January 19, 2009

If Oranges and Arugula Got Half the Airtime as Cap'n Crunch

The headlines scare. "Will Americans put on Recession Pounds?" and "Lose Money, Gain Weight?"

True, obesity is often associated with poverty. Sugars and fats are a cheap way to get energy into processed foods. And mid-century, somewhere, a woman first brayed, "You can't be too rich or too thin."

Contrary to the headlines, a tightened grocery budget can result in weight loss and the kind of belt tightening you'd die for.

At the cusp of bankruptcy but determined to avoid it, my friends Henry and Lily slashed their food budget by 1) not dining out and 2) bypassing frozen dinners, boxed snacks and ready-to-eat products to go straight for fresh produce, unprepared rice, lentils, beans, popcorn, oil. They ate tasty meals and to their utter surprise—lost weight! Dinners out had been heavier and richer. Home cooking reduced their intake of empty calories.

Fresh fruits and vegetables offer higher nutritional value per pound, per calorie and per dollar spent, because: 1) no factory processing and additional labor 2) no designer packaging and scintillating copywriting 3) no advertising expense. Imagine if oranges and arugula got half the airtime as Cap'n Crunch.

BROKE GIRL SUGGESTION: This week, get yourself to the grocery store and buy nothing over-wrapped in cellophane or glossy boxes. Low profit margin items like rice and flour come in plain wrapper. Don't fall for the teeny packets of rice with seasoned mushroom tidbits (that you can only see with a microscope) packaged in large boxes with pretty pictures and dinner suggestions. You can DIY.

Breakfast bars, chips and prepared frozen dinners are high in fat, sugar or both and stripped of nutritive content. Quick and dirty guide: If it's not in a naturally occurring texture, shape or color, take a pass. I'm thinking Cheetos.

I use fresh-frozen and canned fruits and vegetables. Canned foods may be deemed uncool but they retain significant nutrients and I appreciate the extended shelf-life.

A few months ago I bought three heavy bags of groceries at Stanley's Fresh Fruit and Vegetables at Elston and North Avenues in Chicago. The cashier said "Your total is thirty—" ...I couldn't hear the rest, but it sounded right. I said, "I'm sorry, please repeat?" as I reached for my wallet. She said, "$13.79." Surprise! Three bags-full of healthy fresh food. It seemed like a twilight zone, akin to the humongous drop in gas prices late last year.

TIP: My dear friend Hope Egan has been an excellent encourager for eating all things healthy. She has served some of the tastiest, simple home-cooked meals I've enjoyed, prepared from fresh and inexpensive foods. She releases her first cookbook this month. bsacookbook.com

Disclaimer: I am eating a sugary breakfast bar as I write. I am not proud of this. It tastes cardboard-y. All I'm saying is that I have good ideas, but neither do I claim to follow all of my advice all of the time. It's been said, "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing poorly."

1 comment:

  1. Yay! You're absolutely right about this. My husband and I cut eating out WAY down two years ago. With no active effort, I dropped from a size 14 to a size 6. AND I had a baby in between!

    The upside is that dining out is now what it ought to be - a rare treat that I can really enjoy, even if we're just at Baja Fresh with our toddler and our newborn.

    Best of all, our grocery bill hasn't gone up nearly as much as you might think - mostly because we actually EAT what we buy instead of tossing it after the expiration date slips by.