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Writer Eats Healthy, Finds It’s Just a Bit More Expensive

August 4, 2008

By Hal Walter, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

Aug. 4–French food philosopher Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1825: “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.”

In 2008, Brillat-Savarin might peer into the depths of our shopping carts, shake his head, and tell us that what we are is broke. He might also note that many in our society are overweight and unhealthy, primarily the result of eating too many highly processed foods.

To be sure, food prices are up, along with fuel and just about everything else. As part of The Pueblo Chieftain’s series on farming and food, I was asked to put figures to what I pay to maintain a healthy, semi-organic, low-glycemic style of eating.

I have been referred to as a “health-food” fanatic, because I happen to pack things like raw almonds and apples along to work with me, and avoid some of the alleged foods that find their way into the office, like doughnuts (haven’t eaten one in a decade) and the usual birthday cakes.

While eating at least five meals a day, I try to maintain a balanced diet from real food, more than half of it organic. Most of my carbohydrates come from fruits and vegetables and I try to eat 10 daily servings of these, including a raw salad. I also consume considerable high-quality protein foods such as eggs, meats, nuts and smaller amounts of cultured dairy products like cheese and yogurt. As for fat, I use extra-virgin olive oil, organic butter and locally available organic lard. I eat very few grain products, especially those made from wheat. You will rarely see in my grocery cart any packaged refined wheat or wheat-flour products like bread, muffins, pasta, bagels, cakes, cookies or boxed cereals. I also do not buy any cow’s milk, vegetable oil (corn, safflower, sunflower, etc.) or margarine.

In looking over past weeks’ food receipts, what struck me is that, while food prices definitely have increased, it still can be amazingly affordable to eat well.

But that does not mean it’s cheap.

Some items I buy have increased dramatically in price, but a little planning and creativity have allowed me to work around this. For example, the price for a decent bottle of extra-virgin olive oil has gone up by several dollars in recent months. But one store in Pueblo routinely has olive oil on sale at last year’s price, so I stock up on a couple bottles until the next sale.

Similarly, the price of an organic chicken has skyrocketed in recent months, so now I buy “natural free-range” thighs, much less expensive per pound than a whole chicken, and much more flavorful, I might add.

Eggs have gone up significantly, but I recently bought a dozen laying hens, Now, instead of buying eggs I buy some chicken feed, which also has increased in price, but I get very high-quality eggs at prices lower than what I would pay at the grocery.

Produce prices have gone up a bit, but then they tend to fluctuate seasonally. I try to buy as much local produce as possible in season. If there is any produce buying habit I have changed due to price increases, it is to be more selective in my choices, and also buying some, like green beans, frozen.

Since I eat a daily salad I’ve virtually given up on the packaged “mixed baby greens,” which are frankly not that good and very pricey, opting instead for the infinitely more economical head lettuces. Over the past few weeks I have bought huge heads of fresh, crunchy organic leaf lettuce for an incredible 99 cents each. I’ve also planted a garden of salad greens, including spinach, chard and arugula, and that has dramatically offset the price of leafy vegetables.

Oddly, a certain dark chocolate that I buy has remained at $2 a bar for several years, and the organic coffee I buy also has been hanging in there at $8.99 a pound.

Rather than give a list of my weekly purchases and expenses, I’ll describe a daily menu as an example, and break down the costs. These prices do not include incidentals I keep in my kitchen such as sea salt, spices and other items like the aforementioned olive oil and butter, all of which can cost a lot upon the initial purchase but tend to last a long time.

For breakfast I eat eggs with vegetables almost every day. It’s best to buy organic or get your own chickens. Regardless of whether you pay the grocer or pay the feed store, you will find these eggs are going to be somewhere around $4 per dozen. That may sound expensive, but there is no cheaper or better protein to start your day. Throw in half an organic tomato, another 50 cents, and half an avocado, 85 cents, and a slice of sprouted-grain toast at 33 cents, and you have a great breakfast for $2.35.

I’m not worried about cholesterol, but that’s another story. Just know that I’ve eaten several eggs daily for more than 10 years and have tracked my improved blood-lipid profiles to show the positive health effects, including an HDL “good” cholesterol score of 87.

On to snack time. One small organic banana with a tablespoon of almond butter — about 50 cents total. Or, splurge and try a goat-yogurt smoothie with half a banana and frozen blueberries for $1.67.

It’s true there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but I often try to cook a little extra for dinner and save it for lunch the next day. Recently I’ve had lunches of grilled local organic bratwurst and roasted free-range chicken thighs, both with roasted zucchini, onion, bell pepper and carrot. These meals came in well under $3 even with a small side salad.

No leftovers? How about a big salad of green leaf lettuce, avocado, tomato and red onion for $1.75, plus a scoop of ricotta cheese, 85 cents, or organic cottage cheese $1.04. There’s another healthy lunch for under $3.

Afternoon snack is often an organic apple and a quarter cup of organic almonds. It’s totally portable and will set you back about $1.44.

For dinner I’ve already let on about the bratwurst and chicken thighs, but I also eat a fair amount of natural grassfed beef, which I buy locally by the half for under $5 a pound. This means I get hamburger, steaks and roasts at about hamburger prices (an organic beef steak from the grocery can run upwards of $16 a pound). The meat is raised to higher standards than organic, and the price has not increased over the past year.

One dinner I make quite often, mainly because my son, Harrison, likes it, is roasted spaghetti squash with a red meat sauce. The ingredients are one spaghetti squash, one pound hamburger, a can of organic crushed tomatoes, an organic onion, organic tomato paste and organic vegetable broth. It adds up to $12.60. I recently made this dinner and it was enough for a family of three for two nights, meaning those meals were $2.10 per serving and cheaper than many fast-food meals. Variations include using organic ground pork instead of beef, which saves $1, or adding a can of cannellini beans, which adds about $1.

I also estimated the cost of some other meals I routinely make, ranging from tacos to grilled wild salmon on greens to a beef roast with vegetables. All of them came in between $2 and $3 per serving.

Dessert is almost always one-third bar of dark chocolate for 66 cents.

Looking over the grocery receipts, I also see a number of other expenses that do not figure into these meals and snacks, but do figure prominently in the grocery bill. My son and I are on a very reduced gluten diet, and so we sometimes buy a loaf of Outside the Breadbox brand gluten-free bread at $5. My son likes carrot juice at about $5 per half-gallon, and goat milk for $2.79 a quart. We also use organic heavy whipping cream in the coffee around here at $2.99 per pint for about a week’s worth. When you total it all up, it appears there is one big weekly shopping trip for about $150, and that’s with the beef and pork already paid for and in the freezer. One or two smaller trips to the store can push that bill up to over $200 a week.

The bottom line is that you can eat healthfully for about $9 a day. Any extras for a family of three will almost certainly push the monthly total to $800, which is right in there with the mortgage payment.

That’s probably a higher proportion of income than the under 10 percent most Americans spend for food, but I still find my grocery bill more palatable than eating poorly and risking poor health as a result.

I think Brillat-Savarin might agree.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Pueblo Chieftain, Colo.

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