Science Thursday: “Whole Foods” on a Budget

(Disclaimer 1: This is not a sponsored post. None of the brands/products mentioned have in no way contacted me or tried to influence my opinions, this is all just down to my personal preference)

It’s Thursday (Or it was when I started writing this)! And that means science. Last week I updated my (and consequently, your) knowledge and opinions on sugar as part of my diet. This week is a type of follow-up, continuing on in the theme of food.

Learning all of this ~stuff~ about food means I’ve spent a lot of time talking, listening, and watching about food. Through this, I’ve noticed something incredibly bothersome. When most people outline healthy eating, they do so with little to no regard to cost.

I mentioned that I plan to do a full review of Cameron Diaz’s The Body Book, but I will tell you right now one of the problems I have with the book is how expensive the food she talks about eating is. Wood-fire grilled salmon. Zucchini noodles. For a regular middle-class family, eating those things more than once in a blue moon isn’t realistic. Do you have any idea how many zucchini it would take to make enough noodles to feed a family of four? A lot, is the answer. A lot.

One of the documentaries showed their ignorance in full display by claiming that the reason poorer people didn’t eat healthy diets of whole, fresh foods was because they don’t know any better. What kind of person is so out of touch with reality that they think a person’s income determine’s their ability to recognize that an apple is better for you than a McDonald’s hamburger?

There is a documentary that address this issue of cost, Food Inc., investigating why it benefits food companies for the general population to continue to eat processed foods. I will leave the watching up to you, but chances are, if you’ve been to a grocery store, you’ve noticed things in the produce section tend to cost more per unit than the boxed food in the aisles.

There’s an implication that “healthy eating” is only for people who can afford to buy all-organic lovingly-raised food from Whole Foods or Trader Joes or going to the Farmer’s market once a week. I call bullshit. Which is why I’m here. There are simple or sneaky swaps that give you the most bang for your bite.

(Disclaimer 2: I am not a dietitian; I am not trying to advise your health. I’m sharing some of the secrets I’ve learned over the years about improving my diet without going broke. I also share this information with the assumption that you, the reader, has access to a conventional grocery store – I know that’s not the case for everyone. )

