Spring – Time to Grow!

The weather has been unbelievable. I think we skipped the harsh winter months and got a head start on spring. And now it’s like early summer around here. I’ve found myself still too warm in a tank, shorts and flops more than once this week. The garden is growing and I’m adding more plants each week. The tomatoes I planted a week and a half ago – are already flowering.

I’m planting mostly food, but some flowers too. We have a small lot and last year I had decided there was only enough room for edibles. Unfortunately, it occured to me later in the summer that a few more flowers would’ve attracted more beneficial insects. (I had to hand pollinate my zuchininis and pumpkins.) And pretty flowers are nice to look at.

This year I have decided that I’ll have a few more flowers and I want a little more than food from my gardens. I want them to add a little natural beauty to my yard. I’ve found quite a bit of inspiration for neat ways to label plants using old stuff like wire hangers, wood scraps and small bamboo stakes. I’ve just been too busy planting the last couple of weeks. I just can’t seem to pry myself from tending to the gardens. My farmers’ market trips aren’t solely about buying food  ready to eat. I look forward to see what transplants are available each week. I’ve got a total of seven tomato plants so far. Fennel seeds are sown. There are carrots, countless herbs, garlic, spring onions, garlic chives, lettuces, beets, peas, kale, spinach, blueberries and raspberries and a few surprises (some kind of squash, pumpkins or maybe melons). Volunteer seedlings are popping up anywhere I mix in my compost. I’ll let a few of them go to see what grows. I hope we don’t have a late cold snap!

I do already feel the effects of the mild winter. Critters are everywhere. Literally. I come inside and have to inspect myself for hitch-hiking pests. I usually find at least one of these:

And my plants are all under attack. I found this huge snail in my garden. He looked like he could do some damage, so I had to relocate him – probably permanently. So sorry little guy. I have to admit that the small act of killing critters foraging for food sheerly for their own survival, does make me think twice before killing even the tiniest insects. Laugh if you must. I wish there was enough food in my garden to go around, but a seedling is no match for a slug or a snail or catepillar. My beet seedlings get devoured by something the day they emerge. If I could just get them to wait a little while… they’ll be enough for them too. Me and the snail hung out for a bit while I decided what to do. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, so I put him in the trash bin. There is plenty of food in there. If he makes it out, well then kudos for him.

Last year I sowed only five pea plants. All but two of them were hacked by cutworms. We never had enough to make a side dish and usually opened the pods and ate them straight from the garden. This year I planted twelve. One of my food discoveries in this journey is that I don’t hate peas after all. I just don’t like the stinky ones you get in a can at the grocery store. Frozen or fresh peas are a staple now. I’m excited and hopeful about fresh peas! I may try and grow fava beans too, if cutworms thin out my peas again this year.

I’m looking forward to long, warm lazy days.  I’ve made a kind of bucket list for the spring and summer.

I hope I get to take a nap in a hammock (have to get one first).

I’m looking forward to outdoor dinners with amazing food, amazing people and laughter and smiles and candles and pretty table settings.

I hope I don’t get too caught up in the day to day details and I find time to do all the d-i-y art and garden projects I have planned.

I want to eat a meal made almost entirely with ingredients from my own back yard.

I want to swap and share homegrown and homemade food.

I want to can tomatoes, at least enough to last through the winter. I’ve planted seven tomato plants so far, and plan to get three more varieties.

I want to freeze some homegrown veggies, like peas and squash and peppers, so that I can have a taste of homegrown veggies in the dead of winter, when I’m craving springtime.

And those are just a few things I can think of at the moment.

Grandma’s Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler

Grandma was right. This is definitely “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”. I don’t recall ever eating this cobbler made by Grandma. She lived out of state and we didn’t get to spend much time together. Maybe twice a year when I was growing up. Even less when I grew up and had a family of my own.  She passed away a few months ago. But my Grandma was something special. She wasn’t stuffy and prudish. Nor was she soft and gentle. But she was warm and fun. She was known to enjoy a couple of beers and she loved to play cards… and smile and laugh. She was in a bowling league for decades into her ripe old age. She was a ‘people person’. I will always remember her smiling, singing and dancing around. And if she wasn’t doing any of that, she was humming. Always. While she worked on her crossword puzzles. Or even when she was just strolling around the room, with one hand planted firmly on her hip. She was a ‘lefty’, and I swear there is just something special about lefties. I do miss her.

