Monday, March 03, 2008

Health conscious

I've been doing a lot of thinking, lately, about the kinds of food that I'm feeding my family. I think this was prompted somewhat by glancing through a pregnancy book and realizing that I am woefully remiss in getting the daily nutrient recommendations. And that is in a family that generally eats vegetables with every dinner and fruit and veggies for snacks!

The fact is that, unless you're being very thoughtful in your planning, it is all too easy to serve a "balanced" meal without actually including many truly nutrient rich foods. For example, I could serve a pasta or rice dish, perhaps with some chicken thrown in, and a salad on the side. But if I'm being lazy and/or cheap, I used a 10 cent box of Pasta-Roni - white flour and fattening sauce - and the salad is made of light green lettuce without many added colorful ingredients (gee, who has time for all that chopping!)

On the other hand, if I planned well and had the right foods in the house, I could serve the same meal with whole wheat pasta, a chunky marinara sauce with some lean ground beef, and a dark green leafy salad with tomatoes, green peppers, red cabbage, and avocado.

Same meal, but totally different in terms of nutritive value.

Now, time for chopping is certainly an issue. So is time to drive West to Trader Joes and South-East to Henry's Marketplace - both are about 20 minutes away from my house and at least 30-40 minutes away from each other. Plus, since those are more specialty stores, I'd still need to go to Sam's Club for cheap milk, eggs, bread, and cheese (not that any of those are cheap, anymore!) and probably Vons as well for staples like peanut butter and toothpaste.

On top of that, buying healthier food like whole wheat pasta and pita bread just costs more. Particularly if compared to that 10 cent box of Pasta-Roni.

Last year when Thomas was born, I switched from cherry-picking sales at five different stores to using the Grocery Game to help me make shopping at just one store (Vons) cheaper. It was lovely to only shop at one store, with an occasional trip to Sam's Club thrown in every few weeks. It made the transition to having two kids much smoother, and I was a much happier and less stressed out Mom. Besides, the Grocery Game was just fun. I mean, who doesn't like getting free groceries? It really was a game.

But now I'm questioning whether it is still a good choice. It is hard to argue with free peanut butter, and I've picked up at least four jars for nothing this past year. On the other hand, that was Skippy peanut butter, with a hefty helping of sugar along with the peanuts. I'd rather feed my kids Laura Scudders (just plain peanuts and salt) but a jar of that costs nearly $4.

Should I switch to a healthier diet, somehow try to make the time for the extra shopping and cooking, and hope to make up the cost difference by cooking more beans, rice and potatoes? How realistic is this?

What do you think, dear readers? How have you found a balance between healthy eating, and cost of the food, and the time it takes to both buy and prepare it?


Ma Torg said...

We eat very healthy (wheat products, healthy PB, dark leafy greens) and have found that our grocery budget dropped significantly. I know safeway (the VONS equivalent, I think) sells their brand of healthy peanut butter for just 2.50-3 with a membership card. Anyhow, I digress....we've cheapened our budget in some ways to make room for the added expense of buying healthier items:
1. i bake our own bread. I cheat a lot and use a bread machine for the dough process. But once you get into the hang of it, you'll find it really isn't difficult.
2. I make our own jam using frozen fruit (cheaper and tastes fine. Easy too. I can email you a real simple, quick recipe if you want. I cut corners too buy just putting my jam in the fridge and making no more than 1-2 jars at a time so I don't have to do the crazy sterilizing process.
3. I dont' buy snack foods like crackers. When my kids want a snack, it's fruit, cheese or hard boiled eggs. They're fine with that.
4. We don't eat meat anymore than once a week. Usually once every other week. I substitute dried beans for meat in most of my recipes. A bag of dried beans costs 60 cents.
5. I buy fruit according to the season. Whatever is cheapest as opposed to what I'm craving.
6. I've cheapened our overall budget by using cloth napkins and rags (I don't ever buy paper towels or paper napkins). I use baking soda and vinegar as cleaners.
7. My very last trick is to plan one meal a week where I need to scrummage through the cupboard and be creative. Sometimes this means scrambled eggs for dinner with leftover produce thrown in. Sometimes this means tuna sandwiches. But, it forces me to use up 'extra' food in the pantyr and saves money.

P.S. Sorry this is so long!

mircat said...

I totally feel your pain, Emily! (I don't have kids to feed, of course, but I went through the exact same realization process you went through). Kelly had some amazing suggestions, and I don't have many more to add other than eating healthy was just a paradigm shift for me--I realized that comparing whole wheat pasta to the amazing deals I could get on "junk food" (10 boxes of pasta-roni for a dollar, etc)just wasn't a fair comparison. I could buy empty calories or I could buy nutritious food. And even though the percentage difference between 10 cents and a dollar is huge, in reality, it's OK and a good deal to spend 99 cents on a box of whole wheat pasta that we'll get at least 2 meals out of because it's not junk food. And it's a million times better and cheaper than eating out.

