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Switching to real food on a real budget, the mediocre way.

So I mentioned previously that we’ve been switching our diet a bit around here, and several people requested more info. I aim to please. I can’t promise all my rants will be helpful. Mostly they’ll still be about my kids finger painting things they shouldn’t and how Goo will one day rule the world. But I can throw you a bone here and there.

I studied the effects of GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) in college a little bit, and mixed with my human bio and biochemistry studies, I started to realize that a lot of food in America isn’t really…food.

Side note: it’s about to get nerdy up in here. Bear with me.

The FDA and USDA allow additives (preservatives, flavorings, etc) that are, in some cases, illegal in other countries. Because theoretically, each product contains trace amounts, so you know, no biggie. It’s a just a *little* bit of carcinogen with your morning cereal. But what happens when almost all our packaged food has that? What happens when you add up the amounts in all the food items, consumed over periods of time? Carcinogensis (the process by which cancer cells rear their ugly heads) isn’t instantaneous. It takes multiple genetic mutations to cause loss of control of the cell cycle. And things that aid in those mutations are called carcinogens. And we eat lots of them. Yay! MSG and BHT and BHA, oh my! (That link is a link to an actual research publication. It’s all science speak. So if you’re not a scientist, it won’t make sense and it will bore you to tears. But I linked up to show you that I’m not just spouting opinion based on a meme from Facebook or something.)

Here’s another issue: hormones. I have three girls. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty much doing everything in my power to delay the onset of puberty. Because I’m a fan of giggles and Hello Kitty. I can wait for the mood swings and crocodile tears. That, and the Nerd and I have this crazy idea that our little girls should be, you know, little girls. Now I’m not saying that there’s absolutely a direct correlation between rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone – the stuff they give cows to make them produce unnatural amounts of milk) and early puberty, but scientists have been scratching their heads as to why girls used to hit adolescence around 12, and now we have girls as young as 7 hitting puberty in full swing. Oh, and there’s the little matter of rBGH being banned in all of Europe and other developed nations. But they’re probably just paranoid.

So. I studied it while obtaining my B.S. in Biology. I continued reading the research on my own. I came to a conclusion: there’s a reason America has sky-high rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, kids with serious hyperactivity, and early puberty – and we can’t blame it all on the fast food industry. Because all these things are found in the foods we would normally consider “healthy,” milk, meat, cheese, breads, cereals, etc.

Whole foods

Eat this. Photo credit: parislemon)

I can’t link up to every research article, but you get the idea. And no,not everyone agrees on the issues and risks of processed foods, but the number of people digging in to the truth behind the label is growing rapidly.

There’s just one glaring problem: cost.

It’s no secret that eating organic/local/fair trade isn’t exactly cost-effective. And even though I day-dream, literally, about unlimited grocery trips to Whole Foods, it’s just not possible for us. I’ve read a lot of tips on eating whole foods, or real foods, even tips on doing it on a budget, but none of them were ever even close to what we have for our grocery budget. So I started doing my own homework, my own planning, and my own grueling grocery tips involving three kids, lots of label reading, and checking out with half a box of organic fruit snacks missing to keep them reasonably quiet while I shopped. It’s all about compromise.

And after all that, I’m putting together some tips for shopping for real food on a real budget.

  1. It really is all about compromise. You can’t go 100% organic on what we have, so I did my research and chose a few things that were really important to me to eliminate from our diets. For us, it was avoiding all dairy with rBGH, avoiding red meat if at all possible (due to the hormone and processed, ammonia-treated particles issue) and trying to buy local produce whenever possible. Local produce supports the local economy, and often has much richer taste and nutrition because it hasn’t traveled 1,500 miles to get to the shelf.
  2. Know your labels. A lot of people avoid MSG, monosodium glutamate, because it’s widely known to have widespread negative health effects. But what they don’t know is that it’s perfectly legal to use MSG in other forms and not list it. Next time you’re shopping, read those bread/cracker/snack food/condensed soup/chicken broth labels and look for words like, “autolyzed yeast extract,” or “hydrolyzed corn (or soy) protein.” They’re all hidden sources of MSG. Another thing to look for: labels that say, “No MSG added*” with the little asterisk. This means that they didn’t add literal monosodium glutamate, but there’s a good chance that they added a source of it in another form. And the real heart breaker – some food companies are now using “organic” MSG, so even USDA certified organic labels don’t guarantee that it’s MSG-free. Read your labels.
  3. Avoid eating out. Period. I have yet to find a restaurant that doesn’t use trans fats, MSG, preservatives, and other additives. Even the “healthy” ones add things you’d be surprised to see, and some even refuse to provide ingredients lists. You can go to another great blog, Food Babe, to read tons about her investigations into big chain restaurants and their food quality.
  4. If you don’t cook with it at home, don’t buy it in the store. I picked up a package of pudding cups yesterday at the grocery store, and couldn’t pronounce half the ingredients. If I make it at home? Milk, eggs, cornstarch, sugar, vanilla, salt. If I don’t keep propylene glycol in my fridge or pantry, I’m not buying it at the store. Again, a lot of the chemical additives we’re choosing to avoid don’t have “concrete correlations to health risks in small quantities,” but I have yet to hear of someone getting sick because they didn’t eat enough high fructose corn syrup or BHT. So I’m assuming less is more in this case.

