Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eat Cheap and Healthy: How to Help Others?

Last week, we posted Food Money Matters: Why Healthy Eating Doesn’t Have to be Expensive, in which we asked readers if you thought eating healthy and frugally was possible.

The response was overwhelming, wonderful, and skewed towards “Heck yeah!” While I know CHG readers may be a tad pre-disposed, it's comforting to think we’re not taking crazy pills over here.

However, my post was a little short on solutions, and one of the last commenters, GrowingRaw, brought up an excellent question. If y’all are up for it, this week I would love to brainstorm some ideas:

What are the best ways to identify and offer help to people who may be interested in improving their eating habits and health? Given other difficult stuff that goes on in people's lives, how reasonable is it to expect their diet to be a priority? What's a reasonable amount of support to offer without being patronising or creating dependencies?

Michelle Obama’s obesity initiative is a solid start to long-lasting institutional change. But on a personal level, the issue is (as always) fraught with tension and complicated emotions. So, how can we help others to eat healthy and inexpensively without being jerks about it?

Though I don’t know the answers, I have some ideas (listed below), and I’d super-like to hear more from y’all. Together, I think we can do a lot of good.

Don’t assume folks want to be helped.
They may be perfectly happy the way they are. They may be completely knowledgeable about nutrition and finances. They may just be trying to put food on the table. They may be too dang busy. They may have four kids and one stream of income. They may have genuinely attempted to change their eating habits, with little luck. They may be using food as an affordable form of comfort (which is totally fine). Situations differ, and that's okay. If someone isn't receptive to your ideas, now may not be the time.

Don’t assume your experience is universal, or that you know better than others.
Entering a situation assuming you’re the expert can be a turnoff. Because the stay-at-home mother of four in Tallahassee leads a very different lifestyle than the single Brooklyn food blogger (represent!). Our income, routine, storage, time, skills, transportation, and nutritional needs don’t match up, and what applies for me may not apply for her.

Cook for someone.
Make a wonderful, inexpensive meal for someone you love. Casually mention the price tag, maybe? If it doesn’t take too long, definitely mention the time of preparation. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, maybe the roasted chicken or turkey chili.

Start a potluck.
Try to incorporate a theme. Put a cost cap on the dishes, or have everyone make something from scratch. Offer ideas to others, if they need ‘em. Turning food into a social event is a good way to get people involved in its creation.

Take somebody grocery shopping.
She/he might be wowed by how much food you buy for so few dollars. One of the reasons I started cooking more frugally was seeing what Crystal could snag for $60. I didn’t know it was possible.

Be available for questions.
Answer them to the best of your knowledge, and without judgment.

Start a multi-family shopping pool.
This idea comes from reader chacha1: “Once a family decides to eat healthy they will find a way to get to the places where they can buy proper food. I think this is something churches could be organizing, but individuals [can] think creatively about doing multi-family shopping pools, etc.”

Last week, a lot of commenters mentioned that cooking and shopping classes could be helpful. If you have the knowledge, skills and time, why not share ‘em?

And with that, the comments are open. Assuming they want to be helped, how can we assist others in their quest to eat healthy and frugally?

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Dyan said...

I don't know how it would work logistically, but I think it'd be wonderful if grocery store chains (particularly lower price ones like Aldi) had some sort of outreach with their stores, where they had either employees or volunteers in store that could advise shoppers on healthy/affordable choices. I might try it myself, but there's part of me that worries that people don't take too well to unsolicited advice.

Anonymous said...

Under "don't assume" - you can't assume much. The wife of a friend wanted to watch me cook. I kept writing recipes for her. She couldn't read. She really needed to watch me cook and memorize what I was doing (since what I was doing that she wanted to learn was baking complicated cakes, that wasn't a successful strategy).

Lisa (newRDcook) said...

Thanks for this discussion! Just a few thoughts I had... I think so much of eating healthy comes down to priorities - certainly eating well takes commitment and the understanding that what you consume affects quality of life. What people have access to and what they can afford are also key factors in determining food choice (Reference the new USDA Food Atlas - http://www.ers.usdagov/FoodAtlas/).
I think initiatives like Farm to School and anything that can instill healthy behaviors at a very young age are also very beneficial to develop life-long habits. Personally, I hope the “Let’s Move” campaign prompts the government to reevaluate current food policy (i.e. subsidies), as so much of what we see on the shelves of supermarkets and corner stores is a direct result of what the industry can produce cheaply and plentifully.

