The Real Food Balance

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White chili and homemade bread! Yum…

Before researching food became a hobby, I honestly didn’t know how to be healthy. As a kid, I thought it was normal to have stomach aches everyday. As a young adult, I didn’t realize how much food I ate was processed (Pop-tarts, bagels, Wheat Thins, snack cakes, frozen pizzas!) I didn’t know the difference between a whole food and a processed food. I thought sugar was okay and fat was unhealthyI read nutrition labels but not ingredient labelsI was a total novice. 

When Malachi was born I went through a health-food kick. I read all the blogs and books I could find on real food and healthy eating. I wrote this post in 2013 and I still think it’s a great overview of real food.

It’s taken us nearly three years to figure out the right balance of healthy, delicious, frugal, and easy-to-make. Lots of trial and error. What works for our family definitely won’t work for everyone. Tastes and lifestyle make a difference. So does where you get your food and what resources you have where you live. Josh and I went through several “food phases” before we got to where we are now.

What I’ve found is that it all comes down to balance.

The Convenience / Healthy Balance

The first phase I entered was switching out convenience foods and pleasure foods for healthier alternatives. That’s it! Fast food is convenient but not healthy. What we needed to ask ourselves was at what point were we going to put convenience ahead of our long-term health? It’s not easy to take that first step on a whole food journey, but it can be done! For me it took having a baby and caring what he ate to get my own eating into shape. It also helped to have resources that made it look do-able. It’s hard to get excited about something that seems impossible from the get-go.

It was slightly less convenient, but totally do-able to start making my own healthier snacks rather than buying ice cream or brownie mix. That one small step made all the difference. I was a sugar addict before this switch. This was just the beginning, but I had to start somewhere. One thing eventually led to another.

The easiest steps to get healthier now:

  • Just say no to the drive-though – Yes, it’s easy, but I have yet to see anything healthy come out of a drive-through window.
  • Stop sweetening your coffee – I drink coffee everyday either black or with just cream, no sweeteners, natural or artificial.
  • Drink tea rather than soda – I’m pretty sure quitting soda is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck. If you currently drink soda, you’ll notice a difference if you do this and nothing else! You can replace it with something else enjoyable like unsweetened green tea or sparkling water. Those cravings will go away, I promise!

The Healthy / Frugal Balance

Lots of things are healthy but not frugal. One needs only step in a Whole Foods Supermarket to know what I’m talking about. Once Josh and I started eating a real food diet, I didn’t care too much about frugality. This was my second phase. I thought nothing was more important than our health. We bought as much organic produce as we could, organic whole milk, and organic chicken or grass-fed beef at least once a week. Even shopping primarily at Aldi and Trader Joe’s, it got expensive. I was able to cook everything from scratch, but I was also trying new recipes every week which contributed to the growing grocery list. We also got sucked into “Health and Superfood Consumerism” which is my name for things marketed as super healthy in the form of powders supplements, and smoothie boosters.

What we do now is a little simpler and a lot more affordable! We actually save money by eating healthy this way. We stopped buying “designer” meat products and opted for a vegetarian (with some fish) diet instead. We get our protein and calories from whole grains, legumes, eggs, milk, and cheeses. Nothing fancy. Nothing expensive. If it’s organic at a good price, great. Otherwise I’m not too concerned about buying all organic anymore.

A hardboiled egg isn’t nearly as exciting as the bars in brightly colored wrappers and protein supplements made to taste like cookie dough shakes. But it’s more affordable and more natural so that’s a win / win in my book.

Real (frugal) food rather than (expensive) health foods:

  • Hard boiled eggs instead of power bars or protein powders.
  • Fresh fruit instead of dried fruit and fruit leathers.
  • Homemade kombucha instead and plain yogurt instead of probiotic supplements.
  • Homemade bread or no bread instead of “designer” sprouted breads.
  • Rice and beans and veggies instead of meat at almost every dinner.
  • Oats instead of organic, gluten-free, sprouted breakfast cereals – just a fraction of the price, less processed, and no added sugar!

The Frugal / Convenience Balance

You won’t stick with a whole food diet (or any diet) if it’s too inconvenient. Convenience always wins in the long-term. And unfortunately, the most frugal thing to do is make everything from scratch.

When I found myself making everything from scratch, I started getting burnt-out and resentful. I would spend hours in the kitchen everyday, while baby Malachi napped or watched. It wasn’t sustainable. Making it easier on yourself will help you find the balance that is sustainable over time.

