Day 4: EAT: My Eating Healthy and Cheap Mentors

Lentil barley mushroom soup is soup-er nutrient-dense, and cheap, too!

When you’re a bad cook, you need a good mentor.   My husband is a good mentor when it comes to gastronomically and aesthetically appealing dishes.   His meals are not just delicious, but he believes that you’re halfway there in preparing a successful meal if it the plate looks as good as it tastes.

But he is also the one who has inspired this challenge, believing it’s impossible to eat healthily without spending a fortune.  So I have to look for good mentors in that department.

I am basically drawing on three books as a basis for a healthy diet, and also for recipes and shopping tips:

Let me make one thing very clear:  Despite the subtitles, I am NOT trying to lose weight.  I’m generally satisfied with my weight.  I have chosen these books because they promote a balanced perspective on eating healthily, based on real food, and without gimmicks like cutting out macronutrients.    I was looking for guidance on the most nutrient-dense foods to get more bang for my buck, and these books seem to have great information, as well as decent recipes.  They are also pretty flexible in their approach–none of them telling you you CAN’T have your favorite comfort food, but you have to learn how to work it in, if it’s not exactly the healthiest choice.

So, I cross-referenced the highest nutrient foods with the Stop & Shop weekly flyer and bought all the Superfoods on sale that I could:

  • Salmon, tuna
  • Blueberries, strawberries
  • Butternut squash
  • Yogurt
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Avocado
  • Oranges

I also bought real food that’s not necessarily way up high on the Superfoods list, such as a roasting chicken, canned tuna, celery, onions, mushrooms, carrots, and frozen peas and corn.

I also put together a couple of spreadsheets–one of all the Superfoods, another of menus incorporating as many superfoods as possible, and finally a spreadsheet showing the food, the price per unit and the price per serving.

My grocery bill for one week was $99.58, not including pet food and vitamins.  I know that that will be more than $367 if I spend the same for four weeks, but I won’t.  I have tons of food left, since I stockpiled items that were on sale, like $1 a can for tuna and $1 a can for canned tomatoes.

Examples of daily menus so far:

Day 1

Breakfast:  Oatmeal with blueberries and brown sugar  (.56 per serving)
Lunch:  Homemade lentil, barley and mushroom soup (.75 per serving)
Dinner:  Salmon with rice pilaf and peas and pearl onions (this was a weekly splurge, to be evened out by less costly dinners) (3.49 per serving)

Daily Total (one serving of all three meals):  4.80

Day 2

Breakfast:  2 organic, free-range eggs w/English muffin and coffee (.86 per serving)
Lunch:  Tuna on whole wheat bread (1.34 per serving)
Dinner:  Roast chicken with potatoes and corn (1.84 per serving)

Total:  (three meals, one serving: 4.04)

Other strategies I’ve put in place are:

  • I’ve written on my kitchen dry-erase board a “perishable watch”–you know how you buy stuff and it goes bad before you get a chance to use it?  That happens to me all the time. So now, I’ll do a quick check every day to be sure I use up the stuff in the fridge before it goes bad.
  • I’m using up everything.  When I cut the greens off the celery for the lentil soup I put them in a zip lock bag.  When I had extra onions chopped up, I did the same.  So, today, I am making a stock from the chicken bones, and I had bits and pieces of veggies I would have thrown out to put in it.

So, that’s my progress report so far.  Kind of an unrefined way to present the data, but I am more interested in the journey at this point.

Foodbyte #6: Even eating less meat is a miracle, so become a Lessmeatarian

The recommended 5.5 oz of meat a day represents a 30% reduction from the average 8 oz American's currently eat

The recommended 5.5 oz of meat a day represents a 30% reduction from the average 8 oz American's currently eat

“Even eating less meat is a miracle.” I love that quote by Thich Nhat Hanh (see his Diet for a Mindful Society). In keeping with Buddhism’s Middle Way, it acknowledges that being responsible for our planet and our fellow creatures does not have to be an act of extremism. While I’m sure most animal rights groups would disagree with that statement, I’d like to look at this logically.

