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Ask the Shmethicist: WWMPD? (What Would Michael Pollan Do?)

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Oh dear readers, the Shmethicist has been AWOL for a while.  But now I’m back and better than ever (not unlike that pea soup that was even more delicious when we reheated the leftovers!).

Dear Shmethicist,

I am currently feeding a family of four (two adults, two toddlers) on a very small food budget ($150 a week).  A couple of years ago, my husband and I were able to buy all organic dairy and produce, and free range meats and eggs.  Now, it is a rarity.  Our costs are so tight, that even at $150 a week, we only cook nice dinners on Shabbat.

We have noticed a difference in how we feel and would absolutely love to do this again. We do not have our own yard in which to garden, which I would love to do someday.  There are several farms near here, but they are not open to the public (instead, they drive their goods to the farmers markets in the large city, which is over an hour away and which we cannot afford to drive to regularly, at $20 gas for the trip and $10 parking for the day).

With the only food access regular grocery stores and the occasional (every 2-3 months) Costco trip, how do you make the best (ethically and healthy) choices?  If you can only afford 1 organic thing out of your grocery trip, should it be eggs, poultry (free range is almost always too expensive ($10 for two breasts!), we have been buying frozen Foster Farms chicken breasts from Costco), beef (we rarely eat beef because of price, and when we do it is a pot roast on sale or from Costco), milk (this we always splurge on organic, because my kids love milk), or produce?

What are some money-saving tips at the grocery store (or at home, I can cook) that would allow for more organic and ethical purchases, and healthier meals for my family?

Signed,

Hungry for Help


Dear Hungry,

Healthy, ethical, and affordable—alas, not an occasion when even the most heartfelt rendition of “Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad,” will do the trick.

I’m pretty sure that Meat Loaf wasn’t kosher, organic, or healthy, actually.

Your question raises a number of shmethical dilemmas.

For one thing, as I have noted elsewhere, we should buy organic produce not merely to protect ourselves from harmful chemical exposure (that’s just the pareve icing on the cake), but to protect farm workers and their families, since they are the ones suffering most from Big Agra’s long-term love affair with toxins.

For another thing, your question about how to prioritize organic purchases suggests that there is some logical way to make such a choice.  Which there isn’t.  Because really, no one knows for sure the long-term effects of choosing organic milk versus rBGH-free, non-organic milk, versus  “conventional milk” (that last phrase being one that only makes sense if you happen to believe there is something charmingly customary about farm animals being kept in confined spaces, fed who knows what, and pumped with antibiotics and artificial hormones).

Why doesn’t anyone know about the relative long-term effects?  That, at least, is a question I can answer:  Because the folks who (nominally) regulate our food supply haven’t cared to find out.

Which means pretty much the entire state of Nevada couldn’t lay accurate odds on what your one best organic purchase (milk? eggs? meat? produce?) might be.

Nevertheless, I am the Shmethicist, and as such, am ready to tell you what to do.  Or at least to suggest some ways to make choices that will have you and your family feeling good in as many ways as possible.

Although my meat-loving lover may not want to admit it, one of the best ways to dine ethically, healthily, and cheaply is to give up meat.  Doing it now, when your kids are too young to notice, can mean a lifetime of easier food choices for them.

I realize that “give up” sounds so, well, deprivational.  But actually healthy food choices don’t always have to involve sacrifices.

Or at least, not sacrifices that you’ll regret.  Last year, I got a little freaked about the chemical exposure inherent in eating canned foods.  So my would-be carnivore and I ate our way through the larder (note to self:  should I be calling that the Crisoer?) and then stopped buying canned foods.  With legumes as our at-home dietary staple, that’s meant a lot of time in the bulk aisle, scooping up dried beans.  Which I’ve now realized are cheaper, tastier, healthier (because we control the sodium content) and (because they’re shipped at a much lighter weight than cooked beans) better for the environment.

Besides bulk bin bean-ocentric begetarianism (oops, guess I went a little boverboard on the balliteration),you should also making your dreams of future gardening come true today.  If you fashion yourself a Che Guevarberg, try some guerilla gardening. If you’re not ready to join the underground just yet, you can always spy out some unused land in your community and ask the owner if you can have permission to turn it into a food plot; offering to share your bounty may sweeten the deal.  But if you, like your dear Shmethicist, have a chronically brown thumb (seriously, am I the only one who ever planted zucchini and produced not a single succulent squash?), log onto Local Harvest and check for a CSA near you.

Even if all you have is a sunny spot somewhere around (or inside) your house or apartment, try growing a few fresh herbs.  I’ve already managed to kill my basil and my mint (it’s a weed and still it is shriveling and dying . . . seriously, how bad a gardener can I be?), but even I have managed to sustain rosemary, thyme, sage, and parsley.  All of which make any home-cooked dish taste superdeluxe.