  • Coupons – Let’s be clear. I hate couponing. I think it’s a waste of time for too little reward. I am not the type of person to go through every periodical so I can maximize my savings. However, there is a website where you can scroll through, click the coupons you want, and have them all printed out together. Save time any money all at once!
  • READ YOUR LABELS – How much fat, sugar, protein, salt, carbohydrates, and fiber is in the foods you’re eating? If a food is too high in one of these but too low in everything else, then it isn’t a balanced food, and you can actually be wasting money, because the food isn’t fueling your body completely, and you need to eat more to get all of your necessary nutrients.
  • If you’re feeling real motivated, separate your grocery list by section – I’ll admit it, I don’t like the grocery store, and I try to spend as little time there as possible. Even when there’s only one other person in the store, it just always feels incredibly crowded to me. So when I make my list, I make it in a way that increases the efficiency of the trip. By now, I know the exact lineup of departments when I go into the store, (bath & pharmacy, home goods, dairy, boxed, etc.), and I order my list accordingly. By now I also know what most of the things I buy regularly cost, so I have a rough estimate of how much the trip is going to cost me.I’m aware this sounds like I’m a few cards short of a deck, but there’s a benefit to this. First, when I go in with a list, I’m less likely to impulse by 6 packs of oreos. Second, by organizing my list this way, I’m unintentionally keeping track of my diet. Last month I had over $50 of dairy products on my grocery list, which is basically saying I had planned on dedicating $50 of my grocery budget to fatty protein. That’s not good for my wallet, or my bathroom.
  • Tortillas over bread – Bread isn’t really unhealthy, but it is very carb-loaded. A single serving of bread is actually only one slice (I know, right?), so if you eat a lot of sandwiches, those carbs add up quick. Tortillas are lower in carbs, and they cost less! Where I live, a loaf of bread is about $3.50. A 10-count pack of tortillas is only $2.
  • Generics are fine!!! – Generic or off-brand doesn’t automatically mean there’s something wrong with it. Sometimes the generic version of something actually has less junk in it than the name brand version (yogurt is a good example of this)!
  • Frozen/Canned veggies and fruits are also fine! – This is more of a personal opinion than absolute fact. I think the whole “picked at the peak of freshness” line is a gimmick used to make you think that canning or freezing food automatically lowers the nutritional value (how would you even measure the peak of freshness anyway?). Obviously if the food is stored in salty or sugary juice, that’s less healthy than the fresh food, but a green bean is still a green bean, right? It doesn’t automatically become a deep-fried mars-bar because it’s stored in a can (if only!). And frozen raspberries are still healthier than frozen fudge pops. So long as you’re checking the sodium or sugar content of the food (and most brands now offer low-sodium or natural juice options for canned goods), there’s no reason to get down on yourself because you aren’t buying asparagus from a farmer that reads to his crops every night.
  • (Some) Boxed food is fine too! – This definitely goes along with reading your labels, because in some cases, boxed, dried food is just sugary, preservative-filled, emulsified something-something, chemical powder. But sometimes it’s just dried. Instant potatoes are a good example of this. Knorr pasta sides are another good example. They’re high in carbs but low in sugar, have a good amount of protein, the fat isn’t too high, and the salt level is reasonable.
  • Some food keepers are worth the investment – One of the problems with fresh food is that it can go bad before you have a chance to eat it. You don’t want to have to be buy fruit every week, and you can’t buy in bulk because it will go bad before you have a chance to eat it. But things like Rubbermaid FreshWorks and Debbie’s Green Bags help produce last longer. I buy a huge container of spinach once a month, and when I get home I immediately transfer it to a FreshWorks container. It ends of lasting the whole month, no problem. Before that, I used to separate it out into a bunch of different tupperware and top the container with a paper towel to absorb moisture. It worked just as well, and was cheaper (if a bit tedious). That container of spinach cost as much as a salad kit, but it feeds me for several more meals.
  • Don’t skip the produce section – I know we’ve been over that the food in the produce section is usually more expensive, but you can find some good deals there, too. At one of my local grocery stores, produce that’s in season is usually dirt cheap, and there’s almost always a sale on some kind of fruit they’re trying to get rid of to make space for more fruit. Last time I went, I had planned on just getting a bag of chips and a candy bar, but I came out with big bags of cherries and grapes because they had too many and had put them on sale for $1.99/ lb.
  • Some things are better from scratch – Listen. I am not immune to marketing. Cute packaging is good. Bright colors are good. Junk food at a party is good. Buying it the store? Not good. It’s gonna have too much sugar, preservatives, and it’s expensive! Here are a few things that are better just to make at home:
    • Iced Tea/ Lemonade: A tin of iced tea mix is $6 at my local Walmart. A 100-count box of black tea bags is $2. If you can boil water and the patience to cool the tea for a couple of hours, then you my friend have the skills to make iced tea. And by having to add the sugar yourself, you’re more conscious of how much you’re adding. Bonus, tea comes in a lot of fun flavors, so you can really get creative there. There’s a similar story with lemonade. The mix is expensive, and very sugary, but instead you can buy a box of True Lemon packets and make it yourself. I add a packet of true lemon and 2 sugar packets to my water, and I have Chik-fil-A-level tasty drink with less than 10 grams of sugar (Shout out to my mother for introducing these magical things to me).
    • Pizza: Everybody loves pizza. If you don’t like pizza, I suspect that you might actually be a robot. Ordering out for pizza gets pricey pretty fast, especially if you like toppings (I like toppings), and while frozen pizzas are okay, you’re limited on topping selection, and there are a lot of preservatives in those suckers. But a packet of quick-rise pizza dough mix is $0.75, cheese and sauce together about $5, and you can have whatever toppings you want. Now, I am not the type of person that likes to spend more than 20 minutes cooking, so believe me when I tell you that making pizza from scratch isn’t as time-consuming as it may seem. It the time it takes me to decide what kind of pizza I want, order it, then drive to pick it up, I could also have made my own pizza.
    • Flavored oatmeal: A single serving of Lucky Charms has almost half the amount of sugar as a single-serve packet of apple-cinnamon oatmeal. Sure, oatmeal has more fiber, and a single serving of Lucky Charms is only 3/4 cup (could you survive of 3/4 cup of cereal? Because I couldn’t), but that’s still a shocking about of sugar. Instead, buy the plain instant oatmeal, and top with your own fruit (fresh, frozen, dried, whatever) and maybe some chocolate chips or honey. You’ll be amazed how good it tastes, and it doesn’t take any extra time, unless you need to cut up the fruit.

I know this has been a longer post full of a lot of information, but I just wanted to make it clear once again that eating well is not only for people who can afford to shop at high-profile “health food” stores. Eating well does not require you to go to the grocery store every day or every week to pick up only the freshest ingredients.  Eating well sure as hell doesn’t require you to spend hours in the kitchen cooking every day.

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