    English: An Entennmann's cake donut, bought fr...

    Not this. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you live on a food budget like ours, or even smaller (God bless you), even these changes may seem like lofty ambitions. So here’s how we do it: we spend a  little more when it counts, and spend a lot less when it doesn’t. I splurge for dairy products with the Cabot name because Cabot uses cows that aren’t treated with rBGH or antibiotics. It’s a few cents, maybe a dollar more, but it’s worth it to me to avoid the bad stuff. A lot of milk now comes without rBGH added, so it’s fairly easy to find that label even in the less expensive brands. But if it doesn’t state it clearly, I don’t buy it. In the meantime, I’ve found lots of ways to reduce cost in other areas so I can use the savings to go organic here and there. Here are my top money-saving tips for families on a mediocre budget:

  1. If you don’t eat it, always buy generic. I did my own personal experiment with cleaning solution and laundry detergent and found that there was NO NOTICEABLE DIFFERENCE between pricey name brands and cheaper stuff. Some laundry detergents charge up $15 (FIFTEEN DOLLARS?!?) for a bottle of soap. I bought that kind and used it for a month, and saw absolutely no difference in the cleanliness of my clothes between that, and the $3 brand I usually buy (which, coincidentally, is free of dyes and perfumes). What does make a difference? Elbow grease. I use Fels-Naptha, an old-fashioned laundry bar soap, to scrub into stains that need pre-treating. Toss it in the washer with the cheap detergent, and voila – clean clothes.
  2. Cleaning products. A container of cleaning wipes costs up to $6. You must be out yo mind. I now make my own solution of vinegar, lemon juice, water, and scented oil. Not only does it clean as well, but vinegar is supreme at removing hard water stains. Cost per spray bottle of homemade all-purpose cleaner? About 20 cents. And there’s the little advantage of having no harsh chemicals, which I kind of love. My other new favorite? Fake-out Febreze. (Oh, that’s also a link to another great blog for saving money on household goods).
  3. If you do eat it, you might still be able to go generic. A lot of store brands now make their version of cereal/pasta/etc. with the same ingredients, at a much a lower cost. Be careful, because sometimes those cheaper brands add preservatives, but you can save a lot of money by doing your homework and reading the labels.
  4. Watch out for sales. Yes, usually a “sale” price is better. But sometimes a store’s sale price is still higher than a competitor’s. I peruse the grocery store ads before doing my shopping to compare prices.
  5. Juice boxes and soda are totally unnecessary. I send Punkin to school with a reusable water bottle we purchased for $15 four years ago. Four years’ worth of juice boxes? A lot more than $15. So even though the initial investment seems a little steep, it pays for itself really, really quickly. And getting your kids to drink water is never a bad thing.
  6. Plan your meals around what’s on sale and in season. We eat tons of tomatoes and corn in the summer. They’re local, super delicious, and cheap. I might be in the mood for homemade mac and cheese, but if I wait until cheese goes on sale, I can save a few dollars on just one meal. Multiply that times three meals a day, seven days a week, and your grocery budget is looking skinnier and skinnier.
  7. Remember how I mentioned not eating out? Holy moly, does that save money! I made a healthy, super yummy meal the other night for a total cost of about $2 per person. Show of hands for the last time you got a salad and dinner in a restaurant for $2, that didn’t come from a dollar menu? Anybody? No? Didn’t think so.
  8. Check out grocery store alternatives. We have an ALDI near us, and I love it! Around the corner is another discount marketplace that sources local produce, and I’m in grocery budget heaven. Big chains mark up the cost so they can have fancier stores and 237 types of shampoo. I’d rather have a grocery store with ugly floors, locally grown lettuce, and change leftover when I check out.

So there you go. No, we can’t go all organic. But yes, we can avoid a lot of the bad stuff by picking and choosing. And “Would you like more salad?” just sounds so much nicer than “Would you like more sodium caseinate?”

About Mediocre Mom

I am a wife to the man who was made for me, and mom to three amazing girls: Punkin is eight, Goo is four, and Smush is two. I'm a Christian, a science geek, and completely addicted to coffee. Trying to stay sane one day at a time. Lowering the bar for moms everywhere.

4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Real food, real budget: A happy update! « Confessions of a Mediocre Mom

  2. Great tips! It’s like you read my mind. Now if only I could get someone to come do the cooking for me too, I’d be set.

  3. Pingback: Getting organized: Food prep day. No, seriously. | Confessions of a Mediocre Mom

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