The more you cook from scratch, the more you can control cost and assure the healthiness of ingredients.  And as produce is plentiful this summer, you might try preserving things to enjoy year round.

Okay, let’s face it, I’m a Jewish girl from Long Island.  I’m about as likely to can vegetables as the Pope is to order from the Glatt kosher menu at CitiPark.  But I do know that the extension arm of the state university here in the Oregon Territories has great tips for home canning (which doesn’t even involve cans, good news for keeping the BPAs at bay), and thus I heartily pass that idea along, in case you need something to do while I proceed to belt out Side B of Bat Out of Hell, which has been catching in my head lo these many paragraphs.

Meanwhile, dear readers, any other tips for Hungry for Help?

Or other questions entirely for the Shmethicist?  Cause I’ve got a whole lot more 70s rock I’m itching to quote.

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17 Responses to “Ask the Shmethicist: WWMPD? (What Would Michael Pollan Do?)”

  1. Leah Koenig Says:

    Welcome back Shmeth! I totally agree about the giving up meat thing – or at least vastly lessening the quantities. My job at the coop I’m a member of is to scan people’s groceries. Routinely, I watch families load meat on the belt only to end up wondering how they ended up spending so much. Maybe try limiting your family’s meat consumption to Shabbat with a creative use of the leftovers.

  2. Gaby Says:

    Growing up, my family dealt with a similar situation. I’m thankful every day that my mother was an amazing cook. We basically did not have meat during the week, only on Shabbat, as a way of saving money. Never underestimate chickpeas and lentils! For some variety, look up some Turkish recipes for these two “pulses”.
    a couple of favorite budget meals:
    - vegetarian chili (you can get morning star farms
    veggie crumbles or something similar at costco,
    they keep in the freezer forever. be sure to
    include lots of beans and as many fresh tomatoes
    and peppers as you can, and add a can of beer.
    since it’s vegetarian, you can put cheese, sour
    cream, all that yummy milchig stuff.
    - whole roasted chicken, stuff the inside with
    halved lemons, whatever herbs you like, cut slits
    in the meat and slip in slices of garlic, baste
    the whole thing in olive oil (costco has great
    deals on this as well). and don’t forget to make
    soup from the neck and other leftover bits.

  3. Lois Leveen Says:

    It’s good to think of plant-based protein not just as substitute for meat, but also as a substitute for what is so often the backbone of low-cost meals: carbohydrates. Pasta was basically the core of most meals cooked in our household when we were in our 20s. Then a few years ago, my squeeze decided to do the South Beach diet, which usually can be pretty meat-centered. We learned how to get creative by using “mild” beans in place of pasta (goodbye, fusilli, hello cannellini!), only to discover we had way more energy with the increased protein.

  4. Nina Says:

    Hey there HFH,

    I’ll echo much of the advice given so far, including using more vegetable proteins (like brown rice, dry beans, etc) that can be bought in bulk usually even at most supermarkets. I’d also suggest buying flour in bulk and trying to go for a bread recipe on the weekends. Most recipes make two loaves, and some don’t even require kneading (which I seriously have not mastered) I found when I was living on a 100 a month food budget (just me, and I’m not what you’d call picky, so there was plenty of dumpster diving happening) I just couldn’t afford a four dollar loaf. Baking bread every week was the only way I could have it. Back then, I bought my yeast, which is the easiest way to start. Yes, veggies are less expensive than meat, but good ones are still expensive, especially at your standard groceries. It sounds like you’ve called some farms, but I would try sending them an email letting them know what the situation is and, try to think of some more attractive offers for them than just buying a few veggies at a time market style. You might attempt to buy whatever is currently plentiful in bulk and freeze what you don’t eat, almost everything can be stored this way, even if you aren’t much of a canner. You might also pay a discounted price for seconds (that’s blemished stuff they can’t bring to market, and would mostly be composting, a lot of the time). You might be able to figure something out if you try every farmer near you and explain the situation, and remain open to not getting that much choice in terms of what veggies you get at discount. You might also consider trading work for vegetables, or some other kind of barter. Also, if you think you might be interested in dumpster diving (it’s a pretty fun time), most supermarkets throw out veggies at about an half hour to closing, and a lot of them (this certainly has its downsides in other arenas) individually wrap veggies, particularly the organic ones. There will be brown stuff, but eating 60% of a free pepper ain’t bad. Good luck with your quest to live both well and practically!

