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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Stretch that dough! Eating healthy on a budget.

I try to approach grocery shopping with the best intentions – planning ahead for the week, making a list, etc.  But as you know, it doesn’t always work out that way.  The week derails before it’s even left the station, and I’m left with “what are we having for dinner” and an empty fridge on Monday at 6 pm.

Does this sound familiar?  It’s so easy to fall into the “let’s just go out,” trap or throw a frozen dinner in the microwave.  But in order to live a healthy lifestyle, we have to make smarter food decisions.  Couple our perpetual time crunch with the increasing cost of food, gas, everything, and we’re left wanting to choose the path of least resistance.

When I talk to people about moving toward a healthier lifestyle, I rarely hear them say that the food doesn’t taste good.  Rather, the two most common complaints are “I don’t cook” and “healthy food is too expensive.”

Merely a stumbling block, I say in reference to the first complaint.  My recipes are easy and come together in minutes.  I don’t want to spend all day in the kitchen, either.  Who has time for that?  Once I show them (in person, or through the blog or cookbook), they usually rise to the challenge.

To the second complaint, I say this.  False.  Wrong.  Though I understand where they’re coming from.  Here’s how I see it.  Best case, you make a grocery list.  And it keeps getting longer and longer as you think about all the things you “need.”  Then when you get to the store, the cart fills up even more.  By the time you check out, you’ve spent $50, $100, even $200.  Your heart races and you think to yourself, “Healthy food is too expensive.  We can’t live like this.”  And just like that, it’s back to old habits.

I get it.  I have sticker shock in the checkout line, too, even with the best plans.  I’m not a coupon clipper.  Maybe I should be (I know I should be!), but I haven’t found the motivation or dedication to make it work for us.  But I know now that it’s all in how you approach the groceries once you leave the store.  How often do you get home, put everything away, cook one meal, and then lose track of your weekly meal plan and end up throwing away an entire head of lettuce seven days later?  It happens to the best of us.  But I want to walk you through a few tips and a recipe sample that will help put this into perspective – eating healthfully is not more expensive than a diet of junk food and takeout.

Yesterday I went to the grocery store for the sole purpose of research.  No store sale flyer, no coupons.  Just me in the store pricing what my desired ingredients cost.  I wanted to test this theory and make eggplant Parmesan for dinner, serve it with a green salad, and pick up a few other things for the rest of the week (I had no weekly plan….again.  Oops.).  For the sake of argument, let’s assume that I have “pantry staples” necessary for a healthy diet – cooking spray, minced garlic, spices, salt/pepper, olive oil and vinegar.  If you’re just starting a healthy plan, you’ll have to buy these things – but trust me, you won’t need to replenish often.

Here’s what I got:

- Head of lettuce - $1.24
- 3 cucumbers - $2.25 ($0.75 each)
- 4 tomatoes - $3.78
- 3-pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts - $9.00 (yikes!)
- Pork tenderloin (did you know there are two in there?!) - $11.54 (sheesh!)
- 1 eggplant - $1.50
- 4 cans of low sodium diced tomatoes - $3.96 ($0.99 each)
- Shredded Parmesan cheese - $3.50
- Part-skim mozzarella cheese - $2.39
- Can of panko breadcrumbs - $2.50
- A dozen eggs - $1.69
- 2 bags of frozen vegetables (16 oz each) - $3.00 (gotta love the store brands!)
- Loaf of whole wheat bread - $2.69
- 1 pound low sodium deli turkey breast - $6.50
- Fresh basil - $1.69
- London broil ($4.49/pound) - $11.00 (if only I’d picked a sale week!)
- 6 bananas ($0.59/lb) - $1.18 (one banana weighs about 1/3 pound)

OK, drum roll please.  My quick stop at the store to make eggplant Parmesan has turned into a somewhat manic “I need to fill the fridge!” escapade.  Grand total?  $69.41.  Ack!  For ONE meal and a “couple” things!  I could have taken us out for dinner!  Ordered a pizza (several pizzas)!  (Initiate heart palpitations and panic attack.)

But it clearly isn’t just one meal’s worth of food, even though that’s what the shopping trip was for.  The next step is making the commitment to use what you purchased so you don’t have to throw away rotten tomatoes and brown bananas at the end of the week.    

For now, though, let’s start by making dinner.  The recipe is listed below with a cost of exactly the amount we use for this recipe from the groceries above (and some I’ve labeled staple since they’re already in our pantry). 

The Svelte Gourmet Baked Eggplant Parmesan
Serves 6

For the eggplant:
1 medium eggplant, sliced crosswise into 1/8 inch slices (I used a mandolin slicer) ($1.50)
Salt (staple)
1 egg, beaten ($0.14)
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs ($0.47)
3/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese ($1.32)
1/4 tsp garlic powder (staple)
1/4 tsp dried oregano (staple)
Cooking spray for misting (staple)

Line a large colander with the eggplant slices and sprinkle with salt. Let them sit for about an hour. The salt will help to drain excess water from the slices. Pat them dry.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mist 2 baking sheets with cooking spray. Mix the Parmesan, panko, garlic powder and oregano in a shallow dish. Dip each slice into the beaten egg, then dip into the cheese mixture, pressing to coat. Place the slices in a single layer on the baking sheets. Mist the tops with cooking spray and bake for about 40 minutes or until golden brown. Rotate the sheets halfway through baking if one is browning more quickly than the other.

