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A number of readers have emailed and asked me to blog about eating healthy on a tight budget. This article on how a single parent manages eating healthy on food stamps is illustrative of the challenge!
Despite an overall deflationary environment, the cost of food, particularly quality food, continues to rise at an alarming rate. I blogged a few months ago about how dangerous it is to eat lower quality food during these tough times because during times of stress, your body needs more nutrition than ever (particularly vitamin A – cod liver oil anyone?).
Have you ever noticed how you can cheat a little bit with the treats on vacation and still not get sick? It always amazes me how my kids can eat ice cream sundaes and chocolate chip cookies nearly every single day on vacation and still be bouncing around with high energy and rosy cheeks, yet the doing the same thing during the school year would result in illness after illness.
The reason is stress, in this case even the positive stress of learning at school. There isn’t much stress on vacation and this results is a lower body nutritional requirement. Lowering the standards you use to prepare food for your family is a recipe for disaster, pun definitely intended. You will spend infinitely more money at the doctor’s office on antibiotics and other prescriptions for the illnesses that will inevitably strike you and members of your family when eating quality food is not a priority during times of high stress.
Assuming this argument has validity, and I have no doubt that it does, then the next question begging to be answered is how to possibly maintain quality at the dinner table when the food budget is tighter than the tummy tucked belly of a Hollywood actress? Of course, there are innumerable ways to scrimp a few nickels here and save a few dollars there. A subscription to any number of penny pinching publications will quickly provide this information on an ongoing basis. While the cumulative effect of the quick tip approach to save money in the food budget definitely adds up, I consistently see 3 gaping holes in the approach most folks take in reducing their food bill while never sacrificing quality.
#1 Grind Your Own Flour
I know this seems so “Little House on the Prairie”, but the fact is that quality, grain based carbs at the store are very, very expensive, particularly the organic ones at the healthfood store that have decent ingredients. Make your own cookies, pancakes, waffles, breakfast cereal (see my blog from May 2008 for a fantastic recipe) etc. This may seem incredibly time consuming, but it is really not unless you are hopelessly disorganized and unmotivated. If this is the case, then you should be reading a different blog!
Seriously though, getting just a little bit organized in the kitchen will reap you big bucks in reducing the food budget. How? Grind once a month. Start out by grinding 20 cups of flour (grind more the next time if you run out of flour before the end of the month) and immediately freeze it in freezer grade ziplock bags. By freezing the flour right after grinding, you preserve the nutritional value of the flour (yes, flour from the store is a worthless, nutritionless, waste of money – even organic flours or sprouted flours), yet frozen flour can be used immediately out of the freezer, no thawing necessary. Buy your grain of choice in big 40 lb buckets from a local grain co-op, store them in your garage and grind once a month.
When you have a spare hour, make 50 waffles, pancakes, cookies or whatever you like and freeze those for very fast breakfasts and snacks. The convenient allure of “Leggo my Eggo” will quickly fade when you realize that you can make infinitely more nutritious, totally convenient and much much cheaper, high quality carbs yourself. Don’t have a grinder? Check out Ebay or Craigslist. Chances are you will easily find an excellent one for well under $100. I paid $50 for mine (brand new in the box) and I’ve been using it for years and its still going strong.
#2 Legumes, Legumes Everywhere
Legumes or pulses are an often overlooked source of cheap, quality protein. I realize that legumes such as beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts are not a complete protein, but when you combine them with some properly prepared grains and just a bit of meat, you have every amino acid covered in spades and good health can be maintained on a very tight budget. In the “Nourishing Traditions” Cookbook, author Sally Fallon writes that legumes have served as the poor man’s meat in traditional societies throughout the world. Since quality meat is arguably the most expensive food a family buys, keeping it to a minimum will save a bundle.
If you have had problems digesting beans in the past, chances are you were consuming beans that were improperly prepared. Traditional societies that relied on pulses as a mainstay in the diet took great care in their preparation. Beans, for example, must be soaked for a long period of time prior to cooking to eliminate the antinutrients such as phytic acid that can cause gas and bloating. Proper preparation also ensures ease of digestion, which is critical for nutrient assimilation and fullness after the meal so that hunger doesn’t return quickly.
Beware of soy in the diet unless it is traditionally prepared (miso, tempeh, natto) such as Asian societies have done for generations. Soy is NOT a complete protein either, contrary to the advertising claims of soy companies. Like all legumes, soy beans are deficient in the the amino acids methionine and cystine. Also, the highly denaturing processing that soybeans undergo in modern food processing plants destroys the fragile amino acide lysine.
Modern soy foods such as soy beverages are NOT a good substitute for meat and can cause hypothyroidism among other ills which plague our modern world at epidemic levels. Soy is a most toxic legume and months of careful fermentation is necessary to render it safe for consumption. Even consumption of unprocessed soybeans like edamame can trigger these health issues.
Do not buy your beans canned as the nutrients fall victim to the high temperatures and pressures inherent in the canning process. Best to buy them in bulk as they store well in gamma lid sealed buckets in the kitchen or garage and can be prepared in bulk and then frozen for quick meal preparation.