  5. Queenscook Says:

    Just one comment about one of the previous comments. While I love and regularly use the Morningstar Recipe Crumbles, at $4 or $5 for a 12 oz. bag, it is not cheaper than meat (especially non-kosher meat). I don’t know what it costs at Costco, so maybe it’s considerably cheaper there, but for someone on such a tight budget, I’d recommend going the beans & lentil route. If you are going to use meat, perhaps search for recipes that use a small amount of meat to a large amount of other stuff. Asian food generally calls for just a couple of ounces of meat per person, far less than a typical American recipe. Try a stir-fry with lots of veggies and a small amount of chicken. Served with brown rice, it has protein, complex carbs, vegetables . . . generally well-balanced and definitely tasty.

  6. susan g Says:

    After all this good advice about eating more veg food, I can comment on the issue of changing the way children eat. When my family went completely vegetarian (well, with dairy), the baby was 2 with 2 older brothers 5 and 6. There was no objection, no complaint, and they continued to eat well, sleep well, play hard and have mostly good health (actually, better than before). Some of the favorite meals involved make-your-own, like hummos, pita, lots of veggies and cheese; refries, tortillas, and veg/cheese. Our last child grew up never having meat. Now all of them as adults eat a mixed diet (I’m still vegetarian), but have a broad view of what’s good and good for you.
    Question for the Shmethicist: is this letter written by a real person, or did we just need to encounter this question? Now there’s an issue for you: shmethical disclosure!

  7. Gaby Says:

    just a follow up –
    morning star farms crumbles are cheaper at costco, but not by much… i was comparing them to the cost of kosher meat though, and they are cheaper than that.

    as far as which things to buy organic if you can’t afford them all: my general approach is to buy organic for all the things that you don’t peel (i think most pesticides stay on the peel, or that’s what i tell myself) and conventional for things that are peeled. for eggs + dairy, i go for non-hormone treated because i can’t afford organic, but i would buy organic if i could

  8. Queenscook Says:

    I guess prices depend on where you live. At $5.00 for 12 oz., that would make it priced at about $6.66 for a pound. Kosher chicken is certainly cheaper than that here in Queens, NY, and I think so is ground beef, though I practically never buy it, so I wouldn’t swear to that. (When I eat red meat at all, I eat bison.) But out of NY, maybe it’s a lot more?

  9. The Shmethicist Says:

    I enjoy a little unbridled paranoia as much as the next ethical foodie, but no, I didn’t make up the letter. (I did make up the letter for my first Shmethicist column, since I needed someplace to start, but I confessed that right off).

    Speaking of the letter, though, (and hear my background as a schoolmarm kicks in), some of us may need to take a closer look at the specifics when we make suggestions. Hungry for Help is a parent of two toddlers; working on a farm is probably not a likely solution for her. (Gardening a small patch, on the other, would be something she might be able to fit to her family’s schedule). Also, HFH didn’t mention keeping kosher, and I’d rather not assume that of any readers unless they say so, not that I’m going to recommend the bacon double cheeseburger per se, but still, the point is that we all have different levels of observance, and all are welcome here.

    That said, I hope we’ll keep sharing ideas for healthy, inexpensive, ethical food options.

  10. judi Says:

    As we’ve been kosher, mostly vegetarian penny-pinchers for the better part of 10 years, I’ve got a few observations to offer.
    Most cheap foods contain wheat flour. I’m gluten-intolerant, so I need to stay away from bread, pasta, etc.- no matter how cheap. Rice and potatoes are good substitutes, but stay away from the pretty rices in the plastic containers (which are wasteful, anyway) and go for the cheap stuff. Buy brown rice on sale whenever possible, but keep it in the fridge so it won’t go rancid, erasing any savings.
    Processed veggie products often cost more than meat. Believe me, there is no less expensive kosher meal than Empire chicken hot dogs, frozen peas and roasted potatoes. Please do not tell me what’s in the hot dogs; I don’t want to know. Veggie crumbles are kind of expensive. Black beans, on the other hand, are inexpensive and very versatile.
    CSAs: We joined one this year, and while it’s been a lot of fun, it’s a horrible return on the investment. Each box has run us about double what the produce would’ve cost at the store. And it’s not even organic. I just heard about a produce dealer nearby that’s open to the public- my daughter came home with delicious cherries for $1.39/lb. They’re not organic, but neither are most of the CSAs (including mine) around here.
    We determined early on that we wasted a lot of money on things that we thought we’d eat, but didn’t. No matter how great lettuce is for $.99 a head (buy 2!), that’s $2 in the trash if you don’t eat them right away. And fruit prices tend to go down when it’s at its ripest. So don’t buy 10lbs of cheap perfect peaches unless you’re going to cook, freeze or eat ‘em TODAY.
    I love canning stuff. I made applesauce last year from apples we picked ourselves. Each quart of applesauce was made from about $6 of pick-your-own apples. It was delicious, but certainly not a bargain (and my family had plowed through 15 jars by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. If I do it again, I’m hiding the jars in a safe deposit box).

