Ecothrifty Food Choices: Meal Planning, Water Canning and More

Ecothrifty food choices can be made by gradually adjusting your eating habits.
By Deborah Niemann
August 2013
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“Ecothrifty,” by Deborah Niemann, is full of tips to help you live a healthier and greener lifestyle – from soapmaking and sewing to carpooling and composting.
Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
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Ecothrifty (New Society Publishers, 2013), by Deborah Neimann is a must-read for anyone who has ever wanted to live a greener life but thought that it would be too expensive, time-consuming or difficult, this handy, complete guide will show you how small changes can have a huge environmental impact and save you thousands of dollars, all while improving your quality of life. The excerpt below comes from chapter 5, “Food,” and discusses ways in which your food choices affect your health, your wallet and the planet.

You can purchase this book at the GRIT store: Ecothrifty.

For more than a decade, organic has been at the forefront of what is considered healthy food. Although I would not argue that organic is better for the human body and the environment than conventionally grown food, it is not always the ecothrifty choice. The $5 frozen organic dinner is far from sustainable when you factor in all of the miles it has traveled from field to factory to store, as well as the layers of plastic and cardboard packaging. Recently, we have begun to realize that when it comes to food’s environmental impact, local and unprocessed can be as important as organic.

The Oxford American Dictionary named “locavore” the word of the year in 2007, and since then, the local food movement has continued to grow. The number of farmers’ markets increases every year, and farm-to-fork restaurants are starting to pop up in cities everywhere. At Station 220 in Bloomington, Illinois, the chefs are also the farmers, and at the Firefly Grill in Effingham, Illinois, you can see the garden where your salad was grown right outside the restaurant. Trolley Stop Market in Memphis, Tennessee, is owned and operated by farmers, who also operate a year-round farmers’ market selling meat, dairy, produce, nuts, grains, and honey from farms in their area.

Determining the ecothrifty food choice can be complicated because it is not as simple as saying that the organic tomato costs more than the conventional tomato. The less expensive tomato may be the frugal choice, but it is not necessarily the ecofriendly or healthy choice.

If either of the tomatoes is ripened on the vine, it will have more nutrients than a conventional tomato that is picked green and gassed with ethylene to turn red. The conventional tomato probably has pesticide residues on it. How many miles did either tomato travel to arrive at your supermarket or farmers’ market? You may not always have the answers at your disposal when shopping at the grocery store. The hallmarks of ecothrifty eating are buying food that is locally grown, and organic when possible, and preparing most of your own meals. And it would be incorrect to assume that organic is always more expensive than conventional.

Apples are just one example at my local grocery store. There is usually at least one variety of organic apple that costs the same or less than the conventionally grown apples.

Many people cite lack of time as the major deterrent to eating home prepared food. It is easy to get overwhelmed in modern society, and there is a business on practically every street corner ready to feed you twenty-four hours a day. But food choices have a great impact on the family budget and on the environment. You have three or more opportunities every day to make positive changes.

People think they can’t afford to eat better. But we are spending less of our incomes on food today than ever before, and there are more overweight and obese people today than ever before. We are paying less for food, eating too much and unhealthily, and then spending money on health care and weight loss programs. Something is obviously wrong with this scenario.

Although we have made a great many positive advances over the past century, the changes made in diet have not been beneficial to eaters. But there is hope. You can improve your diet and save money doing it. Unlike making decisions about your house or your car, which you do every few years, you make decisions about your diet constantly. You can make changes gradually, incorporating a few new ideas every month. In fact, you are more likely to make permanent changes if you do it gradually, so don’t feel like you have to change everything about your diet overnight.

Meal Planning

Although it is easy to say that we are too busy to cook meals from scratch, the fact is that if we planned better, we would be able to cook more of our own food. Between slow cookers and bread machines, it is not difficult or time consuming to wake up to a hot breakfast or come home from work and have a hot meal waiting for you. But you have to plan. If you really don’t like to plan, there are online services that will send you a menu and shopping list every week, but you can do the same thing for yourself, using menu items that you know your family enjoys. Start out by making a list of everything you like to eat for breakfast, and make another list for lunches and dinners. Include a list of nutritious snack foods, like nuts and fruit.

Next, make a menu for the week. Although you can do this on a plain piece of paper, I’ve found it more useful to put it in my planner so that I can see what needs to be done as I’m being reminded of everything else I have planned for that day. I was never very good at looking at a list on the refrigerator until an hour before dinner, which would be too late to fix something like pinto beans that should have been soaking all day. Online calendar programs will send you email or text reminders for food preparation tasks that need to be started earlier in the day.

