Let's continue our conversation of what seems like an impossible mission of stretching your dollar to get healthy food on a budget.
This is a no-brainer. Veggies are inexpensive and nutrient-dense so you win all around. You fill up, fast and at a low cost.
Wait…what? You don’t like vegetables? Um, let me think how to respond.
Too bad. You need veggies to live well and stay healthy. Period. Here are the best you can buy for your money.
I find that broccoli, kale, collards, Romaine lettuce, mustard greens are always reasonably priced. Now, to be honest, I choose organic for these when I can because I want to minimize pesticide residues. We all do. So, choose organic if and when you can, but don’t skip these precious sources of nutrients just because you can’t spring for organic. They are too valuable to our health and wellness. Cook them with flavors you like or in salads to make them enjoyable.
Orange and Red Veggies
Winter squash, carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes are all relatively inexpensive and are loaded with nutrients like carotenoids and fiber that keep us vital. They also go a long way in your cooking without a high price tag. From soups to roasted in the oven, these veggies will keep you satisfied and nourished easily and inexpensively.
Tomatoes, in season, can be very reasonable. Skip over the heirloom varieties and go for locally grown when you can. They will be the most inexpensive and the most delicious.
Red bell peppers are always expensive, it seems. You might be better off, if you love them, to buy them locally grown, in bulk, roast them and either freeze or place them in jars in the fridge.
Skip frozen prepared vegetables unless you are really stretched for time. They cost more and they taste “watery.” You’ll never fall in love with vegetables if you choose these. The same goes for the pre-cut, packaged fresh vegetables you now see in many produce sections of markets. They cost so much more because someone had to be paid to cut and package them. They are losing nutrients from the moment they are cut. In short, they’re not a great investment. Buy your veggies whole and slice and dice yourself to save money.
One last thing. Walk right past the bagged salads to save money and get better nutrition in your fresh dishes. Bagged salads are compromised nutritionally and cost more for a lot less volume. Buy a whole head of lettuce; wash it as you use it and hand shred it to create your salads.
Do I love veggies like radicchio, Belgian endive, baby arugula and other specialty ingredients? I do, but they are not the staples of my diet. Often, when I make a recipe that calls for one of these, I simply substitute another ingredient, like Romaine lettuce or Iceberg lettuce for a less expensive alternative. Feel free to do that. Swap cabbage for endive or radicchio for a lovely dish that costs less.
In season fruits, from your region of the world will always serve you best—both nutritionally and in terms of your wallet.
In season strawberries and blueberries can’t be beat. Raspberries and blackberries are always expensive so you may need to skip them and substitute other fruit for them in a recipe. But in season, cherries and grapes can be inexpensive, creating yet another reason to eat in season.
Melon, especially watermelon, is an incredible value for your health and your wallet.
Apples and pears, especially in season, will always fit into your budget. Look for locally grown for the best value.
Lemons are affordable and make any dish or dessert shine with flavor.
Some exotics can be affordable like oranges and bananas and can round out your fruit nutrition quite nicely.
While canned fruits can be inexpensive, go for the ones in real juice, not sugary syrup. The price tag is high for your health with all that added sugar and lack of freshness.
Unsweetened juices, like orange and apple can provide great nutrition for your family as well.
Finally, unsweetened frozen fruits (especially berries) can be a savings, so look for them in your local market. Or—and I love this. Buy fresh fruit in season, on sale and slice and freeze it yourself. You really save!
Spices, Oils, Condiments and Other Staples
This is the big one so I saved it for last. I know this is where many people get stuck. I use expensive oils, soy sauces and miso in a lot of my cooking. I love them and the qualities they bring to my cooking. They can be tough on a budget. I get that.
Let me give you my thinking first and then my solutions to your dilemma of getting the best quality you can for your dollar.
One of the reasons I can spend more on condiments, spices and oils is that I don’t buy any animal food so that frees up a lot of pennies to be spent elsewhere. However, the core of my thinking is that these foods—oils, spices, condiments—are used in small amounts but pack a serious flavor punch because of their quality, so I use less.
Let’s get down to the basics of your pantry.
While vegetable oil blends, canola, peanut and soybean oils are inexpensive, their quality is often low.
