Health on the cheap: Buying in bulk.

bulk

Part of the cost of moving to a more nutrient-dense diet is the increased cost of dried goods. Brown rice cost more than white pasta, quinoa cost more than rice, and nuts are just plain expensive. Even adding in new herbs and spices can set you back a pretty penny. However, this does not have to be the case. More and more grocery stores are incorporating bulk sections. Here in Austin, you can find a bulk section at the local co-op or even in the main chain grocery store. Which is probably not surprising given Austin’s crunchy reputation. But just recently on a trip home to my very not-crunchy hometown of Odessa, Texas, I found a pretty well-stocked bulk section. This leads me to believe that bulk sections are becoming more mainstream. And it’s a good thing too.

Buying in bulk allows you to buy just the amount you want. I love this for a few reasons. First, I’m not always sure how I will like something. If I can buy a cup of a new grain or a few teaspoons of a new spice, then it gives me the freedom to stretch my recipe arsenal without spending a bunch of money on items that are just going to take up room in my pantry. Secondly, I love fresh spices. Spices get old. Did you know that? Well, they do. And when they get old, they lose their flavor. Buying spices in bulk allows me to always have cheap, fresh spices on hand, often for only a few cents each shopping trip. Third, I love bulk because it does away with that .035768 serving that is always left in the bag. You know what I’m talking about?  The manufacturers’ inability to fill their bags with a round number of whole serving sizes, so you get just a bit leftover. It annoys me! Finally, buying in bulk allows me to buy the highest quality of items. Organic, sprouted rice is pretty expensive if you are buying it off the shelf, but buying the two cups I need for that week in the bulk section is very doable.

I’ve been buying in bulk for years now, starting in grad school. I was a poor, poor student in need of some nuts and grains, but didn’t have the cash or the need to buy off the shelf.  Since that time I’ve picked up some helpful pointers.

Don’t be intimidated: It took me a long time to feel comfortable buying in bulk. It’s a self-service process without a lot of clear direction.  Here is what you need to know. There will be a bag of some kind, a scoop, and a way to seal and identify. Find the bag, use the scoop provided (usually attached the bin of your choice) to fill the bag with the serving size you want, and then tie it off and write down the code provided on the bin. Occasionally, you will have electric scales that print out a weight along with the price. I like these, but more often than not you will find a sticker to write down the product information or the tie is meant to be the identifier so you write the number and name on that.

Do try that weird grain: Take some time to really explore the bulk section. You are going to find flours, nuts, beans, grains, and maybe even dried fruit that you haven’t used before. Getting a cup or a half a cup of most things isn’t going to set you back much so buy it and experiment. For instance, a box of quinoa is going to run you around $6 and give you something 7.035768 servings. What if you make one serving and you hate it? Buying in bulk allows you to buy just the amount you want to try without committing more money and space than you would like.  If you like it, you have a new ingredient to work with, if not you are out very little money and have gained some real insight about yourself.

Go nuts in the spice and herb section. The best deal in the grocery store is the bulk spices and herbs. They literally weigh nothing, so while some fancy chili powder might say $12 a pound you are never going to pay anything near that. The last time I bought star anise I paid $.57 for an amount that will last for several pots of Pho. While a bottle of spices off the shelve might run you anywhere from $3 to $5, buying what you need from the bulk section is almost always going to be well under a dollar. So now is the time to pull out those recipes you have been putting off because they called for 5 or more spices.

Bulk really has been a great way for me to provide nutrient-dense food to my family for very little money. I hope this has inspired you to got out there and explore the bulk section of your store for yourself! For more tips on living healthy on the cheap, check out Health on the Cheap: Have a plan! ,  Health on the Cheap: Eat all the produce! , Health on the Cheap: Use every bit!, and Health on the Cheap: Clean cheap and healthy.

PS Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about living healthy on a budget, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Health on the Cheap: Clean cheap and healthy

cleaners

When we think about being healthy, we spend a lot of time focusing on what we put in our bodies. We think about what we eat or don’t eat, what we drink or don’t drink. But we don’t often think about the things that get into our bodies through the air we breathe and the things we touch.

