Good eats for cheap

So here’s the thing.  Every now and then, someone I know, or am even related to, trots out the argument that eating healthily is too expensive for most people.  Of course they are saying this to me, in the context of my very comfortable, middle class, suburban lifestyle.  And I get that.  But that fact that I can afford it doesn’t mean its unaffordable. That kind of logic drives me crazy.

On a very small scale, here’s a perfect example.  Recently, I made some strawberry jam.  A good friend made a comment to me about how great that was, but wasn’t it so expensive.  I wasn’t really sure, so I decided to work it out.  2 quarts of fresh strawberries (from a farm stand – supermarket would be cheaper): $12.  Bag of sugar $2.89.  Box of Certo, $3.99.  A lemon, $0.49.  Washed out jam jars – free. Bear in mind that I only used half the bag of sugar and half the Certo.  So the layout cost was under $20. This made 8 jars of jam.  I just checked and a jar of Bonne Maman, the supermarket equivalent of homemade jam, sells for $4.99 (heck, even Smuckers is $3.79).  So the retail value of my jam comes to nearly $40.

Making something yourself is almost always cheaper and equally,  tastes better (after a little practice perhaps) and is usually healthier.  Jam’s a perfect example.  I can short the sugar a little and my kids don’t even notice.  What I make is literally fruit, sugar and pectin.  Tell me again why you would put anything else in it?

Now, I can extend this argument to just about anything in the kitchen.  But here’s the rub – you need some equipment, some know-how, time, energy and motivation.  Equipment isn’t really that hard. You need less than you think you do. Unfortunately, as with so many things in the states, people seem to think you need fancy, expensive stuff to cook.  I still use the cheapo stock pot I got almost 20 years ago for everything from cooking pasta to making soup to making jam.

So think how happy I was to come across a copy of Clean Eating magazine at Super Cuts the other day.  Each month, they produce a list of budget recipes and a shopping list to go with it.  They provide a list of 5 family meals for 4 people (ie 20 servings) for $50.  That’s $2.50 per meal per head people.  And they look darned good.  But you do have to put in the effort to buy the good food and actually cook it. To get the recipes, looks like you probably have to subscribe, but it makes its point.


Easiest Way to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint? Eat.

Yeah right.  Eating will reduce your environmental footprint?  Really?  What about all the noise about how much water and carbon it takes to make a hamburger, a fish fillet or even a salad for that matter.  Well here’s the rub.  Eating as a way to reduce your footprint means you are not throwing food away.  Let’s face it, eating a little less is probably a good idea for an awful lot of us.  But wasting less is a good idea for every one.  Dana Gunder from NRDC details some shocking numbers in her blog (as always, the emphasis is mine).

  • The average family of four in the U.S. throws away $175 of food per month.  In fact,  around 40% of edible food (not counting peels, bones, etc) in the US gets thrown away.  Beyond the financial cost, the environmental implications are staggering when you consider all the water,  fertilizer and pesticide that went into growing that food.  Consider the following estimates of resources dedicated to food that never gets eaten:

25% of all freshwater
4% of all US oil consumption
$90 billion in losses to the US economy (over $40 billion from households)
$750 million a year just to dispose of the food
31 million tons of landfill waste

Holy cow.  $175 a month?  At over $2 grand a year (yes, I do math every now and again), that’s sounding like a pretty sweet vacation to me.  Or donation to your local environment group.  Or deposit into your kids’ college fund.

As with so many things, this waste is part of a bigger systemic issue.  Some of it is lost in the supply chain.  The upside is that because of the financial cost of that, food suppliers are always trying to improve this and of course, the more you buy local, the less of a problem this is.  But inside our own kitchens, it becomes a social issue.  Families have 2 working parents who don’t have time to keep a constant catalog of what’s in the fridge at the top of their mental agenda; people have lost the art of cooking and the knowledge of  how to use leftovers to make a delicious meal, not something your kids will complain about — I’m thinkin’ chicken soup after that pre-roasted bird you bought on five buck cluck Thursdays down at the market.  But you have to know how to make the soup.  You have to know what veggies keep and what go bad quickly, how to shop wisely to make it all last through a week so it’s not all just a wilted mess by Friday that you end up throwing away because you didn’t have time to cook it on Tuesday.  And it’s also a question of ridiculous, changed social relationship with food.  We look at the package and use someone else’s definition of what’s “ok” to determine if we can eat it (I’m talking about sell-by dates here).  If you’re so removed from your food that you can’t use your eyes and nose to tell if that broccoli is OK, or the milk or cheese or ham for that matter, you’re probably going to chuck it if you’re just not sure (ok, ok, I’m like that with chicken, but that’s ’cause it’s chicken).  But if the cheese has a little white bit on the edge, for goodness sakes, cut that bit off, give it to the dog, or the cat or the chickens, or just chuck it.  But don’t chuck the whole thing.  It makes a difference.  It really does.  Go back and re-read those bullet points.  That’s a lot of natural resources consumed for something you didn’t consume.

Easiest Way to Reduce Your Environmental Footprint? Eat. | Dana Gunders’s Blog | Switchboard, from NRDC.

