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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Cost of Eating Well

**Warning: This is an extremely long post with no pictures or yummy recipes involved. It is a post about an issue that I'm trying to work through as a middle class working parent who is trying to provide healthy, home-cooked meals to my family.

This morning on a Louisville radio station, the DJs were talking about nutrition in America, and more specifically, nutrition in the poorer areas of the country. I found myself listening with interest about how they thought that the neighborhoods that they grew up in had more fast food restaurants than wealthier neighborhoods. I agreed silently. They talked about how many kids are growing up eating only McD's and as adults just don't have the palate for other foods. I agreed. But then they mentioned that the only reason the rich eat healthier foods is because they shop at Whole Foods and can afford the fancy organic food. I heartily disagreed.

From what I see, eating healthy in America can be a wealth issue, but I see it as a time issue as well. Yes, certain foods are very expensive. Yes, organic food can be costly. But healthy food does not have to take a huge chunk out of your wallet. Those frozen/boxed/canned premade meals might be convenient, but often aren't as inexpensive as people think they are. And they definitely aren't healthier. Fresh vegetables, especially the basic staples, can be very inexpensive. Buying meat in bulk when it's on sale can be cheap. I even heard recently that milk can be frozen, so you can buy that in bulk when it's on sale. And although I'm a fan of organic food, healthy food doesn't have to be organic.

I admit that I am lucky to have resources to spend on food, but I could actually cut back on my grocery spending and still eat healthy. I rarely venture into the middle aisles of the grocery store these days (only for baking supplies, pasta, tea, coffee, spices and some canned goods). My weekly budget for groceries is $125. I know what I spend is a lot of money to a lot of people less well off than I am, but again, I could cut a lot of what I think of as luxury items out to make a smaller budget work. (And although I like coupons, I rarely use them, so this could be cut even further if you were an avid coupon clipper.) I think this is a lot of money to spend on food and I cringe every time I see my bill, but many people, both wealthier and less wealthy than I am, gasp at how little I spend on food. I just don't understand, then, what they are spending their money on.

But what I also see is that people don't have the time or don't think they have the time to actually cook this food. And the poor often work long hours and/or more than one job to make ends meet. Cooking healthy is perceived as difficult because people think that it has to take hours to make a good meal. But it doesn't. Recently, I've gotten several comments from friends that go along the lines of "I just don't have as much time as you do to cook as 'gourmet' as you do." I have two kids. My husband and I both work full time. My daughter recently joined soccer. We don't have a lot of time, and when we do, it's often interrupted by our five month old needing a bottle or our daughter showing us her latest "art project" that she created all over her bedroom floor. With all of this, I am still able to feed my family healthy food. We don't eat what I post on this blog every night, but we do eat healthy meals, and it takes a lot of planning and preparation.

Healthy food doesn't have to come from Whole Foods. Healthy food can be bought at the cheapest of grocery stores. (Shoot, if I shopped at WF-like stores regularly, my grocery budget would be double or triple what it is now.) I guess my problem with the statement on the radio station was that it seemed like they were saying that buying unprocessed foods is only for rich people and they seemed to attach a sort of stigma to it. They also jumped from the unhealthy (relating it to fast food) to the healthy (which was tied solely to shopping at Whole Foods.) This whole conversation makes me wonder if all of the talk by Michael Pollan, bloggers who are moving toward more natural, homemade meals, the media, etc. is actually hurting the slow food movement in the spheres (i.e., the poor) where it is most needed. There are loud calls to eat organic and to think that the big grocery stores are evil. Even the term "slow food" makes it seem like good, nutritious food should take a long time to make. And I agree with the basic tenets of many of these calls to action--organic food, knowing where your meat came from, cooking from scratch, eating together as a family--but if we're trying to make the entire nation healthier, it seems like we're actually scaring off people who think they can't afford the healthy food talked about in these venues or think they don't have time to cook healthy "gourmet" meals or think that healthy food is only for the rich. We're not making good, healthy meals accessible to the cash-strapped or the time-strapped.