Make a shopping list based on the menu for the week and shop for only those items. If you are not very good at sticking to a list when you do the shopping, ask someone else to do the shopping for you. I generally come home with lots of unplanned purchases, whereas my husband is completely blind to everything except what is on the list. The point here is that you should not put non-nutritious foods, like potato chips and candy, on your shopping list, and you should not buy them. Do follow the sage advice of never shopping when you’re hungry. Patronizing a farmers’ market rather than a grocery store will also help you to buy only nutritious foods because most of the items for sale there are real food.

Create a meal planning binder for organizing your weekly menus with corresponding shopping lists. This will save you time in the future because you can re-use them. There are online services that will email 58 Ecothrifty dinner meal plans at a cost of $60 or more per year, but you can create your own for free.

You might also consider buying small appliances to make it easier for you to cook more meals from scratch. A slow cooker, vacuum sealer, food processor, blender, or bread machine can help you achieve professional results in the kitchen. And they use a minimal amount of electricity — often less than a penny per use.

If you have a bread machine or a stand mixer with a dough hook, do not feel guilty about using it. I have heard people say they “cheat” by using one, but there is nothing wrong with saving time, especially if it means you are eating a healthier food with a smaller carbon footprint. In addition to being incredibly delicious, fresh bread is also better for the environment because you don’t have the plastic bag that store-bought bread is packaged in, nor do you have the additional transportation involved in taking wheat to the bakery and then to the store. Naval submarines have long baked their own bread because it takes less space to store bread ingredients than it does to store bread.

Getting Food

The most ecothrifty food is food you grow yourself. The second best choice is food grown by someone you know, whether it is a friend or a local farmer. Growing your own food or buying from local farmers or gardeners means you will be cooking from scratch as much as possible, rather than buying prepared food or convenience food. Not only is scratch cooking less expensive, but the meals will be more nutritious and contain fewer artificial ingredients. (Most of us don’t have containers of diglycerides or xanthum gum in our pantries.) You will also be less likely to eat too much non-nutritious junk food. One reason we eat so much junk food in our society is because it is available everywhere. When I see a tasty dessert in the grocery store, I tell myself that I’ll make it when I get home. Sometimes I do, but sometimes I forget about it, meaning that I’ve just saved myself a lot of empty calories, as well as the artificial ingredients that were in the prepared dessert and the money I would have spent on it. Homemade food costs a fraction of what prepared foods cost.

Eating seasonally is an ecothrifty strategy. Food that is local and in season has the smallest carbon footprint of any food option. It requires no canning, freezing, or dehydrating and no storage container. And when it comes to fruits and vegetables, if you eat them raw, you are getting all of the fiber and nutrients, making it the most nutritious choice.

Grocery stores often have lower prices on produce when it is in season because it is abundant and needs to be priced to move through the store quickly. The same is true when you buy from local farmers because they don’t always have facilities to store large quantities of produce.

But of course you can’t always eat only foods that are in season. You can, however, preserve the harvest for eating during the rest of the year. Some people have told me that we have to import food into Illinois because we can’t grow everything year-round. That would only be true if you wanted to eat raw foods year-round. In reality, most people are eating food that has been frozen, dehydrated, or canned commercially. It is more ecofriendly to preserve your own tomatoes in reusable jars than to buy canned tomatoes that traveled two thousand miles in cans that will either be recycled or sent to a landfill.

Avoid buying food that is sold in individual servings, such as yogurt, nuts, and drinks. You will save a lot of money and send less packaging to the landfill if you buy a quart of yogurt, for example, and dish out the amount you want. This strategy also saves money because you will wind up with less wasted food, especially if you have children who might not always finish a single-serving carton of yogurt.

Buying in bulk is another ecothrifty strategy that saves you money and uses less packaging. Although you might think that it would take you a very long time to use twenty-five or fifty pounds of a food, when we lived in the suburbs with three small children, we would use a twenty-five pound bag of brown rice every month. In our family of four adults today, we go through twenty-five pounds of flour every month. Baking four or five loaves of bread weekly and a few desserts monthly will use twenty-five pounds of flour. If you still think that you could not use a large quantity of a food in a timely manner, check with friends to see if they would like to split a bag with you.

Purchasing a couple hundred pounds of meat at once means that you can almost never use the excuse that you have nothing to cook for dinner. Buying meat directly from a farmer not only saves money, but you will also know how the animal spent its life. You can ask the farmer about things that are important to you, such as antibiotic and hormone use, and ethical treatment of animals. Beef is usually sold by the whole animal, a half, or a quarter. Pork, which is a bit smaller, can usually be purchased as a whole or half animal. Lamb and goat, which are even smaller, can usually only be purchased as a whole animal. And don’t worry — “whole” does not mean that you are butchering the animal yourself.

You may be able to buy heritage chickens or turkeys, as well as stew hens, which are laying hens that have passed their prime. Stew hens are usually far less expensive than other chicken because most people have no idea how to cook a stew hen, so the demand is low.

