Back in December, I decided to eat more fruits and vegetables. No matter what, I was going to eat more of them. And that's saying something, especially since I've created a few excuses to avoid eating healthy food.
Even though my main excuse wasn't the expense, it's still an obstacle to healthy eating. At least, that's a common excuse I hear when eating better food comes up in conversation. And I wanted to know if it was possible to eat more fruits and vegetables without spending more at the supermarket.
Determined this would not be a New Year's resolution, given my dismal failure rate, I loaded up my grocery cart with produce a couple of days after Christmas. “You're buying just produce?” said the friendly checkout clerk.
“Yes,” I said, explaining my goal to eat more fruits and veggies.
“Let me know how that works out for you,” she said. And she laughed.
I laughed, too… until she rang up my total. Whoa! Maybe I couldn't afford to eat like this. But I paid the bill, and I've been eating more (and paying for) lots of fruits and vegetables ever since.
What do you really care about?
My goal was simple: Eat more fruits and vegetables as cheaply as possible. That's it. I didn't want to worry about eating organically, or locally, or in season. If my vegetables were organic, great. If they weren't, well, increased fruit and vegetable consumption was the goal. I wavered in my focus when I went to a workshop on local eating, but then I had to tell myself that I could only concentrate on one goal at a time. Becoming a locavore could be a goal for another time.
Eliminating food waste
Before I worried about how much I spent on produce, I needed to get my food waste under control. It's ridiculous when I think about it: Why try to save money on groceries if I'm wasting so much food? And most of my food waste is produce. Ridiculous.
As ridiculous as I am, I'm not alone. In 2010, U.S. kitchens produced 34 million tons of food waste.
Obviously, we need help. I may redeem myself slightly because I compost what gets moldy before we eat it. So my food doesn't go to the landfill. But if I buy food only to throw it on the compost pile, I have very expensive compost. So what can I do?
1. Don't buy food we won't eat. I love salads, especially salads of baby greens (the most expensive!). But we frequently don't eat more than one salad with one meal and we're done. The rest is wasted. Romaine lettuce lasts longer. Spinach is more versatile. I have soup recipes that call for spinach or I can saute it or eat a spinach salad. Grapes also top my food waste list. I like grapes, but we don't eat them quickly enough. Either I need to find a way to eat these foods or quit buying them.
2. Buy the largest package we will consume. I'm convinced that supermarkets package food for families, not two-person households. I am finally starting to buy smaller packages of food which I should have done a long time ago, but better late than never.
3. Share what we can't consume. But if you can't buy a smaller package, share with someone in your community. For instance, I love cilantro, but can never use up all of it before it gets yellowed. I could and should share my cilantro with others.
4. Use all parts of the food. A few weeks ago, I came across an article about a chef who uses all the parts of food that I composted without thinking about it. Of course, I can't find the article now, but I remember some basic points. She made vegetable broth out of things that would normally be tossed. Papery onion skins, celery tops, and peelings still have nutrients in them and can make great vegetable broth.
Vegetable broth can be made with broccoli stalks, but the stalks can also be eaten along with the florets. My mom always discarded the stalks, and so did I, until I realized they were edible, too. I've heard that peeling the stalks makes them more tender. If you like the taste, you can add them to salads.
5. Use up your food. Uncharacteristically, my husband bought me an early Valentine's Day present this year — and he spent more than $130 on it. It was a blender. Believe me, nothing says “I love you” more than a blender that cuts down on food waste and helps me eat more fruits and vegetables. (I'm being very serious. I smile every time I look at it. Of course, an expensive blender doesn't offset food waste costs, but I'm going to use if I have it.)
Anyway, you don't have to look far to find green smoothie recipes. I've been using spinach and fruit in my smoothies for a few years, but this new high-powered smoothie helps me kick it up a notch. Those grapes that we don't always eat? Throw them in the blender. Have a couple of broccoli florets? Blender. Leftover cooked sweet potato? You know where it belongs. It's made a huge difference in decreasing our produce food waste.
And your blender doesn't have to be expensive to make this work. If you haven't tried green smoothies yet, start out with some fruit (frozen berries and a banana are great), a liquid (orange juice, water, yogurt), ice (if you don't use frozen fruit) and a handful of fresh spinach. When you get brave, add in broccoli, yellow peppers, and carrots along with your fruit.
Disguising vegetables and fruits this way made we think of other ways to use up food. Soups? Spaghetti sauce? Often pureed food can be used in quick breads or muffins. As Kristin mentioned in a recent article, she uses juicer pulp to make scones.
Food waste wastes resources, but it also makes me feel guilty. I have enough food and I waste it. Others don't even have enough food.
How do you prevent or deal with food waste? Do you think it makes a difference for your grocery budget?
Lisa Aberle is a college professor by day and a freelance writer by night. Always an aspiring writer with an interest in money, she once ironically misspelled “mortgage” during a spelling bee. Most of her current adventures take place on the four-acre mini-farm she shares with her husband in the rural Midwest (where she writes with gel pens whenever possible).