KitschenBitsch said...

The awesomeness continues! What I have to add is really just touching on what you built on throughout the comments -- clearly be an example.

A friend of mine is going through tough times and is not really culinarily inclined (mainly due to a busy life and a lack of experience in the kitchen). I told her about your $26 chicken fiesta awhile back and suggested she come over and watch me roast the chicken, make chicken salad, and boil the leavings for chicken pastry. She gets food and experience and can see that she can get in on making nutritious food that is in fact cheaper than a pallet of Chef Boyardee.

With your example about taking over a dish and casually mentioning the price, also mention how good it is and how easy/quick it is to make. Some people think cooking is some magical dark art, and can we blame them, considering how ridiculous foodies (I'm really wagging a finger at myself here) can be sometimes? Healthy and cheap cooking is only rocket science when we make it that way (and there's nothing wrong with turning our roasted chicken into NASA projects, but it's definitely not how we want to introduce someone to bettering their culinary experiences -- let's start with the little volcano made with baking soda and vinegar, and move slowly toward building rockets).

Ona said...

One great program that addresses exactly what you're discussing is Share Our Strength's Operation Frontline program. Over a six-week class series, participants learn basic nutrition information, cooking skills, and how to shop on a budget (including one class devoted to a grocery store tour.) I've been volunteering with them for almost three years, and from what participants have told me, it really does make a big difference! Here's the homepage:

Kristine said...

Make it fun!
Who wants to feel like they're sitting in their high school biology class again?

Don't expect overnight change.
I was fairly frugal in college, but probably not as much as I should have been. And healthy? Ha! I did the "most calories for least cost" thing way too often.

Recipe sharing potlucks can be awesome! Simple cooking classes can be lots of fun.

And I agree. Be careful with unsolicited advice. Even when they want help, they don't want to feel judged.

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea of not assuming that you know best for everyone. Living in Alaska is costly when it comes to food, there are some places where a gallon of milk is over $8 bucks. Fresh vegetables and fruits are costly where ever you are up here. Even things like carrots that are grown here can be pricey if you don't watch out. That being said, I think that I really agree with Dyan that grocery stores could do outreach programs that focus on areas of the country. Not all of us live in cities where there are lots of options or where food is cheap. I'd also really like to see a REAL home economics class implemented in the schools. Finance, cuts of meat, taxes etc.

Wendy (The Local Cook) said...

I will be starting a Eat Local / in Season Bible study and challenge after Easter. I think a lot of it is education. They have to want it, but they have to go through a discovery process for themselves.

Alex said...

The problem I've been having is that most of the people I know who eat badly (processed food, fast food, junk food, 12 sodas a day, etc) tend to get that "Oh you're one of THOSE people" faces if I so much as mention the amazing tofu/veggie dish I had for dinner (no advice giving--just talking about the food I enjoy). Alternatively, the people I know who ARE interested, are already eating healthfully to the opposite extreme (vegan, raw food, organic, etc etc).

In the meantime, I cringe as my diabetic dad with heart problems eats Wendy's burgers and food loaded with HFCS, and my mom says they're "watching carbs" while downing platefuls of pasta every night. They really think they're eating right...but I know they're putting their health at risk, and "mainstream" ideas about nutrition don't do much to contradict them. So basically, in my corner of the world, it seems like truly eating well is considered...weird, or something, a "fringe" movement that a lot of folks view with skepticism or scorn.

Has anyone else experienced this? At this point, as much as I'd like to spread the love and knowledge, I feel like the only people I can talk to openly about food are already likeminded, which leads to the whole "preaching to the choir" issue.

Anonymous said...

I really like what you have and I've been practicing some of this first hand.