I stumbled across her recipe for apple cobbler a week ago. And what do you know? It’s apple season and I had a ton of them in the refrigerator. This apple cobbler was meant to be.

What I love about the recipe (besides that it’s damn good)  is the simplicity. It’s so quick and easy that you could be eating it within an hour of starting the recipe. And it only contains staple ingredients you would find in most kitchens. You don’t need any baking powder (something I frequently forget to restock) or corn starch. It’s just apples, a little lemon juice, sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, eggs and butter. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter because I wanted to taste her apple cobbler. I only needed about 6 apples since mine were fairly large and I used the juice from one not so juicy lemon, which may have been more like 1 1/2 tbs. Her recipe also calls for “oleo”, which makes this recipe even more charming to me. Oleo is an old-fashioned term used sometimes for butter or oil, but usually for margarine. I used real butter.

I should also say that technically, this may be more of a “crumble” than a cobbler, just in case you are looking for a true cobbler recipe. I thought it was a little bit unusual that there was an egg in the topping. Most recipes only call for butter, flour and sugar in the dough. The egg though, is what gave it the extra crunch that I loved so much. I also love that the apple “filling” is just apples and a little lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. No milk or water to make it soupy. No flour to thicken it. No added sugar to sweeten it. Just apples!  (I say to you with both hands in the air! Do you know how happy this simple detail makes me?) I wouldn’t use Granny Smith or cooking apples for this recipe. It would probably end up too tart and too dry. But if that’s all you have then just add maybe a 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water or juice to the apples. They may also need just a few more minutes in the oven to get them nice and soft. I almost always prefer to use regular eating apples and cut back on the refined sugar in any recipe. I used mostly Golden Delicious and a few Pink Ladies that I bought from Matthews Community Farmers’ Market (my favorite source for locally grown food).

I’m not sure if any of you actually care about the quality of the ingredients that I use. But I have a feeling some of you might. So from now on I’m going to put my first choice for ingredients first and then, in parenthesis the more common substitute in a sort of sliding scale. If I use organic, obviously the regular stuff will work in it’s place. I won’t bore you with every detail on each ingredient, but I’ll share this with you instead. Most of my produce and the little bit of meat we consume comes from the Matthews Community Farmers Market. Everything is grown or raised within 50 miles and the produce is either USDA Organic, organically grown (without the costly USDA certification) or grown with minimal amounts of the safest pesticides or chemicals possible to save crops from complete devastation; and the animals are all raised on pasture. I am confident that this is true because these farmers and vendors feel as passionately about real, unadulterated food as I do. Some of them are members and supporters of Slow Food. The vendors and the patrons all care about things like sustainable farming and the humane treatment of animals. If they didn’t, they’d be selling at another farmers market. This is the best farmers market in the Charlotte/Matthews area, I assure you. Also I usually buy organic when it comes to these big three:  corn, soy and wheat products – to avoid controversial genetically modified food (GMO’s). I wouldn’t be as worried about these, IF they weren’t in the majority of the products found in grocery stores (in one form or another). So here we go:

Mabel’s “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler”

  • 8-10 local, organic apples, peeled and sliced (mine were not organic, but no detectable residues were found on the fruit upon testing, obviously commercial organic or regular apples can be used)
  • 1 Tbs. organic lemon juice (non-organic is probably okay when it comes to citrus juice)
  • 1 c. organic evaporated cane juice  (I used 3/4 cup since my apples were sweet and because I always try recipes with 1/4 to 1/3 less sugar at first. 3/4 cup was enough for our taste. Organic sugar or regular sugar works fine.)
  • 1 c. King Arthur’s organic all-purpose flour (Local and organic is better if you can find it. Hoffner Organic Farms has some, but regular flour will work, whole wheat flour is probably okay too)
  • 1 tsp. organic cinnamon (non-organic cinnamon will do)
  • dash of real sea salt (any sea salt or regular table salt)
  • 1 local, pastured egg, beaten (organic, cage free or free range or regular eggs will work)
  • 4 tbs. oleo (butter), melted (I used Kerrygold unsalted, which is pastured, but imported from Ireland. Organic butter or ordinary butter will work.)

