My college boyfriend and I shacked up off-campus, working multiple minimum wage jobs. On payday, we would surf the weekly circular while making an aspirational grocery list, and then sigh sadly, buy toilet paper and a lot of Ramen.
Even after I graduated and had my first job outside Boston, we would luxuriate in the best dinner out $30 could buy us once a month, which was all we could scrape together after rent, utilities and T passes. It was like winning the lottery.
Somewhere in your 30s, you go from longingly eyeing the local sushi joint wondering what that freedom feels like to finding yourself at a counter somewhere, seriously considering dropping $30 on a candle. (I call this Scented Candle Solvency Economics wherein you suddenly recognize how ridiculous it is to spend that much money on wax and make a donation to a shelter or your IRA instead.)
Regardless of your age, we have all been at that place in life, and I grew to learn over time how to bring whole foods and healthier foods to the table on what we could afford.
Tomatoes don’t grow in December. Corn, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, garlic -- it all has a season and that’s when it’s cheapest. Cheaper than frozen, cheaper than fresh or canned.
Use growing charts to understand when that happens and take advantage. While it’s hard, when close to the line, consider the idea of investing, and try to make this switch as soon as possible, piece by piece. Buy a box of tomatoes at the tail end of the season and freeze them for later in the year. Do it right, and you’ll never have to buy another can. Learn to love your freezer and freezer bags.
While farmers markets have become, IMO, more expensive than regular markets, bargains can be found. In particular, I like swooping in the last day of any crop, end of day and offering them $X for what’s left in the box. I did it with artichokes ($20 for about 30lbs which became marinated artichoke hearts to last into the millennium), tomatoes (tomato juice, sauce, salsa and just frozen whole tomatoes), spinach (blanched or creamed and frozen), kale (chips until the end of time!) and broccoli, cauliflower, beans, asparagus and peas (blanch and freeze).
Chop garlic or ginger, put into ice cube trays, fill with water, throw cubes into bags and toss one into your fry pan when you want some garlic. Use your oven to dry out fruits to eat dehydrated through the winter.
Embrace Whole Grains
There’s a shopping philosophy that people cling to when close to the line, where it's about mass and shelf stability. They reach for boxed foods or ramen, or pasta or rice without considering the additional costs: to their health and also, the eggs, oil, milk or butter that you’ll have to add and their costs.
A meal is really three pieces, protein, vegetables and grains. So it's not wrong to grab for pasta and rice, but skip Rice-a-Roni, anything in a blue box, or white pasta. Instead make it whole wheat pasta, and brown rice or basmati or whole grain rice.
Couscous and quinoa and bulgur, they cook up in many of the same ways as pasta and rice but are all around healthier without a big cost differential. Add flavor yourself, skip the preservatives-in-a-packet.
Embrace Thinking Whole
Each week, I make a whole chicken. I don’t buy breasts or wings or anything broken up and wrapped in cellophane. We’ve been tricked into thinking its less expensive. Buy a whole chicken and roast it. On day 1, you enjoy roasted chicken. All the bones go into a stockpot with water and you get chicken stock.
On day 2, you throw chicken into some rice or pasta or salad. On day 3, you can throw anything left including the vegetables you made the chicken with into some stock and have soup. I do this EVERY week. Anytime you have meat or fish, you throw the bones into a stockpot and cover with water, and use the resulting stock or just freeze it, either in cubes or in just in Ziplocs.
If you’re making chili, pasta sauce, stew, soup, we all bemoan the time and financial expense of cooking for one, so stop. Consider your grandmother and make more. Enough to freeze extra in small, reasonable amounts. I make tomato sauce once a year. Seriously. As soon as I could, I got a vacuum sealer and it's my favorite gadget to this day.
When you carve pumpkins at Halloween, don’t you dare consider tossing those seeds! They are free, perfect protein. Wash them, dry them and roast them in your oven, then bag them and save for later. Squash too!
Always consider every single part of what you’re eating, and how you might get more out of it.
I remember being entranced by fancy vinegars and oils and their ridiculous prices. I remember buying bottled drinks, iced tea mix and frozen orange juice, things that I could easily afford but never do now.
The purchase of very cheap Ikea bottles has eliminated the need for any. A pitcher of iced tea sits in my fridge all the time (a few teabags purchased online in bulk, in a pitcher of cold water, throw in fridge).
I make vinegars a few times a year by throwing cheap white distilled vinegar into a bottle with sliced cucumber or berries or herbs. Garlic oil? No problem: it's cheap olive oil (love Trader Joe's), simmered with garlic and thrown into a bottle.
An orange is probably better for you than orange juice, to say nothing of lemonade, ice tea mix or soda.
Embrace Alternative Protein
As a kid in Home Ec, we had an assignment to make a meal for six, completely balanced, on something like $12. Everyone went right to hamburger, but since I was vegetarian at the time, my group bitched and moaned until the teacher sent in the alternative ideas.
Beans, chickpeas, nuts and of course, tofu. Nuts always seem expensive until you compare them to meat or fish. Then they become reasonable. Beans are exceptionally affordable, particularly when you buy them dry. Chickpeas are insanely easy to throw into meals for a quick protein fix. Remember those seeds? Use 'em! Even when you’re eating ramen, whisking in an egg is a great way to add some protein to it.
So here I am, advising you throw everything and anything in your freezer and pantry. If you’re ever pulled something out of deep freeze wondering what the fuck it is, this may seem scary to you. The key is organization.
Always always label each and every single thing that goes in, including the date. But I go one step deeper into obsessive: I have a spreadsheet. When something goes into the freezer or pantry, I add it to the spreadsheet (hello, Google Docs). When I use it, it comes out.
When I don’t know what to make for dinner? I consult the spreadsheet; it's like my own personal grocery. When I’m out shopping and am about to buy ingredients, I check the sheet from my phone to see if I already have it. Nothing in my freezer ever goes to waste or ever goes bad. Using this method, I make sure the things I preserve/can/dehydrate, etc last until the next summer.
Ultimately, there is no easy answer for how we solve the problem of providing fresh and healthy food for those living close to the line and I wouldn’t dare be so egotistical to suggest I have the solutions. But each bit we try brings us closer to living healthier.
I know it's easy for someone to suggest you change the way you live when they’re not living your life -- so I’m curious what you’re doing. Tell me your suggestions, methods, and budgeting to eat healthier.