Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spend Less, Eat Healthier: The Five Most Important Things You Can Do

Should you cut coupons? How do you make a grocery budget? What is high fructose corn syrup? Is an organic cantaloupe better for you than a regular cantaloupe? Where do you find a farmer’s market?

Between the time, ethics, and effort involved, food shopping is inherently pretty complicated. Add nutrition and budget factors, and it becomes one of the most difficult regular chores anyone can undertake. Seriously, we’re not talking about vacuuming here. (No offense to all the professional vacuumers out there.)

But what if it was simpler? What if there were a few rules anyone could follow that would ease the load? What if buying inexpensive, good food was as intuitive as flipping your Hoover’s ON switch?

Look no further, my sweets.

Right here, right now (Van Hagar aside), are the five best actions you can take to accomplish those noble goals. Essentially, it’s this entire blog distilled into a handful of its most vital tenets; rules that should significantly impact the way you consider the supermarket.

RULE #1: Buy produce in-season.
Related article: Dr. Veg-love, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Seasonal Produce
Forget labels. Ignore manufacturer promises. Pay no attention to organics (for now, anyway). When you’re purchasing fruits and vegetables, the single most important step you can take is sticking to the appropriate season. Buy asparagus in early spring, peaches in late summer, and squash in fall and winter. The food will taste better, which will make you want it more. It will be substantially cheaper than buying out-of-season. And generally, it will have traveled less of a distance, easing the production’s impact on the environment.

RULE #2: Use the circular.
Related article: The Circular Game: Decoding Your Supermarket Weekly
For some, coupons are invaluable. When correctly applied, they can save billions on the food bill and fill a fridge with myriad good-for-you groceries. But I’m convinced, for the casual shopper, that adhering to the weekly circular is a more useful strategy. For one thing, it’s a less complicated process; you read the circular, you buy the food on sale. For another thing, loss leaders (the stuff on Page 1) usually offer significant savings over any coupon (or, when paired with them). Finally, you can plan your whole menu on what’s available that week. Speaking of that…

RULE #3: Make a plan.
Related article: Weekly Menu Planning for Singles, Couples, and Working People
Between a grocery list, a weekly menu, and a modest price book (though, you could even skip this part), you will have all the tools you need to both limit and optimize your food purchases. Seriously, there’s nothing like having a strategy: you waste less, buy exactly what you need, and (well, almost) never have to worry about what to eat at night. Calories are controlled, money is saved, everybody wins.

RULE #4: Cook.
Related article: Free Cooking Lessons (No, Seriously)
Granted, this is easier said than done, especially if you don’t know a sauté pan from Peter Pan. Still, it can’t be overstated: cooking at home is infinitely cheaper than eating out. We’re talking THOUSANDS of dollars a year, here. Plus, on the dietary side, you’re able to control portion size, as well as what goes into your food. Once you’re into the habit of using your kitchen, the whole endeavor becomes much easier, too. So really, it’s just a question of getting started.

RULE #5: Stock up on sales.
Related article: Pantry of the Gods
You love beans. You use them in everything, up to and including chili, curry dishes, and breakfast cereal. But you have a tendency to buy them last-minute at the bodega across the street, costing you a small fortune. STOP THE MADNESS. If you know you use an item regularly (beans, pasta, etc.), wait for sales and buy as much as you can reasonably store. Personally, I go through canned tomatoes like I go through socks, and they run about 40% less when I stock up ahead of time. Go forth and conquer.

BONUS RULE #6: Relax.
Related article: Relax, Frugal Eater: A Measured Approach to Lifestyle Changes
It’s hard enough making lasting changes in your expenditures and eat…eritures. (What? That’s a word.) Don’t sabotage yourself by going whole-hog. Allow for some leeway. Reward yourself. Relax. Have a glass of wine. It’ll make the transition much easier, and you won’t go completely tweak in the process.

And that’s it. Readers, what do you think? Did I miss something? What are your Top 5? Do tell.

(Photos courtesy of Work at Home Using Your Computer, GeoParent, and Reader's Digest.)