Things I no longer make from scratch:

  • Yogurt – This was fun at first, but time-consuming every week. I started buying organic plain whole milk yogurt, which is still only $2.99/32 oz. at Aldi. That’s about the price of just the organic milk!
  • Tortillas – Another thing that’s great to make but was a lot of time in front of the stove. Trader Joe’s has handmade 100% whole wheat tortillas that are almost as good as the ones I made. Mainly we just skip tortillas and do salads and burrito bowls instead.
  • Ketchup, BBQ sauce, and other dressings – For the most part we just don’t use “dressings” other than good olive oil. Our tastes have changed that much! When I do need condiments for something, I’ve been buying them and giving away what we don’t use. Making my own was hit-or-miss and they often went bad before we used them up.
  • Pasta sauce – This is 50/50. I’ve been making white sauce from scratch from milk and butter and buying tomato-based sauce. It’s simply not cost effective to make tomato sauce myself and Aldi currently has organic pasta sauce with all good ingredients for $1.89 a jar! I can’t beat that!
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Ah, homemade yogurt! Haven’t made this in a while!

Things I make from scratch to save money:

  • Bone broth – this is one the healthiest and simplest things you can make. On the rare occasions we do buy meat, we buy a whole chicken or turkey and I simmer the bones all day and freeze.
  • Dry beans, lentils, and chickpeas – I make them in the crock-pot. They take all day, so I do it the day before I want to use them. It does take a little planning, but it isn’t difficult or stressful. I keep one or two cans of beans on hand too just in case I need some in an instant.
  • Baked beans – So much cheaper in addition to the fact that the kind from the can has additives and lots of sugar. It’s a win at every summer gathering!
  • Brown rice – No shortcuts here. I also make this in the crock-pot. I measure 2x the water to the rice and set on low for about 4 hours until most of the water is absorbed. We save a lot by buying 25 lb. bags of rice from our local Asian market rather than instant rice from the grocery store.
  • Bread – We don’t eat bread a whole lot, but when we do it’s homemade. I use 4 cups white whole wheat flour, 2 cups water, 1 package yeast, and 1 Tbsp salt. That’s it! And a bread machine on the whole wheat 1.5 lb. setting.
  • Vanilla extract – vanilla beans and vodka are all it takes to make some seriously good vanilla extract at a fraction of the cost. No real effort involved here!
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Vanilla extract is affordable, easy, and never goes bad!

Yes. It is harder to make everything from scratch. But I believe it is healthier and it saves money because the ingredients are nourishing and hearty. I can make dozens of different healthy, filling meals out of the same pantry staples and seasonal vegetables. To make it more frugal, I’ve stopped meal-planning every week with lots of new recipes. Instead I buy what’s in season (and therefore the cheapest) in the produce section, and I build my menu around that.

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What real food looks like to-go.

Ways to make Real Food Convenient:

  • Stock fridge with fresh fruits and veggies every week.
  • Hard boil eggs ahead of time.
  • Get rid of all easy-access junk food.
  • Crock-pots – I have one I use mostly for rice and one I use mostly for beans and veggies.
  • Prioritize – we still buy some things already prepared. As long as they have fewer than 5 ingredients they’re not considered highly processed. I definitely don’t make my own pasta, and about half the time I don’t make the sauce either!
  • Plan ahead – when I worked, it was important to have a plan. I often cooked on my days off so there were leftovers or something in the crock-pot on the nights I worked.
  • Leftovers – frugal take-out, as I like to call them! If you stop eating processed foods, it’s easier to cook in large batches and either freeze or store the leftovers in the fridge for easy access. This will reduce the possibility of needing to eat out because there’s “nothing in the house.”
  • Repertoire – I’m not trying out new recipes everyday. I’ve built a pretty steady repertoire of dinners that we like that incorporate lots of easy things like beans and veggies. When potatoes are cheap and in season, I make my favorite potato soup. When cauliflower is beautiful, I make cauliflower curry. I limit new, unfamiliar recipes to once a week or less.

I hope these suggestions come in handy as you figure out the correct frugal / healthy / convenient balance for your family! Go easy on yourself and ease into any lifestyle changes gradually. It’s a process! Enjoy the journey.

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3 Comments

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  1. I love your suggestions as well as the fact that your understanding that everyone is at a different place in their journey. We have slowly adopted a lot of these habits and it’s been thrilling. Slow is the operative word, like you I had started hot and heavy and quickly got burnt out and resentful. ML has been great in helping me balance!

  2. Thanks for sharing! Some great information here!

  3. I think iced hibiscus tea would make a great (and kid-friendly) choice for someone trying to get off sugary soft drinks. Its bright red color and fruity taste make it fun to drink and even if you want to sweeten it, you can get by with a lot less sugar than would be in your typical fruity punch or even juice.

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