A recent article in the New York Times says that sales of Spam, pancake mixes, and instant mashed potatoes are going way up in this tough economy.
The article explains that Spam has a long history of serving as a cheap protein source. But according to the FDA, the average recommended daily protein intake is only 50 grams. Most Americans actually eat too much protein. For example, a six ounce serving of steak has 42 grams of protein. A chicken breast has 30 grams of protein. If you eat those for lunch and dinner, you've already eaten more than all the protein you need for the day. And that doesn't include some things that we may not even be thinking of as typical sources, like milk, yogurt, and peanut butter. Even most whole grains have protein!
I was raised shopping at a food co-op by a mother who majored in nutrition in college and made us count out our fruits and vegetables consumed that day at the dinner table. Eating healthy, nutritionally-balanced meals on what is generally a pretty tight budget are two big priorities in my life, especially since I'm a college student. I'll admit that I'm not always as good at keeping up with the nutrition or eating completely locally as I would like, but it's also not as challenging as you might expect. I should also note that I am pretty much always tight on time. I usually work while I am taking classes, and am a coxswain for a local crew team. Sometimes I plan out what I'm making in advance, but a lot of time planning dinner consists of sticking my head in the refrigerator, evaluating what I have (usually I try to do some variation on veggies, protein, and carbs in a meal), and cooking it. Sometimes that doesn't work out super-well, but usually it does.
When I go to the farmers market, I try to buy whatever is the best deal. A lot of times, that just means that it's perfectly in season and the farmers have a lot of it. In late summer, there were boxes and boxes of unbelievably inexpensive tomatoes. In the spring, I ended up buying a lot of baby bok choi because the price was good -- I had actually never had it before (except maybe obscured in Chinese food) and it was delicious. That happens often when you shop this way: you can pick up staples you need, but you can also have fun cooking things you've never made before.
Right now in Massachusetts, we've got a few greens available, lots of root vegetables, and tons and tons of squash. I made roasted butternut squash with quinoa (a South American grain that tastes a lot like brown rice, and is incredibly filling and a complete protein) last week. The squash was one and a half pounds and cost less than two dollars, and it was good for four meals. On Saturday, I made spaghetti squash for the first time, with black beans (from a can, ninety nine cents), salsa, and mushrooms. Again, beans are a protein source.
What about meat? Certainly eat some, but you can save some money eating a bit less of it. Want to know how to get delicious, conscientiously-raised meat for a bit cheaper? Check out Matt's blog post about his meat CSA.
In terms of the potatoes and pancakes, in my opinion, it isn't that much harder to make the real things, and you can avoid a lot of unnecessary additives and sodium by sticking with whole ingredients instead of mixes. I love making pancakes. I don't usually use a recipe and it's one of those whatever-ingredients-I-have-on-hand things, but in my opinion, all you really need to make good pancakes is some form of liquid (preferably milk, some milk substitute, or water), flour, and baking powder. Salt, eggs, oil or butter, fruit -- all are good additions, but it's certainly possible to make pancakes without. It's also not much more expensive to buy enormous, delicious, free-range eggs (and most mixes make you add eggs anyway). Growing up, we used to pick quarts and quarts of blueberries in the summer and freeze them to put in pancakes and muffins throughout the rest of the year.
Boiling or baking potatoes can take some time, but fluffy, freshly-mashed potatoes with a little butter and salt (and maybe some cream) is so worth it. You just can't replicate that in a box. You can also cook the potatoes in a microwave -- so much faster that way.
So, Farm Aid friends, it is possible to eat well and feel good about your food even when the budget is tight. Buy in bulk, stock up when there are sales, and shop for deals at farmers markets. Join CSAs. Our diets, our well-being, and even parts of the economy are reliant on the small farmer, and supporting them, even in tough economic times, is good for our health, the viability of our farmers, and the well-being of our country!