I have friends that want to be healthier so I supplied them through e-mail several recipes that I felt were quick, cheap, healthy and simple. They responded with "this recipe uses 10 ingredients, why so many?" Even though many of them were pantry staples for me I realize not everyone has a pantry and even a simple recipe can be intimidating. So then we focused on ONE recipe and I took them all shopping to pick up what they needed. Now that the initial fear is gone (and the realization that $20 can buy a lot of good food) they're ready to take on some of the recipes on their own.

The only thing I can add is a little patience can go a long way.

Rebecca said...

Exposure seems to be the first hurdle. If you hate broccoli, it doesn't matter how cheap it is, you won't buy it. Rutabaga? Who would even want a rutabaga? If someone you're close with hates veggies, the first step might be to prepare it for them in a way they like.

My boyfriend really doesn't like many veggies. Squash is only good when breaded and fried. (We're from the South; I love it that way, too, so I can't totally hate here.) Without being pushed into it, he did decide, however, that he needs to expand his taste buds, so to speak. Broccoli was definitely on his most hated list, but when I made a homemade cheese sauce to pour over it, he decided he could definitely eat it that way. (Not the most healthy way to go, but it's a start.) His salads used to consist of green leaf lettuce, crumbled ritz crackers, maybe some shredded cheddar cheese, and Italian dressing. Period. Now he's at least branching out to feta and adds carrots and sometimes vinegar-marinated cucumbers.

This is definitely not a "big picture" solution, but it's something to consider if you are close to someone who's eating habits kind of suck a little.

GrowingRaw said...

Thanks for continuing the discussion Kris, I'm finding it great food for thought.

It's also inspiring to realise knowledge and skills I consider simple and take for granted can be so valuable to others. That's if I can work out a way to effectively share them. My motives aren't solely about helping people by the way, I'm interested in helping the planet. Growing your own, eating more organic or local food, eating less meat... but for all that to work people have to enjoy what they eat.

I agree with KitschenBitch that our own healthy eating habits can have a positive ripple effect. I have a green smoothie habit that has gradually infected the rest of my extended family and many friends. When people are visiting I always make extra and share, and when I'm out and about drinking green goo out of a drink bottle people always ask. It started out as a bit of a joke for my family, but when they actually tried green smoothies they were surprised how yummy they were, especially after they saw all the spinach and beetroot leaves that went in them! I wasn't deliberately leading by example, I'd find that kind of condescending - but I was thrilled when my burger brother started drinking green smoothies every day. He still eats the other unhealthy stuff, but at least there's some vitamins and minerals mixed up with it now.

mollyjade said...

I agree with what you said about assuming that what works for one will work for another. A lot of cities have free cooking classes that are about cooking healthy and frugal. But I think they're often lacking in community members to be teachers. The message comes across a lot better if the person teaching the class lives like you and enjoys the same kinds of foods you do.

Also, I recently came across the food hierarchy of needs on a blog post, and I think it really explains why saying "beans and rice are cheap!" doesn't really help people to eat healthier.

Marcia said...

Great post! Sometimes I don't think we can do much. I've been into the frugal, simple, healthy food thing for years now. At work, in the lunchroom, it comes up as they look at my food. (I have found one person in my last 2 jobs more frugal than me). I mention that I have a food blog, and my blog directs people to other sites with good recipes and E-books.

I sent my mom for Xmas one year "minestrone soup in a jar". My family eats like Alex's family. There's nothing I can do to change it. Sometimes, it's just good that people get exposure to you. My in-laws were putting on weight many years ago (not that I'd noticed), and they are fairly healthy eaters. I was on Weight Watchers at the time and got the comment "I don't eat too much". Lo and behold, 4 years later they are telling me how they are shrinking their portions.

Kris said...

So far, the consensus seems to be leading by example - partnership and cooking exposure on a personal level, and supermarket activism on a local level.

Ona - I forgot about Share Our Strength. Thank you for the suggestion.

Alex - yes. My brother is that person (plus a heavy smoker) and refuses to talk about it. He's fairly young, but it's beginning to take a physical toll, and it can be frustrating to watch. I hear you.

Jane said...

