Eating Affordably

This is a topic I’ve been struggling with ever since I started paying for my own food a few years ago. When I was a kid we would sacrifice new clothes to help us pay for organic food, which, in a way, made sense: healthy bodies are a much more valuable investment than almost anything you could spend your money on. The only reason this is an issue, however, is because of the curious fact that a very healthy diet is often seen as prohibitively expensive. This is not just due to the emergence of Whole Foods (sourly nicknamed Whole Paycheck by those who compare it with conventional supermarkets); even the little co-ops and health food stores of the past 25 years have always been somewhat costly. I think that there are a variety of reasons for this situation. There is a smaller market for organic, locally grown food, than there is for conventional food. A few major consolidated food companies still dominate what Americans eat – and this dominance enables them to sell food at lower prices. But perhaps more importantly, by virtue of the same manufacturing and processing shortcuts that decrease the quality of the food and differentiate the food from organic food – for example, stuffing thousands of chickens or cows in a big shed rather than giving them space to roam around, or growing mass quantities of one crop in the same place year after year, or cramming snack foods with ingredients made from heavily subsidized crops like soy, corn, and wheat – these companies can charge a lot less. Using technology to diminish the amount of labor required is not necessarily bad, in my opinion, except in those cases where the nutritional value of the food – i.e. the very thing for the sake of which we’re eating it in the first place, so that we can survive – is sacrificed.

Proponents of especially expensive health-food diets like the raw food diet (which certainly isn’t locally grown and advocates exotic health foods like raw cacao, goji berries, noni juice, algae, reishi mushrooms, and other foods that would probably not be sustainable if we were all to eat them) say essentially that you should just suck it up and absorb the price because it’s worth it (Whole Foods reps have been known to say something similar). I don’t believe this is the answer. Ironically, once upon a time, the healthy food choices were those available to the poor. Processing rice to make it white, for example, was a privilege the rich could afford, but not the poor (I’m particularly fond of the scene in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai where the besieged peasants are described as so poor they can’t even eat rice – they have to eat millet. Yes, millet – that delicious whole grain I was just recommending for summer eating a few pages ago). Common workers were more likely to be strong and healthy (until they finally deteriorated from backbreaking labor, of course), while the royal family was susceptible to being weak, frail, and wasting away at an early age – despite, or because of, their access to whatever food they wanted.

Now, however, the poor are more likely to be found at McDonald’s, buying cases of coca-cola, junk food, candy, and generally suffering from diabetes, obesity, and a host of other health problems. And others of us – like the many college grads who subscribe to this newsletter – aren’t that bad off, but still can’t go to the health food store and just buy whatever we want. Nevertheless, we don’t want to cash in our health if we can help it. I am of the opinion, personally, that it will not always be like this. The rate of growth of the organic and health-food industries suggest that the time will come when Americans demand reasonably priced health food and the government subsidies will be readjusted so that you can buy an organic cantaloupe for less than a Snickers bar.

So, as I said, I’ve been working on this issue for a few years now – so what do I do to eat affordably? My general schema is a refrain that is going to sound familiar if you read this newsletter a lot. Some of the advice, though, may seem surprising. As for the format in which it will be presented, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go with something I always considered fairly…hackneyed. Yes, you are about to hear my “Top 5 Tips” for eating inexpensively. Oh my god. Well, let’s just move on and get it over with. One caveat, though: unless you are really trying to spend as little as possible, you don’t need to totally adopt these suggestions – just try to follow them when you can, and you will end up saving more. If you really would like to drastically cut your food bill down but still continue to eat healthy, delicious, filling meals, send me an email and I’ll get more specific with you. I usually help people plan this kind of thing out over time in my program, but nevertheless I’ll try to be as detailed as I can without turning this article into War and Peace.

