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Make the acquaintance of your kitchen appliances and your health (and wallet) will thank you
The constant media drumbeat encouraging us to eat more vegetables, less processed foods and to cut back on sugar has gone from trendy movement to part of the current cultural zeitgeist in just a few short years. It’s hard to argue that a steady stream of Chef Boyardee, Rice-A-Roni, and Taco Bell is better for you than a balanced, healthy diet full of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains and responsibly raised meats.
Yet, it is widely believed that a healthy diet is a luxury only to be enjoyed by those with plenty of disposable income and an unnatural affection for tofu and quinoa. But is this true? Is eating healthy really more expensive than eating junk?
“I can’t afford to eat healthy.”
Eating is an investment. You are investing your money, time and energy into a task that you hope will provide a return of satisfaction, nutrition and fuel for your body. When a person claims they “can’t afford to eat healthy,” they are at best misinformed and at worst, dangerously negligent. They either think they do not have enough money to eat healthy or they believe it is not worth the money they assume it requires. They are mistaken on both counts.
How much does it actually cost to eat healthy? Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health conducted an analysis of 27 studies from 10 higher-income countries comparing the costs of healthy vs. not-so-healthy diets. The study found that healthier foods, like fruits, veggies and fish are indeed more expensive than unhealthy, food-like products such as processed meals, snacks and refined grains. This is primarily because current food policies support these inexpensive but high volume production foods, and favor processed and easily manufactured foods that provide more profits for the food industry.
Researchers found that the added cost of replacing the less expensive, less healthy foods with fresher and more nutritious ones came to only $1.50 more per day. Yes, you read that right. $1.50 a day. That’s less than you paid for that last, ill-advised beer last night; less than the cost of two Mumford & Sons downloads; and cheaper than the Cheetos and Diet Coke you get from the breakroom vending machine because you are getting “hangry.”
Several years ago, I decided it was time for me to eat a healthier diet. I immediately noticed how much bigger the price tags for vegetables, fruits and fresh meats were compared to the prepared, pre-packaged foods I had grown accustomed to eating. That is—until I started actually doing the math. I quickly realized that many times, I could make a healthy meal for even less than the not-so healthy ones.
For example, burgers, fries and drinks for a family of four at McDonalds ring in at roughly $22. (900 calories, 37 grams of fat, 123 grams of carbs and 23 grams of protein per person). An entire roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, salad, bread and nice tall glasses of whole milk for a family of four costs about $15 (934 calories, 39 grams of fat, only 80 grams of carbs and a whopping 67 grams of protein per person).
The secret for eating healthy on a budget is found in where you invest your resources. If you’re not able to invest fistfuls of dollars into a healthier diet, then you have to invest something else—time. More specifically, time in the kitchen. Today, the average American spends 27 minutes a day on food preparation; that’s less than half the time we spent cooking in the 1960s. And what many people call “cooking” today would barely be recognized by our great-grandparents.
I’m sorry to rain on your parade, but mixing up a batch of Hamburger Helper or heating up a package of frozen chicken tenders and a can of green beans is not cooking. It’s reheating food you have trusted a corporation to prepare for you; corporations who have a well-documented history of going heavy on sugars, fats and salt—three tastes our taste buds naturally love, but that also happen to be dirt cheap for manufacturers to add, and that happen to do an excellent job of masking the shortcomings of processed food.
In 2003, a group of Harvard economists found a link between the decline in time Americans spend preparing food at home to the increase in obesity rates. The French fry, for example, didn’t become the most popular “vegetable” in America until manufacturers relieved us of the “chore” of peeling, cutting and cooking potatoes ourselves.
The study demonstrated that as the time spent on food preparation fell, calorie consumption climbed and that there is an inverse correlation between obesity rates and how much time is spent on food preparation.
In other words, the more time you spend preparing food at home, the less likely you are to be obese and more likely to have a healthy diet.
“But I can’t cook.”
Too often, when I share the fact that my “secret” for healthy eating on the cheap is to cook your own food, the reaction is a defeated look followed by the statement, “But I can’t cook.” You don’t have to be a gourmet cook to eat healthy; you simply need to do what humans have done for millennia.
Cooking is symbolic of how we distinguish ourselves from the animals, a metaphor for how we transformed nature into culture. Cooking provided our primate forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, allowing our brains to grow bigger.
Free from the task of gathering large quantities of raw food and spending hours chewing it, humans could devote more time and energy to other purposes—like creating a culture.
If our primal ancestors can figure out how to cook a meal over an open fire, anyone with access to resources such as the modern stove, the Internet and an advanced, problem-solving brain can manage to cook some veggies and a piece of fish or chicken.
Start by doing a little Net research. Do a search for healthy recipes using an ingredient you like, find one that sounds good and jump right in.
With the Internet at your fingertips, you can quickly learn mysterious cooking techniques like “boil,” “mix,” and “braise.” YouTube has hundreds of instructional videos on every cooking technique imaginable. Just remember, if a mouth-breathing Neanderthal like Guy Fieri can do it—anyone can do it.
One final piece of the puzzle is how to buy healthy ingredients to take home and cook. There is no secret life hack to finding good deals. Ask your friends about where they shop, “like” market and farm Facebook pages to watch for specials and buy fruits and vegetables when they’re in season to get the best deal (and the most flavor).
Take advantage of ethnic markets for “specialty” ingredients (they aren’t specialty ingredients to them, they’re just food) and get to know the farmers at the local farmers markets. They’re really friendly, sometimes will give great deals to regulars and are a wealth of knowledge about the food they grow and how to prepare it.
The bottom line on how to have a healthy diet on a tight budget is simple: Make an investment into the thing you do every day that most dramatically affects your health—cooking your own food.
As one of our culture’s foremost food writers and thinkers, Michael Polland, has said, “Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want—just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”