Method:

Pour lemon juice over apples. Mix dry ingredients and egg until crumbly. Sprinkle over apples in 5 x 9 baking dish (a 9″ square pan worked just fine for me). Drizzle with the melted butter. Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes. “You can use peaches instead of apples if desired.”  (I’ll remember that when peaches are in season!)

Fall Food

Less than a week until Autumn. This is a bitter sweet time of year for me. I love the festivities – the new school year, Halloween and Thanksgiving, festivals or outings planned nearly every weekend, farm tours, pumpkin patches and then carvings, warm, spicy apple cider, football, slightly cooler weather… But the cold, the darkness and the lack of fresh produce are only a couple months away now. There is less variety at the farmers market and some vendors appear to be taking time off – much needed I’m sure, and well deserved. Or maybe it’s the lack of produce and the need to plant fall and winter crops.

Spaghetti squash was my “something new” for this week.

I didn’t think the two small, yellow ones from the farmers market would be enough, so I bought another one from the grocery store. There was little difference in taste.

This is a great low carb alternative to regular pasta. We were all skeptical, but once we started eating it was easy to forget that it was squash and not noodles of some sort. We topped it with a leftover meat sauce, sliced Italian sausage from Grateful Growers, Parmesan and parsley. Linsey even asked for seconds. London wouldn’t touch it (as usual).

Now that the weather is cooling off I find myself craving warm herbal teas. I had never thought to put rosemary in tea, and can’t remember where I got the idea, but I should have known. I love rosemary in everything else. And now I love it in tea. It’s so good for you. So’s mint. I made an herbal infusion of white tea with mint, rosemary and stevia. Sadly my mint isn’t doing well (which is a bit weird since it’s supposed to be so hardy, sometimes even invasive). Or maybe I just need to leave it alone for awhile. But this tea was so comforting.

I steeped the mint, stevia and rosemary first, until it cooled completely. Then I warmed it again and let the tea steep for a couple of minutes. Di-vine. I grew my own chamomile in the spring. It wasn’t very hardy and I only managed to dry enough buds for one cup of tea. I was surprised how much they smelled like apples. And that’s the flavor they impart in tea. I’m feeling inspired. There’s an herbal tea garden in my future – one with stevia, violets, lemon thyme, lemon verbena, more chamomile, mint and rosemary. Maybe jasmine and lavender.

Another highlight of fall – chestnuts! One of my favorite foods of all time. And my dear, sweet, very generous mother hooked me up! I’m feeling a bit gluttonous at the moment. Good thing they are so nutritious and low in calories compared to other nuts. Walnuts, for instance, have about four times the calories as chestnuts. There are about 170 calories in 100 grams of chestnuts. Chestnuts have more fiber, less fat and are loaded with vitamin C.  In fact, eating 3 ounces will supply you with almost half the daily recommendation. They’re also a good source of vitamin B, copper, folate, magnesium and manganese.

^^The girls sharing an after school snack – warm chestnuts.

I also find myself craving Korean food lately. I’ve been watching the Kimchi Chronicles on PBS. This show makes my mouth water. Also makes me want to visit my mother’s home land. One day…

^^Somen noodles cooked in chicken broth, garlic and green onions with turnip kimchi.

^^ Mandu soup again with chicken broth, garlic and green onions. Also fried egg and toasted seaweed.

Stevia – A Safe Sweetener?

I’ve heard of stevia and it’s refined cousins “Truvia”, “PureVia” and “Stevia Extract in the Raw”. But because there is some controversy over it, I lumped it in with the artificial sweeteners – Nutrasweet, Equal and Sweet’n Low and even with another natural sweetener, agave nectar, and just decided to avoid it. I lost all interest when I found out that Truvia was developed by Coca-Cola and Cargill and that Pepsico had their hands in PureVia.

Then last Saturday I sampled a stevia leaf and was quite surprised. It is pretty amazing how sweet it was. Definitely not what I was expecting. The sweet flavor even lingered in my mouth, as you would expect with any herb. I was intrigued, so I bought a few stems to experiment with.