Sometime around puberty, I started having a horrible reaction to the cleaning product aisle in the grocery store. Luckily, I had a sweet and understanding mom that didn’t make me go down there. But as I got older and started having to buy my own cleaning products, I had to venture in. It was horrible. I tried to hold my breath, but it was difficult, and my lungs just felt like they were trying to jump out of my body in the hopes of getting some fresh air.

And honestly, it’s no wonder. From the Environmental Working Group (EWG):

Our research has turned up products loaded with extremely toxic compounds banned in some countries. Some of their ingredients are known to cause cancer, blindness, asthma and other serious conditions. Others are greenwashed, meaning that they are not, as their ad hype claims, environmentally benign. Still more hide the facts about their formulations behind vague terms like “fragrance.”

The EWG has found chemicals in household cleaners that damage red blood cells, bones, eyes, and lungs and are known carcinogens. Do we really want this stuff around us? Around our kids…pets…friends we like? I say no. Now, you could go replace the cleaners you have with ones that are safer. If that’s your jam, I recommend checking out the EWG amazing database to see which cleaners score the best grades. If, however, you are like me and need/want to save some money, then I have some tips for you. The only main ingredients you will need are spray bottles, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and white vinegar. I buy the biggest containers of vinegar and baking soda for under $5 every six weeks or so.

  • Mirrors and kitchen and bathroom surfaces — Mix equal parts vinegar and water in a spray bottle and spray down your surface or mirrors and wipe away. I tend to do an initial spray on all my surfaces, set up my podcast, and then start wiping away.
  •  Toilets and stains — If the vinegar spray isn’t strong enough to get the job done, then I add in some baking soda. A little baking soda with a bit of elbow grease gets most stains on your counter out (at least in my experiences), and adding baking soda to the bowl of your toilet is an excellent and safe replacement for toilet cleaner. The only drawback is that it doesn’t have the clever little spout to get the goods under the bowls rim. If one of you smart people figure this one out, shoot me a line. Until then, I just use my toilet brush to scrub the baking soda around and clean my toilet.
  • Ring around the tub or sink — For ring o’ kid around your tub and other surfaces that have a build-up of film, I fill a bowl with baking soda, add a squirt of dish soap, and just enough water to create a nice paste. I’ve found that covering my tub in the paste before I clean my other surfaces significantly cuts down the time I need to scrub the tub.
  • Clothes — Dryer sheets are horrible for you. Almost all (even the organic ones) get a D or F by the EWG because of the potential damage they do to our skin and respiratory system. So instead of putting a sheet of “spring flowers” in your dryer, use vinegar. My ingenious husband has recently discovered this formula.
    • 4 rags (we cut up old washcloths)
    • a 1/4 cup of vinegar
    • a jar with a fitted lid.
    • (Optional) a few drops of essential oils. Make sure that none of your people or pets are sensitive to EOs before you use them in this mix.

We throw a rag or two (depending on the size) into the dryer with our wet clothes. When the clothes are              dry we put the rag back in the jar, shake it up, possibly add some more vinegar if it’s getting low, and like            that, we are ready for the next load.

These are just a few ways I keep my budget in check and work to create a safer and healthier environment for all the living beings in my life.  I hope this inspires you to investigate what you are exposing yourself to on a daily basis and take action if those things don’t serve you. For more tips on living healthy on the cheap check out Health on the Cheap: Have a plan! ,  Health on the Cheap: Eat all the produce! , and Health on the Cheap: Use every bit!.

Health on the cheap: Use every bit!

throwing-money

We throw away a lot of food every year. Literally tons.  One third of all the food worldwide gets thrown in the trash. That’s crazy! Not only are visions of starving people flashing through my mind as I type this, but it’s like taking money, crumpling it up, and tossing it into the trash. In the US alone, we crumple up those dollars to the tune of $48.3 billion every year. Every year!

My goal with this particular series is to help you save money while getting the nutrients you need. There’s an easy way for you to save on your grocery money every month: Stop throwing away food!  Done!

Kidding!

I know it’s harder said than done. We throw away food mostly because we never got around to cooking it or we don’t eat the leftovers. I have been guilty of both of those things. But we can fix this problem if we are more intentional about what we do with food.   These ideas and tips will help you save money and keep delicious food out of the garbage.

