From School Project to a Week’s Meals

My middle school child had an assignment to research and prepare a Depression era meal. She was given guidelines about what foods were allowed or not, in what forms they could be purchased, based on what would have been available in the U.S. during that time. There were many other aspects to this school project, but of course as a mom and a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN), I get SO excited about every food project. And even more excited about projects that teach children about what it’s like to live on a budget for something as essential as food.

Because there were only 2 of us home for the official meal, she had to spend no more than $2.75, and she had some freebies like spices (which were probably hard to come by in the Depression). With a little help from me, she made black beans (from dry), brown rice, and kale. She also served canned fruit and milk. Milk was by far the most expensive component of the meal. But she certainly came in under budget.

Nutrition wasn’t a component of the lesson, but of course, she built a nutritionally balanced meal. A complication was that she got braces put on that morning, so while she generally does not like cooked vegetables, raw was not an option. That’s where kale came in– she loves kale chips, and they pretty much disintegrate in your mouth. I discovered that kale chips are DELICIOUS crumbled into black beans and rice. But I digress…

Really we are all on a budget, some just bigger than others. And we are on a food budget, too. Food is essential and wonderful, and it’s not the only thing in life. So it’s fun to eat food that simply tastes good and doesn’t add much to our daily needs. But indulging in food beyond our needs too frequently leads to health problems, plain and simple. Even people who do not gain body fat easily cannot live healthfully on cake alone.

So even if your food budget leaves you a little or lots of leeway (and for most people, the Depression Era restrictions are simply not a reality in the U.S. today), think about this… Sometimes making healthier food choices will also reduce your food bill. How?

  • Buy unseasoned versions of meats and grains– they cost less and you control how much salt goes in. A little salt goes a long way on flavor when combined with lots of healthful spices and herbs (and sometimes none is needed).
  • Buy unflavored versions of frozen vegetables. Frozen veggies are a great way to get these important foods on the plate at the end of the week when you can’t get to the grocery store. Unflavored means it’s just the veggies without added salt or saturated fat. You add the flavor. Try roasting frozen veggies with a sprinkling of herbs to avoid soggy-veggie-syndrome (I made that up).
  • Do you throw away fresh produce you didn’t eat before it spoiled? Buy only enough fresh to last 3-4 days. Buy frozen and canned produce to eat later in the week before you get back to the store. Reducing waste is good for your bottom line, and good for the planet.
  • Respect meal times. And snack times. Planning for meals will help you to avoid waste in the kitchen. Sitting down to eat a complete meal or well-prepared snack at the table, in place of grazing, will nurture mindfulness, increase your ability to recognize fullness, and make food taste better (not literally, but you will over time enjoy every bite more fully).

There are other choices we make for health that are undoubtedly more expensive than the unhealthy choice. For example, milk is a lot more expensive than soda. That’s when I factor in the health cost of the cheaper option. Sure, my kids drink a soda now and then. But milk is the mainstay at most meals, juice is available and a favorite at snack time or an occasional meal, and water is the all-day choice.

So one of the coolest things about that simple meal my daughter cooked is that the leftovers lasted us a week. The $2.75 was the cost of the single meal for the two of us. But we had to make more because of the cooking methods (for example, starting with a bag of dried beans). We changed it up throughout the week because we have that luxury. Still, it’s good to remember which things are the basics and which are luxuries, even with something as basic as food.

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