Good food ain’t cheap

Posted on Nov 11, 2011
Good food ain’t cheap

Or if it is good and cheap, it ain’t easy. Or organic. Or good for you. Or from around here. That’s a giant blanket statement; let me revise. It’s exceedingly difficult to buy and prepare meals that satisfy most or all of the following important tenets: affordable, tasty, quick, healthy (which encompasses nutrition, saturated fats, sodium, processing, etc.), grown responsibly, and produced locally. To me, things that can earn a check mark next to all those qualities are considered “good food.” And it’s hard to come by.

We’ve probably heard a lot of this before. Some version of that scorecard influences food selection for nearly everyone on some level. And for those who are short on money, time, cooking skill, or – for an increasing chunk of our country – all three, good food is little more than an idea.

I consider myself fairly lucky in that I have options when it comes to shopping for food. While I usually try to watch my grocery budget, I can afford to pay a few cents or a dollar more if an ingredient is healthy, organic/grass fed/free range, and was produced locally. And because I’m a fairly skilled cook who makes time to prepare food from scratch, I’m willing to select a recipe that involves some preparation if it means the end result will be cheaper, healthier, and tastier.

Then I agreed to plan and cook all the food for a writers’ retreat at a 1790s farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, Vermont, and I got a taste of how hard it was to create a menu with restrictions. There were six people arriving at different points during a three-day time period, meaning some would be there for all the meals, while others would join us for just part of it. If I wanted to write at all (i.e. not stand around in the kitchen all day), meals had to be simple to prep and quick to cook. The budget was roughly $3 per person, per meal. Add in egg and dairy allergies, and two inexpensive proteins were largely off the table.

Planning a menu before I shopped probably kept me from completely blowing the budget. I started with dishes that are influenced by cultures where people don’t have a ton of money and are relatively healthy and active, then tried to plus them in some way:

• Black bean burritos, which became make-your-own burritos so the dairy could be separate, served with adobo-red pepper rice and a salad with cumin-lime dressing

• Pinto-mole chili, surprisingly delicious and filling with inexpensive veggies like canned tomato, kale, and butternut squash, with cornbread muffins to sop up the spicy sauce.

• Stir fry using whatever veggies were on sale or came in a can, over white rice.

• Minestrone soup with aromatic Italian spices, inexpensive frozen veggies, and pasta and white beans to make it warm and filling.

What’s missing form all these? Meat. That stuff is expensive, even the factory-farmed, corn-fed product that comes from someplace out in Iowa. I decided that if there was money left over, I could go back and add meat to any of these dishes, but they didn’t really need it for flavor or protein. The stir-fry ended up with some pork, but only because it had a $1.50 coupon on the package as it approached the sell-by date. I did use chicken in two other dishes because it happened to be 40% off and because I opted for cheap cuts (thighs and tenders).

Besides beans and canned or frozen veggies, the other star of my cheap eats menu was grains/carbs. I relied on them to make filling meals way more than I ever do at home, especially for breakfast, and it felt kind of funny. Rice under the stir fry and next to the burritos, crock-pot oatmeal, bagels, waffles, corn bread, pita – every meal had them, and some of them were the white, processed variety because they were significantly cheaper than their whole-grain, freshly baked cousins.

The whole thing ended up being more prep-heavy than I wanted, too. I ended up doing a big cook before I came so there was less chopping and mixing at the farmhouse, which also probably didn’t have most of the pantry items I relied on from my own kitchen like soy sauce or the can of tomatoes I forgot to buy (it didn’t have a sharp knife, either). Making a lot of the stuff from scratch saved quite a bit of money anyway. Mixing up two salad dressings saved about $5, cutting up bulk carrots instead of buying the bagged “baby” ones tasted better and saved about $4, and going with oatmeal in the crockpot with toppings on the side (raisins, brown sugar, sliced almonds, dried cranberries), all from the bulk section, was a few bucks cheaper and allowed for more creative flavors than boxed instant oatmeal.

In the end, we ended up with a pretty diverse and tasty menu that was over budget by about $7. Coupons, sale items, buying conventional produce and meat, and opting against name brands helped tremendously. The only local produce I served came from my garden (pesto, kale, green beans), and none of what I bought was organic; both were cost prohibitive in this budget. Yes, I could have chosen much cheaper dishes in some cases, but this was a writers’ retreat and I felt strongly that the meals should try to be even a fraction as creative as the artists eating them. Pasta and sauce, peanut butter and jelly, and canned tomato soup are all inexpensive, quick, and more nutritious than many other alternatives, and all are staples many families rely on to feed their families. But this endeavor provided yet another illustration of how quickly that list of affordable, healthy, tasty, and quick options ends – and removes sustainable and local options, given their cost, from the table entirely.

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