  1. Plan for those leftovers. The first step really is to have a plan, as I discussed in the first post of this series.  I cannot stress how important it is to have a menu that reflects the time and energy you have to prepare food. Part of that plan should include what you are going to do with leftovers. I like to make more food than we will eat in one sitting so that I have food already prepared for lunch the next day. As we are cleaning up after dinner, my husband portions out the remaining food and puts it in to-go containers so that the next day we just grab and go. Done! No food waste.
  2. Don’t make more than you need. If you are someone who does not like to eat leftovers, then be conscientious about how much food your family will really eat. If you always have leftover food, reduce the amount you make or figure out a way to incorporate the excess into the next meal. If you always make too much quinoa, you can either reduce the amount or use it in another recipe. For example, you can make a quinoa porridge for breakfast by sautéing a chopped banana in some coconut oil and adding the leftover quinoa and a few splashes of coconut milk until you get the consistency you like.  It’s delicious with cinnamon and pecans, too!
  3. Rescue the produce! Even the best planning in the world can’t keep your produce safe. There may be times when things just come up and you weren’t able to roast that squash or use those herbs like you had planned. But before you let them compost in the crisper drawer, pull them out and toss them into a freezer bag. I freeze vegetables, herbs, and scraps to make vegetable broth. In addition, every time I juice, peel, chop off an end of a vegetable, herb, or fungus (mushrooms are the best), I put the leftover odds and ends in my freezer bag. Before you know it, you have a bag of rescued produce and scraps that will soon shine as broth. Check out my how-to here.

No one wants to throw away money, especially on nutrients that heal our body and give us the energy we need. I hope these tips inspire you to be more intentional about the food you buy and the food sitting in your fridge.  I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, so let me know what your thinking in the comments.

For more in this series check out Health on the Cheap: Have a plan! and Health on the Cheap: Eat all the produce!

Health on the cheap: Eat all the produce!

chardWe all know that vegetables and fruits are so good for us and that we should be eating them every day, several times a day.  Vegetables and fruits are packed with nutrients and healing properties that our bodies need, but many of us shy away from loading up our shopping carts with a rainbow of colors because produce seems really expensive. And I get that. You can buy an entire box of pasta that will feed a whole family for the same cost as one avocado. But the nutrient density of that avocado out weights the pasta a million fold. (That’s hyperbole, so don’t go quoting me on that.)  When we think about spending money on food (i.e. our health), we should spend it in a way that gives us the biggest bang for our buck nutrient-wise, as opposed to filler-wise. Having said that, it can still be really expensive to buy all the vegetables and fruits we should be eating, but it doesn’t have to break the bank. Here are some tips for saving money while satisfying our nutrient needs.

  1. Have a produce plan. Have a plan for all your produce so that none goes to waste. The most expensive vegetables are the ones we throw out. Check out last week’s post on meal planning for  some tips.
  2. Buy in season. One reason fresh produce is so expensive is that we buy them out of season. A tomato or strawberries are going to cost a whole lot more in January than it will in the summer, and they will be missing a lot of flavor. The ideal time to buy a vegetable or fruit for both your taste buds and your pocket is when they are in season. You can check out your state agricultural agency or your local CSA for information on what vegetables are in season near you.
    1. Know the organic rules. Organic fruits and vegetables tend to be more flavorful and more expensive. While organic foods are better for the environment and our health by reducing our exposure to pesticides, it might not always be feasible to buy all organic produce. For those of you concerned about your families exposure to pesticides, I will point you to the Environmental Working Group’s lists of produce that you can get away with buying conventionally and those you should pay a little extra for.                                                            If you have access to a farmers market, speak to the farmers to learn about their farming methods. I’ve found that though not all farms can pay to be certified as an organic farm, but many do practice organic farming. You may get a better price at these stands if they are trying to compete with larger farms with organic certification. Also, buying organic vegetables frozen (see tip #5) is a great way to save some moolah.
  3.  Buy in bulk and preserve. If you really like tomatoes, berries, basil, peppers, or whatever and need them all year round, then you can buy them in bulk when in season and preserve them. Some farms will have special deals on seasonal produce if you buy it canningin bulk. For several years my good friend and I have made it a point to buy several pounds of tomatoes in June and make salsa, pasta sauce, ketchup, and crushed tomatoes to use at a later date. You can tell from this picture (it was late!) that it’s a lot of hard work. But it’s well worth it when you can reach into your pantry in January and grab some crushed tomatoes for dinner.  If canning doesn’t float your boat, you can always freeze berries, peppers, and herbs for later use.   I have a friend that makes big batches of pasta sauce when tomatoes are cheap and freezes servings for later use. It may take a little work, but you really do reap the rewards (pun intended).   Check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation for instructions and information on food preservation.
  4. Don’t forget the freezer section. I prefer buying fresh vegetables and fruits, but if I can’t, then I’ll buy them frozen. Frozen vegetables and fruits are typically cheaper than buying fresh and because they are picked at the height of freshness , and they are pretty taste, too.  Throw frozen vegetables into a chili, a soup, or other one pot meals helps you to get more vegetables in without all that pesky cutting. You can even roast frozen vegetables, which is one of my all time favorite methods. 