Like Kelly, we don't eat much meat (I hardly eat any, but I pick up meat on sale and freeze it for the husband);

Ethnic stores are amazingly cheap for things like brown rice or soba noodles (though, I've stopped cooking with pasta, for the most part, since we don't need such a calorie-rich dish); Fish is also cheap at these places.

lowfat, shredded cheese goes on sale ALL the time and is a decent protein source.

My food processor is my friend--it can zip through veggies like nothing, saving me chopping time (I got one for free from someone who didn't use hers anymore).

I've also found that (unfortunately), I have to plan my meals much more carefully now, but I plan in 6 week increments what each meal and snack will involve and what recipes I'll use, and what ingredients I'll need (weekly shopping lists), and it has helped me to make sure I use all that not-so-cheap stuff that I buy!

All this to say--it's worth it and possible to make the switch! You're an awesome mom, Emily! ~miriam

Sarah Marie said...

It's funny you bring this up, Em - I realized a few weeks ago that I've practically eliminated salads from my diet. I like salads, of course, but all that chopping! And dressing - empty calories. And the nutrient value of lettuce is relatively low compared to other veggies. I eat massive amounts of vegetables - most dinners 3/4ths of my plate is broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, squash, etc. And I've found that washing and pulling apart a head of broccoli is easy enough that I never miss out on eating healthy simply because making a salad would be too time-consuming. As I've mentioned on my blog, I roast roast roast everything. Or sometimes steam or stir-fry, but roasting is easy and so yummy you'll be craving broccoli instead of other snacks in no time! I usually bake our bread, which saves money (no-knead bread - it's easy-peasy!), and I don't buy stuff like crackers, pretzels, etc even when it's on sale. And sure, shopping at Whole Foods every once in a while can be pricey, and buying whole wheat pasta is more expensive, BUT I think it's worth it. I also make my own marinara sauce and meat spaghetti sauce instead of buying canned stuff, and I freeze it for later. And let me tell you, it is packed with veggies and nutrients, entirely unbeknownst to my dear picky husband. :) I try to save money in other ways since I know that healthy foods can be more expensive. Oh, EAT BEANS. They are cheap and they are full of protein and fiber and they are awesome. Normal Americans aren't getting enough fiber. I know this because I'm super fiber-conscious but I still find that it's hard to get in 25-30 grams a day. I can send you some fantastic bean recipes if you want.

Nathan, alas, does not share my obsession with vegetables, organic things, dietary fiber, beans, etc. So I basically make one "regular" meal once or twice a week (pot roast if it's on sale, in the crock pot, can make three or four meals once I recycle it as a bbq sandwich, tacos, etc) but Nathan eats most of the meat and I eat most of the veggies. I wish he could appreciate the yumminess of healthy, but he can't right now. :(

crossfamily said...

I stopped playing the grocery game for the same reason.
We buy in bulk. There is a store here, winco, that sells almost everything in bulk. Buying in bulk saves us so much money on staples such as flour, sugar, and whole wheat pasta.
We have a ton of fruit trees and plant a huge garden and I do a ton of canning in the summer, making my own jelly, baby food, and dehydrating food as well. If you have a dehydrater you can buy fruit when its on sale, stick it in the blender and spread it on a piece of wax paper and place it in a dehydrater for healthy "fruit roll ups". We use dehydrated fruit (and veggies) for snacks too.
Have you ever heard of Quinoa? We use it instead of rice now. Uncooked it looks like little tan seeds but it puffs up when you cook it (similar to rice) it absorbs the flavor of whatever you are serving it with and is faster to cook as well. I buy it in bulk and it is cheaper then rice too! (yeah!) Also it contains all the necessary amino acids to make it a compete protein so it fills up my family better and we need less of it!
I am able to cut down on store runs by creating a shopping list three weeks out. Then I pick a store a week to shop at and make sure I buy enough to last for three weeks of that item.
You sure do a great job of helping your family eat healthy!

PS More about Quinoa can be found here:

crossfamily said...

Forgot to mention that we don't eat healthy salads unless once a week I do all the chopping and keep it in a tupperware in the fridge. Then its ready to eat whenever we are and it somehow seems faster to chop it all at once...the convience of a bagged salad with more nutrients and the work all up front so you forget that you chopped it :-).

Anonymous said...

