Sunday, October 7, 2012

Can You Eat Healthy With $1...

Can You Eat Healthy for $1 a Meal?

I am a big advocate of eating organic fruits and vegetables as well as animal products like meat, eggs and cheese that are organic and pasture raised all while doing your best to source these foods as close to home from small farmers when possible.  I realize this is a lot to ask largely because this type of food is more expensive than the mass-produced and conventionally grown/raised foods.

While I will argue we pay less in the long-term because when you eat locally/organically you are likely healthier thus greatly minimizing health care costs, boosting the local economy and reducing your carbon footprint (lower shipping costs and small farming practices are more efficient and environmentally friendly) but I will stick with the immediate impact on your pocketbook.

Is it possible to eat nutritious food and do it on a tight budget?

The real inspiration behind this article is a documentary film called Food Stamped.

In the documentary filmmakers attempt to eat a healthy diet on a food-stamp budget, which amounts to $1 per person, per meal. With a great deal of planning and preparation, the filmmakers were able to succeed on the food stamp budget for one week, but in the end they were incapable of getting enough calories and would have likely lost weight and become malnourished had the diet continued (which neither of them needed to do).

The film makes it easy to see why many Americans with tight budgets and limited access to fresh produce opt for the cheapest, most filling options for food, like white bread, fast-food hamburgers and noodles, but also makes it clear the devastating toll this type of diet takes on your health.  Many of you may remember the documentary Super-Size Me in which the filmmaker undertook a similar challenge by choosing to eat exclusively fast food and the implications this had on his health (not good!).

While some Americans may opt for fast-food or junk food because it’s actually the only way they can afford a meal, many others – the majority – purchase it by choice, as junk food is convenient, for the most part affordable and also created to appeal to your taste buds.  I think we all know that quick service food is not the best option regardless of the cost.  But less well known is if people are willing to spend 7 dollars a pound for pasture raised chicken versus 3-4 dollars a pound for the conventional alternative?

At one time I was young struggling reporter but I understood the importance of eating nutritious food so I made it a priority.  I didn’t go to movies, eat out or stop at Starbucks; most of my discretionary income was devoted to purchasing nutritious food.  I skimped in other areas but not on the quality of my food.  This is probably the most important advice I can give you if money is tight but you still want to eat healthy.  If your prioritize it you can make it happen.
That said I am going to dig a little deeper and provide a few practical tips that will allow you to stretch your food dollars a little father.

1.     Identify a Person to Prepare Meals. Someone has to invest some time in the kitchen. It will be necessary for you, your spouse, or perhaps someone in your family (kids?) to prepare the meals.

2.     Become resourceful: This is an area where your parents or grandparents can be a wealth of information, as how to use up every morsel of food and stretch out a good meal was common knowledge to generations past. Seek to get back to the basics of cooking – using the bones from a roast chicken to make stock for a pot of soup, extending a Sunday roast to use for weekday dinners, learning how to make hearty stews from inexpensive cuts of meat, using up leftovers and so on.

3.     Plan your meals: If you fail to plan you are planning to fail. This is essential, as you will need to be prepared for mealtimes in advance to be successful. Ideally this will involve scouting out your local farmer's markets for in-season produce that is priced to sell, and planning your meals accordingly, but you can also use this same premise with supermarket sales.  You can generally plan a week of meals at a time, make sure you have all ingredients necessary on hand, and then do any prep work you can ahead of time so that dinner is easy to prepare if you're short on time in the evenings. It is no mystery that you will be eating lunch around noon every day so rather than rely on fast food at work, before you go to bed make a plan as to what you are going to take to work the next day. This is simple strategy that will let you eat healthier, especially if you take healthy food from home in to work.

4.     Avoid food waste: According to a study published in the journal PloS One, [1] Americans waste an estimated 1,400 calories of food per person, each and every day. The two steps above will help you to mitigate food waste in your home.

5.     Buy organic animal foods. The most important foods to buy organic are animal, not vegetable, products (meat, eggs, butter, etc.), because animal foods tend to concentrate pesticides in higher amounts. If you cannot afford to buy all of your food organic, opt for organic animal foods first.

6.     Keep costs down on grass-fed beef. Pasture-finished beef is far healthier than grain-fed beef. To keep costs down, look for inexpensive roasts or ground meat. You may also save money by buying an entire side of beef (or splitting one with two or three other families), if you have enough freezer space to store it.

7.     Buy in bulk when non-perishable items go on sale. If you are fortunate to live near a buyer's club or a co-op, you may also be able to take advantage of buying by the pound from bins, saving both you and the supplier the cost of expensive packaging.

8.     Make going to the farmer's market a priority. You may be surprised to find out that by going directly to the source you can get amazingly healthy, locally grown, organic food for less than you can find at your supermarket. This gives you the best of both worlds: food that is grown near to you, cutting down on its carbon footprint and giving you optimal freshness, as well as grown without chemicals, genetically modified seeds, and other potential toxins.

Above I noted that buying organic is more important for animal products than produce.  But there are certain fruits and vegetables that I highly recommend you buy organically.  On the flip side there are certain conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that are considered clean to eat.  You can access these lists at the below link:

Another factor in stretching your food dollars is learning the fine art of extending the life of your fresh produce. Many fruits and vegetables produce ethylene gas, a colorless, odorless gas, as they begin to ripen. Some foods aren't affected much by ethylene gas, while others are extremely sensitive to it.

When these sensitive fruits and vegetables come in contact with ethylene gas, they began to ripen at a much faster rate than normal. This leads to premature rotting and a shorter shelf life. This is why you should never store salad staples like mushrooms and peppers with lettuce. The ethylene from the mushrooms and peppers will rot the lettuce faster.

But with some strategic storage, you can extend the shelf life of your fresh fruits and vegetables. The ethylene-producing foods below should never be stored in the same basket, drawer, or shelf as the ethylene-sensitive foods listed. Store foods on the top list separate from foods on the bottom list to help your fresh food last longer.

Ethylene-Producing Produce
      citrus fruit
      green onions
      passion fruit
Ethylene-Sensitive Produce
      brussel sprouts
      green beans
      sweet potatoes

Food for Thought

While doing research for this article I ran across a program that Wal-Mart is featuring in the state of Maryland.  Wal-Mart associates, will help shoppers learn to compare unit prices, purchase fruits and vegetables on a budget, read food labels, and pick out whole grains. After the tour, participants will apply the skills they’ve learned to buy ingredients to make a healthy meal for a family of four, for under $10.  I thought this was a pretty interesting idea and could serve as a fun challenge to try in your home.  Who can make the best tasting and most nutritious meal for under $10?

Scary Thought

A recent report from financial services firm Rabobank estimated that consumer spending on food away from home will overtake spending on food at home by 2018, with quick serves being one of the primary beneficiaries. [2]

Extra Credit
14 ways to save money on groceries:


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