Let’s look at three facts about meat consumption:

  1. Meat consumption at current levels (about 200 lbs a year per capita in developed nations) is a tremendous strain on our environmental resources.
  2. Meat consumption at its current levels forces the market to meet the supply by growing meat in extremely inhumane conditions.
  3. Meat consumption at its current levels is bad for our health

Now, three facts about people:

  1. The vast majority of people eat omnivorously.
  2. The vast majority of people value their meat-eating experiences. To them there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Plus, meat-eating is a very pleasurable experience, gastronomically, emotionally, and socially.
  3. It takes a lot of conviction and self-denial to become vegetarian or vegan. Many people go in and out of vegetarianism. I know a lot of animal-loving, nature-loving people who tried to be vegan or vegetarian, and found it difficult to sustain.

To me, I think it’s a LOT more realistic to motivate people to eat less meat rather than cut it out completely. Not only more realistic, but perhaps accepting collateral damage in the animal world by asking our meat-eating friends to simply eat less meat instead of no meat would overall save animal lives, save water, save land, save our health.

Think about two scenarios: One in which 20% of the US becomes vegetarian vs. another in which the entire population of the country is motivated to eat 30% less meat.

Scenario 1: At the rate of 200 lbs of meat eaten a year, if 20% of 300 million people became vegetarian, that would save 12,000,000,000 lbs of meat or about 30 million cows (assuming all that meat eaten was beef and that each cow yields 400 lbs of meat.)

Scenario 2: Getting the same 300,000,000 people to cut down on their meat-eating 30% (for example, say you reduced your meat-eating by one meal, or about 2.5 oz of meat daily) you save 45 million cows.

But, which scenario is more likely? According to a Harris Interactive poll in 2003, only 2.8% of people polled in the US said that they NEVER eat meat, poultry, or fish–which is the basic definition of a vegetarian (recognizing that there are lots of different kinds vegetarians, according to how strict you are).

To get that 2.8% up to 20% would be a tremendous challenge, because of ingrained attitudes about meat that I mentioned above.    If you are vegetarian, you might feel encouraged by a rise in vegetarian restaurants in midtown Manhattan, but just travel to Kansas City and talk to people about taking their meat away from them.

Maybe you could convince those same people, however, to try eating meat at only one meal a day instead of two, or two meals a day instead of three. So, you skip the bacon at breakfast one day. Or the cold cuts at lunch on another. You could educate them into realizing that that small gesture can make a world of difference in terms of their own health, and the health of the planet.

Mark Bittman, the food columnist for the New York Times offers a challenge on his website.  The Food Matters Challenge (named after his book, Food Matters), asks people to pledge to become Lessmeatarian–and to make a commitment  (and sign up on the website, if a formal commitment will help you) to reduce  consumption of meat, dairy, over-processed carbohydrates, and junk food.    As a motivator, you might want to read a great article of his, published in the Times on January 27, 2008 called “The World–Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler.”

He is not a vegetarian.  Nor is Michael Pollan, who explored that option in The Omnivore’s Dilemma.   They both recognize that moderation and prudence are good things when it comes to taking responsibility for ourselves, our planet and our fellow creatures. 

Some of us may eventually evolve to eating less and less meat.  I did–in 1998 I determined to eat meat at only one meal a day.  Then I said that if I had the option, I would always choose the non-meat option.  Then I cut out meat and poultry entirely.  I do eat fish occasionally, and I do eat dairy.  On Thanksgiving I eat a turkey raised at a local poultry farm.  On St. Patrick’s Day, I eat corned beef and cabbage.

We all have our own paths to take and the path can meander.  God bless those who are dedicated to living out their convictions on a straighter, narrower path in terms of compassion for animals or concern for the planet.  But for most of us, maybe our commitment is to just cut down, and that’s enough.  That’s doable.

Doable–and a miracle in itself.