Hey, Em,

Have you tried La Habra Ranch Market? Cheap produce, if you don't mind having to sort through for decent stuff, and a lot of cheap ethnic food, too (like whole wheat pita bread for $.99). We end up there after church at least every other week. ;-)


I am officially intimidated by the other posters here. I have not yet convinced my husband that whole wheat pasta and brown rice are reasonable foods. And half the time we're lucky if I managed to remember to thaw the meat for dinner and we don't just go buy an Albertson's chicken! ;-)

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

I have tried the Ranch Market. I gave up on it because I got so frustrated with the MANY times I would make the trip (with two children in tow) and not be able to find a reasonable amount of not-spoiling produce. I've switched to Henry's because they have good produce at reasonable prices (their sales are, anyway) and I'm a much happier person when I shop there. :) Besides, when we shop at Henrys, Jonathan is a happy camper because we usually stop to watch the trains on the way back. Do you have any idea how GOOD a toddler will be while shopping when he is promised a trip to the train station if he behaves?!?

Emily (Laundry and Lullabies) said...

ma torg - thank you for the very helpful comment! I have a few questions for you:

1) Do you find that baking your own bread is actually cheaper? I can get two loaves of whole wheat bread at Sam's Club for about $3.20. I haven't done the math to figure out what making my own costs - I probably should! I do have a bread machine and a fantastic recipe, so that is definitely an option.

2) I LOVE your idea of hard boiled eggs for kid snacks! I have a little carb-o-holic in my oldest son, and right now I'm working on feeding him only fruits, veggies, and protein when he asks for a snack. It turns out that often when he asks for a snack, he often isn't really hungry - just wanting crackers!

3) Beans cost a bit more down here, but they're still definitely cheap. I just got a bunch from Henrys (they sell them in bulk) and am planning to use my crock pot a lot. :) Do you have some good recipes you'd like to share?

4) I use cloth rags but haven't made the switch to cloth napkins yet. Do you find that you get over-run with laundry? I often feel like I can't keep up with laundry anyway, so I'm a little worried about adding another frequent item!

Thanks again!

Ma Torg said...

1. Bread flour costs about $3 too. However, I get about 5 sandwich loaves out of that plus 3-4 extra dough items (rolls, pizza dough, etc.) So, it does make a difference. Also, it is heftier and fills you more than storebought sandwich bread (so a half sandwich feels like a sufficient meal).
2. I'll email you some recipes tonight or tomorrow. Don't have time to type them up right now!!!
3. I love, love, LOVE cloth napkins! We have 16 napkins. They're small, cocktail size (so they look like an folded paper napkin). I got them at a Crate and Barrel outlet but you can make your own. They fit into any load. I just throw them in as they get dirty and since they're light material, they're dry in an hour. So, I haven't noticed any laundry difference.

Ma Torg said...

Well, rather type out all the recipes, I'm going to just tell you my favorites and the resources, then you can request further recipe if you wish. The first two are just real easy and cheap. The rest are a bit more involved but still simple. All vegetarian.

Good investments: The Gourmet Slow Cooker (some veggie options. I halve meat portions in recipes and subsitute potatoes for the rest of the portion). Fresh from the Vegetarian Slow Cooker (still getting familiar with this one but have liked what I've tried)

1.Slow cook some dried beans. Throw in some herbs, salt and garlic for extra flavor. Buy some tortillas and have bean burritos.

2.1 lb dried beans, slow cooked overnight. Drain and rinse. Add 28 oz. canned diced tomatoes, sauteed large onion, chili powder. Slow cook on low. Add salt to taste (and I like a little brown sugar too). You can add more veggies and ground beef too.

3.Dal. My favorite version is from Joy of Cooking. But, the Gourmet Slow Cooker has a pretty good recipe too. this can be served over rice or eaten with Naan bread (I usually make homemade Naan).

4. Slow cooked bell peppers stuffed with curried potatoes and peas

5. Chunky tomatoe sauce over slow cooked polenta (I always use leftover sauce for pizza later)

6. Slow cooked split pea soup (can also be flavored with a smoke pork chop which costs $3 or so)

7. Tamale Pie with pinto beans

8. Potato Cheddar and Chive slow cooked soup

9. Chickpea Curry

10. Half Day Slow cooke Ratatouille

11. Lazy Day favorite: Fried egg and broiled potatoes over spinach with homemade dijon mustard dressing.

I really use thousands of recipes. I cook the same thing maybe once a month!

Rebecca said...

