Saturday, August 13, 2011

Life on a Budget II

In my last post I wrote about how I manage to feed my husband and myself for $30 or less per week. "Great," you may think. "I can do that too, if I want to live on cheap TV dinners, right?" Wrong! In this second installment of Life on a Budget, I'll tell you about what we actually eat.

You've probably heard it said many times before that when you're trying to eat healthily you should shop the outside aisles of the store. This is a good general rule of thumb you could follow as most grocery stores include fresh produce, dairy, and meat on those outside aisles. The center aisles are where you usually find things like Hamburger Helper, crackers, potato chips, cereal, bread, and all the other highly processed foods that do not offer health benefits and in fact are almost always detrimental to your health.

There are certain foods that we always avoid which eliminates a huge portion of our options, the biggest being grains. Neither David nor I have celiac disease, nor are we "gluten intolerant" according to average standards. In fact, I can eat a bunch of crackers or a bowl of cereal and feel nothing (except happy)! But there are many silent problems with grains, which you've probably already read a little bit about elsewhere on the internet. The gist is that gluten is only one of many problems with grains so it's best avoided entirely (if you'd like to read a little more about the problems with wheat check out Dr. William Davis's article "Name That Food"). That means no cereal, crackers, cookies, pasta, bread, donuts... nothing. Gluten-free replacements for these foods are made with ingredients like soy flour, potato starch, and rice flour, which all have their own problems as well, including spiking insulin higher and faster than regular wheat based products (which itself is worse than table sugar). This may be why you so often see someone decide to go "gluten free" and then blow up like a balloon. The replacement foods are often just as problematic as the foods you're trying to replace, so again, it is better for your health and your checkbook to just eliminate those foods entirely and learn to eat a more natural, whole foods diet, which is what we were designed by God to thrive on.

"So what do you eat?" You may be asking impatiently by now (sorry I get so wordy sometimes!). The truth is I feel like we have so many options I barely know where to start! You might think that eliminating the largest food group from the average American diet would mean there's nothing left, but that is so far from the truth. We eat 2-3 meals per day and each meal is different (usually) and thoroughly enjoyed. We eat:

Meat: Chicken, pork, beef, seafood, turkey, buffalo, venison. You name it, we'll eat it! We tend to eat beef and seafood the least often because it is always more expensive (though it happens to be my two favorite sources of protein!). We mostly eat chicken, turkey, and venison. The venison my husband and father have hunted in Texas and is fantastic. We're nearly out now though, and I really hope we can stock up again this November! Also in November when we go home to visit my family for the holidays, their local grocery store sells whole turkeys for $0.25 per pound. We stock up and get as many turkeys as we have space for, as one turkey will last us around a week and a half, depending on how we use it. We also try to eat beef liver now and then as it is super packed with nutrients -- a little goes a long way!

Vegetables: I won't bore you with a list of every single vegetable we eat because we pretty much eat any of them, if the price is right! Regulars are things like frozen green beans, frozen "California blend" (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots), carrots, potatoes, frozen stir-fry blends (sugar snap peas, carrots, peppers, onion, broccoli, etc), squash, and zucchini. Most of those frozen veggies can be got for just over $1 per pound, especially if you're careful to shop sales. Occasionally I get "lucky" and find them for even less than that though. Remember, frozen vegetables are picked ripe, which means more nutrient-bang for your buck, too!

Fruits: We don't eat much fruit. It's expensive. I try to pick out one type of fruit per week, or if there are good sales, I'll choose two or even three and in the summer we eat more fruit than during the rest of the year. More often than not though, you may find just a couple peaches in my fridge, or a bag of frozen blueberries from Sam's club ($9.78 for 64oz). Apples used to be my "go-to" fruit because they could usually be got inexpensively, but they made the very top of the "dirty dozen" list this year, so I've chosen to avoid them for the most part, unless I find organic apples on sale at a price I can afford (I realize my inconsistency here though; I avoid apples, but not several other items on the dirty dozen list).

We also allow ourselves dairy, but only keep a little cheese on hand (in the freezer to be sure it won't mold!) and fresh raw milk for making kefir with. Eggs are a staple that I'm (almost) never without! We can easily go through 2 dozen in one week if we eat breakfast each morning that week.

