When healthy makes you unhealthy
Over the past four years, my husband and I have been trying to get healthier. We started making more things from scratch, buying mostly organic and switching out personal and cleaning products for more natural versions. In some ways, it feels like we’ve been doing this at a pretty slow pace, but when I zoom out and think about what we’ve accomplished, we’ve made several major lifestyle changes in just four years. I am very proud of how far we’ve come and how we’ve changed some of our mindsets.
But lately I’ve been feeling increasingly anxious, stressed and exhausted, not just in general (as in ‘I have a toddler and work outside the home with a husband who works nights’) but specifically when it comes to our health. I’m so tired of having to extensively research every little thing only to find all the information out there contradicts each other. I’m exhausted from reading every ingredient on labels at the grocery store. I’m fed up with feeling guilty and anxious when I buy a convenience food or don’t plan out perfectly balanced meals for my family (especially for my daughter). I’m tired of feeling obsessed with finding ways to eat 100% organic on our budget and feeling like a failure when I can’t.
I’ve been trying to improve my prayer life. Now bear with me, it is related. In the crunchy world, meditation seems to be king. The thing I feel I struggle with the most in my prayer life is two-fold. 1) I don’t have a strong enough personal relationship with Christ. 2) because of this when I try to pray my mind wanders like crazy and soon I’m down the rabbit hole and God is the last thing on my mind. Meditation interests me in that it helps with focus and quieting the distractions.
However another thing meditation emphasizes is reducing stressors and eliminating those things, activities or practices that cause us anxiety. I’ve been spending some time in (somewhat decently focused) prayer and reflection to discern what are the root causes of my stress and anxiety and I found that many of them kept bringing me back here. Our health. Making healthy food choices. Eliminating toxins. Add onto that, with my husband starting nursing school in the fall and having to cut back on his work hours, our budget is stretched even thinner than ever. There may come a point where the choice is having internet at home or having organic food on the plate. It has come to the point where healthy eating on a budget feels scarily like an idol, sucking my time away from my family and my faith, wasting hours trying to find the secret to doing it all or the go-to recipes that will allow me to stay in-budget while buying all organic. Something has to give.
If you search the blogosphere for advice as to what foods are okay to buy conventionally, you’ll get mixed messages. One thing that seems to be consistent is if you have to put your budget somewhere, keep meat, dairy and the dirty dozen organic. The theory on meat is that since a lot of toxins are stored in the fat and muscles, which we then eat and cook with, you want the best quality which would yield the lowest toxins. With dairy, you want to avoid added antibiotics and hormones and reap the full benefits by consuming dairy from grassfed cows or goats. And the dirty dozen includes the produce which is sprayed with the highest amounts of pesticides and are the hardest to get clean. We’ve adapted these a bit and since we are just starting to readjust our lifestyle/budget I’m sure these will change but here’s how we’re functioning now.
Focus on quality meat
Buy all your meat either from a local farmer or organic from budget stores like Aldi’s or EarthFare. This is more expensive but if you focus on cheaper cuts like whole chickens or thighs instead of breasts (our favorite trick!) and only shop sales you can definitely make it work. Plus if you make meat more a side (think palm-sized portions) and pile your plate with veggies and healthy fats, you can stretch it further.
Cutting back on dairy
Since you should really only buy organic dairy, use it sparingly. Cut out unhealthy ways you use it most, like in sugar-laden breakfast cereals. You can easily make a gallon of milk last several weeks. Use cheese sparingly and rely more on spices for flavor instead. Look into the budget-friendliness of nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute. My go-to dairy source has been goat or cow kefir, which can be very expensive. However it has a relatively decent shelf life so we only buy it when there is a good sale (EarthFare recently had it on BOGO so we picked up a few bottles). Budget-stretching tip: My favorite use for kefir is for a probiotic boost and added creaminess in my smoothies. I’ve started using half as much kefir and replacing it with just plain old filtered water.
Eggs can be such a blessing for the healthy eater on a budget. Even more so if you can buy locally from a farmer or a friend (or raise your own chickens!). Eggs are also a great way to get more protein when quality meat is unavailable or your budget runs out. A go-to cheap meal in our house is fried rice with whatever veggies we have and a few scrambled eggs. Yum!
Utilize the dirty dozen and markets
When it comes to produce, let the sales dictate what you buy. Figure out organic staples that are the least expensive in your area (usually carrots and celery in our area). Don’t forget to check out organic frozen produce, which can be easy to use, just as nutrient-dense and often cheaper. If the season allows for it, become a frequent flyer at your local market. Get to know your farmers, learn about their growing practices and find your favorites. It’s okay to have some items you simply won’t buy unless you can afford organic. That allows you to get creative when they aren’t available. We loosely follow EWG’s dirty dozen and our basic rule is if you eat the skin, it should be organic (or at least locally grown without pesticides). We buy white potatoes organic only on sale or from the market (though we don’t eat white potatoes much), but buy sweet potatoes conventionally. Oranges, lemons, mangoes, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, kiwis and bananas we buy conventionally. Corn we don’t buy much but when we do it has to be organic or non-gmo seed verified. Everything else (in general) we buy organic or not at all.