My fav chopping implement: the food processor. If you get the attachments that chop and grate, etc. you can do all your chopping for the week at a go and have it ready to throw into whatever. Also, though it is more expensive than standard head lettuce, I buy big tubs of baby greens at Sam's and we eat those for a week or two with almost every dinner. There are lots of different kinds of lettuce and they have good nutrition.

Becks said...

Hi Em!

I thought I would add my two cents as well :) over the past year, I realized that most if not ALL of my health problems were related to the food that I eat. I first started realizing this when I read an article in Time Magazine about diet and fertility, and it has really hit home for me when I discovered that I have Celiac disease and my body can't digest wheat. It is almost mind-blowing to me that diet alone has caused diabetes, fibromyalgia, and infertility. I have been convinced that a healthy diet of fresh, seasonal, organic fruits, vegetables, grains and meats are just as healthful and vital as medicine.

Over the past year I have come to believe that the food we put in our bodies is worth spending more money on, because what is more important than the health of you and your family? I used to spend $25 a week on groceries, mostly on 1$ freezer meals, canned soup, cheap spaghetti, and Top Ramen (and that was without the grocery game). My goal was the spend the minimum possible and not feel hungry. Now I spend my money on fresh seasonable vegetables, organic meat, eggs and milk, and whole grains. I now spend about $60 - $70 a week, but I consider it to be worth it because I am SO much healthier! In our family, we have just decided that eating healthy food is a priority, and if we have to pinch in other places, so be it. Our health is just too important to mess around.

Linds said...

We've found that when we buy 'unhealthy' foods (high in sugar peanut butter, etc.), we eat more, but not because we're hungry, just because we like how it tastes and it's not terribly filling in a nutritious way. When we made an effort to buy more nutritious foods, we found we ate less, felt better, and it ended up costing about the same in the long run. Though, of course, we weren't doing the Grocery Game thing.

Bethany said...

Ah, the dilemma--eat healthy or eat cheap. But, as nearly everyone has pointed out, it isn't really an either or. Great suggesions, too. I'm going to use some of them.

My suggestion might sound a little out there and impractable, but it truly is a great solution: MOVE!

Seriously, the cost of living in other parts of the country is so much less than L.A. Also, everything is a lot closer and grocery stores carry more variety because, well, there aren't tons of specialty store options around town. At first I was inconsolable at the loss of Trader Joe's, but then I realized that I could get most of the same stuff at my grocery store if I knew where to look.

Obviously, jobs and family are sometimes overwhelming obstacles to my little plan, but I have to say that life in a smaller (though not tiny) city is much easier in many ways--not the least of which is the cheaper price of groceries and the greater convenience of getting those groceries. And contrary to popular opinion, many times groceries in smaller cities are of equal or greater quality.

I know this isn't a solution you can use now or anything, but it is a more radical way of solving the kind of problem you're facing.

I highly recommend living in Texas. :)

Btw, congratulations on your pregnancy!

Amber said...

This is a subject I've thought a lot about, but I find that after reading through the other comments I'm not sure I have anything left to say! I think that the most important thing to keep in mind though is that you are not making an apples to apples comparison when you look at a rice a roni meal with a bland salad vs. a whole grain meal with real vegetables. Yes, it costs more, but you are getting a lot more too for your money. I'd argue that you're getting far more bang for your buck with the second meal than the first, even though it might cost 2-3 times (or more!) as much.

Also think about the tastes you are cultivating in your children. Would you rather they aquire a taste for more wholesome and healthier foods when they are young or would you rather they had to try and make the switch (if they ever do that is) when they are older - either still under your roof or as adults?

Another thing that other commenters have alluded to - good food goes a long way in helping someone's overall health. Not everyone is going to have as dramatic results as Becks (since, thankfully not many of us have Celiac's disease) but still we've found that since switching to a better diet 5+ years ago we've had more energy, almost no problems with weight gain and healthy weight maintenance and just better health all around.

Right now our diet isn't as good as it used to be, and for the most part I'm ok with that. I used to almost never use white flour, and certainly not in breads, but now that I have a bread maker (a mixed blessing, I think) that's pretty much all I make. I used to never serve white rice, but now I serve that probably 80% of the time (which ends up being almost once a week) I do buy graham crackers and saltines regularly now, but we always eat them with cheese or peanut butter, so it isn't just a junk snack. All in all though, I think we still do pretty well. We eat beans at least twice a week, meat probably only twice a week (although this week is an exception) and we do pretty well on the fruits and vegetables. The only things I buy in a box (other than the crackers I already mentioned) are dried pasta. I do let the kids have Kraft Mac N' Cheese once a week (shudder) because they aquired a taste for it at my mom's and I decided to humor them. The only canned things I buy are diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and an occasional can of peaches in lite syrup. I try never to buy anything with corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils in it, and I find that guideline helps keep out most of the stuff that can only loosely be called food.

