First, let me just come out and say it. I wanted really badly to make a sense/cents pun in the title of this post.
But I resisted, for your sake. Because sense/cents jokes just might be the worst kind of joke in the world, and nobody should ever write or say them.
Next — and we’ll get to the good stuff soon, I promise — this is the third post in a series I’m doing in partnership with Whole Foods and Garmin. (And, unrelated, the first in a series of seven consecutive posts I’ll be doing this week, one each day!)
Okay, here comes healthy eating on the cheap. And don’t miss the giveaway at the end!
Funnily enough, in a post I wrote several years ago about eating cheaply as a vegetarian, tip #1 was: “Don’t (always) shop at Whole Foods.”
Not very becoming of an ambassador, is it?
But that was before I lived within five minutes of not one, but two, Whole Foods stores. Fast forward four years since that post, and now I shop at Whole Foods just about every week. (And for the record, this has been true since the second store opened up very close to our house — way before this ambassadorship started.)
Why the shift? Mainly, it’s that once we had children, my wife and I decided that healthy food was one area of our budget where we wouldn’t compromise. Besides being part of my job, it’s an investment that we’re betting will pay for itself in the long run. This isn’t to say you can’t get great food in other grocery stores — we just really enjoy shopping this way.
But enough about that. Here’s how we still manage to keep our grocery bill down.
The Basics of Eating Cheap While Eating Well
I outlined six good tips in the post I mentioned above, but four-plus years later, here’s an updated list:
– Skip the packaged and processed stuff. Besides the fact that it’s usually unhealthy, it’s almost always way more expensive than whole, unprocessed food.
– When a recipe calls for fresh herbs, skip replace with dried. Fresh herbs are great, and probably healthier than dried, but we’re talking dozens of times more expensive. A few types of fresh herbs in a recipe sends your per-serving cost through the roof.
– Choose meals based on grains or beans. Especially if bought in bulk, they’re incredibly cheap. And filling, no matter how you buy them. Don’t neglect the vegetables, but grains and beans certainly help to stretch your dollar.
– Avoid nuts. Not forever, since they’re strongly linked to longevity. Just while you’re trying to save money.
– When cooking from a recipe, make substitutions at will. Dried herbs for fresh, herbs you have for herbs you don’t (nothing drives up a bill like a $5 spice jar that you’ll never use again), red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar for fancy sherry or champagne vinegars, water and a little salt for veggie stock. A food critic might notice, but your six-year-old (and probably your spouse) won’t.
– Skip the seitan, tofu, and tempeh. Look, I love them all. And I don’t think any of them is so unhealthy it should be avoided at all costs. But if you want to save money, use plain old beans instead. Fresh, canned, frozen … any will beat the cost of these more processed alternatives.
– Don’t ignore the frozen section! Whether it’s berries for your smoothie or vegetables for your soup, you can save a lot by replacing fresh produce with frozen. Since many are flash frozen just after being picked, sometimes the frozen fruits and veggies often have more nutrition than the “fresh” ones which have been transported a long way and spent some time on the shelf.
The Big 3 Types of Meals that Save Some Serious Coin
I thought long and hard about all of the cheapest meals we eat while preparing this post, and something interesting occurred to me: almost all of them fit cleanly into three categories.
These three cheap types of meals are:
- Pasta dishes
- Variations on “a grain, a green, and a bean”
- Soups and stews
I’ll provide a few details, examples, and recipes for each below.
Pasta is without a doubt my favorite of the three. In fact, I’ve got a whole post about pasta coming later this week.
Pasta is cheap, and let’s not forget that if you get whole-grain, you’re looking at roughly 15 percent of the calories from protein, which is exactly what I aim for across my entire diet.
Another, this one incorporating lentils for double-dollar-stretching goodness, is Lentil-a-Roni, from Isa Chandra Moscowitz’s Isa Does It. (Isa Does It is one of my go-to books for weeknight cooking, by the way.)
Variations on “a Grain, a Green, and a Bean”
Intellectual property spats aside, you really don’t need a recipe for this one. Just like Legos are better without instructions, you’re better off using your creativity on this one.
Seriously. Cook the grain of your choice in water, according to standard directions. Stir in some canned beans, drained and rinsed, along with some chopped greens of your choice, until the beans are heated and the greens are wilted. Finally, top with whatever sauce or seasonings that you’re jonesin’ for (usually, for me, it’s hot sauce).
Okay, okay … if you really need recipes, try Rice and Beans 5 Ways or Millet in the Pot with Adzuki Beans and Collards from Terry Walters, or red lentil curry and rice. (Not all of these recipes have greens in them … if the one you’re cooking doesn’t, you know what to do!)
Soups and Stews
Soups and stews are especially great because in addition to usually being cheap, they (a) make your house smell like your grandmother’s kitchen and (b) freeze well, so you can make a huge batch and have not just cheap, healthy meals, but cheap, healthy, instant meals.
One of my favorites is Angela’s cream of tomato soup, from her book, Oh She Glows.
And If You Don’t Feel Like Cooking, But also Want Healthy and Cheap?
Well then, someone’s feeling awfully entitled, aren’t they?
Actually, I get like this sometimes too. It’s cool.
And during one of my Whole Foods shopping sprees with the gift cards they provided for this series, I found a brand of frozen prepared meals called Maggie’s Conscious Vegan Cuisine.
They’re nearby in Durham, NC, so I don’t know if you’ll be able to find them everywhere, but if you can, this tip might be better than any other in this post. Each tub has three meals’ worth (they say four meals, but that’s a stretch) of stew/soup/chili/korma/ for 12 dollars. I’ve served them all over rice (more cheap food!) and have been thrilled to get dinner on the table so quickly on busy nights.
My favorites: green lentil curry and the korma. Least favorite: Tuscan white bean one.
(Maggie’s isn’t involved in this partnership, by the way … I’m just really digging these so I wanted to share.)
And Finally, My Whole Foods Super Ninja Hack
Ready for your mind to be blown?
Berries are often on the Dirty Dozen list, so you want to get them organic. Problem is, organic berries are crazy expensive, often 5 or 6 bucks for just a little half-pint (about six ounces) container.
The hack: go to the salad bar, where they usually have organic raspberries. Grab the “fill this container with whatever you want for 12 bucks” bowl, which conveniently has an opaque lid (not that you’re doing anything against the rules here). Fill with far more than a pound (probably several) of fresh, organic berries — for just 12 dollars. Then get to work eating all those berries before they go bad.
Disclaimer: I’ve never actually done this trick, but I fantasize about it.
So there it is. How to eat healthy, vegan, and cheap, all at once. And I think you’ll agree: it just makes cents.
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