Choosing between cheap food and healthy food

“Cheap food is an illusion. There is no such thing as cheap food. The real cost of the food is paid somewhere. And if it isn’t paid at the cash register, it’s charged to the environment or to the public purse in the form of subsidies. And it’s charged to your health.”

So says Michal Pollan, advocate for the environment, agriculture, growing, choosing, and eating a nourishing diet, and more.  As I continue on my journey of reducing our food budget, I’m struck over and over again by the realization that the healthiest foods are not the most expensive foods, as some people say.  It’s really only the healthiest pre-made foods that are the most expensive.  Organic granola, cereals, processed frozen meals, ice creams, breads, muffins, cookies – all of these are REALLY expensive.  I recently picked up a box of gluten-free granola from the clearance section of Sunflower, and it cost $2.  I don’t know how much it costs when it’s not a clearance item, but I bet it’s something like $4.99, or even more.  It’s obvious that the average person trying to stick to an average budget would have to keep such items to a minimum, or eliminate them entirely.

On the other hand, the very most unhealthy processed foods often are very inexpensive.  Off the top of our heads, we could all list a dozen foods like that – Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese, cheap-o hotdogs, bologna, cheap sugary cereals and cookies… the list is depressingly long.  My personal food vice is white cheddar Cheeto puffs.  I seriously LOVE those stupid things.  They’re so delicious, I could probably eat a whole bag in a day.  No, scratch that – I could definitely eat a whole bag in a day.  But I generally have enough self-control to stay away from them… most of the time.

The very cheapest, processed foods are completely void of nutritional value.  That”s why they’re so cheap.  But, as Pollan says, once you go down the cheap food road, you’re going to pay the price elsewhere.  Maybe you’ll notice in 20 years when the environment is so ruined that even junk foods are really expensive, or maybe you’ll notice it in your own health when you’re middle-aged.  Whatever the consequences end up being, you’ll definitely notice eventually.

The thing about the cheap AND healthy foods is that cheap and healthy foods require planning and preparation.  Dried beans are very cheap, and very nutrient dense.  They also, however, take hours and hours to soak and cook.  Lots of very healthy vegetables are very cheap (say… cabbage, which is on sale at one of our grocery stores for $.99/lb this week), but they require some thought about how to prepare them.  Sometimes the thought of planning and executing an entire week’s worth of healthy and inexpensive meals is positively exhausting. It’s worth it in terms of health, but how many of us have the time, energy, and – cue the Cheetos! – self-control to eat such a diet?  It’s a conundrum for sure, but we can all take some small steps to work towards a healthier goal, and perhaps eventually those steps will add up to something really significant.

I recently bought a head of the aforementioned cheap, organic cabbage, and I can think of exactly two things to make with it.  One of those things is cabbage rolls, but I don’t quite have the oomph to try that yet. My second cabbage side dish is… Easy Slaw!  Easy slaw has three ingredients – very thinly sliced cabbage, grated carrot, and a balsamic vinaigrette.  I don’t usually like regular cole slaw, and I always thought it was the cabbage flavor.  Turns out, I LOVE raw cabbage, and Justin does too!  It was the mayo that was putting us off.

 

There you have it, a delicious, fast, healthy, and extremely “cheap” dish.

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