How to eat your veggies and cut your grocery bill

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This week, the USDA released “MyPlate,” the improved successor to the ubiquitous but oft-criticized food pyramid, that visualizes thee proportions of each food group a person should consume at meals. Among the things that this new visualization reveals (but that actually hasn’t changed) is that half of the volume of each meal should be made up of fruits and vegetables. Even though this is not technically a new recommendation, MyPlate makes this more obvious, and some people are treating this information with a certain amount of surprise. In particular, the reactions I’ve seen to this have revolved mainly around “how expensive” fruits and vegetables are. While I can agree that produce can get expensive, eating your vegetables doesn’t have to empty your wallet.

A few simple changes in the way that you shop for produce along with the ability to be flexible and willing to put a little variety into your diet will not only change the way you look at the price of fruits and vegetables, it will change the way you eat, improve your health, and maybe even trim your waistline…all with what seems like no effort at all!

Buy in season

For fresh produce, the most common recommendation to save money is to buy in season. The global economy has spoiled us. Today’s supermarket offers pretty much every common fruit and vegetable year-round. But there’s a reason why strawberries are cheaper in June than they are in January. Produce that isn’t in season is more expensive because it has to be shipped long distances or it is greenhouse-grown, which is often more costly. To that end, produce that is grown closer to you is often less expensive, as well.

Thanks largely in part to local food movements, many grocery stores now tout and clearly indicate items that are grown within the state or region. However, produce origin labeling in the U.S. has a long way to go in general, so labels often only show countries of origin as opposed to states or regions. So for the sake of simplicity, let’s just stick to buying in season. There are several online resources that show what is generally in season for where you live. Unfortunately, most of the best resources are for the U.S. only, but if anyone knows of good resources for other countries, please post them in the comments. The lists provided are not exhaustive, but they give you a good idea of what types of foods are in season. For example, if cantaloupe is in season, that probably means most other summer melons (honeydew, watermelon) are in season as well.

Buy frozen

In most grocery stores, one-pound bags of frozen vegetables cost around a dollar for store brands. The price generally doesn’t vary by season (meaning you can enjoy your favorite seasonal vegetables year-round), and if you’re like me and tend to have a lot of produce go bad before you can use it, this is a fantastic solution to that problem, as well. The primary drawback (to some people) about buying frozen vegetables is that they need to be cooked. Thawed, uncooked frozen veggies just don’t work. However, they needn’t be cooked to death. Light steaming in the microwave or on the stovetop provides a palatable and toothsome vegetable that is fantastic with light seasoning or a little butter. They also are a great addition to stir frys and pasta dishes and offer the added convenience of being already washed, cut, and ready to cook. I love frozen vegetables because they can go from freezer to dinnerplate in as little as 5 minutes, and they require very little effort on my part.

Frozen fruit is very much a different matter. I don’t buy frozen fruit as often because it is usually a bit more expensive and it is somewhat less convenient than fresh fruit for just eating. However, frozen fruit, particularly berries, make a fun and different snack or dessert, especially when they’re still frozen or only partially thawed. It’s also fantastic in smoothies. A cup of partially thawed frozen fruit blended with either juice or milk makes a great breakfast or snack. Unlike vegetables, however, there are some fruits, particularly citrus, that simply don’t freeze well, leaving you with somewhat less of a variety in frozen fruits than you get with frozen vegetables. You can get some citrus fruits in a can, but as is the case with all canned fruit, it’s much higher in sugar than fresh or frozen options.

So yeah…what about canned?

As I just said, canned fruits tend to be much higher in sugar than either their fresh or frozen counterparts. That said, I like canned fruit. It’s a fantastic snack, lunch item, or dessert. Opt for canned fruits that are packed in their own juices (or some other fruit juice) over ones packed in syrup. These often will be labeled as “light” (not to be mistaken for “light syrup”), but unlike a lot of other foods labeled as “light” to indicate they are somehow “diet” or missing something that the “full” version has, canned fruits packed in juice are much closer to their fresh counterparts, and in my opinion, much better.

One thing I am going to address separately (as culinarily, it’s more of a vegetable even though it’s biologically a fruit), is canned tomatoes. Tomatoes are another produce item that doesn’t freeze well, but is probably one of the most commonly canned. Canned tomatoes are fantastic, but they absolutely cannot replace fresh tomatoes in any instance I can think of (unless you plan on cooking the fresh tomatoes). I always keep at least three or four cans of tomatoes and tomato sauce (just plain tomato sauce, not pasta or marinara sauce, which has a lot of extra stuff in it) in my pantry. They’re super-versatile. Using a couple of cans of tomato sauce and diced tomatoes to make your own pasta sauce is tastier, cheaper, and healthier than buying a jar of ready-made sauce, and it really doesn’t take that much extra time.

As for canned vegetables, my rule is, “just don’t.” I have a theory that part of the reason so many people don’t like vegetables is because all the vegetables they ate growing up were floppy green beans, drab peas, and mushy carrots out of a can. Sure, they’re cheap, but as far as getting a true value for your money, canned vegetables are not where it’s at. They’re high in salt and much lower in nutrition and quality than either fresh or frozen. Canned vegetables have their place in a few recipes, but as a side dish, just step away.