Oh, and we've used cloth napkins for years and I don't find it a problem at all. I have probably a dozen of them and I keep a basket on top of my washer for used napkins and towels. Each person's napkin will get used for a couple meals then into the basket it goes, to be washed next time I do laundry. Same with dishtowels, and it seems I do laundry enough that I almost never run out of clean towels or napkins.

As for the whole grocery shopping thing - I used to have it really well figured out and now that we've moved I'm still trying to figure out what works best. At this point I'm thinking I'll hit Trader Joe's once a month for olive oil, peanut butter, reduced sugar organic strawberry jam (we ran out of our homemade strawberry *sniff sniff*), and a few other things. I'm toying with the idea of hitting WinCo at the same time and stocking up on a lot of the other dried staples because they are a lot cheaper than the stores up here. Otherwise, I'm trying to decide between Safeway and SaveMart. Dry goods are cheaper at Safeway, but produce and dairy are cheaper at SaveMart. Meat is hard to say - sales are cheaper at Safeway but everyday is better at SaveMart... and then there's the quality issue. *sigh* I really don't have the endurance to do both, so I think I need to pick one. At this point I'm thinking about really simplifying my menu planning and therefore my grocery shopping - something I thought I would never due, but with life as it is right now it is starting to look better and better. There is going to be time for lots of new recipes and fancy cooking again someday, right? *grin*

OK, this is more than long enough, and I think it is time to head out to the library and the property for a bit. I hope this helps and wasn't too scattered! Perhaps I'll have to try and post something more organized on my blog, since I've been thinking about it a lot anyways. Hmmm...

Amber said...

I just saw how long my comment was and I had to laugh. Nothing left to say indeed!

LOL :-)

Anonymous said...

Just a few comments: Trader Joe's has a healthy peanut butter for only $1.89 I think, and their ww pastas are very reasonable. I think they went up to $1.29 now for a one pound package-not nearly as cheap a Pasta Roni for .10 a box but much less than grocery or health food store prices. I have found that their bananas and baby carrots as well as eggs and milk are cheaper than what I can find in the grocery stores and the milk is rBST free. And, in case this is an option at all, the Trader Joe's in Redlands is not more than a 10 minute drive from where Gabe is now and it is usually a very quick in & out trip for me. Perhaps once in a while he could pick up some things on his lunch hour? I'd be glad to meet him there and show him around at first if that would help.
Lastly, one other source for ww pasta is Wal-Mart. Ours here remodeled a while ago to include more food items (not a Super Wal-Mart though)and sells 12-13 oz packages for $.88.

Mom M.

kel said...

I suggest making that trip to Trader Joes and really looking at the price of some of your staples. They have some fancy things that are expensive, but a lot of their stuff is really inexpensive. You might find that they have a lot of things like peanut butter that doesn't have the added unhealthy stuff, and is cheap too. You might be happy w/ their selection and prices on pasta, peanut butter, etc. As a backup meal, we found boxed macaroni there that is super good, pretty cheap, and actually has real cheese in it - more natural than the other kind.

Good luck!

Ewokgirl said...

First, you need to shop in the way that makes the most sense for your family. Don't bother chasing bargains if it stresses you out and makes it more difficult with kids in tow.

Second, I think you need to eat according to your conscience. If eating all-natural, whole-grain, etc. products is important to you, and you can afford to do so, then I think you should.

As for cutting costs so that this remains an affordable option, seek out healthy recipes with inexpensive ingredients. Beans really are an easy thing to make. Make a lot and freeze some of it. I made a big pot of black beans for a party, then froze what was left. Earlier this week, I pulled them out of the freezer to make a cold black bean salad.

Honestly, I'm finding that cooking with healthy whole grains and beans and veggies is really quite inexpensive, and the time and effort isn't really any different from other meals. Well, obviously, it's not as simple as dumping things from a box into a pot, but really, the extra effort is minimal.

SAHMmy Says said...

Great questions! I tend to center my worry about nutrition on fiber. Most foods that are high in fiber are also high in other nutrients and/or are whole foods. I don't buy anything with high fructose corn syrup--it's always expensive, processed junk. It does take extra planning (and yes chopping!) to make meals nutritious but I think it's worth it in the end. We eat lots of raw fruits/veggies, but I'll make a huge batch of marinara, beans, etc. and freeze portions for later use. When I get a great deal on seasonal fruit like berries or peaches I freeze some for use in pancakes or smoothies--great when you're craving strawberries midwinter when they cost $5/pint!