8 Ways to Eat Well in Hard Times | Civil Eats

8 Ways to Eat Well in Hard Times

In this time of watching our wallets, our good intentions about eating sustainable food could easily descend into bad habits, cutting corners and disenchantment about the food system.  Instead, I’d like to offer a few ways I’ve been eating good, clean and fair on a reasonable budget:

1. Cut Out the Middle Man – Whether you sign up for a winter share of vegetables (look for one at Local Harvest), so that your money goes directly to the farmer in exchange for a weekly share of local, fresh food, or you shop at farmer’s markets (a tip is to go at the end of the day, when vendors are willing to bargain a bit more for the food they don’t want to bring home) cutting out the distributor or grocery chain will lower the price of your food, and still allow you to get the best produce.  As an example, my Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share costs around $25 per week, and in the summer I’ve been receiving between 12-20 lbs of vegetables.  Also, buy less pre-packaged food (wine, olive oil and chocolate are my favorite exceptions) as it costs much more than unprocessed food.

2. Perfect your Kitchen Skills – Invest in one solid cookbook, like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, or How to Cook Everything Vegetarian (you might even be able to get a used copy), and work on your home cooking.  On average, meals cooked at home cost less than half that of meals eaten in a middle-of-the-road restaurant.  Don’t have time?  A trick I like to use is to cook extra grains to add to future meals, and I always make lots of leftovers for lunch and dinner the next day.  Bringing lunch to work is always a good idea.  Home cooking is healthier, and you can be sure to know where you food is coming from.

3. Eat-In! – Have a regular Eat-in, or potluck, where attendees can bring their favorite dishes and everyone can eat well.  Eat-ins are a great opportunity to share ideas, whether about the change we need to see in our food system, or any good cause.  Empower your friends by helping them source the best priced good, clean and fair food and share the stories behind your dish.  (Yesterday I made pancakes, and my husband said they were the best he’d ever eaten.  Local eggs and butter, stone ground wheat from upstate New York, and Vermont maple syrup made it possible.)

4. Go for a Forage
– This time last year, I spent a day foraging with the Wild Man Steve Brill in Central Park and came home with a booty of apples, spices, burdock root and edible greens.  Guide books are great, but don’t go nibbling on any mushrooms before you figure out which ones might kill you!  Having gone with a guide, I now feel confident that I could return to the park and locate and recognize a few edible species.  In places like Los Angeles fruit hanging over the fence is fair game for picking.  There is so much around us that is edible, we’ve just forgotten about it.

5. Plan Your Spring Garden
– Collect the seeds from this year’s garden, or request seed catalogs and save money on seedlings by starting them yourself.  If you are like me and both suffer from a lack of a green thumb and live in an apartment in the city and lack soil, try this: What is the status of your roof?  Can you place planters up their without anyone noticing or with the permission of the building?  Get a book, like The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya L.K. Denckla. Also, in my kitchen window I’m growing basil and occasionally sprouts, which are great in winter when there aren’t as many fresh local lettuces. Allotments are also a popular way to grow food in urban areas.

6. Eat Less – ‘Tis the season for loosening your belt, but is ritual overeating necessary?  Making a Thanksgiving feast to welcome friends and family to the table can be a celebratory moment, but savor it, and eat slowly.  The more you pace yourself the less you will ingest, as there is a twenty minute lag between when you are full and when your brain knows you are full.  And best of all, this leaves more leftovers for lunch!

7. Volunteer in a Kitchen or on a Farm – This is a great way to get some freebies, especially on the farm where you might get a meal and some of what you pick.  It’s the harvest season, and you’d be pretty hard pressed not to find a farm that could use a helping hand.  (Check out World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms)

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8. Save Money Elsewhere Before Scrimping on Food – Okay, okay, so this is not so much of a tip about food savings.  But more of a plug for what good, clean and fair food can do to change our lives.  We don’t put enough value in food, and in turn our bodies and the Earth are in peril.  Supporting bad stewardship practices and corporate crops means there will only be more unhealthy food to go around. Americans now spend 11% of their income on food, the lowest percentage ever.  Yet if, instead of that 5th or 6th magazine subscription, or the television-phone, or extra pair of jeans, we could eat delicious, earth-conscious food and spend around 15 – 20% of our income instead, we should be willing to change our mindset.  This is switching from the “me” to the “we” mentality is unavoidable if we are to stay inhabitants of this planet into the future.

Finally, enjoy eating.  Taking pleasure in food is not a crime, even in dark times.  Reflect on the work that went into your dinner and you will appreciate every penny spent.  Now hop on your bike and head to the farmer’s market before it closes!

Photo: *patrick

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Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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  1. This is great, Paula. Eating well (local, organic, etc) has the bad reputation of being expensive and only for the elite palette. That is total nonsense. Especially in these hard financial times people should be looking to support their local economy and thereby discover the wealth of local food to be eaten. For me eating local and participating in a CSA is _saving_ me money.
  2. Great post, really sums up the concept of living Mind to Mouth...an idea I write about at mindtomouth.org


    Point 8 you made I think is the most important. We can't continue to buy cheap food, it is too costly in too many other areas of our communities- but we can save money in our overall budgets by making practical changes. And of course there are ways to pay more for some food (meats, cheeses, products where quality counts for many players), save on others (bulk dried beans, seasonal veggies from farmer's markets), and grow our own- and still keep our food spending manageable.


    This approach to eating well given the reality of tight budgets is extremely important. Props to you for putting it so clearly.
  3. This is a fantastic post! My favorite item is #2, because it offers so many wonderful possibilities. My food philosophy, which colors everything I write about on my own blog, Eat Real, is exactly that - "real food" (seasonal, sustainable, whole, traditional) is accessible for "real people" (not just chefs and foodies!). Whole food can be fast and economical!
  4. We know eating locally is as easy and as simple as your post, but the average consumer does not know where or how to locate their local farmer. That has been our challenge even here in the "Bread Basket" of Central California.

    As the only online directory for our community to connect to their farmers, it has become apparent that the first step to eating healthy and locally is to provide this information.

    Think how powerful our food system would be if we all come together in our own small communities and neighborhoods to meet this challenge!
  5. Elizabeth
    Great post!

    Something I am still struggling with is avoiding waste of all that good food. I'm not very organized when it comes to planning out meals ahead of time (plus you never quite know what you will and won't find at the farmer's market). I've thought of keeping some kind of list on the fridge of what food I've got in there that I need to use up, so I don't forget about what's in the back, but I haven't tried it yet.

    Another great thing to reduce costs on ingredients like spices that you might not use a lot of: bulk containers from which shoppers can buy as much or as little as they please. If your local store doesn't do this, encourage them to. (This might be easier with co-ops than supermarkets!) You'd be surprised how little a couple teaspoons of a spice can cost, even when it's something like $35 per pound. Plus you can re-use containers and avoid the waste there.

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