Food Choices and Preservation

It can be really disheartening to buy a large quantity of food, only to see it go bad before you can use it, which completely negates any savings you might have realized. Some foods, such as beans, rice, wheat berries, and other whole grains will last forever in a pantry, but it is a good idea to keep them in a tightly closed container to avoid infestation by bugs, such as weevils. This is a good way to repurpose jars that originally held store-bought sauces and other food.

Canning

A great way to preserve the harvest from your garden or your local farmers’ market is by canning food. Dismissed as old-fashioned not more than a couple decades past, today it is enjoying resurgence as consumers want more control of their food. BPA is found in hard plastic containers and the lining of cans used for commercially canned foods. Increasingly there are more plastic containers that claim to be free of BPA, but the metal can manufacturers continue to coat the inside of most cans with the substance.

A study published in 2011 that measured the amount of BPA in participants’ urine after they ate canned soup for five days found the level increased more than a thousand percent.26 The amount of soup they ate each day was only a single serving as defined on the can, and most participants complained that they were still hungry after eating it. Although the amount of BPA was back to pre-experiment levels five days after participants stopped eating the canned soup, what does this mean for people who eat canned foods daily? There is no definitive answer to this question, but if you don’t eat commercially canned food, you don’t have to worry about it. Keep in mind, however, that many restaurants use canned foods.

Cans are lined with BPA to resist corrosion, and even home canning has the potential to expose you to BPA because one-time-use canning lids are lined with BPA. The risk of contaminating food with BPA is not as great as with food in metal cans, however, because home-canned food rarely comes in contact with the lid. If you are concerned, though, reusable BPA-free canning lids are available. I began using them about a year ago, and they work quite well, although the canning process is different from one-time-use lids. Be sure to read the instructions on the box before using them.

Canning is environmentally friendly because you continue to reuse jars from year to year. If you also use reusable lids, you have zero waste. You may be able to find used canning jars for sale in a classified ad or at a yard sale. If so, be sure to inspect them carefully for damage. If you can feel any imperfections when you run your fingernail over the glass, the jar should not be used for canning, but it can be used for storing grains, beans, and other dry foods.

Savings are greatest when you can vegetables or fruit from your own garden or orchard. And although the dollar savings are not as great when you buy fresh local produce to can, the benefits to the environment are the same and you will have complete control over the ingredients so you can avoid artificial ingredients and fillers.

There are two methods for canning. Foods that are high in acid, such as tomatoes, pickles, and fruits can be canned in a boiling water canner. The process is simple and usually takes fifteen to thirty minutes to process the jars. Low-acid foods, such as corn, beans, and meat, require canning at a higher temperature, which means you need to use a pressure canner, which is capable of heating the contents to 240°F. Boiling water canning is simpler and the equipment costs less to get started.

Dehydrating

Although you can buy a fancy food dehydrator to dry your own food, there are a number of foods that can be dried in a more low-tech manner. Herbs, such as mint and basil, are probably the easiest to dry. Because they are thin and have low water content, they will dry at room temperature fairly quickly. I lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and put them inside an oven that is not turned on. To avoid mishaps, I put a sticky note over the oven control knob to remind everyone not to turn on the oven without removing the herbs. The note usually says something like, “Do NOT turn on!!!” The herbs are dried out and ready for storage when they crumble between your fingers. Store dried herbs in a jar with a lid. I usually don’t crush them before storage, however, because the aroma and flavor will dissipate more quickly after crushing.

Smaller peppers can also be dried at room temperature, particularly cayenne peppers, which have very thin skin. The thicker the skin, the more problematic drying can be and the more important it is to hang them up rather than to attempt to dry them on a pan or countertop in a single layer. Jalapenos, for example, are more likely to mold than dry out if they are not hung with good air circulation on all sides.

Try this creative approach for tomatoes. Place thinly sliced tomatoes on parchment paper on a cookie sheet and dry them in a closed up car in the summer. In most parts of the United States in the middle of summer, the temperature in a parked car with closed windows can get up to 150°F to 170°F, which will dry out vegetables within a couple of days. Don’t try this with herbs, though, because the temperature is far too high for drying them, and they will wind up brown and lacking in aroma within a day. You can store dried vegetables in a jar with a lid and use them in soups and quiches during the winter.

Freezing Grains

Minimally processed foods, like whole-wheat flour, should be stored in a freezer to preserve nutrients. Once wheat berries are ground, the oils are exposed to air and can become rancid. Storing them in a freezer slows down the aging process. It is also a great place to store grains and flour to protect them from being infested with weevils, beetles, or moths. If bugs have already infested your grains or flour, freezing is a non-toxic way to kill them. Flour should be stored in an airtight container in the freezer so that it doesn’t pick up any odd odors or flavors.