How does it taste (fresh leaves)? The first time I used it I added about four whole leaves to my cup of green tea. I bruised the leaves with my spoon against the side of my cup then let it steep for about five minutes. I was unimpressed. Not that sweet. Next I decided to chop the leaves finely. I also used about three times as many leaves. Big difference. The tea actually increased in sweetness the longer it steeps. By the time I got to the last few sips it was actually too sweet. Some say there is a licorice taste to it, but I didn’t get that at all. It tastes similar to artificial sweetener, which was a slight turn off for me. However, if it’s a safe natural sweetener, I could get used to it.

Is it safe? Most of the controversy appears to be centered around the commercial sweeteners Truvia, PureVia and Stevia Extract in the Raw. The way I understand it, the refining process used to produce these commercial brands is what’s wrong with them – as is the case with nearly all other refined foods and additives, especially sweeteners. They have extracted something called “rebiana” (a.k.a. Reb-A) from the leaf and so they aren’t really stevia, the way high fructose corn syrup isn’t really corn. They are also blended with erythritol, a sugar alcohol (in fact Truvia has more erythritol than rebiana), maltodextrin or dextrose, cellulose powder (huh?) and “natural flavors”. I would also be weary of it’s use in prepackaged foods (which we’ll be seeing more often according to this article). More than likely food manufacturers will be using a refined mixture similar to Truvia, PureVia and Stevia Extract in the Raw.

On the other hand, the whole leaf from the actual stevia plant (fresh or dried) appears to be safe. (Whole foods usually are.)  Stevia (a.k.a. “sweet leaf” or “sugar leaf”) is a plant that’s been around for centuries. There have even been some studies that have shown it may improve glucose absorption (good for blood sugar) and may reduce hypertension. In fact diabetes and high blood pressure often occur together, especially in over weight individuals, and are risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome.  (See my previous post about it here.) If you use an artificial sweetener like the ones I mentioned earlier, this is definitely a better alternative.

How do you use it and where can I get it? I would stay away from the PureVia, Truvia and Stevia Extract in the Raw. You can make your own stevia extract by soaking lots of fresh or dried leaves in grain alcohol (like Everclear) for about a month, or even water (but less effective and less sweet). Dried leaves have more intense sweetness and can be ground into a powder. The whole, fresh leaves (I recommend mincing them first), the extract, dried leaves and powder can all be used as sugar substitutes, but since it can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar you will only need to use a small fraction of it. Click here for a stevia conversion chart. You would probably find the dried leaves at a health food market or a specialty store. Or you can grow the plant yourself. That’s what I plan to do.

My first attempt at "Stevia Concentrate", a/k/a really, really strong, super concentrated stevia tea. Easy. Steeped for about 10 minutes in hot, not boiling water. Tastes better than it looks.

My Two Cents About Metabolic Syndrome

The Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 75 million Americans suffer from Metabolic Syndrome. That adds up to roughly 1 in 4 individuals. And the prevalence is increasing significantly for adults and adolescents. Metabolic Syndrome increases risks for diabetes, heart disease and strokes. The Standard American Diet, which is high in carbohydrates and high glycemic foods (especially refined sugar) and low in nutrient dense foods (especially fruits and vegetables) is likely a major cause.

Metabolic Syndrome, if I understand correctly, is the bodies failure to metabolize food properly due to cell damage from eating too many unhealthy, high carb, high glycemic foods and from a generally unhealthy lifestyle. Cells become damaged and unable to absorb glucose which causes a rise in blood sugar. Insulin is the hormone that essentially allows cells to absorb glucose. The pancreas goes into overdrive and produces more insulin to compensate. The increased insulin affects the body’s ability to burn fat and can cause weight gain and obesity. The increased triglycerides (fat) in the blood stream cause arterial plaque to form. As a result arteries harden and narrow and that leads to hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart disease. Eventually cells become insulin resistant and the body stops producing it (Type 2 Diabetes).

Here are the risk factors according to the National Institute of Health:

  • A large waistline. This also is called abdominal obesity or “having an apple shape.” Excess fat in the abdominal area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat in other parts of the body, such as on the hips.
  • A high triglyceride level (or you’re on medicine to treat high triglycerides). Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood. A low HDL cholesterol level (or you’re on medicine to treat low HDL cholesterol). HDL sometimes is called “good” cholesterol. This is because it helps remove cholesterol from your arteries. A low HDL cholesterol level raises your risk for heart disease.
  • High blood pressure (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood pressure). Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage your heart and lead to plaque buildup.
  • High fasting blood sugar (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood sugar). Mildly high blood sugar may be an early sign of diabetes.