Foodbyte #5: Eureka! Wild rice is as easy to make as Rice-A-Roni (and it tastes better, too!)

images-2One thing that happens when you start to simplify your eating habits and explore your extended neighborhood for locally-grown produce is you wind up trying new things.    Dropping processed foods creates a void–and it’s a fun adventure to see what winds up filling it.

Last year when I was beginning the journey of exploration of my local food resources in Central New Jersey, I went to the Griggstown Farm Market and made an impulse buy of a bag of wild rice.  It was $7.00, which to me was a real guilty pleasure, considering you can buy those little tubes of Goya rice for less than $1.

It sat there on the middle shelf in my cabinet for months, and then got moved to the upper shelf.  I really didn’t know what to do with this stuff that  looked like the Marlboro Man of rice–rugged and swarthy compared to the Harvey Milquetoast of plain old white rice.

My vegan daughter came for dinner last weekend, and when she foraged in my cabinet she came across the rice.  “Let’s make this, Mom!”  So we invested the 45 minutes it takes to cook wild rice, and used it as an accompaniment to our grilled, skewered veggie-kabobs.

It was great–a bit nutty tasting with a lot of texture.   I was so intrigued by how different it was compared to the standard white rice, rice pilaf, yellow rice, and even brown rice, I looked it up.    According to Wikipedia:

Wild rice is any of the four species of plants that make up the genus Zizania (common names:Canada riceIndian rice, and water oats), a group ograsses that grow in shallow water in smalllakes and slow-flowing streams; often, only the flowering head of wild rice rises above the water. The genus is closely related to true rice, genus Oryza, which is also a grass, and shares the tribe Oryzeae. Three species of wild rice are native to North America:

The other great thing about wild rice is its nutritional content–apparently it compares favorably against even brown rice in terms of the amount of protein, Vitamin E and folate one serving of wild rice has vs. brown.  Here’s a cool site where I looked at the nutritional facts of wild rice.

The barrier that caused this nutritional gem to be relegated to the top shelf of my cabinet for almost a year was because I had the idea wild rice is harder to make than other rice.  That’s not true.  I have a small stockpot, and I used it to sweat some onion, throw in the rice, add water, and then put the whole pot (you can use a casserole dish as well) into a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.  That’s it!  If you’re in a hurry, maybe Rice-a-Roni is better, but for an extra 20 minutes, you have something really special.

I guess the point is, sometimes it’s worth it to make the effort to try something new, gastronomically speaking.  It’s usually easier than you think.  If you are interested in eating healthier and more sustainably, pick up something you never had before the next time you go to your favorite local or natural foods market.   An hour of time or less invested in learning something new and overcoming barriers of unfamiliarity with a new food may pay off in a great way to fill in a void normally filled in your diet by something processed and packaged.

Foodbyte #4: Feed your body, feed the earth

cater-to-the-earthIn today’s culture, the story of food has grown into an epic, with vast armies of processers, packagers, and people to cart waste away. The whole show appears so well-choreographed that it seems like it could go on forever…but it can’t. When we speak of “sustainable” foods, we mean foods that are grown in a way that maintains the earth’s ability to keep on growing, rather than farming like there’s no tomorrow. This is a whole new way of looking at food, with the earth as a character instead of just a backdrop. This is Catering to the Earth.–From the New American Dream website

New American Dream‘s website recently announced a new section of the site:  Cater to the Earth.   It was designed to inform its readers about the impact their food choices have on the earth.  It’s a really well-designed site with tons of easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate information.  

In it you will find the environmental, social, and health impact of foods such as beef and seafood, a food blog, and a glossary of terms to guide you through the complexity of language that surrounds the simple act of eating sustainably.

In keeping with the miracle of the ways of life and nature, what’s good for us is good for the earth.   When we compromise our health by eating “dead” food as well as food that’s been processed away from its natural state, the earth suffers, too.  

So, if you’re not going to eat healthier for yourself, think about your Mother–Mother Earth.  Do it for her.  It’ll come right back atcha.

P.S.  I’m keeping the poll open, so please take it and let me know the main reasons you don’t eat more healthily.

