food? Then there's probably little nutritional value.

I guess the thing basic thing I would recommend is to pay what you need to pay (or can pay) for as much real, high-quality food you can afford, and try to do this in a way that saves you the most money.

This will require an investment of time, but it is time well spent. We are so used to running to the store, grabbing what we need from the shelves, stocking our fridge and cupboards, and cooking at dinner time. It's fast. It's easy. And it's not the optimum way to eat! We think of our grandparents, who put a lot of time into food growth, gathering, preparation, and storage, and we're so often thankful that it doesn't have to take that much time anymore. But I think, in many ways, we've exchanged ease for things that are of more value.

We can really only do our best. We have to buy what we can afford, and sometimes that means we won't be able to do some of the things that matter to us. Buying organic food is generally more expensive. Eating whole, real, unprocessed food is usually more expensive, too. We cut corners where we can, stretch where we can, and offer our family the most delicious and most nutritious foods possible.

So, the following list is not always about saving money in comparison to what can be bought in a supermarket. It's about eating well for as little as possible. Do what you want with this. Do what you can for your family's sake. And many people will not agree that any of this is necessary. I don't at all mean to argue with them. I'm writing this for people to whom this matters, so here is a list of some things that I try to do. You'll have your own way, and you're welcome to share any thoughts or ideas of your own:

1. Keep it simple. When I cook, I like to make simple foods. I don't like to cook recipes with long lists of ingredients or complicated, time-consuming cooking techniques, so I flip through my cookbooks looking for very simple ideas for my food. If you have good ingredients, you don't need to do much at all to them to make them delicious. A fresh, ripe tomato is good all by itself or with a little shake of salt or sprinkle basalmic dressing. Take it as far as you want from there, with the addition of some slivered basil and maybe some mozzarella, but the tomato can be left alone and will still be delicious. Fresh greens taste delicious and need only to be lightly rubbed with an easy vinaigrette, or wilted in a little bit of garlicky oil and sprinkled with lemon juice. You don't need long, elaborate recipes (unless you want them) when you have really great ingredients. Buy the best ingredients you can find. You will save a lot of money and reduce waste.

2. Eat foods in their natural seasons. In-season eating is something I've been working toward for a while. I wait for berry season to enjoy fresh berries (or I eat them frozen-- and it's much better if I've frozen my own). The incomparably sweet and delicious Oregon strawberry has a shelf life of only about one day, so the berries need to go almost directly from the field to jam-making or the freezer, but make sure to enjoy at least one dessert with those fresh berries-- a shortcake or strawberry-topped cheesecake or something-- or just eat them fresh! The early-picked, well-traveled strawberry that sits on supermarket shelves tastes like cotton candy after having eaten a truly fresh and delicious berry. Other than buying cherry tomatoes occasionally in the off-season (they're often fine to use), I buy organic canned tomatoes (Muir Glen brand is good) until fresh tomatoes are in season and delicious again. I wait for them. I look forward to them. And corn comes along then, too, so I make corn and tomato salads with basil, kalamata, lemon juice, and fresh goat cheese (my favorite). And when tomato and corn season is over, I sigh and wait until the next year to enjoy them again. But then we're moving into fall and winter, and we'll have apples and nuts, citrus fruits, pomegranates, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, parsnips and turnips, and cold weather greens. Eating these in season brings out their optimum flavor, and there are many ways to prepare these foods to keep one busy in the kitchen all winter long. When we eat in season, it's fun to look forward to our favorite foods of the coming seasons. Restraint increases pleasure. :-)

The nice thing about eating truly fresh and ripe produce is that not much needs to be done to it to make it wonderful. Scrape out of season corn off the cob and it tastes starchy and bland. Scrape fresh-picked, in-season corn from the cob and it is sweet and tender and delicious even without cooking. A bland, out of season or grocery store-bought peach needs special doctoring, and can really only be made into something like a cobbler or a crisp, but a fresh, ripe, juicy peach has a sweetness and heavenly taste that wants to be left alone or barely enhanced. Finding perfect produce takes more time and effort than taking it from grocery store shelves, and it might cost more, but it's more nutritious and requires fewer ingredients to make it enjoyable, in that case, saving both calories and money. (I have to add that I will occasionally find tasty fruit and other produce in the grocery store, but it still doesn't compare to what is fresher and more local.)

Eating foods in their natural seasons saves money because it is usually this very food that is on sale in the stores. There is much of it, so the price goes down. You both save money and benefit from much greater nutrition when you eat in season.

