Eating Healthy, Part II- Going Shopping

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

No matter where you are on Earth, certain things drive food culture forward- geography, climate, population, social mores, and so on. Right at the heart of it though, from the salt-of-the-earth origins of cuisines all over the world- from the Soul Food of the Southeastern United States to the multifaceted mosaic of Chinese food- is economics, and the single question every cook asks:

“HOW DO I TAKE WHAT’S CHEAP, MAKE IT TASTE GOOD, AND FEED EVERYONE?”

Back when I first decided that I needed to get in shape, I knew the hardest- but most important- thing I’d have to change was going to be my diet. I knew how to cook, of course, but I didn’t necessarily trust myself on coming up with healthy, well-balanced recipes. Thanks to MyFitnessPal, I’d gotten an idea of how my caloric intake should look- and more importantly, how much I needed to be exercising. Given all this, as well as MFPs handy barcode scanner and database, I got into the habit of picking up pre-packaged, frozen stuff. It had a lot of benefits, of course- I could see all the ingredients, all the nutrition info, and base my diet off of that.

You can imagine where that went- not only was it expensive, but boring, and ultimately depressing. I’m a baker and cook, dammit! I should KNOW how to make a healthy meal, work out the nutrition, and not suck my bank account dry doing it.
That’s when the internet stepped in to help.
​For a long time, I’d been a fan of a YouTube channel called Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Theater (or SMBC Theater-) a sketch comedy channel written and directed by webcomic artist Zach Weinersmith and his friends. When I saw that two of the actors, James Ashby and Marque Franklin-Williams were doing an off-shoot cooking show (with all the usual comedic flair,) I was right on board.
Their show, “Hand 2 Mouth” (tagline, “When you can only afford the internet”) and its evolution “Broke Eats,” had a simple premise- cooking healthy meals on the budget of a broke college student.

Well that’s just kinda perfect.

Starting from the most basic of basics- “How to make rice on a hot plate”- they kept the show going to include making pasta, lentils (a go-to legume for me now), breaded portobello mushrooms, and more. Each episode addressed not just how to make healthy food, but how to source the ingredients cheaply: getting giant bags of stuff that won’t spoil, picking up bruised fruit and veggies, and keeping an eye out for special pricing. One suggestion I DIDN’T really take them up on was saving money on condiments by swiping ketchup and mustard packets from fast food restaurants- I had to draw the line somewhere.

With this inspiration, I finally felt ready to let go of the pre-packaged health food route and make my own decent tasting food, and shop for it all on a budget.

With the excellent advice from Ken in the last entry on eating right, I decided this was a perfect time to offer up my own tips and tricks for shopping for ingredients.
For the pictures and prices, I wandered down to QFC- a mid-level supermarket chain out here on the West Coast. They are part of the Kroger empire- which includes Fred Meyer, Albertsons, and a couple other chains. These are not Whole Foods/ New Seasons/ Natural Grocery prices.

As an disclaimer, all the food I’m referencing here is the cheapest I found on the shelf- usually not organic, and the store/generic brand. If you have a special diet/ medical thing going on where you need to keep your eye out for certain ingredients and processes (i.e. allergies, celiac, intolerances, etc.) then KEEP TO THAT. Going cheap shouldn’t kill you.

Healthy Shopping-
​For Body AND Bank Account

1. Stick to a list.
Remember what Ken said about doing meal prep? That’ll make having a list easier. Think ahead for the week and what kind of food you’d like to have around the house. If prepping for individual meals is too much at once, or more of a time investment than you can spare, consider making a large batch of something that keeps. When I was starting out, I would make big 6-8 serving batches of Beef and Guinness Stew or Ham and Lentil soup. That would keep me in dinners for a full week.
Once you have your healthy and balanced meals worked out, figure out the ingredients you’ll need, add them to the list. Include healthy snacks on there too. Once you’re at the store, DO NOT DEVIATE FROM THE LIST. If it’s not on the list, and it’s not a staple you somehow forgot (eggs, milk, butter, etc.) don’t get it.

