I continually hear things like “oh, you’re so lucky to have time to cook from scratch, I wish I did”, or “when I go to the store I just don’t know what to buy! So I buy the easy thing”. Well, I’m here to tell you that no matter your situation, how many people you’re cooking for, or your budget, there are certain things you can do to help yourself (and your family) eat more healthily and on a budget. And cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be complicated or take a lot of time. Mostly, it just requires a little planning.
1. Plan out meals for the week:
It’s annoying, especially if you’re lucky enough to have a great grocery store/market down the street or near your work, but it will end up saving you more money than perhaps anything else you do. When you plan your meals, you buy less and therefore waste less food.
Every Sunday I look ahead to the next week. Is my husband on a work trip? Do the kids have soccer practice? Do I have a late meeting? It allows me to figure out how much food I need to prepare, plan for nights when leftovers or crockpot dinners are helpful, or enlist someone else to spearhead dinner for an evening or two.
Does the unexpected come up and throw my plans out of whack? Of course… this is life after all. But when I have a plan, it’s easier to deal with those days as well. And worst-case scenario is that we pick up dinner one night, and the rest of the meals get bumped back a day. And really… is that so bad?
2. Make a list when you go shopping
Really this is just an extension of tip #1. Once you have your meal plan, you can check out what you need to buy and what you already have. Add in any breakfast and lunch items and viola! Then when you go to the store (do it AFTER you’ve eaten, not before when you’re hungry), stick with your list. You won’t end up buying food you shouldn’t be eating, or won’t use and you’ll discover how much of your previous food budget was spent on those “extra” items.
Most of us know that fresh, whole produce, meat and grains are better than their processed counterparts. But many people are scared of buying them because they fear having to do something with them when they get home. Don’t be afraid. With a little knowledge, it’s super easy to cook from scratch and doesn’t have to be some time consuming or scary adventure.
Need an example? Here it goes:
Begin with 3 or 4 veggies of your choosing (ex: kale, mushrooms, onion & carrots)
Choose a source of protein (beans, fish, chicken, etc.)
If you need bulk in your meals, add a whole grain (quinoa, rice, polenta)
Cook protein, add and cook veggies, add seasoning or sauce and serve with grain.
Total time from start to finish: 30 minutes
4. Avoid large amounts of carbohydrates (i.e. starch, sugar, and even grains)
Most of us are not blessed with digestive systems that burn a million calories while sitting still. So unless you’re one of these people (like my husband), then you really shouldn’t be eating much starch (maybe one serving per day – not meal – day). Where your body and digestion are concerned, starch or carbohydrates are just a fancy way of saying sugar. You may think you’re eating a wonderful whole grain slice of bread (and you are), but when it’s broken down in your body, it’s dealt with like sugar. And if you’re wondering about fiber and other healthy parts of whole grains, the truth is you can get that elsewhere, in your fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, without the negative cost to your health.
Sugar might be lovely to taste, but really it is awful for all of us.[i] [ii] Even if your body seems to handle it just fine, it really is mad at you for consuming those large quantities. And believe it or not, it’s our sugar intake, not our fat intake that makes us put on weight, loose sleep, feel sluggish and in general wreak havoc on our digestive & immune systems.[iii] [iv] Put very simplistically, sugar (and carbohydrates in general) is used as energy by our bodies. A good thing right? But when we eat more sugar/carbs than we burn, our liver takes the extra and turns it into fat to store.[v] So if you’re training for an ironman, then by all means, eat healthy carbs that you need for energy. But still avoid the sugar and reach for the grains and legumes instead. There are a whole other host of reasons why sugar itself is bad, but that will have to be another discussion.
**Sugar hides everywhere: Processed foods in particular are typically full of sugar hidden under unassuming names (glucose, dextrose, fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, cane sugar, HFCS, maltose, and a whole host of others[vi]). When you look at the sugar content of something, look at the entire carbohydrate content (minus the fiber) to really get a good idea of how much sugar you are actually consuming. And not all sweeteners are created equal. When choosing, reach for one of these instead: Raw honey, coconut sugar, or stevia (with no additives).
**Avoid GMOs: No matter what your stance is on GMO labeling and the like, there are some certainties when it comes to GMOs that can’t be denied. And they are not good. The environmental, and resulting health impacts of GMOs are now well documented. Here’s a brief summary: Some plants are modified to be able to take larger quantities of pesticides and herbicides,[vii] [viii] which are then (1) absorbed by the plant and in turn by you when you eat them[ix], (2) are absorbed into the ground and contaminate the ground water and waterways[x], and (3) consumed by the pollinators (bees) who are now facing record decline[xi] [xii]. GMO plants also end up cross-pollinating with non-GMO crops, which can then create all sorts of problems[xiii]. So even if you don’t believe that eating a GMO crop will directly affect your health (although I beg to differ[xiv] [xv] [xvi]), just know that the entire system of GMO crops is directly and indirectly killing our soil, bees, contaminating water, and providing food that is less healthy than its counterpart.[xvii]
How do you tell if you’re eating GMOs? Well, these days, unless you buy organic, you don’t know (and I can’t tell you how frustrating this is to me!). But there are certain crops, where unless it’s organic, you can be fairly certain it’s GMO: corn (88%), soy (93%), cottonseed – used to make vegetable oil, shortening & margarine (94%), canola (90%) and sugar beets – which makes up more than half of the sugar sold in the U.S. (90%).[xviii] And if you’ve looked at a label recently, you’ll discover how prevalent things like corn (which includes corn syrup), soy, canola/veggie oil and sugar are in processed/prepared foods. It’s extremely hard to avoid. My advice? Buy organic when you can, and avoid processed/prepared foods as much as possible.
**Know your fats: Fat is very important for us to be healthy. Anyone who still touts a low-fat diet is living in the past and you might just want to refer him or her to this article. The fact is, that without fat, we would be in deep trouble. Your brain is 60% fat. Fatty acids are critical for brain performance, and an imbalance or lack of EFAs (essential fatty acids) can lead to a reduction in brain performance and disease. [xix] Fat was also blamed for heart disease, but research now shows that it’s sugar/carbohydrate intake that leads to stroke, heart attacks, high blood pressure, and diabetes, just to name a few[xx]. So instead of avoiding fat, eat it! Just know what kind to eat. Here’s a quick breakdown[xxi]:
Good Fats are:
· Olive oil
· Coconut oil
· Nut & Seed oils (unheated or in the form of whole nuts & seeds)
· Pasture butter, cheese & milk
· Pastured eggs
· Lard from foraging pigs.
Fats to avoid:
· Margarine (or any butter substitute)
· Vegetable oils (which is where most of our trans fats come from)
Now that you’re armed with information, go plan your meals, check out your pantry and shop with confidence! And I’ll bet, that if you allow yourself to get into this new healthy habit, your energy, sanity and wallet will thank me later.