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.

Beans! Beans! They’re Good for Your Heart.

The more you eat them, the more you f…ight disease and signs of aging. Beans are one of nature’s most perfect foods. They are a rich with antioxidants and a good source of folic acid, vitamin B6, magnesium, iron and protein. They can replace meat in a vegetarian or vegan meal. (But be sure to add “good fat” to a meatless meal. Either by cooking drizzling with healthy fats or oils  – coconut oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, olive oil, butter or lard – or incorporate oily foods like avocado, olives or nuts into the meal. Good fats are friends and help the body absorb nutrients. Fats are also good for your brain, skin and hair.) It’s also a good idea to pair beans with brown rice or corn. Each lack one or more proteins, but together they are more complete.  Different types of beans have different health benefits. Oh and if you want to reduce flatulence, soak them over night, sprout them or get yourself some Beano.

brown rice and heritage mixed beans (cooked in homemade chicken stock, onion and garlic) with broccoli and pineapple-mango fruit salad (dressed with fresh squeezed orange juice, cilantro and chive blossoms and topped with avocado)

Beans are versatile and should not be overlooked or considered boring. For me at least, it’s just a matter of (1) taking the plunge and learning to cook them and (2) experimenting with recipes and combinations. Learning to cook with beans is like learning to cook with any other protein – chicken, fish, beef, etc. The possibilities are endless. I’m not sure why so many people turn their noses up to beans and only associate them with vegetarian or vegan eating. They should just be associated with healthy eating. And of course, you don’t have to substitute meat with beans. You can eat them together. I strongly suggest doing that. Yum!!

Here’s another reason to eat more beans – you get more bang for your buck. If the upfront costs of eating healthy is one of the things preventing you from doing so, then eat more beans. If you buy dried beans you can save a ton of money – especially if you buy from bulk bins. I also prefer dried over canned for a few reasons: (1) it’s cheaper (2) the lining in cans frequently contains BPA, a dangerous chemical with more evidence mounting against it every day; (3) canned beans are usually high in sodium; and (4) the texture (more bite, less mush) and taste is superior. That said, I do keep a couple cans of low sodium, organic beans in the pantry for last minute meal ideas. Dried beans take a little more planning.

Once you learn the basics, the rest is just experimental. I suggest soaking for at least 6 hours. They don’t have to soak overnight. Many times I forgot to soak the beans and changed my entire dinner plans before I realized this. As a matter of fact, they don’t have to be soaked at all. But they will have to cook longer and remember, soaking will reduce flatulence later. Your gut will thank you. Cook them in broth (for about an hour if you soaked them, 2 to 2 1/2 hours if you forgot). Tasting one or two beans at different times during cooking can help you get the texture you want. Once they are cooked, you can add whatever you want. As I said the possibilities are endless.  You can even take them out of the cooking stock just before they’re done and finish them in a saute pan with… anything. Use your imagination. I think I’ll try it sauteed with onions, garlic, tomato and basil next time (Italian style). Maybe even some red pepper flake…

The rest of this post is completely unrelated to beans. Just random pictures and words.

For Cinco de Mayo:

Pulled Pork and Goat Cheese Quesadilla (with brown rice and vegetables) - Click on the photo for the recipe.

Chorizo Fajitas with peppers, onions, tomatoes, cheese and plain yogurt.

Suggestion: Buy good quality blocks of cheese and shred or grate it yourself. You'll be amazed at the difference. If you only use prepackaged shredded or grated cheese, you don't know what you're missing. Try it! It's also more cost effective. I give the job of grating and shredding cheese to my kids, who love it. Then I store the excess in a container instead of a bag to prevent sticking. In case you didn't know, cellulose is used in prepackaged shredded cheese to prevent caking.

Mmmm. Refreshing Mojito with fresh mint from my garden.

Grossly malformed strawberries thanks to TruGreen. We won't be eating these. Click on the photo to find out what happened.

African Basil, Red Russian Kale, Spring Onions - All from my garden, used to make an "international omelet" this morning.

African Basil - Pretty enough to be used (and is used) as an ornamental. Heartier in colder weather than other basil, which is why it is sometimes considered a perennial. Taste is described as less minty and more clove like.

Blueberries! Fingers crossed that I get to eat the ripe berries before the birds this year.

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