I know I’m not the only one who struggles with the tension between frugal and healthy food.
We have always lived on a fairly snug budget and made material sacrifices to provide healthy food for our family. Canadian families spend about 9-14% of their income on groceries, depending on the source and family type; living in a small town, in the North, or on a lower income can skew these percentages.
We allocate about 24% of our net income to groceries alone and still run out of things and have had to listen to our kids bemoan the “empty fridge”*. And where I live, a previously booming economy is faltering, many of us are facing wage cuts or losing jobs, and budgets are needing to be tightened even as food prices continue to rise.
But quality food and water are two pillars of emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.
Yet there persists a crazy disconnect in our society whereby people are willing to pay for gel nails, the newest iPhone, beer, vacations or fancy vehicles and yet lament the cost of real, whole, food. I remember my cousin telling the story years ago of how she, a smoker at the time, was complaining about the price of watermelon for her daughters and all of a sudden realized the lunacy of spending all that money on cigarettes instead of healthy food. She quit cigarettes.
And so many North Americans are overfed but undernourished – so it isn’t just about the dollars we throw at food either. Filling the belly is only part of the equation. What we eat, and even how we eat, matters greatly.
This is my frustration with the “feed your family on $200/month” type blog posts. I mean, I know that food prices vary country to country, province to province, and city to town, but these figures just seem completely unrealistic and unhealthy to me. I don’t disagree that it can be done – I mean, obviously people pull it off. And many have no choice; it is either that or starve. And then there are those of us ‘frugal types’ (most of my closest friends fall into this category) who work hard to pay off mortgages early and live within our means.
But in our desire to save money, pay off debt, and live simply we need to be careful to count the long-term cost of slashing the food budget too far.
Once I began eating meat a couple years ago, the budget tightened further. I want to purchase animal proteins from local farmers as much as possible – farmers raising their animals organically, even if not certified. And this costs. I want to lower pesticide exposure by choosing organic fruits and veggies much of the time, especially those on the Dirty Dozen list, and avoid genetically engineered (Roundup Ready), glyphosate-drenched crops. I source my food from far and wide – from local farms, yes, but also via food coops or from the closest city, two hours away. And I feel for the families who do not have the means or in some cases the know-how to access better quality food in this way.
There is also the very real issue that so many people have no idea how to cook or garden (I am a horrible gardener)!
Many grew up eating foods either from the deli at the supermarket or from frozen bags and boxes. And I am regularly shocked to learn just how often people eat out in restaurants or fast food joints each week. In the past years I came to realize that my experience of growing up helping with a big garden, learning to bake, and watching my parents store food and cook humble meals from scratch was a tremendous gift…although I certainly didn’t always appreciate it at the time. Many people genuinely do not know what to do with a bag of raw oats or brown rice or black eyed beans. They spend their hard earned dollars on Minute Rice and sugary oatmeal packets and Pop-Tarts (shudder) because no one modelled another way.
Our children need to experience the joy of growing some chives or carrots in a pot, getting their hands dirty in the kitchen, joining in the menu planning and shopping for real food on a budget.
Food can be one of the greatest emotional pleasures in life. My dad rarely gave marital advice but years ago, maybe after I had been talking with pride about our well-regulated budget, he took me aside and informed me that food is very important to men and that I should be careful about scrimping too much in this department. It was actually an eye-opener for me. I mean, I like food too but am also happy to cut back on food here and there in order to buy books.
I had never realized the emotional attachment many men have to food – if I can call it that. Over the years I have kept that rare bit of fatherly advice in mind and tried to ensure that my husband, and my family, felt loved and nourished through food. A batch of warm muffins to accompany a humble pot of minestrone, mini vegan cheesecakes to accompany a family game night or Friday night homemade pizza and a movie can all nourish a family on an emotional level and prevent bingeing or impromptu splurging on fast foods that break the budget. Ok, my husband would rather be loved via spicy drumsticks than cheesecake but you get the idea.
I know I have not always hit the mark. I take shortcuts and refuse to follow recipes and do too much cooking in a distracted or multi-tasking state. In addition, I was vegan then vegetarian most of our married life and while my husband never, ever, complained, now that I am eating (and therefore cooking) meat a couple times a week, he has expressed his profound happiness with the shift;) I know many men joyfully choose vegetarianism for themselves and I love that my husband supported my choice for 20 years, but he is happier with plenty of fish, poultry, broth and occasional red meat in his diet.
We also experienced cultural differences in our kitchen – I am delighted by a hearty salad and baked potato or pot of homemade soup and biscuits (after almost 25 years in Canada he is still not convinced this is real food) while he contends that rice is a daily necessity, akin to breathing, and happily adds small fish and extremely spicy sauces on top of pretty much anything.
Real food costs money. And time. And energy. But healthy, home-cooked meals can also be simple yet satisfying. They can nourish body and soul.
We may need to take shortcuts and compromise here and there to respect eating preferences, to save our sanity or out of financial necessity. Some may need a cooking class or nutrition workshop to get started. But I encourage each of us take an honest look at our food budgets and overall priorities and do our best to invest in health through quality food.
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*I realize that a large segment of the world population struggles to put any food on the table at all and this post is not meant to downplay that fact. This Hunger Map depicts the prevalence of undernourishment in the population of each country in 2016-18.