Ingrid Weihmann is a nutritionist and co-owner, with Cliff Jefferson, of Only Natural, Timaru's organic shop.
Most experts are predicting that we have tough economic times ahead. We can lessen the impact on our families by up-skilling now. Our most basic need is food. In this article, I would like to show some practical ways that we can learn to make our food dollar go further and at the same time improve our health.
Firstly I would like to make the point that food is not just something that you put in your mouth to keep your jaws occupied for a while or to taste nice. Food is our fuel for energy to do what we need to do and for maintenance and regeneration of all our body tissues and organs.
Emphasise nutrient rich food
When you look at it this way, it becomes more important to emphasise foods that are particularly rich in essential nutrients – proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and others. Why routinely fill up on foods that contain no goodness at all, instead of top quality, ‘high-octane’ meals?
Some examples of foods that contain next to no nutrient are: soft drinks, white bread, white crackers, biscuits, crisps, cakes, white rice, pasta, sugar and sweets. The only nutrient they contain is carbohydrate. There are better options for getting your energy.
Some dieticians recommend that you eat lots of these foods to fill your family up, because they are usually very cheap. It is a false economy as they do not support good health, in fact they are linked to obesity and chronic disease because they are so poor nutritionally that they tax the body heavily.
So, it is a mistake to think that eating well on a budget is eating cheap food. The secret is to be very particular about the nutritional quality of what you eat. That way you will eat less and be nourished and satisfied.
Best quality base ingredients
Always buy the best quality base ingredients, organic if you can get it. Use these base ingredients to make your meals from scratch rather than buying expensive ready-meals or takeaways. If you make it yourself, you know what is in it and you can emphasise ingredients that are particularly nutrient-dense.
For example, instead of a bought pie made with white flour pastry (white flour, vegetable oil, possibly soy flour, various additives), a little bit of meat, and loaded with flavour enhancers and other chemicals, make your own pie at home. Then you can make a more nourishing wholemeal pastry (a quality flour and butter), and you can fill the pie with good meat, home-made gravy and fresh vegetables, seasoned with sea salt and herbs or spices rather than monosodium glutamate.
Another example – home-made mince patties (mince, onion, garlic, egg, salt, herbs, spices) compared to the average supermarket sausage (indeterminate meat, flour or starch filler, flavour enhancers and other additives).
If you have never been shown how to cook at school or by your family, invest in a good quality cookbook like ‘Nourishing Traditions’ by Sally Fallon or ‘Change of Heart’ by Kay Baxter and Bob Corker, available from Koanga Gardens in New Zealand. These books are no-nonsense, easy-to-follow and contain a wealth of information as well as the recipes.
You don’t have to slave in the kitchen all day, but of course a certain amount of effort is required. If you do not have any time for food preparation, perhaps you need to review your priorities.
Apparently the average household throws out a huge amount of food; often packaged foods have not even been opened before they reached the use-by date. This is easily avoided by planning.
Sit down quietly one day a week and map out your menus for the week ahead. Take into account what food you have that needs to be used up, what is coming ready in the garden, what is in the freezer, and what you need to buy in. After a while planning meals will become second nature and you will not have to write it down.
When you are planning, take into account what you will do with the leftovers. For example, on the first day you have a large roast chicken, the next day there is cold meat or drumsticks for lunch, the next day use up the remaining meat in a pie or stirfry or as fried chicken. Use the bones and skin to make chicken stock for soup. When that is done, give the remains to the cat or dog and dig the bones into your compost bin.
With vegetables, it is best to only prepare enough for the meal in hand as they are most nutritious used fresh. However, if you do have some left over eat them at breakfast fried up with a little bacon and onion or in an omelette.
Most nutrient-dense foods
The most filling and nutrient-dense foods are meats, eggs, fish, cheese, milk – with the fat. Do not cut fat off or go for ‘low-fat’ options as fat is full of vitamins and will add flavour and satisfaction. When you start to appreciate the value of fat, you can feel good about being lavish with it. I use it abundantly but am also sparing of this precious food – for example if there is surplus fat in the roasting dish or after frying bacon, I will save it in the fridge for a future meal eg to brown the mince for a Bolognese sauce.
Some of the cheapest meats are the most nutritious. Organ meats like liver are absolutely chock-full of goodness, vastly superior to muscle meats, and yet very cheap to buy.
Bones are rich in gelatine protein and calcium, and make the most delicious stock on which to base your soups – good for using up surplus veges in your fridge or garden. I have always found that if you ask the butcher, he is happy to provide bones for stock for a couple of dollars. If you buy meat on the bone for stews, you will also find that it tastes better and is more nutritious as the minerals leach into the sauce.
Orchards, gate sales, farmers markets, small shops
If you only shop at the supermarket, you may be missing out on a whole world of delicious, high quality – and reasonably priced - foods. Check out local orchards, farm gate sales, farmers’ markets, and small businesses such as organic shops, local butchers and fishmongers. The chances are the food will be fresher, better quality, and with free advice or tips, with a smile as a bonus.
If you have dairy farmers in your area, see if they will sell you milk from the vat. This is usually a lot cheaper than the milk you buy in the shop, and more nutritious because it has not been pasteurised.
Family vegetable garden
There is currently a strong trend back to the family vegetable garden as people try to beat rising prices. The nutritional quality of freshly picked vegetables is generally superior to vegetables you buy from a shop, especially if you follow organic principles and build up a healthy soil. Plus the taste is sensational.
Talk to your friends and neighbours and swap when you have surpluses. This kind of community building is deeply satisfying and I think it is important for children to experience this co-operative interaction with others, as it is important for them to appreciate that the foods in the garden are the fruits of their care and labour. Another possibility is to own a few chickens, within the limits of your local council by-laws.
Nutrient-dense food is your family’s most valuable insurance policy. Good quality food means less visits to the doctor and other healthcare practitioners, more energy and a greater feeling of well-being. So eating like a king on a budget means not skimping on quality foods, but being smart about how you manage them.