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Friday, October 9, 2009

12 Ways to Eat Healthier on the Cheap: A Manifesto

By Denis Faye

Thanks to a complex web of farm subsidies, chemical engineering, and plain old evil, 21st-century food companies have actually made it cheaper for consumers to eat processed junk instead of healthy, nutritious staples such as fruit, veggies, and lean meats. It would take a book or two to explain how they pulled it off. Instead, I've opted to write this short manifesto: a list of ways you can beat "The Man" by eating healthier and saving money at the same time. Who's with me? ìViva la revolución!

Buy in bulk. There's usually economy in volume. There's a problem, though. If you're only feeding two people, what do you do with the other 22 chicken breasts you just bought at Costco®? Simple. You divide them into 11 freezer bags and freeze 'em to be thawed out as needed. The same works for many fruits and veggies, except maybe leafy greens. Frozen lettuce? Not so much.

Shop online. While known mostly for books and "adult" entertainment, Web retailers such as Amazon offer some amazing deals when you buy in bulk. Granted, you're not going to find much fresh produce, but for staples such as tea, coffee, and cereal, you'll get serious bargains, often on the brands you prefer, which is much better than being at the whim of Sam's Club® buyers.

Buy in season. Pick up a pack of strawberries in summer, and there's a good chance it only travelled a few miles to get to your grocer. Buy the fruit in winter, and it had to be shipped from a warm climate on the other side of the planet. It's simple economics. It costs more because it took more effort to get it shipped. Local produce tastes fresher, too, therefore . . .

Shop locally. If you go to the farmers' market, you practically have no choice but to buy produce that's in season! Many of you might believe the stigma that these places are all about fancy mushrooms and $9 "heirloom" tomatoes. Yeah, you can get that stuff—and it's delicious—but in between the specialty booths, you'll find hard-working, everyday farmers selling standard produce at below-grocery-store prices.

Make your own veggie broth. Don't worry. I'm not going Amish on ya. It's just an easy, fun way to save a couple bucks. Get yourself a 2-gallon Ziploc® bag or something similar, and keep it in the freezer. Every time you have veggie offcuts like carrot peels, green bean ends, or broccoli stalks, throw them in there. You can also add wilted veggies, but nothing rotten or moldy.

Once you've filled the bag, fill a big pot about one-third full with water. Bring it to a boil and cram in as much as you can from your Ziploc. Once it's boiling again, set it to simmer for about an hour. After that, drain the stock into a large bowl. Then, using a strainer, squish the remaining stock out of the veggies and into the bowl.

In 2-cup increments, put the stock in smaller Ziploc bags and freeze them. All up, it takes a couple hours, but it also saves a couple bucks and cuts down on food waste.

Check out coupon Web sites. The coupons in the Sunday paper are always good, but nowadays, you can really tailor your coupon pile to suit your exact needs by looking through Web sites like Coupon.com or SmartSource.com.

Eat less. You might not like to hear this, but do you really need the other half of that burrito tonight? It would make a fine lunch tomorrow. You'll be saving money and your waistline.

Do you really need it? Every time you throw something in the grocery cart, ask yourself if you really need it. Sure, we all need our little indulgences, but you don't need a cart full of them. For example, is your guacamole really going to suffer without that guacamole seasoning? (Here's a little hint: a couple shakes of salt is going to have the same exact effect.)

Make your own. Jars of pasta sauce and canned chili are majorly convenient, but if you have an afternoon sometime, make a giant pot of the stuff and freeze it for future use in several smaller containers. It'll probably taste better, and odds are, you won't add high maltose corn syrup to your sauce the way Ragu does.

Grow your own. A full-blown garden would be quite a challenge for most of us, but a small, potted herb garden can go just about anywhere there's sunlight—and it'll impress your friends/dates/kids. Robust, perennial herbs that you can just clip from when needed include mint, rosemary, and some varieties of oregano.

Make a grocery list—and stick to it. Marketers spend millions of dollars researching packaging and shelf placement, to influence you into randomly putting the pretty boxes in your cart. It's time to fight the power. Make a grocery list and treat it like gospel. If you see something shiny and pretty, a tempting bag of potato chips or a spice you've been dying to try out, look at your list. If it's not there, it doesn't leave the shelf. When you get home, if you're still jonesin' for that spice, work it into your menu and buy it next week. (Note that I didn't say the same thing about the potato chips.)

Don't shop hungry. Suggestion #11 will be almost impossible to pull off if you're shopping with the munchies. Have a meal before you go so that you're not tempted to pig out while walking down the aisles of your local Piggly Wiggly.
Obviously, all 12 tips here aren't for everyone—except me, of course, because I recommended them—but if you just take two or three to heart, you'll definitely see a shift in your grocery budget. So grab that shopping list and let the revolution begin!

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