Thursday, June 12, 2008

Eating Well on a Budget?

After promoting CSAs, farmers' markets, local, organic and responsibly produced foods, I think it's only fair to address the fact that many large families have a very difficult time affording this. Joining a CSA would break the budget.

My own family has had our ups and downs-- times when we had very little money to spend on food, and times when we've had more. Once, when the kids were young, it got so bad that we were actually robbing piggy banks and looking under couch cushions for enough money to buy milk. :-) I know what it means to pray for our daily bread.

We had a family of six healthy eaters, with three petite girls who seemed to eat like hard working men! Our one boy was always hungry. And, for a while, we were on a really tight grocery budget. This wasn't easy for me. I loved to cook, and I wanted to cook really great food, but I didn't have the know-how to pull it off on a tight budget, so I had to put that aside.

It meant eating too many casseroles made with awful canned creamed soups. We ate far too many loaves of cheap, tasteless, $1 whole wheat bread. It was unthinkable to pay the lavish price for butter, so I resorted to margarine (something I would now find a way around). Our vegetables were often frozen. We rationed fruit (and most foods) to make it last as long as we could. We certainly didn't go hungry, and we made cookies and brownies and other treats, but we didn't eat nearly as well as I think we could have.

When my husband began to grow a vegetable and berry garden (organic), it was a big help, and we were in heaven. I loved sending the kids out to the garden to pick salad ingredients, or other vegetables, for dinner. Mike grew the best strawberries I can ever remember eating. And blueberries, too. We had plenty of produce (not a huge variety), and it was delicious. Mike grew everything from seed (in already great soil), so gardening was really a budget saver. (Read The $64 Tomato for a different, humorous, spin on gardening!)

Gradually, I've been able to spend more money on food. I've also become more educated as to nutrition and eating well, and I know I could do a much better job on that tight budget today than I did when my children were young. It would still be difficult, and compromises would have to be made, but it would be nice to have been armed with more know-how back then.

Stacy brought up something in comments that I think is an unusual way of thinking nowadays. She said that she's trying to figure out where to cut costs so that she can increase her grocery budget. Most people are doing the opposite. They're going to great lengths to increasingly cut back their food budget. I've seen blogs where women have discussed frugal tips for eating, and while I think that spending money wisely is important, I sometimes think they are making unnecessary, unhealthy, even unwise choices. Maybe the emphasis is in the wrong place. Honestly, I like Stacy's attitude more.

I read that in France, more than 1/3 of a family's income is spent on food. It's that important to them. They don't consider cutting their food budget. It's a priority, and its unthinkable to compromise in this important area. Obviously, when a family spends 1/3 of their income on food, less is being spent elsewhere. Maybe that's how we should think of approaching food, too.

Eating good food is so important. It's an investment in family life and health. Food is a gift from God, but sometimes what we eat has been so refined, processed, added to, and tampered with, that it can't even be called food! I think, whatever it takes, we need to get away from this and go back to real food. It's worth making good food a priority.

Cooking is a creative art. It can be simple. Pure. Artful. Appreciate good food more. Maybe, in many cases, it's just a matter of priorities.

And I will accept that sometimes it isn't. Sometimes, we really do have to make many, many compromises to get by. In this case, too, we should eat joyfully and with gratitude. A meal, no matter how humble, when made with love, is delicious!

I think I'd like to try writing a post that discusses ways to eat on a budget without compromising quality (or at least making as few compromises as possible). I don't consider myself an expert in the kitchen, and I certainly don't consider myself a particularly wonderful frugal tipster, but I might have a few thoughts or ideas that could help. So, that will be coming right away. (And maybe some of you will have some ideas to add to mine.)

Happy eating!