What is interesting to me is that the disease is most common in people who are overweight. However, if you have it, then losing weight becomes more difficult. I sympathize with individuals who try really hard to lose weight. They exercise more, eat better, but still they struggle to lose a pound. It may help to shift the focus away from the scale and place it on health instead. Learn to eat more nutrient dense foods – foods high in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids, fiber – rich with  antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties.  Understand that even if you aren’t losing weight, you are repairing your body. Once it’s working like a well oiled machine again, the pounds should come off. Don’t despair and don’t give up.

Here’s a list of some high carb/high glycemic foods to avoid:

  • soft drinks and other sugary beverages and foods
  • honey
  • refined grains (white bread, white rice)
  • potatoes (excluding sweet potatoes)
  • watermelon, pineapple and cantaloupe (Uh, oh!)
  • dried dates
  • over ripe bananas
  • broad beans (What? It’s true.)
  • baked beans
  • parsnips
  • cakes, cookies, doughnuts (duh)
  • pretzels, saltine crackers, chips
  • popcorn
  • pasta
  • cold cereals and cereal bars
  • beer
  • orange juice

It’s probably not necessary to eliminate these foods completely, but rather consume them in moderation. And when you do eat them, pair them with foods that have a low glycemic index, like fats and proteins. (Fats like olive oil, real butter, coconut oil are all good.) Also eat those high glycemic foods in their whole form whenever possible, i.e baked or mashed potatoes with the skin along with some butter (fat) and a dollop of plain Greek yogurt (protein). Switch to whole grains instead of refined ones – whole wheat bread, brown rice, etc.

Here’s a list of some nutrient dense super foods you should try to incorporate into your diet:

  • green tea
  • strawberries
  • blueberries
  • cherries
  • peaches
  • dried apricots
  • pomegranate
  • cranberries
  • tomatoes
  • kale
  • broccoli
  • spinach
  • avocado
  • garlic
  • onions
  • spices like cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, oregano, rosemary, cayenne
  • lentils
  • kidney beans and black beans
  • chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • quinoa
  • nuts like almonds, walnuts, cashews, pistachios and Brazil nut
  • mushrooms like maitakes, shitakes, cremini and portabello
  • Greek yogurt (plain, or sweetened with low glycemic fruit)
  • cottage cheese
  • seafood rich in Omega 3’s, like salmon

DISCAIMER: You should talk your doctor if you think this may be what’s preventing you from losing weight. This is just my $0.02 about Metabolic Syndrome!

When Two Seasons Collide on a Plate

August might just be the best month for food (at least here in my region). There are still some tomatoes and summer squash on the vines. Some herbs and leafy greens are perking up again thanks to cooler temperatures. A few peaches and cantaloupes are left.  And now the first of the winter squash is being harvested. You can never really get bored when eating seasonally. Something new is always cropping up at the farmers market (or in the garden). And when two seasons collide on a plate, it’s a culinary dream. This week I have been successfully keeping things seasonal and simple. I don’t think I spent more than an hour on a single meal this week. (Well maybe the gnocchi, but that was my fault. Keep reading.) I cooked in bulk, made use of leftovers and kept recipes simple.

On Sunday we had chilli made with browned ground pork and cooked beans straight out of the freezer and tomatoes that had already been pureed and canned. (Why do they call it canning, if you put it in a jar?) All I had to do was chop some onions, peppers and herbs and throw it in a pot with my precooked beans and ground pork and a little seasoning. I did make cornbread from scratch (adding jalapenos and frozen corn for more yum).

“Meatless Monday” consisted of a stir-fry with seasonal veggies and shiitakes served with brown rice (cooked a double batch) and the best thing I’ve eaten in awhile: grilled okra. The simple recipe came from a friend. (Thanks Nisa!) I washed and dried the whole okra then tossed it in olive oil, salt and pepper. I skewered it, then grilled it on medium high heat for about 2 minutes on each side. So simple and delicious – it blew my mind. I thought I hated slimy okra. Now I can’t wait to get some more at the farmers market tomorrow! Revisiting foods you thought you hated, only to discover that you really love them… priceless.

