A friend asked me to share my thoughts about about healthy chemical-free foods on a budget. The saying “Time is money” is true. Eating healthy on a budget takes time and effort to plan. But it is worth it. It’s an investment in your health! Here are a few things that I’ve learned along the way. My personal goals have been to eat mostly organic, local produce and humanely raised meat. I try to support small independent businesses and reduce as much waste as possible. This may or may not fall in line with your personal beliefs, but I hope that you will still find some tips useful.
I like to cook. This skill alone will save you a lot of money. If you don’t like to cook give it a shot. Have fun with it! Pick a recipe that’s relatively simple with ingredients that you like. Start with a soup perhaps. Check out these tips to get you started.
Plan your meals: Pick a few recipes that you want to make. Make a shopping list and stick to that so you’re not buying a lot of what you don’t need. Map out ingredients for your dishes as well as healthy snacks for the week.
The Dirty Dozen: Buying organic is expensive. It’s worth it, but it gets costly. Follow the Dirty Dozen list if you don’t have the resources to always buy organic. Focus your funds on avoiding most contaminated produce. Visit your local farmer’s market! They have wonderful produce and while it may not be certified organic many farms have low pesticide management programs. It can actually be less expensive than shopping in the super market. My favorite one is in Copley Square on Tuesdays and Fridays from 11:00AM - 6:00PM
Eggs from pasture raised chickens: It’s a small luxury at about $6/dozen. The taste and texture of these eggs will be different and the chickens were allowed to roam freely to eat and do what chickens do. If you’re not able to swing it here’s a resource to at help you make a cost-conscious decision. We can’t necessarily believe what labels say at face value. Your pennies are precious so you don’t want to waste them on fake “natural” and “organic” products.
Buy from the bulk section: This way you’re just buying what you need. It allows you to try different beans, grains,spices without having to commit to a whole pound or bottle of something that you might not like and never use again. If you’re trying a new recipe, make a list of what you need and head to the bulk section of the market to purchase your ingredients. This way spices will be only a few cents. Cooking with dry beans is also much less expensive than canned. The Harvest Co-op, Cambridge Naturals, and some Whole Foods have large bulk spice sections.
Seafood: If you can buy fresh seafood at the farmer’s market it’s wonderful. This fish is fresher and less expensive than the market. But it’s still not cheap. Frozen shrimp and fish are less expensive options. The texture tends to be firmer but if you thaw slowly and marinate it, it will be fine. Wild Sockeye salmon is the way to go. I’ve seen it at Trader Joe’s in the freezer section. They have nicely packed sizes so you can just get as much as you need. Seafood also has it’s own safety list. Here is a guide to help you find the best seafood options.
Read labels: This is a big one. Look at the ingredients, sugar, sodium, etc. content. If it has a long list of chemical sounding ingredients, “natural” and “artificial” flavors, corn syrup, and colors put it down. Your body doesn’t need it. Look for a cleaner option or take it as a challenge to make it yourself! I’ve even made dark chocolate peanut butter cups in a mini muffin tin. It can be done and they were fabulous! You can make anything by yourself!
Prepare breakfast the night before: Anything you eat at home will be healthier than what you grab on the way to the office. It will also save you money! I stay away from instant oatmeal packets as they have and excessive amount of sugar. If I’m in the mood for a hot cereal I’ll measure out plain oats (or buckwheat, quinoa, etc) in a bowl then add mix-ins such as dried fruit, cinnamon, nuts, or seeds then soak in almond or hemp seed milk over night. In the morning I just warm it a up a bit and I’m good to go. A large canister of plain oats is less expensive per serving than the instant packets AND there’s less packaging waste.
Make eggs. They cook quickly are a great source of protein and will keep you full. You can soft or hard boil eggs the night before. In the morning drizzle with a little bit of olive oil, salt, smoked paprika. Make a veggie frittata and have a piece for breakfast or lunch.