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Adam said...

Thanks for throwing this list together. I'm just rolling back into blogging again after a hiatus. Your site is pretty awesome.

Oh, and nice Van Hagar reference... I'm glad your site "walked in" :)

Carrie said...

The one thing I would add is when you do cook make leftovers. Then you're good to go in a pinch or when you just don't feel like cooking.

It's Frugal Being Green

Geoff K said...

I love the baby pictures. The top baby looks like someone demanded the baby tell them the meaning of life.

Dulcey said...

Ditto what Carrie said -- and an added bonus when you can make something that can be used as a component in something else (i.e. roast chicken). Then you're not eating the same thing. BTW, I always roast 2 chickens, then make stock. LOTS of meals.

DEO said...

Good ideas all!

I would add this to #4, maybe: BYO lunch to work!

A couple others:
-Always buy generic, when applicable
-If you're set on following a recipe, and it calls for some ingredient you don't have, think of ways to substitute it or consider omitting it altogether. (again, if applicable). This also goes back to #4 -- you kind of have to learn how to cook in order to learn how to improvise.
-Buy dried beans instead of canned
-Try to eat mostly vegetarian meals
-Avoid snacking, if possible
-Take advantage of your freezer! I'm sure you saw it already, but the Minimalist column yesterday was all about that. Had no idea you could freeze wine or egg whites!

Thanks for the great post!


Anonymous said...

Great list and easily accomplished.

Daniel said...

Kris, you've helped shape a lot of my thinking over the years with your work here at CHG, and it's a pleasure to get the pure essence of your philosophy of food in these six basic rules.

Yes, it really IS that simple!

Casual Kitchen

Kris said...

Dan, you're the best. Thank you :)

These are great ideas, everybody. Keep 'em coming!

Little Miss Moneybags said...

I agree with bringing a lunch to work!

Also, do an honest evaluation of whether a bulk store like Costco or Sam's Club would help you save money. We saved more than $50 (the annual membership fee!) in less than two months on chicken and mozzarella cheese alone. It won't work for everyone, but if you eat the same foods frequently, it can help to stock up at these stores.

Cat Scott said...

I was really inspired by the article you linked to about cooking only from the pantry. At least one or two of my meals a week are born from the fruitful lovemaking of pantry items and freezer foods. Saves me tons of cashola, and we like cashola!

liz said...

Great tips! I also agree with Carrie--I make "on purpose" leftovers.

kmbarnhart said...

For me, I find that #2/Make a Plan is truly my #1 for the exact reasons you've cited -- calories saved (which is why I make the plan in the first place), I buy what I need, I use up what I open (half a can of green beans for dinner Tuesday night? the other half is for lunch Wednesday or Thursday).

Admitted, I'm buying for one, but without the plan, I eat out *way* too much. With a plan, I can get by on roughly $35 (or less) in groceries a week and that includes some convenience foods. But the plan also leads to more of #3/Cook.

I'd say that making a plan and cooking more often are far and away the top two ways I save money on food and eat healthier.

Kimm at Reinvented said...

Hi, I'm visiting from Like Merchant Ships, and I've got to say, I'm SO impressed with your site! I love it, and will be back frequently. Thanks!

the cottage child said...

Terrific post - I did a similar list, though less eloquently, last week....a couple of things I think are so important for new healthy at home eaters/new cooks
-take an inventory of what you own before you go to the grocery store
-commit to memory a half-dozen extremely easy recipes (mac and cheese, salad dressing), and another half-dozen meals that require no recipe (stir-fry, french bread pizza)
-be realisitic about what you and your family consume, quantity and taste-wise....I've found that waste inspires guilt, and ultimately a return to old restaurant and processed food habits.

I'm so glad to have found you!

KC said...

Great post. It's good to get that high-level snapshot of the relevant points.

Certainly having a menu plan has made a big difference to our grocery bill. And I do buy in bulk some of the basics like flour and rice.

Danica said...

From Nutrisystems we learned to love having prepackaged lunches available. Now I make soup or spaghetti or meatloaf in bulk, freeze it in individual plastic containers and grab one as I leave for work. Saves the money, time and gas I would spend buying a lunch.

