In the past, I haven’t made a lot of New Year’s resolutions, but after a very big year, filled with a lot of changes, I have started to look at 2012 as an opportunity to begin again.
One of my resolutions this year is to focus on really, really good food, and making that food affordable for my family. Eating well has long been a priority for us, but I struggle with our food budget.
I remembered this series that we did when this blog first started in August of 2010. And I want to share it again in case it may be helpful to you. These smart mamas shared some wonderful tips as well as nutritious recipes. I hope you’ll find some inspiration here for the new year!
The following is the first in a series of interviews on eating well on a budget.
This series began in talking with my friend Rachel (featured below) about saving money while making eating nutritious foods a priority.
Rachel is mom to three boys, Isaac, 10, Adam, 4, and Noah, 3. Her husband Alan is a 5th grade bilingual teacher.
Rachel is an amazing volunteer and a very generous friend, who doesn’t mind being interviewed the week school starts. She is also a writer and someday hopes to return to her previous career in social work, but her current focus is on her family and what they are eating.
TVNT: How would you sum up your family’s food philosophy?
Rachel: My personal food philosophy (which in turn has become my family’s) is that foods should be eaten in as close to their natural state as possible.
As I learn more and more about how food is produced, I find more and more things I want my family to avoid eating (GMOs, meat, conventionally produced eggs and dairy, fruits and vegetables saturated with pesticides, etc.)
It can honestly make me a little crazy and I’m still working on finding a balance so my food philosophy doesn’t run our entire life. I think it’s important to have principles and to stick to them, but when it comes to eating in this country where so many things fall into that category of things I want us to avoid, to hold on to some semblance of normality sometimes I have to let go.
TVNT: Do you purchase convenience foods? If not, what do you try to make at home (cookies, crackers, pretzels, etc?)
Rachel: No, I don’t buy many convenience foods. (It can be a little embarrassing at times when we are around other people with something simple like a bag of pretzels and my kids gobble them down like they’ve never seen such a thing before.)
For me it’s not that I have anything against these foods as much as it is that I find them too expensive for my budget. Convenience snack foods don’t fill us up, they are mostly empty calories because of that, it’s hard to stop eating them which in turn makes them seem more expensive to me because they never last long!
We make our own cookies and granola. (I’ve stopped buying cereal because of the cost and the kids have homemade granola instead now.) I’ve never ventured into the cracker or pretzel making arena but would like to try sometime.
TVNT: I know you do things like bake bread and cook your own beans … how does that help your budget? Do you plan for baking and cooking? How do you make time for that, or does it just become part of your routine after a while?
Rachel: Oh I wish I was organized enough to say I plan for baking and cooking! I don’t at all unfortunately.
Cooking beans does take some forethought because of soaking time. Usually I pull out the beans sometime the day before to remind myself to soak them that night, then the next day I stick them in the crockpot all day and wah-lah, a cheap healthy form of protein.
Yes, this helps my budget a lot. Dried beans are a lot cheaper (and healthier!) than canned and making my own bread sure beats the price of buying it.
“I used to throw the ingredients into my bread machine and let that do the work. Now I prefer the act of making bread. I find it soothing to knead the dough, comforting to have a bowl of yeasty dough rising, waiting for me to punch it down. I love the entire process. I think that’s key with all of this– it helps tremendously if you enjoy making these things. I love baking and cooking but I don’t know if I could do half the things I do in the kitchen if I didn’t! “
Though I do think these things can grow on a person over time so I would say that someone who hates cooking and baking could learn to love it with time.
TVNT: What are some things that you always buy organic?
Rachel: I always buy anything with soy (like tofu) organic, as well as milk and fruits and vegetables off the dirty dozen, like strawberries.
TVNT: Are there certain foods that you rarely buy organic?
Rachel: I don’t usually buy my grains or legumes organic, unless I can get a good deal or the price difference is negligiable
TVNT: Do you buy in bulk? How does that help your food budget?
Rachel: Yes, I love buying in bulk! I do think it makes a big difference with things we eat a lot of, not so much with things we don’t. (Something I just learned… if we don’t eat it a lot, it’s not worth getting in bulk.)
I mentioned earlier that I make my own granola so buying a fifty pound bag of oats allows me to buy them at 38 cents a pound, rather than about 75 cents a pound. Over time that makes a huge difference! The same is true with flour or yeast.
TVNT: What tips would you give someone looking to eat well but not spend a fortune?
Rachel: I have three tips for eating well and not spending a fortune:
First is cook! It is expensive to eat out and those restaurant dinners and fast food lunches add up fast. Sometimes I splurge and buy something that costs more than we usually buy– portobello mushrooms or something and make a meal that costs more than our usual meals but then I like to play the game of figuring out how much such a meal would cost in a restaurant. It’s always amazing to spend what seems like a lot of money but then realizing that everyone is eating for 2 bucks a plate. So the first thing you have to do is start cooking yourself!
My other tip is that eating low on the food chain makes a big difference. My grocery bill dropped dramatically when I stopped buying meat. I’ve found the most expensive grocery bills are not the ones when I buy all organic as much as it is on how high on the food chain I’m going. Dairy adds up fast.
The last tip is to try to stay out of the grocery store as much as possible! I buy way too much at grocery stores. I prefer buying through a dried food co-op once a month (where I can buy grains, beans, and sweeteners) and then doing my weekly shopping at a tiny local fruit and vegetable market, and then going to the grocery store once a month.
“I make a rule for myself that I’ll just make do in between grocery store trips. This forces me to be creative and use up that stuff that wouldn’t get used if I didn’t have any other choice!”
TVNT: What are some of your children’s favorite school lunches that you pack?
Rachel: My oldest has packed his own lunch for a while, but now I’ve got a second one in school needing a lunch every day. Their school has a microwave and last year my oldest often brought dinner leftovers. Otherwise peanut butter sandwiches with raw fruits and vegetables and a homemade cookie are pretty standard fare. The kids bring water to drink.
TVNT: How did being part of a CSA this year impact your family’s diet?
Being part of a CSA has forced more creativity with meal planning. I’m in a pick your own CSA though so I did have control over what I was bringing home. In weeks with surpluses I was able to freeze things and I’m looking forward to tapping into all the fruits and vegetables I’ve frozen this winter.
TVNT: Would you be willing to share a recipe that your family loves?
Rachel’s Zucchini Boats
(to put use to those ridiculously gigantic zucchini that pop up at this time of the year)
1. Cook brown rice (I always make 2 cups).
2. Chop 1 onion, add onion to some oil in a pan with some garlic (1-4 cloves to your family’s liking), a couple of tomatoes or you can use a can of them or some sauce, cook, then add cooked rice.
3. Peel zucchini (this is optional but recommended as the skins get tough) and then cut into halves, thirds or fourths depending on size of zucchini. Cut those in half and hollow out the insides, scooping out seeds.
4. Stuff the zucchinis with the brown rice mix, top with Parmesan cheese or Parmesan substitute (I use a mix of toasted sesame seeds ground up with nutritional yeast and a little salt). Breadcrumbs are optional.
5. Bake at about 375 for about 20 minutes or until zucchini is tender.
Please join the conversation! How do you eat well and stay on a budget?