​2. Avoid “convenience” products!As I mentioned in the last blog, a lot of grocery stores will happily sell you pre-cut vegetables, peeled garlic, and so on. If you look at the comparative prices for these products, you’ll find they are almost always pricier- you’re paying for the convenience of someone else having done some of the prep work for you. Honestly? Save the money, get whole veggies and fruit, and learn to use a kitchen knife. It’s saving you money, and simultaneously investing in yourself- kitchen skills never go out of style. There’s plenty of online and YouTube resources teaching how.

bag of broccoli

If it wasn’t on sale, this 2 lbs. bag of broccoli would be $5, or $2.50 a pound…

Packaged Asparagus

$4 for 8 ounces of pre-trimmed asparagus spears ($8/ pound)…

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… or you can cut it yourself for $1.79/pound.

asparagus

…. or trim it yourself for $3/ pound.

3. Learn What You Can Make On Your Own.
While we’re on the subject of kitchen skills- if you’re serious about learning to cook your own healthy meals, you’ll be thrilled to know that some ingredients, like stock and tomato sauce, are remarkably easy to make at home. There is a bit of work and time involved, but besides not having to spend money on so much canned/cartoned stuff, you can flavor them however you want!

To Make Basic Stock
You need:
– A whole mess of chopped vegetable bits- ends and scraps work great, especially from aromatic veggies like celery, carrots, parsnips, and onions. Keep a giant Ziploc bag in the freezer to save all these odds and ends.
– Bones/scraps from any meat you’d like to make stock of. (Hey, if you still have the carcass of Thanksgiving’s turkey hanging around, that works great! Throw it in the Ziploc too.)

– A roasting pan, if you want your stock to have a roasted, browned flavor.
– A large stock pot
– Water

If you don’t want roasted stock, then simply throw all your odds and ends into the pot, cover with water, and set it on high heat. Let it get to a simmer (small, rapid bubbles breaking on top, NOT a rolling boil), and then turn the heat down to about medium low to hold it there. Cover, and let it go for at least 2 hours.
When you are done, remove the odds and ends, let the stock cool, strain, and store! You can freeze it in ice trays, or stick it in jars and bottles if you expect to use it soon.

If you want roasted flavors, especially if you are making meat stock, turn your oven up to 425 degrees F. Put all your odds and ends in a roasting pan, and roast until they are VERY browned and fragrant. If there’s stuff sticking to the bottom of the pan, even better. Right out of the oven, pour water over everything- this is called “deglazing,” and the cold water will shock and pull all that tasty browned stuff off the bottom of the pan! Use a non-metal utensil to scrape it all off, then pour everything- water, scraps, scrapings- into the stock pot, and continue as above!

For A Basic Tomato Sauce-
You need:
– Fresh tomatoes (or canned, if it’s not the season)
– Fresh herbs (especially thyme, basil, parsley, and oregano)
– Garlic (sliced or minced)
– Crushed red pepper
– Salt and pepper
– Whatever else you like in tomato sauce.

First, peel the tomatoes: boil a small pot of water, and prepare a large bowl of ice water nearby. Cut a small “X” in the bottom of each tomato (not too deep- you’re just slicing through the skin) and drop them in the boiling water. Wait about 2 minutes, and then fish them out and drop them straight in the ice water. The boiling and the swift temperature change should make the skins come off easily. Remove the seeds from the tomatoes and set the tomatoes aside.
Next, put a little olive oil in a large frying pan. Sauté your garlic and red pepper over medium-high heat until fragrant (only a minute or two), then drop in the tomatoes. As the tomatoes cook, mash them with a masher or spoon, and add your herbs. Let everything simmer a good long while, tasting as you go. When you like what you’re tasting, either toss your favorite pasta with it, or cool and store in the fridge.

For more great and simple recipes, my wife Emily suggests “Twelve Recipes” by Cal Peternell. Peternell is the chef at Alice Water’s famous Chez Panisse, and wrote the book for his sons when they were heading off to college and wanted to know how to cook for themselves like their dad. It’s a truly excellent book, and sits on the “speed rack” of our kitchen.

A quick something to remember- we’re still thinking about economics here, and not EVERYTHING is cost-efficient to make at home. Butter, for example, can be made at home- and it’s delicious. All you need is cream and a mixer/food processor. Unfortunately, beyond the time involved, it simply IS cheaper to buy a pound of butter than to get a pound of heavy cream and render it down into slightly-less-than a pound of butter at home. For more examples of what should and shouldn’t be made at home to save money, look up “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter” by Jennifer Reese– another excellent book.