Make almond butter pancakes and freeze them. Pop them in the toaster to heat during the week. Almond butter can be pricey so you can just get what you need for the recipe from the freshly ground bulk machines. It usually ends up being 1/3 of the price of a whole jar.
Home made granola is amazing. It’s expensive to buy but so easy to make! You already have the oats and mix-ins from your oatmeal. Your pantry is already stocked! See how easy it’s becoming?
Fill your thermos of coffee/tea at home: This could easily save you $15-20 a week. If you’re a coffee drinker I like a french press because you won’t have to buy filters and it’s easy to clean. Again head to the bulk section. You can just buy what you need and grind the beans in the store. This way you can also get organic, fair trade, rainforest-protected beans. A box of tea is far less expensive than ordering out and you can control the quality. I like Numi for teabags and Rishi for loose leaf.
Brown bag your lunch: You could easily save $50 a week when you bring your own lunch. When you cook save left overs or make a double batch for lunch. If you have time, make a few dishes so that you’ll have some variety. Many single people tell me it’s hard to cook for one. But that just means you’ll have more leftovers for lunch throughout the week! If you think you’ll get tired of it, freeze it in serving size portions. Then you’re set for the future.
Ditch the dressing. Salad dressings are so easy to make. I’m pretty sure you’ll have ingredients in your pantry already, primarily oil and vinegar, Dijon mustard if you want to get fancy. Sometimes all you need is a squirt of lemon juice, salt and pepper to dress your greens. A simple salad: slice a head of romaine lettuce in half length wise. Sear the cut side in a pan with olive oil until it gets brown and wilted. Then dress just dress with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Lettuce is sweet when it’s cooked!
Make your own hummus. It’s easy and really just requires a can of beans, oil, garlic. You can use this as side to roasted veggies or as a dip for an afternoon snack. If you invest in a jar of Tahini you can also make these wonderful chocolate chip cookies (cut the sugar in half).
Home made soup stock: It’s easier to make than you think. Save veggie scraps in a bag in the freezer. When you have a nice mix bring to a boil then simmer in water for 30 minutes. You can also save the Parmesan cheese rinds and add them to the veggie stock. It adds a nice savory salty nutty flavor. This stock can be used for stir fries, sauces, and soups. In a separate bag save bones for making a bone broth. Both will be more nutritious and flavorful than store bought broths and are essentially free and made from left overs.
Reduce sweetener by 1/2 when baking: Most recipes use far too much sweetener. I always cut the amount by half. Your goodies will taste just fine. You won’t even miss the other half.
BPA Free: Stop wasting your money on buying water. Plastic water bottles are one of the worst things for the environment and the planet. Invest in a good filter and re-usable water bottle. This also goes for canned goods. Check to make sure the labels says “BPA Free Lining” on your canned beans and tomatoes.
Raw Honey: Once it’s heated and filtered all of the good antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties are lost. Local honey is good for allergies as well. I use it sparingly. When I have a sore throat I make an equal part mix of raw honey and coconut oil and it’s very soothing. My favorite is Golden Rule Honey. It can be found online or at Cambridge Naturals or the season Downtown Crossing holiday market.
The general idea is to multi-task your ingredients. Why buy dressing when you already have oil and vinegar? Why buy granola when you already have oats, nuts,dried fruit and cinnamon for your oatmeal? Why buy soup stock when you have veggie scraps in your freezer? You don’t have to follow recipes exactly. Modify based on the ingredients you have on hand so you won’t have to buy expensive ingredients that you use only once and may not like. Play around and experiment! There are a million recipes for anything on the internet. Google away. I remember the old days of sitting down at my kitchen table and sifting through cook books! There is so much conflicting information out there. Do your own research and make decisions that make sense to you!
Here are a few books that I’ve found informative.
American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood - Paul Greenberg
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life - Barbara Kingsolver
City Farm: The Education of an Urban Farmer - Novella Carpenter
Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimal Health - Jo Robinson
Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis - Rowan Jacobson
Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land - Kurt Timmermeister