1. Eat whole foods. Didn’t I say something about this last time? Yes, but that was just for your health. Now it’s for your savings. It turns out that the foods that are the best value are vegetables, whole grains, and beans (in bulk). Part of the reason for this is that they take more preparation, though with a little practice you can introduce these foods into your diet without introducing a lot of extra cooking time into your day. I’ll give one example – oatmeal vs. boxed cereal. Organic oatmeal is about .90¢ a pound. A pound of a boxed cereal like Kashi’s heart-to-heart cheerios is about $3.00. I won’t even mention how oatmeal is so much better for you. Now, you do have to take about five minutes to prepare it and wash the pot afterwards. It might be worth it, though, if you knew you were also cutting your food bill by two thirds. The exception here is fruit – it can be ridiculously expensive. Having some of it in your diet every day is a good idea, especially in the summer, but you only need a little. Stick with what’s in season because it will usually be the cheapest.

2. Eat three meals a day. Now let’s talk about some of the most expensive food in the store (and when I say most expensive, I mean cost divided by nutritional value + quantity of healthful calories): snack food. Yes, we all love snack food…I admit it…sometimes I go to the store and just want to buy nothing but snack food because I feel like I’ve been deprived of it for so long. So I do, but then after two days suddenly I need to go shopping again – and I think, What happened to all that food? Oh yeah…I snacked on it. Well, of course. That’s what it’s for. But snack food is really what happens when you missed a meal, or you’re doing something you don’t want to do, or you’re not doing anything and feel somewhat bored, or you’re too tired to prepare something. But the idea of snack food is not that it’s really supposed to satisfy you. The food you get at the rest stop is only supposed to get you to the next rest stop. If you arrange your life so that you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at specific times each day and have enough at each meal to help you last until the next one, not only will you save a ton of money but you might even lose some weight as well, if that’s what you’re interested in. And don’t hesitate to eat all the food you want during those meals – just don’t eat between them.

3. Pack a lunch. Eating out is just simply much more expensive than making your own food. That’s not to say that I never do it, but for me doing so is largely a social occasion – the food I make myself usually tastes better. When you make dinner, I suggest making enough to have the leftovers for lunch the next day. You’ll be amazed at how much extra money you save just by coming prepared.

4. Make one trip to the store per week. From my own personal experience, I know that every time I go shopping for food I pick up something that is not on my list, not something I really need, and is something that will probably make me feel slightly sick later. Yeah. What works for me in solving this problem is making a list ahead of time of everything I’ll need plus a little, just so I don’t run out. If you get into a habit of spending fifty dollars every time you go to the store, whether you need more food or not, that can be a problem. And if you do run out of food before the end of the week, well, many health gurus are huge advocates of fasting. (That’s mostly a joke. Fasting can be good sometimes, but I don’t recommend starving yourself to save money).

5. Eat balanced meals. Many people spend a lot on food because of daily cravings. An obvious example is the wild success of Starbucks. The truth is that if the food you eat, or the events in your life, do not satisfy you, you’ll be looking for additional sustenance. When I talk about eating three meals a day, make sure that there is enough food to fill you up! Many dieters go hungry because they don’t get enough healthy sources of fat in their diets; the same thing happens to junk food vegetarians. Some people buy a lot of food because they’re using it to make themselves feel better about something that’s not food-related (what am I saying, some people? Everyone does this. Especially the health counselor). But when I say “balanced meals,” I mean it’s not enough to have a certain volume of food, but also to ensure that you have variety – enough protein, carbohydrates and fat (especially fat – it’s filling and good for you. I suggest olive oil, sesame oil, avocados, organic animal fat (butter, milk, cheese, eggs, meat), fish and fish oil, coconut oil, nuts and seeds, peanut butter, etc. Not margarine, and not trans fats (see: anything that says “partially hydrogenated.”)). Other ways of balancing the meal: taste (salt, sour, sweet, pungent, bitter – this goes back to the 5 element system listed above) and color.

As I said above, you do not need to follow all these different tips rigorously – just see if one or two of them work for you, and let me know how it goes.