Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Food Lessons for Hard Times

To hear the economists tell it, times may be getting even worse before they get better. Some people have already been forced to tighten their belts. For others, it's time to think about tightening belts even further. Still, there's a silver lining to these austere developments: Less consumption by us humans is better for the planet. It might even prompt people to start thinking of ways they can consume more wisely and tread lighter in the process.

For those of you looking for ways to eat smarter for less, here are some thoughts accumulated over the last two years writing this blog:

* Eat less. Not only will you pay less for food, your body will reward you with better health. With all the different kinds of diets admonishing you to eat that but don't eat that, we lose sight of the fact that the easiest way to lose weight is to cut back on portion size. The latest studies confirm that it's not carbs or proteins so much as the number of calories we consume that influences our waist lines most. Slimming down and keeping the weight off relieves all kinds of stress on vital organs, prolonging life.

*Stop eating processed and refined foods. There are many reasons to reject food from factories. First, they contain all kinds of chemical additives and industrialized oils that previously were never part of the human diet, such as corn and soybean oil. Processed foods also contain too much sodium, which contributes to high blood pressure. Refined grains raise glycemic levels, a cause of diabetes. Despite these health consequences, corporations such as General Mills and Pepsi think of all kinds of ways to persuade you buy their products because the extra money you pay for them earns profits for their shareholders.

* Buy from the bulk section. The previously mentioned processed foods all come in packaging, much of it plastic made from petroleum, that just ends up in the landfill. Even if you recycle paper and cardboard packaging it's still more environmentally friendly to purchase foods that don't have any packaging at all. And you pay extra for the packaging. These are all good reasons to buy your foods from the bulk section whenever possible. If your local store doesn't have a bulk section, talk to the manager and urge her to start one.

* Buy whole foods whenever possible. Unfortunately, the federal government does not subsidize the growing of healthy fruits and vegetables the way it subsidizes the growing of corn and soybeans. That means the most nutritious food at the grocery store is the most expensive, while the foods that are most harmful are the cheapest. Still, the best source of nutrition is food that has not been adulterated in any way, the stuff you find in the produce section. Potatoes and sweet potatoes, broccoli and cabbage, carrots and parsnips--they are all loaded with good nutrition. So are whole grains of all kinds and dried beans. If you can afford it, start buying your produce from the local farmers market. Not only will you know exactly where your food is coming from, you will be helping to support your local agricultural economy, not some giant agribusiness a thousand miles away.

* Eat less protein from animals. Our bodies must have protein, but we've grown too accustomed to getting it from beef cows and pigs and chickens. Feeding these animals in order to deliver them to your dinner plate is expensive and it has environmental consequences. Most animals for consumption are now raised on huge feedlots that produce tons of pollution that ends up in our waters and in our air. They and all the fuels used to feed and transport them contribute mightily to global warming. Try getting more of your protein from eggs--especially the kind produced on pastures instead of giant hen houses. Eggs are still a nutritional bargain, even when they're $4.75 a dozen at the farmers market. Also work more dried beans and whole grains into your diet. Together they make a complete protein and they are much cheaper than meat. The next step up would be chicken. Chickens (look for "pasture raised") are much more efficient producers of protein than cows or pigs.

* Stop buying wild-caught fish. Have you checked the price of tuna or swordfish lately? Prices have gone through the roof because there are fewer and fewer fish to be caught. Humans are rapidly destroying the oceans. If you must buy wild-caught fish, check first with a reputable rating agency such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch program to make sure you are buying only fish that has been sustainably harvested. Otherwise, look for fish raised on farms in the U.S., such as catfish, tilapia, striped bass or shrimp. These have the further advantage of being cheaper than most wild-caught fish. Another excellent protein source is farmed shell fish such as clams, oyster and mussels. For my money, farmed mussels are a great seafood bargain. Just make sure they carry a U.S. or Canada label. If you are pregnant, breast feeding or otherwise concerned about having enough Omega 3 in your diet, be assured that there are other sources besides fish.

* Stop drinking bottled water. Bottled water is outrageously expensive and Americans throw away something on the order of 80 million plastic water bottles every day, to say nothing of all the fuel being used to make the bottles and transport them from factory to store. In most places, ordinary tap water is just as good if not better for you than the bottled variety. If you must drink water out of a bottle, save your last bottle and fill it from the tap.