Porkchops were on the menu Tuesday. I could eat vegetarian nearly every day, but after a Meatless Monday the rest of the family was ready for something meaty. I used my favorite pork chop recipe. I browned them, then let them braise in their own juices and some red wine, garlic and rosemary. They braised for two hours, but I wasn’t in the kitchen for that! I also made one of my kids favorite sides, potato wedges (olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper – 25 minutes in a 400 degree oven), and their not-so-favorite sauteed swiss chard (onions, garlic and olive oil). We also had a salad with homemade mustard vinaigrette (olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, honey, rosemary, salt and pepper).

Wednesday we had Baked Delicata Squash with Lime Butter. Delicata is a winter squash that looks kind of like a mini watermelon. I served it with leftover brown rice, lima beans (cooked in a broth made with leftover juices from Monday’s pork chops). We had salad again with homemade avocado mojito dressing (avocado, olive oil, a few tablespoons of Greek yogurt, mint, lime juice and zest, salt and pepper and a little milk to thin it out a bit). I also toasted the seeds from the squash (seasoned with olive oil and chilli powder). We sprinkled them on our salad to add a zesty crunch. The salad dressing was so refreshing and complimented the squash with it’s chilli-lime-butter.

Yesterday we had ricotta gnocchi. I always thought gnocchi was some fancy, technical Italian dish. It was so easy. Well… it should have been. I made it hard by trying to use a piping bag (which was way too small) instead of just rolling it into a thick rope and cutting it like the recipe instructed.  This was the most time consuming recipe of the week, but it can be done quickly if you don’t get in your own way. I used this recipe as a template for the gnocci, but replaced the nutritionally deficient and refined all purpose flour (bleh!) with 1/2 whole wheat flour and 1/2 brown rice flour. This made a dense, yummy gnocchi. But the sauce is what really made it tasty. I chopped and browned half a package of bacon, then removed the bacon bits and added  a couple tablespoons of chopped sage, about two ounces of gorgonzola and aji dulce peppers to the bacon drippings. I let that cook for a minute, then turned off the heat and added some broccoli I had steamed in the microwave and some thawed chopped spinach. When the gnocchi floated to the top of the boiling pasta water, I just tossed them straight into the spinach and broccoli mixture. I topped each plate with the reserved bacon bits. Oh, and I’m giving myself a pat on the back for remembering to double the gnocchi recipe so that I could freeze a batch for later.

Aji Dulce Peppers - Sweet and fruity like habeneros, minus the heat!

Tonight we’ll be finishing off the avocado dressing with our fish tacos (cod seasoned with lime, tequila and chilli powder, served with lettuce, tomato and green onions). And as for lunch, we’ve been enjoying leftovers and sandwiches. We had baked potatoes for lunch one day, which was a big hit with the girls. For breakfast we’ve had Greek yogurt which we flavor ourselves, cereal (not the junky, sugary ones), burritos (eggs, cheese and veggies) and stone ground grits with bacon, goat cheese, kale, tomatoes and onions (not those quick cooking southern style grits – mine are more like risotto and could easily be served for dinner). I’ve been snacking on another one of my seasonal favorites – goat cheese stuffed figs. They don’t have a lot of flavor on their own, but I’ve found that marinating them in a little bit of balsamic vinegar for just few minutes really brings out their flavor. I add a tiny bit of goat cheese and some walnuts then drizzle them with a little honey. Yum. So sad that fig season seems to be winding down. The balsamic marinated figs are also a great addition to salad.

Healthy Food Doesn’t Cost More. It Costs Whatever You Want It To.

I’m beginning to think that the cost of eating healthy is just another excuse used to defend apathy and poor eating habits in America. As a matter of fact, I’d even venture to say that, in general, around the world, including here in America,  the middle and upper class actually have poorer eating habits than those less fortunate. Those eating for survival and nourishment know how to find (and grow or raise)  inexpensive, nutrient dense foods. Eating healthy only costs as much as you want it to. EVERYONE can afford it.

The trick is to seek out foods that are nutrient dense and economical. Get the most for your money – whether you shop at the farmers markets (so doable, with a little common sense and practice) or a large discount super store. When it comes to produce, buy in season. Food is cheaper, more nutritious and tastes better when it’s in season. Don’t forget frozen fruits and vegetables, which are picked and frozen at the peak of their season and usually less expensive than fresh produce. Check the reduced section of your produce department for some really great bargains. If you can get there mid morning, you’ll find the best deals. Broccoli, peas, leafy greens, sweet peppers, squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, cabbage, lettuce,  berries, bananas, peaches, plums, apples, citrus are all affordable (in fact, usually on sale when they are in season). When they are out of season, your budget (and your taste buds) will take the hit.