Sustainable Food

More on our time spent in Blighty over the holidays, I’m afraid.  This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.  TealGreen in-laws live in the 2nd biggest city in England in a nice area, but the local high street is a real mix of rough and nice, so it’s eye opening to me to see the amenities that are available there.  Since the last time we visited, a new Co-op supermarket has replaced the old Kwik Save – and that’s a very good thing.  The Kwik Save was cheap and not very cheerful and seemed reflective of the rough aspect of the high street.  The new Co-op astounded me, in a good way.  Here are some pictures from inside the market:

I include these photos not because they are beautifully presented or earth shattering, but because they say so much about the difference between where thinking about your food and where it comes from is between here and Europe.  Can you think of a single supermarket in the US that would market itself in this way in its stores? Even Whole Foods doesn’t do this. The Co-op is a normal, dare I say it, not even particularly high end supermarket in the UK.  And it’s extolling the virtues of sourcing local food, sustainable fishing, free range organic eggs, fair trade coffee and using renewable energy.  BRAVO!  This is a market in a city in a very mixed socio-economic neighborhood.  And it’s selling a wide range of food at pretty affordable prices and treating its customers like grown ups, explaining its commitment to not just selling the cheapest crap they can get away with.  And you know what?  It’s working.

This is where the conversation needs to get to in the US.  There’s no doubt that there’s food poverty in the this country, and that’s a different discussion.  But for many Americans, they are spending their food dollars mostly with a view to cheapness rather than value.  Learning the difference will be an important first step to creating a more sustainable food economy.


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Meatless Monday : quesadillas

There’s a campaign called Meatless Monday.  According to their website, 30% of people surveyed have heard of it.  Its goal is to make people more mindful of their eating habit and the health and environmental advantage of being vegetarian without having to go whole hog, so to speak.

So a meatless day or two a week is something TealGreen family does on a fairly regular basis anyway, sometimes on purpose, sometimes out of laziness (does cereal for dinner count) and often just ’cause it’s what I felt like cooking or we felt like eating.  I love the Meatless Monday site and the many other foody sites with wonderful vegetarian recipes on them.  But sometimes it strikes me that they could put people off because they are perhaps a bit ambitious and even worthy.  There are plenty of things that we eat all the time that are meatless.  Just being mindful of that might help convince those resistant to the idea of moving away from a heavily meat based diet that it’s not as hard as you might think.  And that it doesn’t mean you have to be eating nut loaf for dinner.  So along with Cooking from the Bottom of the Fridge, I will be doing the occasional Meatless Monday post showing some of the things our family are eating.

Tonight, after a heavy round of Tae Kwon Do for TealGreen hubby and children, the entire family arrived home at nearly 8pm.  And it happens to be Monday.  So what to do for a very quick, healthy, meatless meal (bearing in mind some heavy exercise preceded this meal).  Voila – a pack of whole wheat Tortillas (or 2) from the freezer.  Smother the first is pre-grated mozzarella, top with a second and cook in a frying pan long enough to melt the cheese.  Cut up, pizza style and split amongst the plates to get things going while cooking some more with a bit more nutrition added.  Take a tin of crushed, organic tomatoes (TJoe’s), whiz with the hand blender.  Throw in a teaspoon of crushed garlic (fresh or jar) and an ice cube of pesto from this summer’s basil (jar would be fine).  Simmer for 10 minutes while making a second cheese quesadilla.  By the third round of Tortilla, smother with the cooked tomato sauce and then cheese (ok, so it’s Mexican pizza, but it’s sort of home made, hot, fast, relatively healthy and cheap).  Cut up some raw veggies from the bottom of the fridge while the next tortilla cooks – we happen to have orange pepper, cucumber and carrots.  Eat those on the side as crudité and call it salad.  Doesn’t seem like a very filling meal, and yet it works every time and Teal Green 12 year old, burgermeister boy, LOVES it.  Result.

And if you are feeling more adventurous, here’s a piece for Meatless Monday that manages to include miracles, barley, Hanukkah and both the Old and New Testaments.  Meatless Monday: Some Kind of Miracle.

From the Bottom of the Fridge : Omelettes

We had our first week of eggs with enough to make a proper meal for the whole family.  7 in all, including one fairly mini, slightly speckled which we think probably came from our Buff Orpington chicken, Bella.

So what to do on a chilly Sunday night after a busy weekend when no one feels like cooking.  Easy, peasy.  Fire in the fire place, quick hot choccie to get revved up and omelettes away.

For the kids, just a shake of parmesan cheese to beef up the protein even more and give a little flavor.  For the adults, a quick saute of red pepper and a single slice of red onion first.  This gives it the real flavor.  Then grate some New Zealand pasture fed cheddar cheese from Trader Joe’s (sorry, not local, but REALLY good), and the best part, a slice of prosciutto (also TJs) found lurking in the freeezer, laid on top.  The prociutto padded it out to make it feel like a real meal and the smoky flavor is a great balance to the sweetness of the onions and red peppers.

To fill tummies, in true bottom of the fridge fashion, I heated up some leftover rice (top tip, if you only ever cook your rice in water, you can save and reheat safely; flavor after cooking separately so you can save the leftovers).  Some broccoli and cauli was also lurking from Friday night’s dinner, so that got chucked into the microwave to go alongside the children’s veggie-free omelettes.

And to add some stodge and padding when the rice ran out, I peeled and sliced 2 sweet potatoes (organic, TJoe’s…not as huge as supermarket sweet pots.  Probably only would need 1 of those).  Heated the oil in the bottom of a frying pan pretty hot, plenty of sea salt & pepper, seared the outsides, cover for a few minutes to steam cook, then flip and uncover so they don’t go soggy.  I let them cook enough to almost be burning so you get the sweet caramelized edges.

Everyone went to bed full and happy, I didn’t have to shop and start to finish was about 20 minutes.