*Stop drinking soda. Whether it's Coke, Pepsi or Mountain Dew, sodas are loaded with sugar that rots teeth and helps make people (especially children) fat. Americans consume way too much soda. Plus, sodas are a major contributor to our plastic bottle and aluminum can nightmare. Diet sodas are only marginally better, in that you eliminate the sugar. But in the process you consume industrialized chemicals posing as sweeteners. Is it possible we could grow to like water again?

* Don't eat out so much. It may not help your local fast-food restaurant if you start eating more at home. But the fact is food from restaurants and especially fast food joints is not particularly good for you and typically the portions are much bigger than what you need. It just helps put on unhealthy poundage. If you are using whole ingredients and healthy oils such as extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil, just about anything you make at home is bound to be more nutritious and likely cheaper than what you get eating out. Making food at home and sitting down to a meal at the dinner table also teaches valuable lessons to children and helps strengthen the family unit. Get your kids out from in front of the TV and into the kitchen helping you make dinner.

* Start a kitchen garden. You can solve many of your budget and nutritional issues by growing your own food. A package of broccoli seeds costs less than $3 and typically contains 300 hundred or more seeds. That works out to about a penny for every head of broccoli you grow. How does that compare to what you are paying at the store? There is very little in the produce section or at the farmers market that you cannot grow yourself, including all your most expensive favorites: strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, rhubarb, artichokes. There's nothing tricky about growing mounds of your own potatoes or sweet potatoes. Or beans and tomatoes. You can fill your pantry and your freezer with enough food for the whole year. Don't have a yard you can turn into a garden? Join your nearest community garden. And if there isn't a community garden in your area, start one.

Or perhaps you have some other great ideas for shaving the food budget? Feel free to leave a comment....


Julia said...

Great information, Ed! Thanks for pointing out the silver lining -- and all the good we can do by cutting back.

m_lisa66 said...

Great post! Thanks for these great reminders.

Anita said...

Actually, what "the latest studies confirm" is that most people can't influence their weight long term very well at all, and that extreme starvation not only messes with your metabolism, but also other aspects of your health. And that children who drink and don't drink soda weigh the same.

We're better off devoting our mental energy to growing food, gardening, and collaborating to rip our lawns. Dieting is a waste of time and energy, and we'll need all of the time and energy we've got to do more worthy activities.

Tatiana said...

In the last year or so when I've stopped working to be with my son I have had to, of necessity, pare down my life is some big ways to be able to afford to hang with the little guy. The result? All the changes you list - meaning I'm having to spend time outside, growing things and teaching my son and myself as we go and inside preparing food to keep for long periods. Also, I gave up a car in exchange for a bike so in addition to the major savings in transportation costs I get to exercise and spend more time outside. I have also had to network with people in my community and do things such as have food preparation swaps. In short, my life is rich, satisfying, abundant, and dirt cheap.

Ed Bruske said...

Anita, extreme starvation? Sodas don't matter? I'm not sure where you're headed with that, but we do agree that gardening is a good thing. We wish everyone could grow their own food.

Tatiana, sometimes choosing to have less can lead to big rewards. What you've done sounds extremely sane to me. I really like the idea of food preparation swaps with the neighbors, but I don't I've ever heard of that before. How does that work?

Tatiana said...

Ah, the food swaps are a grand vision but so far it's amounted to "I'll make yogurt, she'll make bread, you make cheese." Everyone makes enough of their thing to divvy up and we all end up with fresh homemade goods. We're discussing setting up a website because it would make organization more simple, but for now its just down home. The idea is to save money, time, and packaging while eating organically and locally as much as possible.

Sylvie said...

I'll add two things: learn to cook and do a little preserving of fresh abundant produce when they are in season (peak of flavor and less expensive).

Ed Bruske said...

Sylvie, thanks for the reminder: Learn to cook! Yes, it's a very handy skill if you're trying to lower your food bills. Plus, cooking at home will have a calming effect on you and your family.

sharonwdc said...

Excellent post!

I think it's also important to look at what you can make at home that is less expensive and more nutritious than what you buy at the store. Home made vegetable stock, beans from dried (not canned), fresh yogurt and I'm sure there's lots more.