Do it yourself

One path to cheap produce is to grow it yourself. Gardening can be rewarding and relaxing, and as long as you have a patch of dirt or space to put a couple of pots, you can grow tomatoes, salad greens, herbs, berries, and more with relative ease. There are probably as many methods and recommendations for starting a home garden as there are things you could possibly grow in it. If you have good soil, you can just dig up a patch of dirt and get to planting. If you don’t (or you’re not sure), you can build or buy a raised bed that sets on the ground and is filled with good soil. If you don’t really have a yard, you can plant a container garden on your porch or balcony. Also, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to garden year-round in many places in the United States, especially if you’re planting in containers. If your garden yields more than you can eat, freezing, home canning, and drying (for herbs), are good ways to get the most out of your garden.

If you don’t have the space to garden or you have a black thumb, home freezing and home canning are still cost-effective strategies for keeping seasonal produce that you might buy in the store so that you can enjoy it later. Likewise, despite what I said about canned fruits and vegetables above, when you do it yourself, the result is much lower in sugars and salts, free of artificial preservatives, and (arguably) tastier and more nutritious than anything you would buy in the store. Ball, a company best-known for manufacturing glass jars and lids for home-canning, has a wonderful online resource for learning how to preserve fruits and vegetables by canning or freezing.

Buy in bulk

If you can afford to front the money to buy a large volume of seasonal produce, you’ll often find yourself paying much less per pound than if you bought a smaller amount. And now that we’ve established that some of it can be canned or frozen, this can be an even more cost-effective solution. Warehouse clubs are one option for this, CSA (Community Shared/Supported Agriculture) memberships are another. CSAs are also a good way to “buy local” and get a wide variety of fruits and vegetables instead of 10 pounds of the same item. The Wikipedia article for CSA provides several links at the bottom for directories of local CSA programs. The bulk option, whichever you choose, can be even cheaper if you split the cost with a friend or several friends, and divide up the produce accordingly. CSA shares in particular can be too large for individuals or small families (even if you freeze or can things), and splitting them between two or three households is common.

…But I don’t like vegetables!

You probably ate vegetables out of a can growing up, didn’t you? Or maybe your mom (or dad) just boiled everything to death so that the vegetables on your dinner plate were a limp, drab, greyish shadow of their former glorious selves. Maybe when you think of vegetables, you think of salads and “rabbit food,” or bitter and unpalatable items that are hard to chew.

It’s ok.

Everyone has vegetables they don’t like for one reason or another. I don’t like bell peppers (in part because I’m allergic to them, but even if I wasn’t, I don’t really like the way they taste). I know plenty of people who don’t like tomatoes (technically a fruit, I know) because of the texture. Some people think carrots taste like dirt or that broccoli is bitter or that cabbage is bland. But even if you think you hate all vegetables, there are probably some you’ve never tried. Or maybe the vegetables you think you don’t like, you’ve never had prepared correctly or in a way that brings out the flavors or textures you think they’re missing. Or sometimes, you can disguise a vegetable in or as a food you enjoy.

For example, I know someone who hates cauliflower, but loves potatoes. As an (admittedly somewhat cruel) experiment, I prepared faux mashed potatoes with cooked cauliflower, blended smooth with butter, ranch dressing, and a bit of salt and pepper. He could tell that something was different, but he couldn’t place what it was, and most importantly, he thought it tasted good and couldn’t believe that it was actually a vegetable he hated.

The simplest way to prepare cooked vegetables is to steam them. Properly done, steamed vegetables should be softer than raw, but still crunchy and bright in color. Steaming preserves most of the flavor and nutrition of raw vegetables while somewhat mellowing some of the harsher flavors that many people dislike. The easiest way to prepare steamed vegetables is to start with frozen vegetables, place them in a microwave-safe bowl with a couple tablespoons of water, cover with either plastic wrap or a plate, and microwave them for approximately 5 minutes. Let them set, still covered, for another minute, then remove the cover with care, as trapped steam can cause nasty burns. Season and/or add a small amount of butter to suit your taste.

I’ve also found that roasting vegetables as a method of preparation mellows bitterness and brings out the inherent sweetness of vegetables like brussels sprouts and asparagus–two vegetables that are notoriously unpopular. Roasting can also tone down the “earthy” flavor of root vegetables that some people think make carrots and potatoes taste like dirt. Roasting vegetables is a rather simple matter that typically involves tossing washed, trimmed (and if necessary, peeled, cut or sliced) fresh vegetables with a small amount of olive oil and salt, then cooking them in a single layer on a baking sheet in the oven at 400 degrees for 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the thickness and solidness of the vegetable. Similar to roasting is grilling vegetables–something very popular during the summer months. And speaking of grilling, grilled fruit is absolutely amazing.

In short, fruits and vegetables, when purchased following the above recommendations, are cost-effective and delicious. It’s totally possible to make them half of your plate without breaking the bank, and if you know your options for preparing them, you might even find that vegetables you thought you hated are actually quite tasty.

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