Buy less meat and refined carbs and buy more beans! Dried beans are the most under rated, most economical, nutrient dense food money can buy. They can easily be served as a main protein at a meal. They are so versatile and easy to prepare – it’s plain crazy. Why Americans don’t eat more beans is beyond me.  Meat and refined carbs, on the other hand, are the least economical foods you can buy and too much of either is not good for you. Buy less and buy better quality. I don’t mean buy expensive cuts of steak or lamb. In fact I suggest very little red meat at all. Pork is a less expensive red meat choice. What I mean by better quality is pastured, grass fed, free range, organic, natural… whatever you can afford. But stick with cheaper cuts or ground meat if you are on a budget. Whole chicken is very inexpensive. You can easily learn to butcher it yourself. As for refined carbs, avoid them entirely. Instead eat small amounts of whole grain versions of pasta and bread. Make them from scratch (especially the sweet stuff) whenever possible. I’ve found recipes that are simple and delicious as well as some time consuming, artisan quality recipes. Cooking from scratch is the easiest way to self regulate consumption. The things that take the longest are usually the ones you should eat less often.

Buy less dairy and when you do buy it, don’t short change yourself by buying fat free or low fat. You pay the same amount either way, but since you are eating less meat, you can use that fat. Rich, full fat dairy products like whole milk and real butter are more satiating and less processed than their watery counterparts. The mantra is the same – buy less, but better quality. Choose more flavorful, protein rich varieties. A little bit of strong cheese goes a long way – sharp cheddar, Parmesan, goat cheese, blue cheese. Save even more by shredding your own cheese. $10 may seem like a lot for a unimpressive  block of Parmigiano-Reggiano, but it will probably last two or three weeks (at least). Cottage cheese is a little milder, but has a ton of protein and is very inexpensive. You can find ways to add it to just about any meal to increase the protein – something else you’ll need more of if you are cutting meat consumption. Greek yogurt is another nutrient dense dairy product that is not only high in protein, but also good for your gut. It’s the easiest way to get a daily dose of probiotics.

Don’t waste money on processed junk foods like breakfast cereals and pastries, snack bars, chips, crackers, sweets, sugary yogurts, boxed meals, frozen dinners, soft drinks (diet or regular), sugary “juice”  and koolaid. There are very little nutrients left in them that your body can actually use and they do more harm than good. VERY EXPENSIVE when you consider you aren’t really feeding your body anything nourishing.

Will work for food! Grow your own. Duh. This is by far the best way to get clean, fresh, local, in season food. Start small if this seems too daunting or you don’t have much space to work with. At least grow your own herbs. My garden is my favorite place to “shop”. Barely puts a dent in my food budget.

The other important point I want to make is this: be frugal. Make the most of ingredients. Use every part and everything that you buy. I am guilty of spending at least an extra $20 to $40 on food that we don’t need. It either gets wasted or it gets waist-ed (usually the latter). I now realize that it’s better to go shopping again if I run out of food, than it is to force feed the surplus to my family or throw it away. Be smart about what you buy and how much you buy. Americans typically consume too many calories anyway (in case you haven’t noticed.) Make stocks with scraps. Stretch expensive foods, especially meats and cheeses. Again save some money and do the work yourself. Cook from scratch. Make your own salad dressings (mind-blowingly easy) and sauces. Add beans often. Hummus (made from chickpeas) is cheap and easy to make, yet rich in protein.

“I don’t have time” is another excuse I just don’t get. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time to make a tasty, nutritious meal. It only takes as much time as you are willing to spend. There are tons of books and websites to get inspiration from. You can easily substitute fresh, more wholesome ingredients. Take a more “rustic” approach to cooking. Less knife work (big chunky ingredients), simple ingredients and cooking methods, no fancy presentation. Slow cookers are a good way to save time. This book – Make It Fast, Cook It Slow – is an amazing book full of delicious, easy recipes. (Thanks Monica!) Cooking gets easier the more you do it, so dive in.

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