How to soak a pot of beans such as black, kidney, pinto, or black eyed? Take 2 cups of beans and cover with filtered water in a pot (choose a large pot to allow for expansion of the beans during soaking). Stir in 2 TBL lemon juice or apple cider vinegar, cover, and leave on the counter for 12-24 hours (24 hours is recommended for those with weaker digestion). Drain, rinse and then refill the pot with fresh filtered water and bring to a boil. Skim off the foam that rises to the top, reduce to a simmer until the beans are soft. Drain the beans and store what you will not use in the freezer .. then you will have properly prepared, cooked beans ready for a quick meal at a moment’s notice.
I suggest you pick up a copy of Nourishing Traditions Cookbook to detail the proper preparation of other legumes besides beans. See the book Carousel on my blog to find out more info on this indispensable book.
#3 Bodacious Broth
BONE BROTH is my favorite traditional food by far, due to its versatility, nutrient density, and indispensability in creating mouth watering, traditional dishes very inexpensively. I have a quart or two of broth in the refrigerator at all times for quick creation of amazing sauces and soups that enhance any meal.
I make all kinds of broth depending on what I can get at the butcher shop and fish shops around town. Right now, I have a half gallon of yellow snapper broth in the refrigerator which I will use to cook rice, make soups, or simply sip in a mug on a cold evening. I also have quarts of duck and turkey broth in the freezer. This week, I will be dropping by the butcher to pick up some leftover bones to make a big pot of beef broth. Make all kinds of broth and make it often. Broth is what takes any meal from “good” to “fantastic”. Its importance to health and also the budget cannot be overstated.
The gelatin in homemade broth contains an abundance of the amino acids arginine and glycine. A diet rich in homemade broth, and therefore gelatin, guarantees excellent health even with very little meat. Therefore, gelatin can be called a “protein sparer”. In the 1870’s, a French doctor maintained the good health of his patients during the Franco-Prussian War with gelatin rich soups and some added fat even while others were starving from the scarcity of vegetables and meat.
Without the use of liberal amounts of broth in your recipes, your family’s health will not be adequately maintained without some form of quality, grass based meat on an almost daily basis. Therefore, learn to make broth if you haven’t already. And, if you know how and aren’t making it enough, make sure you incorporate broth making into your weekly routine.
Fish stock is a great stock to start with as it only takes a few hours to make in comparison to other broths, like beef, which can take up to 72 hours. A few fish heads and a couple fish carcasses in a large pot covered with filtered water, 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar and some onions and carrot will create a wonderful pot of simmering stock in only about 4 hours (you can simmer up to 24 hours if you like). Just find a fish monger who sells non-oily fish whole. You can then ask him to fillet the fish for you which will provide fillets for the evening meal and fish heads/tails/bones to make stock for the next day. My favorite fish to make fish stock is snapper. Never make stock with salmon or other oily fish as it will stink up your whole house causing a family mutiny!
Fish stock pervades all Japanese cuisine, which is likely the reason for such low incidences of thyroid disease and other hormonal ailments in Japanese women. In fact, a cup of simmering fish stock is a usual item on the breakfast table in a Japanese home.The Japanese language does not even contain the word “menopause” as women of this country pass with no trouble from the child bearing to the menopausal years. I had the good fortune to spend quite a bit of time traveling throughout Japan in the late 1980’s. On my visits to the public baths, where men and women (separately) bathed in the nude, I was astounded at how the older Japanese women sported fantastic physiques despite their advancing age. Middle age pudge didn’t exist much, and I suspect much of the reason is the strong thryoids of the Japanese women. The abundance of fish broth in the Japanese diet is certainly a big factor in the maintenance of their youthful figures into old age.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
when soaking beans, are you referring to dry beans and lentils?
Watched your video and it was very helpful! Thank you! I called all over my area to find a fishmonger. Most stores have the fish already prepared and do not carry the whole fish. I found a Fresh Rockfish at Wegmans. They sold me an 8 lb. head with the carcass fins, tail and skin. I prepared it as you had instructed. When it came to a boil, I skimmed off the scum…..which was very little and turned down the heat and let it simmer for 12 hours. Is 12 hours too long to simmer the pot? It is a huge stock pot…16 Qt. I placed it in the fridge. When I opened the lid, after the pot had been sitting in the fridge for 1 day, there was a very thin oily substance floating on top. Before I freeze and use the broth…..should I strain the broth and remove the oily substance of should I just freeze it and store it in the fridge the way it is? Also, before I cook with it, should I strain it? Thank you!
james t gordon
How long is stock/broth good for in the refrigerator?
I discovered your site a while ago and look forward to your posts. In relation to this post in particular, would you mind sharing how much your monthly grocery bill is? Also what does a typical prep day look like for you, where you are doing the bulk of things? And do your kids and hubby help out in anyway??
I grew up in a household that cooks traditionally (of South East Asian decent) yet so much of the ‘science’ is lost “why do we do things the way we do?’ Its awesome to come across blogs like yours and have those ‘oh so that’s why it works’ moments.
Hi, Sarah. Do you still recommend freezing flour after grinding? I read that freezing renders the phytase impotent, so soaking previously frozen flour is ineffective. Having said that, I can’t remember where I read it to know whether the source was reliable.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Hi Beth, freezing does not do anything to the phytate as far as I know. The only way phytic acid is broken down is in the presence of an acidic medium like whey, lemon juice, or cider vinegar mixed with water and left for a time in a warm area (no colder than 70F ideally). I still do freeze my flour and then soak it. I can tell you from personal experience that baking with frozen flour that is unsoaked is not very digestible at all compared with the same soaked properly.