Foodbyte #3: Comfort Food: How many marshmallow peeps and jelly beans did you eat yesterday?

peepLetting-Go Lent is over now, and Monday is the day I’d like to stick to for issues about food, but maybe I can wrap up Letting-Go Lent by talking about how difficult it is to let go of our food cravings.  Friday’s post was about our Comfort Zone.  Today’s is about Comfort Food.   

You are what you eat, and if we could register our cravings on our faces, what would people see?   The meatloaf that got served every week?  Maybe chili?  Maybe macaroni and cheese?   How about potato chips?  Oreos and milk?  Mint chocolate chip ice cream?   

I always associate “comfort food” with home.  I was talking to my friend about comfort food and he associates it with fat.  Familiarity mixed with fat is the perfect recipe for a comfort food.  

You would think that if your health depended upon giving up comfort food, you’d do it–but only the most motivated, self-disciplined among us ever do.  I consider myself to be a fairly healthy eater, but when I travel on business for instance, I rarely choose a salad for dinner, or baked fish.  I’ll pick New England clam chowder–hearkening back to my days on the coast of Connecticut.  Or grilled cheese, taking me right back to treasured memories of diner lunches with my mother.    I want to be home when I’m traveling for business, and my stomach says “I’ll take you there.”    

Also, biology takes over with hormone-associated cravings.    I think the body is a wonderful thing because it really does speak up when it needs something.  When I was pregnant, the greasy cheese steaks I used to eat at lunch all of a sudden revolted me and I ate cottage cheese instead.    When I cut meat out of my diet, all of a sudden I was reaching for an alternative protein source–nuts.  I’ve hated nuts since I was a child and now I can’t get enough of them.   So sometimes cravings can be our friends.

But cravings can also be formidable foes in our quest to eat more healthily, which is why information can never be the only arm we bear to fight back against poor dietary habits.    We have to acknowledge the pull some foods have on us and understand why it’s so hard to be rational beings when it comes to eating.  There are a few theories.

Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen says that we may seek comfort foods when we are sad. citing the University of Illinois Brand and Food lab. Apparently happy people don’t crave comfort foods as often as sad people.

Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco link comfort food cravings to stress.   It may be part of the flight-or-fight syndrome, which would explain why when our adrenaline is rushing we crave high-energy foods, such as those find in carbohydrates and fat.

Prevention Magazine offers three key questions if you are on the brink of an unwanted snack attack, with some explanationa as well as antidotes:

  • Am I stressed out?
  • Have I been eating less than usual?
  • Am I getting enough sleep?

Click on the link to the full article for the antidotes, which are helpful.  Not surprisingly, exercise and other techniques for de-stressing are part of the strategies:  along with one that I really like:    If you try to fool your cravings with poor substitutions like eating yogurt instead of the milkshake you want, you’re still not going to be satisfied.   Success in controlling cravings is really about moderation–not deprivation.

In addition to all these brain chemicals firing off fight and flight messages, I do think the memories of home play a big part in deciding what our cravings are, and we don’t really want an antidote to those.    Holiday memories are built with foodstuffs that make us smile and drool at the same time.   And like Pavlov’s dog, we try to repeat the experiences over and over.    

At least that’s why I went for those marshmallow peeps yesterday.  And the jelly beans.  And the dark chocolate bunny.  And I have no regrets.

  I’m including the same poll from last week:  if you haven’t yet taken it, please do.

Foodbyte #2: You want to eat healthily: Poll: What’s keeping you?

One of the reasons I’m interested in highlighting information that has been written by many outstanding researchers and writers in the field of food (among other fields) is that there are many books that go unread because we’re so busy.  Like the title of the classic personal development book, Acres of Diamonds, we are sitting on gems of knowledge and insight, but we don’t have time to mine them!  So when you read a book that actually has the power to change your life, you want to share it.  You tell your friends, “You should read this book,” and they say, “Yeah, I’ll pick it up sometime.”  But they won’t because they’re too busy.  And the fact of the matter is, one of the reasons we are in the dietary fix we’re in is because of exactly that–we don’t have time to pay attention.  We don’t have time to cook, or plan menus.   We take the path of least resistance, not because we want to, but because we have to.    