For the sauce:
1/2 tsp olive oil (staple)
1 tsp minced garlic (staple)
2 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes (undrained) ($1.98)
1/2 tsp dried oregano (staple)
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (staple)
1/4 tsp salt (staple)
6 fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped or torn ($0.66)

In a medium saucepan, heat oil. Reduce heat to medium and sauté garlic for two minutes or until it starts to be fragrant. Add diced tomatoes with juice, oregano, crushed red pepper and salt. Simmer, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Just before assembly, stir in chopped basil leaves.

For the casserole:
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan ($0.43)
3/4 cup shredded mozzarella (part-skim) ($0.89)
Sauce
Baked eggplant slices

Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Mix the Parmesan with the mozzarella. Add a spoonful of sauce to the bottom of a casserole dish, spreading to coat. Layer with some of the eggplant, followed by a sprinkle of cheese, then more spoonfuls of sauce. Resist the urge to completely cover with sauce, as we want the eggplant to stay crispy. Repeat until the eggplant slices are gone, finishing with sauce and cheese on top. For reference, I got 2 layers of eggplant out of mine in a medium-sized oblong casserole dish. Bake covered for 20 minutes, then remove lid and bake for another 10 minutes or until cheese is bubbly.

Yum!  This eggplant Parmesan makes 6 servings at only 220 calories per serving (now THAT’S eating light!).  Couple it with a serving of green salad made with 1 cup of lettuce ($0.25), ¼ of a cucumber ($.019), half of a tomato ($0.47) and a splash of balsamic vinegar (staple) and you have yourself a NICE dinner.  This is so nice, in fact that it’s dinner party worthy.  And guess what – the eggplant Parmesan only costs $1.23 per serving.  $1.23!  That’s cheaper than fast food or a can of soup!  The salad set me back $0.91.  That’s $2.14 a person for a NICE meal.  Serve this to six people at a dinner party for $12.85.  That’s cheaper than a pizza, which won’t even feed six! 

Not convinced yet?  Remember, this only works if you continue to eat from the fridge.  For the sake of argument (and easy math!), let’s calculate the remainder of the discussion as 1-person servings.  So out of my meal above, I have 5 servings of eggplant parm left.  Instead of leaving this in the fridge to go bad or eating the same meal for days in a row, I package each serving separately and freeze – makes a perfect lunch to grab on the way to work or dinner for a night when I don’t want to cook.  What else?  At 3 meals a day for 7 days, eggplant parm alone isn’t going to cut it.  So here’s how the rest of the week might look.

Breakfast ideas:

- 1 packet oatmeal ($0.62) and a banana ($0.20)
- 2 eggs ($0.28) and half a sliced tomato ($0.47)
- 1 slice of whole wheat toast ($0.12), 1 egg ($0.14) and a slice of tomato ($0.15)

Lunch ideas:

- 2 slices wheat bread ($0.24), 2 oz turkey breast ($0.81), tomato slice ($0.15), mustard (staple)
- 1 can diced tomatoes (.99), a bit of minced garlic/salt/pepper, a leaf of basil ($0.11) and a bit of water blended with immersion blender then heated.  Cheaper than canned soup and MUCH less sodium.  Tastier, too!
- 2-egg omelet ($0.28) with ¼ cup mozzarella ($0.29), ½ a cucumber ($0.37) sliced on the side.
I know it’s hard to argue with ramen noodles at $0.25 a brick, but this healthy food is worth the tiny bit of extra cash!  And it is only a tiny bit.

Dinner ideas:

- Pork loin ($0.73) with steamed frozen broccoli ($0.37) and green salad ($.91) (by the way, that pork loin I bought was nearly 4 pounds….that will feed me roughly 16 times using 4 ounce serving sizes! Break it up into smaller portions before you freeze it.)
- Grilled chicken (that 3-pack of chicken breasts contained  nearly 24 ounces of meat – that feeds me 6 times at $1.50/serving) with steamed frozen green beans ($0.37) and a green salad
- Leftover eggplant parm and salad (you get the idea)
- London broil (at roughly 2.5 pounds, this will feed me 9 times at $1.22/serving!  Again, split into easier portion sizes before freezing!), broiled ½ tomato sprinkled with parmesan, basil and garlic ($0.65) and salad ($0.91).
- Need some filler?  I bought a 20-pound bag of basmati rice at the big box store.  Did you know that basmati rice is AS LOW as whole grain brown rice on the glycemic index?  It won’t spike your blood sugar, it keeps you feeling full, and it cooks in only 20 minutes!  Rejoice!  Anyway, this bag of rice contains 200 servings.  And it was $15.00.  So that’s about $0.07 per serving.  (So add it to every meal if you’re feeding a crowd!)

Even after all these meals, you still have a ton of food left over – some cheese, a lot of meat split up and frozen, veggies, leftover eggplant parm, the remaining eggs and bread.  For just under $70 I fed myself for one week AND stocked up the fridge and freezer to avoid future “Ugh, let’s just go out” nights.  Feeding a family works the same way, you just have to commit to eating at home and not wasting the fresh foods.  If you can, buy meat on sale.  Stock the freezer!  This will save you a ton!  (Sometimes I vow not to shop until we eat everything in the freezer – good thing I can make chicken 37 different ways!)  Always package leftovers in easy to grab and reheat portions.  And look for recipes that have simple, everyday ingredients – that filet mignon and lobster may be pretty lean, but it won’t feel that way on your wallet. 

Best of luck – let me know how it goes!  If you find yourself left with a couple random ingredients that don’t seem to go together, send me an email and I’ll try to come up with something creative.  I love a challenge!

The Svelte Gourmet: A Month of Main Courses cookbook is full of creative, healthy recipes!  Order yours today at www.thesveltegourmet.com/products.html.  Enjoy!
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