This is a rant: If one more person says to me that they can't afford to eat healthy, I swear my head is going to explode. Every time I hear this I know that if I want to continue this conversation (and I don't) I am going to have to begin with definitions because the person saying it is obviously not speaking the same language as me.

When I say "healthy food" (or rather "healthful food") I am not talking about any of the following:

  • Food with a label that reads "healthy", "low fat", "low calorie", "low sodium", "guilt free", "fortified", "high fiber" etc.
  • Food in the "dietetic" aisle
  • Anything in a box or a pre-packaged microwave container with a seasoning packet
  • Anything that says "just add water".

What I am talking about is real food. Real healthful food doesn't have much of a label. If it does, it has one ingredient or at most 3. You can read all the ingredients and pronounce them, you can picture them in your head. If you want to eat healthfully, you are going to have to cook. (Or not. Raw diets are viable too, but involve chopping, peeling and washing and I don't think I'd like it much, but go for it if it's you.)

The truth is, it is easy and inexpensive to eat healthy; but you're going to have to cook. If you the food you are buying says it's healthy, that's just advertising and if you're buying it because it says that, you are being ripped off.

As Micheal Pollan author of The Omnivore's Dilemma says, eating healthfully is easy if you follow three simple rules: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

The first part of the rule, "eat food" seems to be a sticking point for most people. It seems a lot of folks can't get their brains around the fact that most of that stuff in boxes and bags at the store is not food. Real food includes fresh, dried, frozen or home canned fruits and vegetables. Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, barley, whole oats and whole wheat flour (you kind of have to make your own bread, but it's easy. Another post on that will happen eventually. Promise.). Real meat, from real animals, eggs, nuts and beans. (No, fake meat is not real food, and veggie burgers are not health food. Sorry veggie-heads. My husband loves Tofurkey, but it's not food. It's like salty goodness and rubbery stuff. Who knows. But homemade black bean burgers are real food, super inexpensive to make and quite yummy.) Dairy products, like real milk and yogurt and kefir…

…Let me just pause here to address the yogurt issue. When I say Yogurt, I mean real yogurt, not that heavily-flavored-thickened-with-cornstarch crap that comes in little cups. Real yogurt tastes really good with fresh or stewed dried fruit and honey and it's healthful and guess what, it costs less than those handy dandy cups. You're going to have to get some jars or something to tote your homemade yogurt parfait around in. But those jars are reusable and you can use them for other stuff, like sliced fruit or pudding or cheese for your cheese and cracker snack and you won't have to buy plastic baggies anymore and that is a healthy choice.

The coolest thing about real food, you know, the healthful kind, is that you can get some of it for free or nearly so. You can grow it. Most people don't have the means to grow all of their food, even people with big yards, but you can grow some of it. Most vegetables grow well in pots and some fruits do too. If you have a little yard you can grow even more food. You could even raise 2-3 chickens to provide you with an egg a day for protein (most towns allow up to 3 hens, check your local laws). Even if you live in an apartment, a pair of rabbits can produce enough offspring in a year to give you a hearty meat meal every two weeks. That is more than enough protein for the average family, assuming you are also eating (super cheap) beans, eggs and whole grains.

I know, people always look at me cross-eyed about protein. Real meat is expensive, but the cool thing about it is that it's also somewhat unnecessary. We didn't eat meat for years, though we did eat eggs and dairy and now we eat it a few times a week. I only serve meat at dinner (unless we are having leftovers from a meat meal for lunch). (Okay sometimes we have eggs for breakfast.)   Recently, I recorded all of the food I ate for several days at and found that I had exceeded my daily requirement for protein before dinner every single day (and fiber, but we're not talking about fiber). And not one of those days was an eggs-for-breakfast day or a meat-leftovers-for-lunch day. The fact is, you don't need that much. One egg, one palm sized piece of meat is plenty and if you eat a combination of whole grains, nuts, seeds and dairy you don't even need that. Meat is expensive, after all. Now I don't advocate an all vegetarian diet, especially if you have kids. Some people do, it's just not me. But I really and truly believe that 1 meat meal a week is enough and more than 3 is excessive. More than that, well, that's how the rich folk live.

Now I know there are people out there who say "I have to buy convenience foods, I don't have time to cook." I cook three meals a day. I cook breakfast every day: usually oatmeal with raisins and flaxseeds, but sometimes scrambled eggs or pancakes. I prepare a snack, usually of sliced fruit and cheese or yogurt or veggies and hummus around 10am every day. I prepare lunch, usually leftovers from dinner or a quick stir fry at 1pm every day. We get another snack around 4pm every day, usually homemade bread and peanut butter and a big glass of milk, or homemade cookies or cheese and crackers or cottage cheese and fruit (if we are going out I make these while I'm making breakfast and take them along). Then I make dinner every day at 7pm. It's not hard. Each meal takes about 20 minutes of effort at most, usually less, and I can usually do other stuff while it's cooking. Stuff I put in the crock pot to simmer all day is even easier. (Beans are amazing for the crockpot, btw and so much less expensive than meat). I know what you're saying "Well you get to sit home and cook all day, we don't all have that luxury." and that isn't entirely true. It is true that my job isn't an all day every day job, but it has been in the past. Right now I don't know till I get up in the morning whether I have to work or where I have to work or how many hours I'm going to have to drive to get there. But I did have a nine to five once. When I worked two jobs and went to school full time I still made breakfast and cooked dinner and packed a lunch. I couldn't afford not to! And when I had a boring full time office job, I still made breakfast and dinner, though we generally bought lunch… The point is, if my lazy ass can do it, yours can too.

I am not trying to say that I eat perfectly healthy. I don't. I love corn chips and salsa. I will pay extra for Trader Joe's Dippers and their Fiesta Mix or Garden Fresh Gourmet's chips and salsa but I don't do it because I think either one of them is a healthier option or because I think they're "health food" by any means. I do it because I like the taste and sometimes I like to treat myself. I also really enjoy McDonald's Mocha Frappe and hot apple pie, though I am working on perfecting the recipe so I can make it at home so even if it's still not healthy by any means, at least I'll know it's real. And of course, I bake cookies, cakes and sweet breads too. And I use real sugar. Not health food. But still food.

The organic thing bears mentioning, but here's the thing about that: I know organic food often costs more (not always, but usually). If you can't afford it, then buy what you can afford and scrub and peel. There are certain foods you should try harder to buy organic than others; like apples, potatoes and sweet potatoes. But if you can't, just scrub and peel and hope for the best. The dehydrated stuff in a box and the stuff in the can is definitely not good for you. And it costs more. I would rather buy conventional potatoes by the pound than organic potatoes au gratin in a box any day.

I know it's hard to eat well in this world. I bang my head against the grocery aisles every month! That's why I bought this house I can't afford out the boonies so I can grow my own food and even with our acre I know it's unreasonable to expect to provide more than 50% of our diet from the land.  I haven't begun yet, by the way. We moved in just in time for the growing season to be over and now we're just trying to survive the winter. Like the Pilgrims. Go us.

Check out this guy's Fast Food experiment - What You Can Cook for the Price of McDonald's

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