But if we’re motivated, we’ll try a little harder to change the things we can to improve our health and habits.  And if you can take a couple of minutes to read this post and others like it, you may eventually be motivated to make small changes.   So, I’d like to try to unearth some of the diamonds out there about food and present the information in a way that might be helpful and maybe even motivating.  

In my mind, there are a few main reasons people want to eat better but they can’t:

  • No time to prepare food.
  • No time to plan.
  • Packaged, processed foods are convenient.
  • We all know that processed foods aren’t that great, but they taste good.
  • The things we love to eat, our “comfort foods” are tied in deeply with our memories and emotions.
  • As a family, we are all bound by a common interest in the same foods, so it would be tough to change.
  • Cravings for sugar and/or fat are just too hard to resist.
  • Eating on the run has become a pattern.
  • The perception that eating healthily is expensive.

There may be a lot of other reasons, but many of the ones I listed have prevented me from eating as healthily as I should. But over the course of the year, I’ve learned a few things that have motivated me to take some basic steps to eating healthier.   Lately, I have:

  • Built a small but growing file of tasty, easy recipes that I tested and practiced one by one.  
  • Created a pantry list to take to the supermarket so there are always good ingredients on hand.  
  • Habitually looked at labels and count how many edible single ingredients there are in each package.  If there is high fructose corn syrup in it, or a long list of preservatives and artificial ingredients, I try to find a better choice.
  • Learned to enjoy eating fresh foods, and my palate is reflecting that.   I now refuse to eat canned soups of any kind because making them fresh doesn’t take that long and they are SO much better.  This, from a person whose children do not recall a single home-cooked  meal that I made for them in their formative years (my husband, thank God, is a wonderful cook).  

So if I can do it, you can too–and I aim to help break down every one of those barriers I cited above, and then some.  To help me, please take the poll and pass it along to a few of your friends.   

By the way, I forgot to mention another author to add to the reading list in last week’s Foodbyte post.  I can’t believe I forgot, because she’s a leader in the field of food politics.  Marion Nestle is Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.  She has written several books that are dense with information and give a million reasons to think about why you eat what you eat.   To get started, read Food Politics.   She also has a terrific blog at  Check it out. 

Here’s a parting quote from the Introduction of Food Politics:

Humans do not innately know how to select a nutritious diet; we survived in evolution because nutritious foods were readily available for us to hunt or gather.  In an economy of overabundance, food companies can sell products only to people who want to buy them.  Whether consumer demands drives food sales or the industry creates such demands is a matter of debate, but much industry effort goes into trying to figure out what the public ‘wants’ and how to meet such ‘needs.’  Nearly all research on this issue yields the same conclusion.  When food is plentiful and people can afford to buy it, basic biological needs become less compelling and the principal determinant of food choice is personal preference.  In turn, personal preferences may be influenced by religion and other cultural factors, as well as by considerations of convenience, price, and nutritional value.  To sell food in an economy of abundant food choices, companies must worry about those other determinants much more than about the nutritional value of their products–unless the nutrient content helps to entice buyers… Thus the food industry’s marketing imperatives principally concern four factors:  taste, cost, convenience, and … public confusion. — Marion Nestle, Food Politics; p.16

Foodbyte #1: Questions to Chew On about Eating

4424752For my birthday last week, my daughter gave me a book by Christopher D. Cook called Diet for A Dead Planet:  Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis.  I haven’t really started reading it in earnest yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  As I mentioned in my early post about Lent:  A Tool for Simplifying, reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma set me off on a Lenten challenge to give up high fructose corn syrup.  In addition, it really incited in me an interest in food politics, and it ultimately changed the way I eat.   In fact, when I quit my corporate job last year to become a consultant, part of the reason I left was because I recognized that I couldn’t change the way I eat and simultaneously work the hours I was working. 

