Tag Archives: cooking

budget considerations for healthy eating

4 Aug

A friend of mine shared the link to this article about the higher costs of healthy eating. It is true that some dietary habits are more expensive than others, and that processed foods (especially things like hot dogs or boxed pasta with sauce) are very cheap indeed. But there are some ways to eat healthfully and save your dollars. Those techniques usually involve investing some time in planning and food preparation. Here are some of my best ideas for saving money while eating healthfully.

Plan.

Planning your meals helps in a lot of ways, but the most fundamental is this: every piece of food that you have to throw out because it’s gone bad in the fridge is money down the drain. I am as guilty of this as anyone, but I’m making an effort to improve my planning to avoid it.

You can avoid wasting food by planning out your meals (dinners, at least, but all three meals and snacks if you are very organized). That way, you have everything you need for a recipe, but you don’t have a lot of extra things that won’t be needed. You can also plan so that you use up partial containers or bunches: for example, if you’re planning Mexican food on Tuesday, and you know that you won’t use the whole bundle of cilantro, plan to eat Thai curry on Thursday to use up the rest.

Planning also helps you to fit in the prep work you need. If you’re going to eat bean soup, for example, you can plan ahead and put your beans in the slow cooker the night before–it will save you money, because dried beans are cheaper than canned, but it will also cut down on the sodium in your finished meal, and it will taste better (in my opinion, anyway).

You’re often paying for the preparation, not the ingredients, when you buy healthy processed foods (or even unhealthy ones, for that matter). Choose the foods that you really want to buy, like a particular soup that you love and won’t give up, and learn to make the other things you buy from scratch. Restaurants are the same: you pay a lot more for your meal than you would if you made it yourself. Consider how often you eat outside the home when you’re contemplating your grocery budget and think about whether you might do better to make it an occasional treat, if you’re in the habit of going out often. I adore restaurants but try to limit visiting them, both for budgetary and health reasons.

Eat what’s in season.

That might sound confusing or difficult, but it’s really not; what it generally means is, buy the produce that’s cheapest. There will still be some things that are pricey (in my area, for example, you’re never going to see a truly cheap avocado), but a peach that costs 3.99/lb most of the year might cost 1.50/lb when it’s in season.

If you go to a farmer’s market or have a local produce farm or stand, you can usually get an even better idea of what’s in season, and it’s going to be even more delicious (the other big benefit of shopping seasonally).

Use less expensive proteins.

My vision of the ideal diet includes a fair bit of protein, because I seem to do better eating it on a regular basis. But we don’t eat much red meat; I try to focus on more affordable and healthful protein foods. (Full disclosure on this budget discussion: my parents raise Angus cattle, so we have access to free, ethically raised beef. We don’t eat a lot of it, regardless.)

Beans are an excellent source of protein and a very healthful food. I am not a huge fan of them, personally, but we eat them regularly anyway, and I’m finding that I like them more when I cook them more. Acquired taste, I guess (or at least acquired tolerance). Roasted chickpeas are a cheap and healthful snack; dal,  black bean soup, or hummus with pita triangles and vegetables are good dinner options, depending on the season.

I try to serve fish on a regular basis, too, because it has so many health benefits. I haven’t figured out a really affordable source for salmon (if you do, let me know!), so we work it in occasionally and that just becomes part of the budget even though it’s pricey, because it’s so very good for you. The same applies for shrimp, which we get at Costco. I recently discovered swai, which is a white fish similar to tilapia; it’s very inexpensive and was quite good. We also eat a lot of flounder, which is cheaper than most fish.

Prepare your own grains.

Whole grain products can be rather expensive (truly whole-grain crackers, just to name one kind of snack food, are usually pricey and sold by the small box or sleeve). But it’s not hard to cook whole grains yourself and that is very cheap. Rice, barley, steel-cut oats–they’re all very affordable if you can make them the basis of a meal. The barley risotto I posted here recently is a healthy dinner and quite cheap. Some whole grains are even high in protein. (The homemade bread that I bake is high enough in protein that my kids could get enough protein without ever eating meat, if we wanted to.)

Readjust your thinking.

Even when you shop carefully, sometimes it’s going to cost more, especially if it’s worth it to you to buy some prepared foods in healthy versions instead of cooking them yourself. (For example, it might be cheaper to make your own hummus or whole-grain bread, but not everyone has the time or inclination to do that!) But think of it this way: in the United States, we spend very little on food, as a percentage of our budgets, compared to the rest of the world.