Freezing Meat

When you buy a meat animal or a part of a meat animal, the meat will need to be stored in the freezer. Unfortunately, some people don’t like the idea of eating meat that has been frozen, which makes little sense in today’s world. There is no difference in quality between fresh and frozen meat, although I understand that many people will argue that they don’t like the taste of frozen meat. I think there are several reasons for this prejudice. First, the best cuts of meat are sold fresh, and people associate frozen meat with lower quality because cheaper cuts are sold frozen. The other thing that may contribute to the prejudice against frozen meat is that the quality of meat frozen in a home freezer can deteriorate.

Home freezers are not very cold, and they freeze the meat more slowly than the freezers at meat lockers. Quickly freezing meat preserves the quality. Also, if meat is not properly wrapped for storage, it will become freezer burned. I’ve never had a problem with freezer burn when meat has been wrapped and sealed commercially, and we’ve found some beef, chicken, and turkey in the freezer that was more than a year old. The type of wrap used by processors who freeze meat is different from the thin plastic and Styrofoam trays found in grocery store meat cases, which is only intended for short-term storage. Grocery store packaging does not protect the meat from air and will cause oxidation and freezer burn.

When you buy directly from the farmer, the animal is slaughtered around the time you purchase the animal or part of the animal. Most farmers don’t send animals to the processor until they are already sold. The live animal is delivered with your name on it as the owner. This means that you decide how to have the meat cut and processed. If you like lots of ground meat, you can tell them you want fewer roasts, and they’ll grind up those parts. You can tell them exactly how thick you want your steaks cut and whether you want your ground beef in one-pound or two-pound packages or some of each size. If you don’t want sausage or bacon, they can make more steaks and ground pork from a pig.

Freezing Produce

Freezing is probably the easiest way to preserve the harvest from your garden or the produce you pick up at the farmers’ market when it is in season. Most fruits and vegetables freeze well. If properly stored in freezer bags or containers at or below 0°F, fruits and vegetables will last a year in the freezer. This means they need to be stored in a container without air. We resisted buying a vacuum sealer for longer than we should have. As a result, we had a lot of bags of green beans that wound up looking like blocks of green ice after only a few months. After we started using the vacuum sealer, however, green beans last for a year with no damage or decrease in quality. Don’t worry about the cost of electricity when using a vacuum sealer. It uses about 100 watts total for the ten seconds or so that it takes to vacuum and seal both ends, so if you sealed five things per day, every day of the year, it would cost you 5 cents total for the year.

Most vegetables freeze well after blanching, which means being placed in boiling water for one to three minutes, followed by being plunged into cold water to stop the cooking action. The amount of time required for blanching varies from one vegetable to another.

Summer squash and green peppers turn to mush when thawed, so it’s important to plan how you will use the thawed vegetable and prepare the frozen vegetable for that use. I shred zucchini for zucchini bread and freeze it in the correct quantity for the recipe, and I chop green pepper into strips and freeze them in small quantities to use in stir-fries and chili, although the crunchiness of a fresh pepper is definitely absent.

When freezing tomatoes, I chop up a hot pepper and add it to a container of tomatoes that will be used for making chili.

There are a couple of options for freezing berries, and peaches can be frozen using these same techniques after peeling and slicing. To freeze berries and peach slices individually so they don’t stick together, put them in a single layer on a cookie sheet in the freezer until frozen and then put them in a vacuum-sealed freezer bag or airtight container for storage. If you will be using them in cooking after thawing and don’t mind the berries or slices sticking together, you can skip the step of freezing on a cookie sheet and put the fruit directly into the freezer bag, vacuum, seal, and then freeze.

Herbs can be frozen without blanching. Wash them, and when they are dry, store them in freezer containers or plastic freezer bags. Freezing will destroy the structure of the leaves, though, so they won’t be crunchy or make a pretty garnish after thawing. However, they can be used to add flavor to foods that are being cooked.


Coupons

You might think that using coupons will save you money, but coupons are usually for processed foods, which will still cost more than a similar food made from scratch, even after deducting the amount of the coupon. Manufacturer’s coupons are marketing tools used to introduce products to a consumer in the hope of creating a long-term customer. On the rare occasion that there is a coupon for something fresh, like strawberries, often it can only be used if you also buy a processed item, such as non-dairy whipped topping.


Saving Money With Smart Food Choices

The industrial canning process is a very efficient system, so the real savings with canning come from being able to preserve the foods that you grow yourself. You will be saving money if you have been buying some of the high-end organic pasta sauces that can cost as much as $6 to $8 a jar or salsas at $4 to $5 a jar!

• Sundried tomatoes can cost as much as $1 to $2 per ounce, but you can dry your own tomatoes practically for free.

• When strawberries are in season, they can be found for as little as $1 per pound in the produce section of my local grocery store.

• The regular price of frozen strawberries is close to $4 per pound.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life, published by New Society Publishers, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Ecothrifty.


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