I also have a year long green smoothie habit that has converted several family members and my adult children. They are all converting workmates and friends! I had to print up an info card to give them (what/why/how etc) to give to people. As a teacher I am so inspired by this that I want to find more ways of getting kids and people making/drinking green smoothies. This is a simple easy step to start eating more healthy raw fresh foods-and hopefully keeps people away from processed foods in the supermarkets and fast foods.

GrowingRaw said...

Jane, that info card is a great idea. Do you have an electronic copy? I have a web page about drinking green smoothies that might be useful for referring people to. I think small, painless steps are the way to go.

Of course, there's an assumption here that people can afford a blender to get started.

While I was at the library yesterday a recent survey in The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health leapt out at me. It's synchronicity, because this discussion was in my mind.

The title is "A healthy diet consistent with Australian health recommendations is too expensive for welfare-dependent families". The report echoed many of the comments in this and last Wednesday's discussion and concluded that the cost of healthy food habits requires about 40% of the income of welfare-dependent families. Families with an average income would need to spend about 20%. Obviously for those with lower incomes, having to allocate 40% of income to healthy eating is a challenge. (For interest, they also quoted a Canadian study of low-income earners that found a family of 4 would have to spend 35% of their income on healthy food.)

One point they mentioned was that although lower-income households might be able to save money by buying in bulk there were three obstacles to this; lack of transport (no car) to get bulk buys back home, limited storage facilities in the home and not having enough cash up-front to make bulk purchases. These kind of cost-saving strategies are more available to higher-income earners.

In their summing up the researchers, Christine Kettings and Andrew J Sinclair of Deakin University in Melbourne, stated that, "...efforts to publicly promote healthy food habits will only benefit all Australians if all Australians can afford healthy food."

I've also been wondering about how much it costs to eat poorly. We're talking about how much it costs to eat healthy food, but maybe it's simply expensive to eat, full stop! Do people really save much money buying take-away or heavily processed foods? Or are people living on instant noodles, soft drinks and twisties?

wosnes said...

I think many people would like to know how to cook and eat more frugally (and that may be a priority) and if that happens to promote health, too -- it's a bonus. However I think the very people who are encouraging healthy eating are doing the most to discourage people from eating in a way that promotes health.

Healthy food has a bad reputation. At best it's seen as tasteless cardboard or unappetizing rabbit food. At worst, swill that should be poured on the compost heap. Food got "healthy" about the same time we started eating nutrients instead of food -- during the 1980s. We've referred to it as "healthy" and encouraged the consumption of it since then -- all the while getting more and more unhealthy.

Michael Pollan isn't telling us to "eat healthy food." He tells us to "eat food." Food promotes health; edible food-like substances don't. The French, Italians, Greeks, Japanese and others he encourages us to emulate didn't eat "healthy" food; they ate simply prepared, basic food and it was tasty.

Most people aren't foodies. They aren't seduced or enticed by the gourmet-sounding recipes created by the food professionals. They don't want high-falutin, elitist sounding food; they want simply prepared, tasty food.

I think the first two steps in teaching people to eat cheap and good are: 1) stop emphasizing health and 2) make simple, tasty food. No matter if you're going to teach groups or individuals, know your audience. Most people are never going to eat tofu or drink green smoothies, and that's okay. The very first step might be to show people that they can eat well and more frugally by avoiding the cans and boxes and cooking what they like from scratch. I think Marian Burros showed in the 1980s that you can make a Hamburger Helper type dish from scratch for less money and in about the same amount of time. You're probably not going to take people from Hamburger Helper to Pumpkin Turkey Chili.

Before even those first two steps -- start a conversation. My neighbor and I are often out at the same time with our dogs. Our dogs like to play together, and we talk while they play. As it will, talk has turned to food very often. She never really learned how to cook, has cooked from boxes or cans or consumed fast or casual restaurant food. I've always cooked and my food philosophy is "mostly homemade." She couldn't believe that I cooked nearly everything from scratch; I couldn't believe that she cooked nearly nothing from scratch. She has numerous health issues and I'm convinced that most of them have to do with diet. During our conversations I told her what I knew about manufactured foods, additives and so on. She didn't know this. She's taking baby steps to improve the way she eats and is cooking more. I don't suggest that she changes her food preferences, just that she use real food instead of manufactured foods.