3. The freshest food is going to be local food, but eating entirely locally has its real difficulties and challenges. I eat as much local produce as I can, but I live in the high desert where the growing season is short, where nights are cool, even in summer, and where we would need to learn some serious foraging secrets to survive a winter (the native Americans did it, so it can be done, but we don't eat that way anymore). In the desert, there is a limited number of things that grow well, so I extend my "local" range to reach into the warm valleys of Oregon where berries and fruits, and all kinds of wonderful varieties of produce grow in abundance. To eat entirely locally, means I will not have citrus or many of the fragrant spices I use in cooking. I don't intend to pursue local eating to the point that I will do without my beloved lemons and spices, but I do try to buy as much local food as I can. It's fresher and better. So, I join my CSA or visit the farmers' market. And in the summer, I like to cross the mountains to the strawberry and blueberry fields to pick enough berries to load my freezer for winter.

Other things I buy locally-- raw goat and cow's milk, eggs from a pastured hen, honey (raw honey from a local seller is full of good enzymes and costs considerably less than the jarred honey in the store), meat (if I can), and more. If you can find a small grower or producer of these items (or a friend who has chickens), you'll pay considerably less for them than if you were to buy them in a natural foods store. Sometimes even farmers' markets charge a lot for these items.

4. Go to farms and fields to pick your own produce whenever you can. Take the kids! Or grow a garden yourself. Again, fresh-picked food is the most delicious and most nutritious, so if you visit u-pick farms, you can stock your freezer, make preserves, or do some canning with food that is at its absolute, most flavorful and nutritious peak. You can also go out into nature and forage for food-- berries, mushrooms, wild greens, etc. (I haven't done much of this, but it's getting more common.) All winter long, you will be so thankful you canned and stocked your freezer! You can freeze just about anything, so get your hands on large amounts of good produce when it is in season, and you'll have wonderful food to draw from in the leaner seasons. And the cost of picking your own berries, or other foods, in the fields and then freezing them is significantly less than buying frozen berries in the store.

5. Eat less (or no) meat.
I probably don't need to elaborate, and I'm certainly not going to make this a discussion of the virtues of eating or not eating meat! Meat is expensive. If you do serve meat, it helps cut costs significantly to stretch it. In Asia, meat is incorporated into stir-fries and rice dishes. In other places, it is made into curries or stews. It's not uncommon in America to find a big slab of meat taking up a large portion of the plate. To save money, avoid this. Don't make meat the center of the meal. Or cut it out altogether. Vegetarian meals are delicious and filling, and I think it's good for everyone, no matter how much they like to eat meat, to go meatless at least occasionally.

6. Eat less food period. Americans overeat. We eat and eat and eat. But of course a growing boy needs his food... :-) We need to provide enough good food, enough filling food, enough nutritious food, to take good care of our families. But I think we can cut back significantly on the sheer amount of food we eat. Eat more slowly. Eat together. Eat high-quality food, take your time, and really enjoy that food and the company that shares your table. Low fat diets have made us hungrier, and it's pretty accepted now that it's not specifically low fat that we need for good health. Fats are filling and are needed for good health. Eating more good fat makes one feel fuller and satisfied for longer. It provides needed calories, too, so we can eat less and not lose unnecessary weight.

7. Plan. This can be specific or general. It helps some people to plan very specifically, in detail. Meals plans are made for the week, and a grocery list is created. Sticking to this list (and buying nothing else) really can help save a lot of money. I did this for years, and it worked wonderfully well for us. But you must stick to the plan, or food and money can be wasted. The tighter the budget, though, the less likely it is we'll drop something from the meal plan-- there's just nothing else to eat! :-) Currently, my planning takes place around my CSA pickup. I'll see the list of foods we'll be getting, and I'll decide how we'll be eating that food. This is fun and it makes planning easy. Same thing if you have a garden or visit a farmers' market. You pick or buy what's ripe and plan your eating around that.

8. Buy in bulk. Compare the price per pound (or is it ounce?) of spices in the little bottles that are lined up on grocery store shelves and the spices in bulk. You will be shocked at the difference! The same goes for many other things. Find a store that has a busy, quick-moving bulk section (for best freshness), and save a lot of money.

9. Garden if you can (even if it's just a few herbs in pots in your window). Keep the gardening simple. Start things from seed. You can save some money by growing your own food thoughtfully, and you will definitely benefit from a sense of accomplishment, the beauty of your garden, and the fresh, nutritious food you'll harvest. Growing your own herbs is nice and reduces waste. In an herb garden, you just go out and snip what you need. If you buy herbs at the store, it's easy to waste part of what you get. Plus the freshness and aroma of snipping your own herbs is so nice!

10. Stretch your food. Use it up. Combine expensive more expensive foods and ingredients with those that are less expensive. Try to never waste (I still occasionally waste an uncomfortable amount of food). Plan around what's left in the refrigerator. Be disciplined. Throwing out food is throwing out money.