If you can’t afford to buy estate extra virgin olive oil or extra virgin avocado oil, I get it. Try this trick. Buy one bottle of a real splurge, a great extra virgin olive oil. Mix it with less expensive sunflower seed oil to create a great flavor that goes a long way and doesn’t compromise your health. I would recommend a 7 to 1 ratio of less expensive oil to the good stuff to get the best flavor.
Avoid solid fats like vegetable shortening. They’re cheap but their cost to your heart is not.
In many of my dessert recipes, you see me use Earth Balance a lot for baking. You can simply switch to your oil blend or straight sunflower seed oil and achieve great results in cakes, cookies and pies.
This is a tough one for me because I always bite the bullet and go for organic simply because it means that the fruit or grain the vinegar is made from was of the best quality resulting in a less acidic flavor (and effect on digestion). If that’s not possible, go for red wine, brown rice and balsamic vinegars as your staples. Skip white vinegar. It’s just too acidic for your digestion.
Miso and Soy Sauce
Can you live without these and create delicious recipes? Even my recipes? Sure you can. Simply substitute these more expensive ingredients for simple sea salt and you will do just fine. However, before you decide to blow these off as too expensive for your budget, consider this: miso is a dense paste that admittedly costs about $9 for a pound. I use only a small amount so that container lasts me for months. You can also purchase it in bulk and save.
Soy sauce lends gorgeous flavor to the simplest of dishes so look for inexpensive brands if you want to use it. Just be sure to read the ingredient label. Soy sauce should contain soybeans, water and sea salt—no colorings or other flavors and additives. In the end, it’s an optional ingredient that is easily replaced by sea salt in most dishes.
Spices and Herbs
Spices add…spice to our cooking and in my view are essential. You can skip them entirely if your budget doesn’t allow a pantry of them but try to stock a white seas salt, black pepper, chili spice and perhaps some cinnamon. These basics can take your flavors to new heights even in the simplest dishes.
The most essential thing is that you buy sea salt and not table salt. While there is some controversy as to whether or not sea salt is in fact better for our health—in the end, both are made from sodium chloride—you get no added chemicals, stabilizers, anti-caking compounds or other “extras” that you get in table salt. The flavor and health benefits are worth the few extra pennies to purchase sea salt.
Choose your other spices and condiments as you desire and can afford.
Many of my dessert recipes use brown rice syrup and coconut sugar, which are perceived as more expensive than white sugar, but that may not be true, as you will see.
My source for brown rice syrup is Suzanne’s Specialties. It’s a top-quality product that you can buy rice in bulk which reduces the price substantially. Check this out. A gallon of brown rice syrup sells for $43.95 (including shipping). A gallon is equivalent to 8 pounds of dry ingredients. A pound of sugar costs about $4.19 a pound (on average), so 8 pounds would cost $33.52, which is not a huge cost difference when it comes down to your health. A gallon of brown rice syrup will last for months, if you use it often, so imagine if you’re just making desserts once or twice a week. It becomes a great buy and a great investment in healthy eating.
Coconut sugar is a one to one substitution for any other granulated sugar with a lovely flavor similar to brown sugar and comes in at around the same price as white sugar.
Not so expensive after all.
I know many of us are on a budget, including me. I’d love to tell you that I spend without thought when it comes to food, but that would be a lie. I consider every purchase, carefully weighing the areas I can invest in my health versus where I need to cut corners without compromise.
I buy in bulk when I can. I often search online for bulk resources for foods I want to stock in my pantry because, even with shipping costs I can save. I love to buy from Gold Mine Natural Foods, Natural Lifestyles Supplies, Nuts Online and Mountain Rose Herbs for various items at good prices. I shop locally and seasonally as much as possible to save and to make a lighter footprint on the planet.
One last thing, taking us back to the beginning of this blog--prep time. Invest in a chef knife you love and start chopping…anything and everything (not limbs or fingers, ok?). Practice with your knife will make you adept in the kitchen for prep and then you’re free from packaged chopped vegetables, frozen stir-fry mixed vegetables and processed foods! You will own the kitchen and save money by cooking.
I know it can seem expensive and time-consuming to eat well, but we have to ask this question:
What is our health worth?