I hope this helps you feel inspired to go out and buy those vegetables. Look for recipes in the coming weeks that use seasonal vegetables in typical meals.

For more in this series, check out the post Health on the Cheap: Have a plan! and watch this space for more.

Health on the cheap: Have a plan!

Compass_rose_CantinoChanging the way you eat to include more vegetables, whole grains, good fats, and pasture-raised meat and meat products can be expensive. This is especially noticeable if you compare whole foods diets to diets based mainly on processed food or fast food. As I discussed last week, making the dietary shift may require you to change your perspective on food and money. However, while you may find you have to shift more of your funds to food, a diet with more whole foods does not mean you have to break the bank. In fact, there are several small, basic things you can do to keep the cost down, such as having a plan before you go to the store.

Meal planning (for all your meals) is an important part of keeping cost down and reducing waste. I bet I’m not the only person that has bought a bunch of greens with good intentions and no plan only to pull the almost liquid remains out of the crisper a few weeks later. Luckily, adopting a practice of meal planning has pretty much stopped all that, which makes cleaning out the fridge a much more pleasant experience. Here are some habits I’ve picked up along the way that make meal planning work for me.

  1. Take the time to create a menu. I’ve been meal planning for a while now, so I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Last Saturday I timed myself and found that it took me 30 minutes from start to finish. That includes creating a menu and turning that menu into a grocery list, with a few stops to google things here and there. While half an hour might seem like a long time, it saves me time later in the week; and, of course, it saves me money. When I know what I’m going to make, I won’t just throw in the towel and order takeout.
  2. Find inspiration. Vegetables inspire me! I build my menu around vegetables since vegetables change from season to season while most proteins and grains stay the same throughout the year.  I do this by either going to the farmer’s market (I set a budget for myself and only buy a vegetable if I can think of several ways to use it) or by looking online to see what vegetables are in season. In Texas we have this really cool chart from the Texas Depart of Agriculture to help with that. I bet you have something like this in your area. In the US you can also visit the website of your local Community-Supported Agriculture to get a sense of what’s available. If veggies don’t inspire you, find a different source of inspiration. For example, you might choose a theme for each night, like taco night, soup night, and breakfast-at-dinner night.
  3. Make a menu that reflects your week. When creating my menu, I think about our schedule and what nights are busy, like those nights I see a client or my husband has an event or I just know I’ll be tired from a long day. These busy night are the ones I start with.  I pick quick and easy meals for those nights, like a crockpot chili or make-your-own stuffed sweet potato. Once I get those nights sorted, I can add meals that will take a little more time, such as meals that require a sauce or that just have a little more going on.
  4. Don’t recreate the wheel. I like to cook and create new recipes, but I temper that with the amount of time and energy I have during the week. I have several meals that I come back to over and over that use the same grains or proteins but allow me to use whatever vegetable is in season, like stir fries and curries. I also save copies of my menu each week so I can go back and get ideas when I find myself with “menu block.”  I have about 10 meals that I cycle through every few weeks with a new recipe thrown in here and there to satisfy my creativity.

Meal planning is the foundation of a diet made up of nutritious food. Without a plan we spend more money and time than we want; we eat less of what we should and more of what we shouldn’t; and we stress about food far too much. I hope you find these tips helpful and that they make your next excursion to the store a bit less strained.  Share your tips for menu planning in the comments!

Next week: how to eat more vegetables without going into debt.