The money you spend on groceries will come back to you in the form of lower health-care costs, more energy and better general health, and a longer life. It’s worth it to invest a bit in your healthier foods if necessary. And remember that the most expensive foods you can buy are restaurant foods, so eating in is usually going to save you money even if you’re splurging occasionally on fancy cheese or those pricey artichokes that you just couldn’t pass up in the produce section.

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The 100 Days of Real Food Challenge

27 Jul

Just as a disclaimer: I have no intention of embracing 100 days of totally unprocessed food! However, the 100 Days of Real Food website has a wealth of great information, including the guidelines for a 10-day Real Food Challenge. We have houseguests right now, but after their departure, I plan to try the 10-day challenge, just to shake up our habits a bit and give me the extra kick in the pants to look for alternatives to the few highly processed foods that we eat.

This challenge adheres to most of the nutritional ideas that I think are most important; it’s heavily based on the writings of Michael Pollan. Essentially, you eat what you can make yourself. If you buy convenience foods, you avoid the highly-processed ones and look for those that have few (and recognizable) ingredients. She emphasizes local foods, too, which I think is a nice ideal but not necessary for good health. If you can do it, great.

The best parts of the site, though, are the sections with recipes and meal plans and the list of “mini-pledges”–small steps you can take, either permanently or temporarily, to improve the healthfulness and sustainability of your diet. Check it out and get some ideas!

Finally, one last word about this: I think that it can be inspiring to read this kind of thing, but don’t get discouraged if it’s not totally for you. You don’t have to embrace the whole set of rules to make your diet better. I know that we’re very unlikely to give up flavored yogurt in this house, for example. It does have some sugar in it, but my kids love it and it’s high in protein. We just buy the healthiest kind we can find and limit it to a cup a day. If there are things in your life you’re not willing to give up, just find the ideas on the site that DO work for you.

useful breakdown on sweeteners

21 Mar

While I do not follow the Traditional Foods way of eating (and have to confess that I think some of the tenets are a bit loony), I think Nourished Kitchen has some very interesting stuff. These two analyses of the different kinds of sweeteners are particularly useful.

If you’re not familiar with Traditional Foods, you can find an overview at Nourished Kitchen. Essentially, though, eating the Traditional Foods way means not eating anything your ancestors wouldn’t have eaten–including unsprouted, unsoaked grains; sugars; and processed foods. TF adherents also ferment a lot of their food. Since they don’t eat much sugar, there is a lot to be learned from the TF materials for people trying to reduce their consumption of processed sugars!

This post describes modern sweeteners, which include sugar (white and brown), agave nectar, and high-fructose corn syrup, as well as artificial sweeteners.

This post describes some traditional alternatives, such as honey, molasses, maple syrup, and sorghum. It also covers stevia, a noncaloric sweet herb. Personally, I don’t like the idea of stevia (or its taste). Any herb traditionally used for contraception seems a bit suspect to me as a sweetener for food! And I am also a bit skeptical that traditionally processed cane sugar is any better for you than any other cane sugar; it may have a few minerals in it, but it’s still going to wreak havoc on your blood sugar. Nonetheless, I definitely do see a difference in my own glycemic response when I use honey or maple syrup instead of sugar, and I think this is some useful information. Especially if you’re trying to eat low-GI, some of these things may be very useful to you.

favorite cookbooks

17 Feb

A friend recently asked me for recommendations for favorite cookbooks. When I thought it over, these were the ones I reach for most. Some of these are listed in the “Bookshelf” page above, but many are not. I recommend all of these, except for the ones under “Decadent Treats,” as good sources for healthful recipes and cooking ideas.

My absolute favorites:

Julia Child, The Way to Cook. This is an incredible cookbook, with reliable, understandable recipes for all kinds of things. Even though Mastering the Art of French Cooking is more famous–and perhaps for good reason; I love it too–this is the one I use more often. It is also the one that Child herself considered her magnum opus. If you do not know how to cook, and you read this book from cover to cover, you will know how.

The Moosewood Collective, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. I like many of the Moosewood cookbooks, but this one I have used most. The salads are great, and the Risotto with Green Beans and Pesto is amazing. It was the first risotto I ever made and the techniques are described clearly and simply.

Mark Bittman, Food Matters. I could list his collected works, because I also like How to Cook Everything, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and The Best Recipes in the World, but this is the one I use weekly. It has fewer recipes; the bulk of the book is about how to eat in a way that is ecologically sound and good for you. But it’s worth the price just to get the instructions for cooking whole grains and the frittata recipe (which uses only two eggs and a slew of vegetables, and which has become my breakfast staple.)