Anonymous said...

Very good comments, I'll add a few more suggestions

1) Raised Bed Gardens
Even though there are several steps to this, it really is the simplest thing in the world.
(A)Build your boxes from the redwood decking plenty of folks are throwing out these days. If you have gophers, etc. use hardware cloth on the bottoms of the boxes.
(B)Fill with good soil and compost mix (purchased is great, or use your own compost with purchased soil). For the first year this good soil will work wonders. For future years you'll want to amend to restore nutrients but by then your momentum will be up!
(C) Set up automatic drip irrigation on a good quality timer. Relax, this part too is easier than tinker toys...
(D) Then start by planting the things you sort of are familiar with (tomatoes, cukes, beans, squash) then branch out to other stuff and varieties. I love growing food where I have no idea what the growing plant looks like, talk about trust the process!
Be sure to go out there and talk to your plants periodically. Compliment them on how beautiful they are and how much you appreciate their production for you.
(E)Then COOK with the stuff you've grown--Google recipes for those veggies, etc. You'll be amazed at how little effort is required to have a meal that is WAY BETTER than 90% of anything you've probably eaten your entire life!

2) Buy a good crock pot/slow cooker.
Prep your creation during the evening while watching TV, etc.
[Use this simple approach with three basic ingredients:
1. Mixed wet stuff (like crushed tomatoes or stock or water or wine)
2. bunches of chopped veggies of various types, from your garden as much as possible or in season
3. meat/chicken/fish etc.
Then saute the sturdier veggies and meat and onions first (use good quality olive oil or other well-chosen oil). Fill up the crock pot with the three ingredient types so that you have a soupy mixture with a good chunkiness to it but good liquid volume. Add some fresh herbs you also grew in the garden like oregano if tomato base, thyme if stock+wine base, also salt and pepper. Don't add too much salt as it can always be added later!
Refrigerate the assembled item overnight. In the morning run it on "high" while in the kitchen and then turn it to "low" when you leave for the day.
You'll be very happy when you return that night with a fresh baguette. You'll smell it before you even open the front door.

3) Buy a good pressure cooker so that you can cook beans quickly and easily.

4) Stock your pantry properly so that you have the basic ingredients necessary to make simple foods.

5) Learn to make your own chicken, fish, and meat stocks.

6) Obtain some good cookbooks that will give you guidance on branching out from the basics.

7) Realize that the kitchen is not some place that you slam into and fling packaged food around. The kitchen is a creative environment like an artist's studio. You need to build up your kitchen studio with the supplies and tools required to do good work there. It doesn't have to be fancy toy tools and hokey gadgets. For those who invest the proper attention and effort, your kitchen will become the place where magnificent real food is prepared. Warning: once you realize what such food tastes like, you may be dismayed at what passes for food nearly everywhere else.

Anonymous said...

Okay. I will post a comment that seems to contradict what everyone says- My farm with a CSA put it in their newsletter- go ahead and buy or acquire and use new things, compost waste if you need to, but don't be afraid to experiment. Their philosophy seemed to be go ahead and get the stuff home, the earth is fertile!
I have been less worried about using every little thing, I compost the waste and enjoy a full fridge. With seven kids, we go through lots of food, but I don't try to push things they don't want like reheated soups or limp salads, we are enjoying the bounty of the earth.
So my hint would be to go ahead and buy and use the fresh food your body wants! You'll feel great. It's cheap and healthy.

Stacie said...

I love the "cook once, eat for a week" philosophy. We mainly buy bulk grains, which saves moolah, then when cooking any grain (or bean or soup, etc), I make a big pot of it & save extras in the fridge. With leftover quinoa, millet or rice (for example), you can add them to ANY meal. Heat with chopped veggies, or add to soups, salads or stir-fries, throw in egg dishes or any ethnic food. It's truly fast food to re-use cooked grains, and my 2 year old often asks for "rice" (= reheated grain with chopped veggies) for dinner (guess I use this technique a lot!).