4. Learn Grocery Math
If you look closely at the price tags on grocery store shelves, you’ll see there’s usually two or three different prices: the price for the item itself (usually the big number, what you’ll pay at the register,) sometimes a “unit price,” or what the store paid to get the item as a bunch, and then the “price by weight.” Sometimes for stuff like toilet paper, it’ll be “price by foot” or for eggs, “price each.” This tells you how much the item is for how much it weighs. 
What you’ll notice is that the smaller the package you are buying is (like a 12 oz. bottle of oil,) the higher the “by weight” price will be as compared to a larger package (like a 1 gal jug of the same oil.) This is important for when you decide to get things in bulk- especially non-perishables like rice, beans, or flour. Depending on what you get, you may actually be spending more getting lots of small packages of certain ingredients over time than if you got a bulk or economy sized package and just stored it well.
For some boxed goods, like breakfast cereals, you might also compare their prices to the number of servings in a box.
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At first glance, this 48 oz bottle of oil is OBVIOUSLY cheaper- but look at the the price by fluid oz- 8.31 cents per ounce.

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Same oil, similar brand. 64 oz jug. Check out the the price per ounce though- 7.17 cents per ounce. Oil can be kept out, and lasts a while.

Getting things in bulk is often- but not always- cheaper than getting individual sizes. Make sure you do the math before throwing it in your cart! In the beginning, it can feel like a long annoying process (you’ll take advantage of the calculator on your phone,) but after a while thinking about prices in this way will become second nature- you’ll become better at estimating not just how much you’ll pay, but what you’ll actually use.
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$2.99/ pound in the bulk section for my favorite lentils…

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…. but this one pound bag is only $1.99…

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…and the store brand is even cheaper! Pay attention to prices, and don’t be fooled!

5. The Freezer Is Your Friend

Freezers are awesome machines. Used properly, you can get bulk amounts of perishables and keep them for when you need them.
Meat, in particular, is pretty expensive- and unless you’re deciding to unlock Super Hard mode by going vegan on top of this healthy eating thing, you’re probably going to want to get some.
Take a look at the price tags at your market’s meat department- sure enough, they have a price by weight too.

If you feel up to it, and you have the chance to get a good deal, you can buy a large cut of meat and then butcher and freeze it at home. If you don’t feel comfortable doing the portioning yourself, some butcher counters will cut the meat, fish, or whatever for you- often for free, if you ask. Keep an eye out for if the label says “previously frozen” though- if it does, you don’t want to freeze it again! Freeze fresh stuff only.

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Pay out the nose for frozen patties, if you want… or you bring this home with some freezer paper, make you own hamburger mix, then scale out 4 oz. patties yourself and freeze them for less!

While you are out, invest in some Press-and-seal wrap or freezer paper, and store whatever you aren’t going to use immediately. When you need it in the future, you can either just put it in the fridge the day before to thaw, or (if you wrapped it in plastic) speed-thaw it in a hot water bath.
Fish from the freezer section can be great, too- especially for portion control!


As far as vegetables go, you can totally buy frozen veggies to make preparing easier- or to avoid crap veggies when they are out of season. Just be sure to read the package carefully- no additives, seasonings, sauces, or preservatives. A bag of broccoli should be 100% BROCCOLI.
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No sauces, no spices- you fix that up yourself.

And last, but not least… STAY AWAY FROM PRE-PACKAGED FOOD.
Oh yes, it’s VERY convenient- and full of crap to make it last in the freezer forever, and expensive as sin for food you could make easily- and better- at home.
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$7, because you don’t want to butter some bread, put garlic and cheese on it, and toss it in the oven for 10 minutes.

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$5 when not on sale- because you don’t want to make some rice, steam some vegetables, and sauce it up the way you like it.

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$8 because… Oh God, I just… No. I don’t know what to do with you. Put it down and walk away.

That’s just about all I have for you right now.

Happy shopping, and
Stay Classy,


P.S. A pro-tip from a couple who knows their own tendencies- don’t go shopping for ANYTHING on an empty stomach! It’s a strange psychological trick- when you are hungry, you will be craving, and EVERYTHING will look delicious to you. Save money and have a little snack first.

P.P.S. If you want to go really hardcore on saving money (or you have no idea what you want to eat,) most grocery stores will have coupons or their weekly sales up online, and you can plan out your meals and list from that!

P.P.S. Have you checked out my Patreon yet? If not, click one of those shiny “Become a Patron!” buttons, or click here!

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