Baking/bread:
Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. This was a gift from my sister (thanks, sis!) and has gotten constant use since I got it. This is partly because my 2.5-year-old absorbs bread effortlessly, which makes it all the more important that we eat healthful bread. This is whole-grain and, since I’ve made it myself, I know it’s not loaded with any sugar or anything weird. It’s also incredibly cheap to make and takes little time. I can’t even tell you how easy this is. And you will love the results–really, some of the things I’ve made from this book are so good, I can hardly believe they came out of my kitchen, with my crummy oven with no temperature control.

Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders, and Bronwen Godfrey, The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book: A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking. This is a more traditional bread book, which means that the recipes require more work (kneading, whatnot), but it has a wide array of things, including a yummy muffin recipe, good banana bread (or so I’m told–I personally do not eat bananas), very good hamburger buns, etc. If you have a mixer that will knead for you, it’s not too onerous to make the regular yeast breads here, and there are excellent instructions for how to read the dough so that you get good results.

Decadent Treats and Outrageously Unhealthy Party Foods:
Alice Medrich, Bittersweet. This is an entire book about chocolate. It contains stories, personal reflections, and information about chocolate, as well as recipes. I recommend the truffles. But I recommend them for GIVING AWAY, because they are incredible and addictive.

Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl. I’ll be honest: if I hadn’t been reading her blog all along, I would never have read this cookbook, because it’s so popular that I wouldn’t have thought I could like it. But I do. And it has all kinds of indulgent, wonderful recipes for special occasions. The cinnamon rolls, by the way, are fabulous gifts for Christmas.

Finally, it would be remiss to suggest that most of my cooking comes from these books, since I get so many of my recipes from the internet. So, my favorite cooking sites:

Smitten Kitchen. The 44-Clove Garlic Soup alone is reason enough for this blog’s existence–but I have never had a failure with her recipes, and I’ve made a bunch.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks, by Ree Drummond. Many of the recipes here are a little….excessive, shall we say?, but I love to read it and I have gotten some wonderful recipes. My very favorite actually is pretty healthful, which is unusual for Ree’s food: the Asian Noodle Salad, which I’ve made for a number of parties. It’s “licious,” as my son would say. Some of the recipes from the site appear in the cookbook, but of course the site has more. (There are also a few in the book that aren’t on the web site–savvy marketing and all that.)

Steamy Kitchen, by Jaden Hair. I like her Chinese recipes best and plan to cook a lot more of them someday when I replace my stove and can actually heat up a wok.

Book Recommendation: Mark Bittman

11 Jan

You may know Mark Bittman as the author of “How to Cook Everything” and its spinoffs, or as the author of “The Best Recipes in the World.” You should, however, know him as the author of “Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More than 75 Recipes,” a book that is both interesting and useful. Trust me: this book belongs in your kitchen!

Bittman’s project with this book is to outline a way of eating that is both healthful and socially responsible. In his research for this book (and, before that, for changing his own lifestyle), he assembled a compelling body of research for his theory, which is, essentially, that animal products require a lot more resources to produce than plant ones, and that plant foods are better for you.

Rather than advocating going vegan, however, Bittman argues that moderation is the key. He sets forth an eating plan that is heavily plant-based, supplemented with small amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy. He argues that changing the ratios of our meals, so that they are mostly plants with some animal products, works very well to satisfy us while promoting health and good stewardship.  He offers sample meal plans and his own personal approach (he is essentially “vegan before six”–eating almost entirely plant foods for most of the day–and less stringent at dinner, which is a more difficult meal for a self-proclaimed foodie to modify).

And…well…those 75 recipes? They are F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C.  Seriously, these are some good recipes. I have already made several of them and I have only owned this book for three days! All offer excellent health profiles, as well as socially responsible ingredients.

As for how this book relates to PCOS: I feel that women with PCOS have to work a little harder than the average person to stay healthy and maintain a reasonable weight. I also think, based on my own experiences, that reducing processed carbohydrates and other refined foods can help manage PCOS. This book gives excellent suggestions for doing those things, and fits in nicely with a healthful and satisfying culinary lifestyle. I highly recommend it! And if you buy it and cook from it, please comment and let me know which recipes you tried and how you liked them. (For the record, I have tried the basic tomato sauce and the frittata; both were awesome. I’m about to eat his breakfast hot cereal…and it smells great.)