Friday, October 29, 2010

Budget challenge: Can organic foods be good for your wallet?

Something unexpected has happened as my husband and I have looked more closely at how we spend our food dollars. As we began paying closer attention to what we were spending on food, we gradually became more aware of exactly what we were eating.

In other words, our spending and eating consciousness were both awakened. Now, when I walk the aisles of the grocery store, I consider how the price of one item will influence what I have left to spend on other things. I’m also more apt to think about the nutritional value of everything I put into my cart.The results of this combined awareness have prompted us to prepare more meals at home, led us to rely less on convenience foods, and taught us that eating well doesn’t necessarily cost more. We’re eating tastier, more wholesome foods than we ever have before, and we’re spending half as much as we used to. We’ve reduced our monthly food budget (including groceries and eating out) from $900 to just over $400.

Some small, yet significant, changes have made this possible. First, I’ve started making more of the foods that we once ate at restaurants or bought as convenience foods. For example, we no longer buy what my children have deemed “cardboard pizzas” (a telling descriptor). We enjoy rolling out our own dough from an old family recipe (find the recipe below). I invested in pizza stones so I could achieve that restaurant-quality crispiness. I’ve also introduced some new recipes; caramelized onion and goat cheese pizza is our new favorite.

Second, I’ve begun to prepare more vegetarian meals, enjoying dishes such as baked macaroni and cheese, vegetable fried rice, and parmesan risotto. If I use meat in a dish, it’s more as a complement to it, rather than the main focus, such as the pancetta I used in minestrone I made last week. These dishes may sound like gourmet fare, but they are surprisingly easy to make, and my children love them.

I’ve been including more whole grains and vegetables in our meals, and I’ve started looking for more simple, approachable ways to prepare wholesome foods for our family. That is what motivated me to visit a local organic market a few weeks ago, where I was greeted by Vinny Alessi-Narr, one of the store’s owners.

With a squirmy 2-year-old on my hip, I struck up a conversation with Vinny. I explained how I (and many others I know) understand the importance of eating well, but we sometimes feel that organic foods are prohibitively expensive. Vinny made a case for why it’s worth it to pay a bit more for organic foods. Most significantly, he maintains that organic foods are more nutrient dense, therefore meaning that a person will, by nature, eat less. (This resonated with me particularly well, considering that all six of us in our family have legendary appetites—just ask our friends and family.)

I asked Vinny point blank, “Is it possible to eat the way you’re suggesting and still keep my budget intact?” His unwavering answer was yes. So, I asked Vinny if he was up for a challenge: help me find practical, affordable ways to include more organic foods in our diet.

Since then, we’ve roughed out a plan for doing just that. Together, we’ll be looking for simple ways to eat well for less money and exploring which organic foods represent the best value. We’ll also be adapting and creating family-friendly recipes that are wholesome and affordable.

m looking forward to learning alongside Vinny and sharing this new knowledge with you in the weeks to come.

Mama Mia's Pizza Dough

1 pkg. yeast (or 2-1/4 teaspoons)
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1 c. warm water
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 1/2 c. flour

Disslove the yeast in the water. Then add remaining ingredients. Beat vigorously for 20 strokes (or use the dough hook attachment on a stand mixer). Let the dough rest for 5 minutes, covered.

Divide dough into two balls. Roll out onto corn meal-dusted cookie sheet or baking stone. Top with favorite ingredients. Bake at 450 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and just beginning to brown.

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