*I recently read that EWG suggests eating conventional fruit is better than no fruit at all. If you are in a situation where you cannot afford anything organic, I would suggest using the clean 15 as the bulk of your produce intake and then get items like apples and berries to fill in nutritional gaps. We are lucky to be in a position where we can stretch our organic produce budget to make it work. Also, there are several farmers in our area that while not technically organic, they use more natural methods of pest control. I would be comfortable buying any type of produce from a source like that, which is why markets are so great, you get to ask specifically what they use and why!
Buy grains in bulk and look for sales
While we’ve tiptoed around grain-free diets, consuming that much meat and veggies is expensive and not in our budget. I’ve been stocking up on various kinds of organic rice over the past few months and we will start using them up now that our budget is more restricted. I just realized EarthFare has bulk rice and quinoa available so I’m going to price that out and hopefully have another option for grains. Meijer seems to run good deals on Bob’s Red Mill organic rolled oats. I bought 5 bags a few weeks ago when they were BOGO and we are still working through that supply. We’re committed to not paying full price for any grains and I think with the various stores and various kinds, that should be possible. There are also options like Amazon Prime Pantry and Thrive Market where you can buy staples online for great prices.
Create from scratch
Everyone knows a lot of things are cheaper to make from scratch. The easiest, most versatile item is stock. Buy a whole chicken and make bone broth from it. This not only provides an entire chicken-worth of meat (which is cheaper than buying it already cut up and can help with meal prep on busy nights), but you get lots of nutritionally-dense chicken stock to use for whatever you want. I tend to make one batch every other week and that seems to last us. I’m currently working on making some home ferments – sauerkraut, fermented pickles and relish, fermented carrots. Hopefully we are successful because these items are crazy expensive from the store and V loves them (as do our bellies)! *Update: I’ve made six batches of sauerkraut and a batch of pickles and they were so easy and awesome!
Create a master price list
Keeping a master list of prices, especially for the items you buy most and those that are the most expensive, can help compare prices. Sometimes something on sale at a specialty store may still be more expensive than at a supermarket. Keep a spreadsheet to help you stay organized. This doesn’t have to be something to put a lot of time into or stress about, but can be a helpful tool when your budget shrinks. We end up shopping three different stores almost every week. Yes it is a bit of a pain to have to shop multiple stores but my toddler does surprisingly well with it and it saves money. They are all on the same road and I always limit it to two stores per outing so we don’t waste gas and she can handle the stops.
*2017 update – We’ve had a bit of a falling out with Aldi’s so we now primarily shop only at Meijer and EarthFare (only meat unless they have a great produce or BOGO sale).
DIY for the home and body
It is so simple to switch almost every cleaning and personal care item to DIY. Exceptions for us are laundry and dish soap and shampoo. We will be switching laundry soaps when we run out to something that maybe isn’t quite as low on EWG but still not awful. We’ve been able to find a more natural dish soap on sale whenever we’ve needed it. We only spend about $30/year on shampoo and soaps so I’m not concerned with those. We just started making tooth powder and deodorant recently and have been making our own foaming hand soap for a long time. These are all simple, easy recipes and the ingredients last a long time. We’re also going to switch to store brand paper towels and toilet paper when we run out. I know lots of people who have success going to “unpaper” for both, but DH says no way 🙂
Let go of the guilt
Sometimes my daughter eats sugary completely non-organic muffins at friend’s house. Sometimes we eat conventionally grown strawberries and non-organic sugar at a party. Sometimes my daughter eats mac and cheese. Yes, it’s organic (because if you get it on sale there really isn’t a price difference) but still, that’s a lot of sodium and there’s usually a few questionable ingredients on the list. Letting go of the guilt when we eat less than perfectly is a process but is so necessary for health. I don’t want to begin micromanaging every little thing we put in our mouths and I don’t want to foster an unhealthy obsession with food in my daughter. Letting go of the guilt is good for our mental health and our pocketbook. As long as we are eating mostly from scratch, I can accept the times we grab convenience foods.
I want to teach V thankfulness and perspective. This includes showing gratitude for what we do have instead of lamenting about what we don’t. I want to show her we should focus on giving thanks for our home, for the food on our plates and the company at our table. We are very, very blessed to be able to afford eating anything organic and want to remain thankful for all that we have been given.
So, there you have it. We’re letting ourselves back off from focusing so obsessively on what we are eating. What are your ways to stay healthy-ish without is causing more harm than good?