In our constant efforts to maintain our budget and still eat healthily in a world where food prices are skyrocketing, we've also recently been looking into traditional methods of preparation for foods like brown rice and beans. Brown rice has some similar problems to the cereal grains, but if you soak and ferment it first, those problems are eliminated. Metabolically, David and I are both able to handle rice (that is the higher carbohydrate content), so we've begun to incorporate a little rice into our diets, as well as traditionally prepared beans, and peeled potatoes (the anti-nutrients in potatoes are in the skins). We soak, grind, and ferment the rice and beans and have been baking them into little "pancakes" that work well to replace things like tortillas and flatbread.

The only items I buy organic for now are carrots ($1 per pound at Walmart or $1.56 or so for 1 pound of baby carrots), potatoes ($0.96 per pound at Walmart) and onions ($2.99 for 3lbs at Price Chopper).

Partially because we don't buy all organic foods, and also because we know that food isn't the only source of toxins, we try to always maintain at least a mild detoxification protocol, whether that means taking chlorella 3 times per day, or using the infrared sauna several times per week.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Life on a Budget

Two posts in three days? I know. If I don't stop the insanity the world may well stop turning, and that would be a terrible thing indeed. Don't worry. I'm almost positive there won't be another this weekend, as it looks to be a busy one!

I thought I would sit down and share very frankly with you all about what our budget looks like. Specifically our grocery budget. I know this is a tough and stressful subject for many of you out there. I know that personally I often come home from trips to the grocery store feeling defeated. We have so many options but what do we choose, and how can we possibly manage to feed our families healthily while maintaining a budget that doesn't break the bank? The good news is that you can do it. I cannot promise you that it will be easy. That you won't occasionally leave the store with a mostly empty cart. But it can be done if you're willing to make some sacrifices!

Before I get into how we manage to eat healthily on a small budget, keep in mind a few points and make adjustments for your household accordingly:

1. We have no children yet. So when I say we spent "X dollars" one week, or a certain item lasts "so" long, remember that I am talking about feeding two average height, trim, but mostly inactive (I know, tsk, tsk!) adults.
2. We live in an area of the country where food prices are low, compared to areas like the east and west coasts. Of course, average income is also higher in those areas, but you get my point! Take this into consideration and adjust accordingly.
3. We usually eat a relatively low-carbohydrate diet, which due to it's higher protein, higher fat composition improves satiety and somewhat reduces food cravings. For this reason and others, we rarely snack during the day, but may occasionally grab a couple slices of home-dehydrated banana, or a few nuts to "hold us" if we do get hungry between meals.

So now that we've gotten that out of the way I'm going to tell you right now, when I say we eat on a tight budget, I mean tight. I've found that in the past when I tried Googling tips on grocery shopping on a small budget, most of the blog posts, message boards, and other websites I find which claim to be all about eating well on a small budget felt like a joke to me. Their idea of a "tight" budget is usually $100 a week or more. Let me tell you right now, if I had $100 a week we would be dining like kings every night! We do our best to spend just over $100 per month on our groceries (my ideal maximum weekly amount is $30 but I try very hard to come in under that). It varies a little from week to week and some weeks it is impossible to stay under $30. So what do we eat then, on such a tight budget? The answer is really too varied to type out! Here is a list of tips I've found to be indispensable in my effort to spend less while still eating well.

