10 Ways to Eat Ethically, Cheaply, and Well

Michael Pollan said it best: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” I am a firm believer that eating healthfully is ultimately uncomplicated: the earth is brimming with natural foods that make our bodies thrive. Below is a collection of tips for eating in a way that not only benefits our bodies, but benefits our souls and taste buds as well. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions for eating ethically, cheaply, healthfully, or deliciously!

1. Buy local.

On average, produce in the United States travels 1,500 miles to get to your local grocery store. While this might be a convenient way to provide us with a variety of cheap food, it is terrible for the environment and taxing on our natural resources: More fuel is needed to transport the food from other states or countries, and more pollution is produced in the process. Not to mention our food is far less fresh, as it makes quite a long trek from its origins to our plate. And let’s not forget the warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we support small, local businesses. So, check out your local farmer’s market, or join a CSA, and partake in the gastronomical joy of local food.

2. Grow your own food.

Even better than buying local food — grow your own! No fossil fuels wasted in transporting the food. No packaging discarded and filling a landfill. And, best of all, you can’t beat the cost! Of course, it takes some skill and land to grow your own food. (My own adventures in growing tomatoes were less than boast-worthy.) If you are intimidated by the idea of gardening (as I am) and/or you have little land to do so, you may start with a modest collection of herbs on your windowsill. Even if the cost savings are negligible, there is a distinct aesthetic pleasure in snipping off some fresh, tender basil leaves from your herb garden to use in a fragrant pasta dish. Self-sufficiency, even in its tiniest forms, emboldens the soul.

3. Eat less meat.

Until quite recently in human history, meat was a luxury that was enjoyed on occasion. Now (particularly in the U.S.), meat is an everyday staple, and it is taken for granted by many that meat is a part of every meal. In fact, some people consider it downright unpatriotic not to embrace the “meat and potatoes” philosophy of the American diet. But such enthusiastic consumption of meat strains the environment and our waistline. Much more land and water is needed produce meat than is needed to produce the equivalent in grain, and billions of tons of animal waste are dumped into our waterways every year. Even if you don’t switch completely to a plant-based diet, you can reduce the negative impact on your health and the environment by cutting down your meat consumption.

4. Buy fair trade and organic.

Buying fair trade and organic food lets you vote with your dollar for a better world: a world in which farmers operate under fair labor conditions and are paid fair wages for their goods, a world in which food producers work with the earth, rather than against it, and in which we need not fear the toxic effects of pesticides and growth hormones in our produce and meats. We vote for a world that not only produces healthy sustenance for ourselves, but also nurtures the environment and supports the people that produce it.

5. Keep meals simple.

While complex recipes laden with exotic ingredients may seem impressive, simpler meals enjoy distinct advantages: As they require fewer ingredients and spices, simple meals are generally cheaper. They are, for the most part, easier to prepare. And there is something to be said for an uncomplicated dish in which you can taste the individual ingredients: the tang of the lemon, the bite of the salt and the sweet pungency of the cilantro. Simple dishes highlight the ingredients used, because they aren’t lost among a plethora of others. There is a certain aesthetic beauty to a simple dish — which is that much more enjoyable when you can save time and money in its preparation!

6. Avoid processed, packaged foods.

We all know that fresh food is best. Packaged foods try to trick you with claims of healthfulness: “High in Fiber” or “Good Source of Iron”, but scan the label and you will most likely find a food that is high in sugar, high in sodium, or which includes a long, scary, cryptic list of ingredients. Of course, I am overgeneralizing here: there are some healthy packaged foods. But, for the most part, the closer a food is to its natural source, the better it is for you. The more you process food, the more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients are lost. The more you process food, the more questionable ingredients are added. And, to top it all off, processed foods generally include more wasteful packaging: boxes, pouches, and plastic bottles and containers. Be kind to your body (and the earth): eat whole, fresh, unadulterated food from which your your body is designed to draw nourishment.

7. Eat less.

There have been studies that indicate that decreased caloric intake increases lifespan. You may or may not agree with this controversial claim. But, given an obesity rate of over 30% in the U.S., many of us would enjoy health benefits from eating less. Admittedly, this is a hard one to implement. (Believe me, I know!). But, think about it: not only will our health probably benefit from avoiding that second-helping of lasagna during dinner or that handful of Hershey’s kisses at work, but we will also spend less and waste fewer resources by doing so. Of course, I am not suggesting that we go hungry, or drastically deprive ourselves, but consciously cutting down a bit on what we eat during the day is worth the effort, and has cumulative effects in the long run.

8. Eat slowly.

With no distractions — no television, no radio (and certainly, no driving!). Turning our attention to our meals, chewing slowly, savoring the flavors of our food, not only makes the eating experience more pleasurable, but generally makes us eat less. It is commonly known that those who scarf down their food end up eating much more than those who take their time, but meditating on your food also lends to long-term satisfaction from food. If we truly experience the flavors and textures of the the food, we derive more pleasure, more satisfaction from our meals…our minds more deeply register that we’ve eaten, and we are thus less likely to reach for those potato chips later. Additionally, if we extend that attention and focus on how our food makes our bodies feel afterwards (the sluggishness we feel after a fatty, salty meal, vs. the vitality from something healthful), then we are more likely to change our eating habits for the better. Slow eating puts us more in tune with our food and its interaction with our bodies, yielding a more holistic understanding of our eating habits.

9. Ignore hype.

Trans fat. Low-carb. Low-fat. Antioxidants. Whole grains. Heart-healthy. The food world is a whirlwind of nutritional claims, promises, and sound bytes: much of it good, some of it suspect. And even the well-supported claims will quickly be exploited by food companies who want you to buy their stuff. My advice? Ingore it. Just concentrate on eating a variety of unprocessed, organic vegetables, fruits, grains, and beans, and you’ll do fine. Even if Acai berries are chock-full of antioxidants, the humble collard green is just as power packed (and much cheaper!). Ignore food trends and crazy diets that promise unrealistic tranformations: real nutrition is timeless and common sensical.

10. Say grace (or a secular equivalent).

In other words, pay homage to the spiritual and physical sources of your food. Be grateful that you have food to eat (many do not), and acknowledge the long journey that the food has taken from the sun to your plate. Your nourishment is a product of lives and labor…your life is indebted to the natural, spiritual, and economic cycles that underpin our world. Our food runs deep, and paying reverence to this fact can help us pay closer attention to the things that we eat, and to focus on consuming things that are spiritually and physically nourishing.

More resources:

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
  2. Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair
  3. One Bowl: A Guide to Eating for Body and Spirit
  4. The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy, and Weight Loss
  5. Unplugged Kitchen: A Return to the Simple, Authentic Joys of Cooking
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