As a person who once made instant mashed potatoes for her son believing that she was making him pancakes, I obviously do not approach this point of view from the vantage point of being a food snob.  On the contrary, my goal in eating, most of the time anyway, is to be able to check it off on my daily to-do list.  I have always been a complete failure in the kitchen and relied heavily on the nice assortment of fast food chains lining the main thoroughfare of my town.  So, I realized that if I were to take my diet into my own hands, it was going to be a huge challenge.   I had to go right back to the drawing board.  And I think that as a nation we are starting to think the same thing.   We need to get back to basics.

Undoing our bad dietary habits will not be easy.  It will be like untangling a pile of fishing line.  Or maybe it will be more like breaking up a bar fight—because food certainly is a passion for many of us.  The way we cling to our eating patterns–well, as the old cigarette commercial used to say, we’d rather fight than switch.  It’s amazing how primal our feelings about food are, and if we can’t address this fact, we are going to remain absolutely impotent before the forces that are doing us harm.

And the forces are many– to name a few: 

  • The outmoded policies of the Department of Agriculture
  • Every corporation with a vested stake in what goes on the supermarket shelves
  • Our dual income, acquisitive culture which puts time at work before healthy home-cooked meals
  • Our personal cravings and sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), which have been exploited by manufacturers for profit. 
  • The slippery slope we have been rolling down for decades which has permitted us to accept some really outrageous industrial practices, and take for granted others which simply don’t even make sense.

To effect serious and long-lasting change at an individual level, it will take a slow digestion (excuse the pun) of why are are where we are in America today.  That is, we are exploding in an epidemic of cardiac disease, diabetes, and other diseases that can be largely controlled simply by watching what we eat and exercising.   And we really aren’t aware of the silent puppeteers pulling our strings and making our efforts doomed from the start.

Last year (around the time I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma), I was conducting an interview with an endocrinologist, who, when asked if her patients are unable to control their diabetes simply because they are non-compliant with their therapy, she said, 

“The patients want to do what’s right.  But they are sabotaged by the supermarkets.  They pick up bread that says ‘whole grain’ but they don’t read the labels to see that they are really highly processed.  I’ve had to literally write a list of the specific products that they should be eating.” 

Because of the complexity of this issue, and also because I am not a nutritionist or a policy analyst– just a concerned citizen–my intention here is not to teach, but to ask questions, and provide possible resources for answers.  So, I will be writing ongoing bite-sized pieces of information that may be helpful in building awareness and understanding about eating as well as tools to aid in making changes.  

Here are some questions that I have been asking myself for a year now:

  • Does it make sense that most of the farms in the US have become monocultures, when crop rotation has multiple economic and environmental benefits such as avoiding the build-up of pathogens and pests, balancing the fertility demands of various crops; avoiding excessive depletion of soil nutrients and improving soil structure and fertility?
  • If we are such a compassionate society, how can we tolerate the deplorable lives millions of sentient beings spend in factory farms and feedlots?    
  • Why are farm subsidies actually hurting our farmers?
  • If factory farmers “finish” cattle (i.e., get them up to proper weight for slaughter) with corn and corn byproducts to make them fatter faster, what do all these ubiquitous corn products in our food, such as high fructose corn syrup, do to us?
  • What do we have to gain economically and physically by investing time and money in  “real” food?

I don’t have all the answers to these questions for sure, but I’m trying to learn.  So I will be sharing information.   My goal would be to try to come up with solutions that are forward-looking–not: all women should quit their jobs and go back to the kitchen, but solutions that are relevant for the culture we now find ourselves in.   To that end, I welcome dialogue for brainstorming, so please feel free to comment.  Look for “Foodbytes” blog entries about once a week.

In the meantime, here’s a great reading list from   9 Must Read Books on Eating Well

If you only have 20 minutes to spare, here’s an interesting Ted Talk given by Michael Pollan.  You can watch it at work while you’re eating lunch.

Bon Appetit!