1. Buy sales. Don't go to the grocery store with a pre-written list of all your "must haves" (aside from true essentials, such as toilet paper -- though I would protest that even toilet paper doesn't have to be an essential), or with a "We'll see what sounds good" attitude. Go with a completely open mind and buy the meats, veggies, and fruits that are on the best sale that week. In recent history American's have had it so easy that it has become natural for us to go to the grocery store thinking, "What am I in the mood for?" instead of, "What can I afford for my health and pocketbook?" In order to keep your budget where you want it, you must break this habit and learn to enjoy whatever that weeks shopping trip brings. We've been surprised to discover some really delicious "new" vegetables this way!
2. Make the most of what you have. Most of us buy a whole chicken, bake it in the oven, eat the breast, thighs, legs, and wings (and maybe those tender little "oysters" on the back), and dump the rest into the garbage. What a waste! Instead we should be consuming the majority of the meat and then making bone broths with what remains. You'll be pleasantly surprised to find several more days worth of delicious meals in a chicken carcass! Whenever possible, buy whole poultry with giblets. The most nutrient dense meats are organ means -- use this to your advantage! If you can't stomach the thought of biting into a chicken liver try grinding it raw with a good blender and adding a small amount to ground beef dishes, soups, and stews. Back to the bone broths, you should always save any meat bones you have (in the freezer until you have enough to make broth with) to make bone broths. Whether you use the broth for soups, to cook a little rice in, or just as a filling, nutrient dense hot beverage between meals, take advantage of this powerhouse food for your health! It's free medicine!
3. Don't be afraid to buy frozen. I've noticed that a lot of people seem to have some (and sometimes great!) disdain for frozen vegetables. Why is this? Frozen vegetables are not only almost always cheaper than fresh produce, but because they're frozen right after picking, they're actually picked ripe, unlike a lot of fresh produce that is picked before it is ripe in expectation of long transit times to various destinations across the country. Frozen veggies also won't rot when you forget about them for two weeks, so there's never any waste, and most vegetables need to be at least lightly cooked for the nutrients in them to become most readily available for your bodies use, anyway, so you're not losing anything by having to cook your frozen veggies a little. Much of the same applies to frozen meats. You can't accidentally push it to the back of the fridge and forget about it until it is hairy -- the worst that can happen to frozen foods is that they toughen up a little, or if poorly packaged get a little freezer burn. A little freezer burn doesn't usually affect the flavor of food too much (though a lot can be very unappetizing), either. Additionally, freezing can kill certain bacteria, making frozen meats and vegetables somewhat safer to consume than non-frozen meats and vegetables.
4. Buy local. It is true that you have to be careful when buying local. It is not always cheaper (a "local" produce stand we stopped at recently was downright exorbitant!), but careful research should help you to find some less expensive seasonal sources. A friend of mine gets eggs from a local small farm for $1.00 per dozen! So local can be better. But another problem is that not only do a lot of roadside produce stands try to deceive us into thinking their produce is locally grown when it isn't, but the truth is often times local organically grown produce is just puny. We visited our local farmer's market back in May and while I know that was early in the season, the produce was far less than impressive. The point? Buying local can be healthy and budget friendly, but shop wisely.
5. Barter! If you are blessed like we are to live in or near a farming community (and I realize not everyone is), consider bartering for fresh food. Not only can you feel more confident about the quality of food you're getting from a friend whose home, barn, and yard you probably spend time in, but you get the added benefit of blessing your friends in the process of personally benefiting. It's a win-win situation! Have chickens, but no time or desire for a garden? Consider trading your pastured eggs for organic, vine-ripened tomatoes during the summer months. Have property where men in your community could hunt for deer or foul? Find something you want from them and offer the exchange!
6. Grow something. Even if you have a small yard, or no yard at all, pretty much all of us have the space for at least one potted plant on a front porch or back patio! Planting and tending just one small tomato plant during the summer can be rewarding and help -- at least a little -- with your budget (store bought tomatoes are expensive). After you try a tomato or two, consider expanding if you have the space! It is inexpressibly satisfying to sit down and eat a salad you grew yourself, or to make a pot of tomato basil soup with only your homegrown produce. Even the stresses of trying to deal with pests, lack of rain, and other garden problems is far outweighed by the joy of harvesting a dozen gorgeous tomatoes, zucchini, or leeks (especially if you garden organically and know that your food is 100% natural and free of all pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides!). If you're a big potato fan, for example, but have limited space consider building a simple potato tower. We've started our first, hoping for a fall harvest, though we started about a month late, so we'll see what happens! But once people become familiar with the best potatoes to grow in their area, etc., many people claim to harvest around 100 lbs of potatoes from one of these small boxes!

Whether you can put all of these ideas into use, or only one of them, I'm sure you'll find that if you pay attention you'll see that your grocery bills will drop! How much depends on what you're already doing, and your determination to stick with whatever you decide to try. I hope this proves helpful to some of you. As always, I love discussion, so if you have any tips or tricks of your own, feel free to share them!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Persistence Pays Off

How long has it been since I posted here? No, don't answer that. I know it has been far too long.

So what has been so consuming of my time that I have neglected you all for several months? Life. But more specifically, travel, work, and gardening have probably been what's kept me most occupied.