  11. beth Says:

    I wasn’t much of a cook when I was single, but my Sweetie has helped me overcome some of my “kitchen issues” and now we cook together when we can. A favorite: cheap veggie burritos.

    1. We use black beans for texture and flavor. Cook as you would any normal bean. (Soak overnight, then cook in large pot on the stove.)

    2. Take the beans out of the liquid, but save a glass measuring pitcher-ful of the liquid just in case.

    3. Re-fry the beans in a deep-dish frying pan on the stove, adding some oil and a little chili powder (you don’t need tons unless you like it spicy). Re-frying takes about an hour in a large no-stick pan, less time in smaller cast-iron pans. As you re-fry the beans, smash them down into a sort of semi-paste with a potato masher or other tool. When you can stir the beans and no water is shloshing in the bottom of the pan they’re probably done. (If they dry too fast, add a little of the liquid you saved from the first round of cooking.)

    4. We roll them into burritos using whole-wheat flour tortillas (available in 12-packs for cheap at the store); roughly 6 oz. of beans and about an ounce of grated cheddar cheese. Wrap the burritos in tin foil and toss them in the freezer. In warm weather, a burrito taken in my bike bag is mostly thawed out by lunchtime; I pop it in the microwave at work for about 3 minutes and I have a tasty lunch.

    We did the math some time back and I think it came out to something like 50 cents a burrito. Cheap and delicious.

  12. Liza Says:

    I was surprised to find out, when I was looking for cheap(ish) healthy groceries, that an organic food box delivery service in my neck of the woods (Toronto) was only $35 a week. The box provides me, my hubbo and serious eater of a toddler with MORE than enough fruits and vegetables for a week’s worth of eating. Seriously good value. Besides that, we get a LOT at the bulk food store…grains, beans, rice, cereal, spices.

    That said, we’re vegetarian on weekdays and live in a city. Hope you can find something that works for you and your family!

  13. Terri Says:

    I’m getting by on +/-$100/wk. Trader Joe’s, frozen veggies, beans, grains, etc. It’s amazing what you can do w/ white beans, eggs, chickpeas, lentils, etc.

    Buy the dried beans. Use your crockpot or low burner on the stove. Cook in homemade stock, or w/ water & half onion, bay leave & garlic clove & to reduce the gas issue: epazote leaves or kombu (seaweed), both pareve . For white beans add a sage leaf. Freeze extra beans w/ the liquid for use later. I just discovered that homemade humus is a deal, even w/ canned chickpeas (white beans was delicious, too.) Portobello mushrooms, barley & lentils is great. Make rice & lentils at the same time in the same pot – protein & beans.

    By the way, you can be a core member of the CSA and often get a free or half price share.

    TVP, textured vegetable protein is what the fake meat is. You can buy it in a health foods store from the bulk section for a fraction of the price of “name brand” stuff.

    Deborah Madison & Madur Jaffrey & Jane Brody (the best, easiest eggplant /ziti/tomatoe sauce) have excellent veggie (or mostly veggie) cookbooks, take them out from the library before you buy.

  14. eema gray Says:

    Outside the NY area, kosher meat is terrifically expensive, to answer a previous poster. At the kosher deli nearly an hour up the interstate from us, a whole chicken runs around two dollars, fifty cents a pound (locally, I can buy a whole chicken for a dollar nine per pound) and that’s not even organic. Add “organic” to the label and see the price double. Mail order is even more expensive. The same whole chicken runs around three to four dollars a pound. Again, add organic to the label and the price per pound doubles.
    We eat one red meat meal per week. Most weeks, we also have one chicken meal. The rest of the time, we eat vegetarian. I love beans in their many infinite varieties. I’ve got about six or eight different types in my pantry right now. I also keep three types of rice on hand: Basmati, Brown basmati, and U.S. Wild rice. At bare minimum, in addition to beans and rice, I’ve also got three types of lentils (brown, red, and french green) available and green and yellow split peas.
    We buy flour and sugar in bulk and avoid white sugar (we use local honey and turbinado sugar). I also use the discount grocery stores to stock up on things I like to have but wouldn’t always buy. Last summer, I got a 5 pound bag of whole roast coffee beans for $25 ($5/pound, better even than the wholesale cageloges I get).
    HFH, one thing I would suggest in talking again with local farmers: Offer to buy (at a bargin) what they bring home from the farmer’s market. Often, you can get good deals this way. Another option is to ask if you can help clear fields, in exchange for anything left – for example when they are clearing out the bean plants, you get any beans left on the plants in exchange for your labor. I know you’ve two toddlers and this might be difficult to arrange but if you can pull it off, it could be a fruitful arrangement indeed.

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