I don't really know how to fix this or even to address it other than here in my little corner of the blogosphere. I'd love to know what you all think...and perhaps if you have a recipe (a link if you're a blogger or just the recipe if not) for an inexpensive, easy-to-prepare, and quick but healthy meal using "whole" ingredients (not prepackaged), we can create a space for that kind of food here (or elsewhere). I'm open to comments and suggestions!

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Kathy - Panini Happy October 20, 2010 at 8:16 PM  

Great post, Mindy! I make a real effort to buy unprocessed foods, organic where it makes sense. I haven't been too successful in cutting my grocery bill (especially now that my son has teeth!) but one way that has worked has been to eat less meat/poultry. I try to do a pasta night at least once a week and, lately, we've been adding in chili or soup to the weekly menu.

Lori October 20, 2010 at 9:26 PM  

Glad you posted about this! The issue of healthy eating is as much of time problem as a money problem. Honestly, like you mentioned, I think it is more of a time problem. People want convenience, period, whether they have a lot of money to spend on food or not.

I've worked in positions where I had to keep low income families in mind when it comes to nutrition. Money will always be an issue with healthy eating, but as you mentioned here, there are so many myths about healthy eating being expensive. One of those being that healthy foods only come from specialty grocery stores. Really the issue is time. A bag of dried beans, rice and greens from Walmart is darn cheap, but people don't take or have (depending on how you want to look at it) the time to make them.

While we likely have a little more money to spend on food than some people, I stick to a strict budget. It takes work to budget your money well, but I consider it worth the time for my health. Some months I will pinch and save so that I can make sure I have extra the next month to buy local meats or coconut oil which are more expensive. Overall, I really just feel like we have to change the way we look at the healthy eating and this stigma that it is only for the elite or wealthy, because the majority of us that are eating the good stuff don't fall into either of these categories. :)

Joie de vivre October 21, 2010 at 10:22 PM  

And what about dried beans and whole grains? I just bought a pound of whole oat groats for $0.70 today. They will be my breakfast for probably 4 mornings. That is cheap eats!

Chef Fresco October 28, 2010 at 10:00 PM  

I totally agree about all of that!

I meant to say on my last comment - hope you guys have a wonderful trip to the NC mountains!!

Julie M. November 6, 2010 at 8:54 AM  

Mindy, This was a great post and I wholeheartedly agree with all that you said. It's one of main focuses of my blog; to show people that it doesn't have to be expensive or difficult to cook a real meal using real ingredients that you can find at a real grocery store.

Thanks for sharing this!

BTW... I'm not that far from the NC mountains! Hope you had a great time!

emily (a nutritionist eats) November 15, 2010 at 8:52 PM  

I could not agree more! It is so frustrating to me that people think fast food is so much cheaper - it isn't! I rarely eat fast food but when I was on a long drive I stopped at Arby's - I was shocked that my "meal" cost almost $8 and tasted terrible! Eating healthy does NOT have to cost a fortune and you DON'T have to shop at Whole Foods to do so. I tried to make this clear at the kids camp I work with this summer by sharing this recipe: http://anutritionisteats.com/beef-vegetable-noodle-stir-fry/
(And it was actually mostly organic, all ingredients purchased at Whole Foods and still about $10 for 4 servings!)

Darcy November 22, 2010 at 5:03 PM  

I liked reading your post, Mindy, and I love that you finally put the blog on Facebook! I'll see your updates in my feed and actually remember to keep updated! :)

I remember reading and responding to a similar post somewhere else on the internet years ago. Although I rarely cooked then and depended on Cowan, The Hub or frozen foods for most of my meals...I knew that the choice of foods comes down to many things...time, money, convenience. I remember telling someone that even something as simple as spaghetti with sauce and a side salad or something was decently healthy and far cheaper than meals at McDs, plus a very simple and quick meal to make.

In any case, I'm definitely trying to cook healthier...being conscious of the time and money going into it, trying to factor in veggies, fruits, etc...but also trying to extend our palates. I'm not sure I'm doing so well on the healthy part overall - loving to bake makes that difficult!!

Rida June 14, 2013 at 8:17 AM  

Even the term "slow food" makes it seem like good, nutritious food should take a long time to make.gout in ankle

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