Work picked up a lot in June and we saw quite a few clients. This was a great blessing! Then the 1st of July David and I made the 11 hour drive down to Texas to visit my family for two weeks. This was my parents graduation gift to my husband. It was a great gift, a great visit and as always, coming back to Missouri was bittersweet. Coming home, work really dropped off due (I think) to people being busy with their own summer travel and getting ready for school again. I can't help but wonder, too, if our two weeks away played some role in the slow-down.

While we were away our garden took off -- my mother-in-law did a great job of keeping everything alive and watered during those two weeks which also happened to be the start of a considerable heat wave and drought. Not good for the garden, but her persistent watering allowed the garden to thrive in spite of the heat and lack of rain. I was really excited to come home to ripe tomatoes and flowering squash and cucumber plants! Since then things have kept on in spite of the continued lack of rain, and we have harvested dozens of tomatoes, our first summer squash (I was late planting the squash, zucchini, and cucumber!), and should soon be enjoying our first cucumbers and zucchini, of which there are many! Bugs have been a serious problem though. Two or three days before we got home my mother-in-law emailed me to tell me that "something" was eating the tomato plants. My guess was tomato horn worms from her description. We came home and it definitely looked like horn worm damage, though I couldn't find a single horn worm on any of the plants. I sprinkled the plants with diatomaceous earth and hoped that would be the end of our problems. But it seemed that with each passing day the plants were getting more and more damaged, though I still couldn't find any worms! After about a week though, I began to find these tiny worms that I didn't recognize (which eventually I discovered to be army worms). Could they really be causing this much damage, in spite of their size? But over the course of the next few days I noticed that these worms grew. And grew. And what was initially less than a quarter of an inch long began to grow until some of them reached around 2 inches. I tried more DE. I tried making up concoctions of tobacco/cayenne/soap water to spray on them. I suspect my tobacco water may have been too weak, but nothing seemed to be killing these worms. Finally I resolved that if I wanted my plants to survive, I was going to have to do something awful: hand-pick! Yes, that's right. Hand-picking worms off of my tomato plants. This may sound like no big deal to well seasoned gardeners, but for someone who hasn't done any gardening to speak of since childhood, when mommy and daddy took care of the pests, it was a big deal. And it took a lot of mustered up courage to finally start doing it. I considered wearing gloves but it is impossible almost to pick worms with gloves on without squishing them, and eventually the worm juice soaks through the gloves which is... not so nice. So I took to bare-handed picking with a pitcher of soapy water to plop them into. For a while it seemed that I would never beat them. I would spend an hour picking worms in the morning, only to go back out in the evening to find many more worms. Well-intentioned gardener friends suggested that I might have to give in and do the "unthinkable" and use a commercial pesticide if I didn't want to lose my entire tomato patch. I almost gave in one Sunday afternoon when I was feeling especially defeated. It did seem wiser to use a tiny bit of pesticide once than to lose the entire garden to a stupid worm! But I simply couldn't stand the thought of spraying my plants down with dangerous chemicals after so much work to avoid it, so I persisted with hand-picking. I kept picking every morning and some each evening. Sometimes I'd even go out in the middle of the day for a bit and these worms were still there! Extreme heat (over 100 degrees) didn't seem to bother them in the least. I eventually found a few horn worms, which I still refuse to pick bare-handed, so I bring a glove with me now in case I find one of those wretched worms. But the gratifying part? The good end to this story? I'm getting the bugs under control! Each time I go out now there are fewer and fewer. I am delighted that all the hard work is paying off, and now my only real concern in the garden is the weather that's causing my tomatoes to split! Okay, that and the squash bugs that have recently discovered my squash plants. But I've read that DE works on them as well, so I sprinkled my squash a few days ago and hopefully that will be that!

And now I will leave you with a few photos from our garden since this spring:
These are some of our radishes that were HUGE. And yummy. I wish I had known then what I know now though, and that is that sauteed radishes are FANTASTIC. Slice the radishes thin, add a little butter or coconut oil to a pan, radishes, salt, and pepper, sauteed until the slices become slightly transparent and pink. I wish I had a constant supply of radishes now. And I'm pretty sure that most radish haters would find themselves loving the veggie! 
Leaf lettuce. We actually harvested quite a lot of it, considering the difficult spring we had (very wet and cloudy). Next spring (and this fall!) we will plant even more. There is nothing like a fresh, home-grown salad! 
 Tomatoes. You can see that some of them have split, but they're still very tasty! This was what I harvested last Friday I think.