The economical ethicurean: Eating real food on a real budget doesn’t have to be really hard

Caption: The first meal we made on our trip, at the childhood home of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

By Stephanie Pierce

In my most recent guest post I wrote about how my husband and I managed to find honest-to-goodness real food on the road across 31 states this past summer. Our journey was partly about adventure (if it's no fun, why bother?), but it was also about taking a break from normal routines to figure out how we wanted to reconfigure our lives. We felt like we had to stop the motion of those routines so that we could think about what it was we wanted to be working toward; for example, we knew we needed to evaluate the way we had structured our work, and for us it was very difficult to think about that while still working every day.

So, we left aside, or got rid of, most of the trappings of our lives. We packed all our belongings up and gave some away, and then let the lease expire on our apartment. We saved money so that we could quit any and all work entirely. We reduced cell phone plans, put a vehicle in storage, and made a budget to live on for the trip that was approximately 60% less than our usual budget.

The one place we knew we didn't want to cut corners was on food. If part of our trip was about learning how our lives could be healthier and fuller, it would have been paradoxical to eat badly.

We had heard repeatedly from friends and news articles that eating well - and by "well" I generally mean eating as much fresh, organically and/or locally grown food as one can find - is more expensive than the convenient mainstream alternative of fast and/or prepackaged food. After several people asked me skeptically how we were planning to eat the way we wanted without any money coming in, I felt like the challenge was on.

Before I continue, I do have to say that we are avid budgeters who live pretty small. We planned and saved for this trip and had the benefit of two solidly middle-class incomes before we left; thus, I don't feel like we can say that we were eating on a truly shoestring budget. But we did drastically reduce our overall food budget, and I think we are proof that even though governmental food policy doesn't work for the health of the citizenry right now, if you are thoughtful and creative, you can eat well and be healthy for less than you currently spend. Here are some of the things that we did that worked well for us:

We ate less. That may sound Spartan or overly sacrificial, but it cut down how much money we spent and we didn't suffer for it - on the contrary, we both trimmed up a bit. We didn't have seconds at any meal because we only cooked enough for firsts. When that food was gone, the meal was over.

We didn't buy any prepackaged food. OK, we did buy some Clif Bars for snack attacks, but after reading a recent Ethicurean post, I feel pretty vindicated in this decision. Even on the road, we made our own spaghetti sauce, our own hot cereal, our own version of a pizza, our own soups, our own salad dressing. When you add up the costs of these ingredients and then the cost of buying these items in the store - organic or otherwise - the savings almost slap you in the face. We even made our own bread at times. It ended up being a strange loaf that we used as a booster in sauces. That aside, when not on the road, we only buy bread as a special treat; otherwise, we always make our own.

[Photo, right: I was having a chocolate attack, so made these weird fudgie cookie things by mixing stuff we had on hand, like peanut butter, honey, cocoa powder. They were pretty good!]

We ate cabbage and other non-lettuce greens. Cabbage has somehow acquired a bit of a bad reputation, but it's good and pretty inexpensive on the scale of produce prices. We also shifted around the salads we would have eaten, for greens such as collards, Swiss chard, and kale. I did not grow up eating any of these things and have had to learn how to make them for myself. Combined with a few other ingredients, greens can make an entire meal. "Nourishing Traditions," a favorite book of mine, has a list of nourishing but less expensive vegetables that I looked at while I was writing this post: potatoes, cabbage, carrots, zucchini, onions, broccoli, chard, beets, and kale make the list and are pretty easy to find. In fact, the book has an entire section in the back entitled "Limited Time, Limited Budget Guidelines." For you would-be budgeters, make sure to check your library before you head over to Amazon! (Editor's note: Or check Better World Books, the "socially conscious online used bookseller," which funds literacy groups worldwide.)

We didn't eat much meat. We still got animal protein in the form of eggs and the occasional meat product here and there, but we cut back on meat quite a bit. Now that we're back home, we have started working for trade on a farm near us for meat and eggs. That will be a real cost saver for us — plus it's fun.

We sprinkled rather than smothered. At first, it was hard for me to go easy on the cheese, but we stopped using as much of it in certain dishes. It saved us money, saved us cheese, and we didn't suffer inordinately.

We reduced our dependence on oils. I admit that I love having a plethora of oils in my cupboard, but on the road and on a budget it can get very expensive to be buying sesame oil, coconut oil, safflower oil, butter, olive oil...you get my gist. I learned to get over being a purist and used whatever oil I had for whatever I was cooking. We ended up using butter and olive oil for the most part. Now that we're home, we also save and use our bacon grease. I know this is not a very popular practice any more, but we get great bacon from great pigs and I don't feel a bit bad about it.

As I revisit these tactics to write this post, I find it sad and frustrating that these very simple home-economizing strategies are things that I had to learn on my own rather than them being part of my formal or informal education. All the Wendell Berry essays I've read are trickling into my brain, insistently reminding me that understanding how to run a home economy is of vital importance - not an old-fashioned idea for times gone by. Especially now, as we watch our government muddle through a giant mess of high-risk gambles and credit spending gone bad, it seems to me that as a nation we should prioritize relearning the languishing art of thrift, and at the same time really look at what foods are worth spending money on.

Stephanie Pierce spends part of her working time teaming up with Fourth Sector Consulting, a for-benefit company that works only with mission-driven organizations. As she settles back into life after six months of travel, she is looking to spend another part of her working time away from the computer getting her hands dirty. She works for trade on a farm in her area, putters in the kitchen and writes while on long walks. A native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stephanie can tell you why she believes Lake Superior is better than Lake Michigan and how to correctly pronounce “sauna.”

2 Responsesto “The economical ethicurean: Eating real food on a real budget doesn’t have to be really hard”

  1. Meghan says:

    Good for you! One of the challenges I have with my clients is convincing them that eating healthy doesn't have to cost a fortune. All it takes is a little time and creativity.  Sounds like you got it and the fact that you were able to achieve this while travelling is a huge accomplishment. I will certianly be using your story as an example with my clients.
    Meghan Telpner http://www.meghantelpnerblog.com

  2. Sage says:

    Stephanie,
    What great lessons to be learning on the road. It sounds like you are having a successful trip. You make a great point about the issue of learning these lesson individually and late in life, if at all. Change starts at home and strong domestic skills are a great way to take charge of what you eat and how you live and the impact your household's choices have on the world. Now more than ever it seems that a simple life fueled by quality food is a good model. Amazing that we can support our local economies, reduce our impact on the environment and improve our personal health just by learning to cook- using whole organic foods and make them last.
    Check out some of what I've written about this at <a href="http://mindtomouth.org">mindtomouth.org</a> and just today <a href="http://www.poptech.org/blog/index.php/2008/10/28/tightening-our-belts-scarcity-abundance-and-food/">here</a>, I would love to hear your perspective since your recent lessons.
    Good luck in your travels and happy affordable eating!