The Budget Ethical Gourmet
December 23, 2009 10:28 AM   Subscribe

Help me put together a shopping list that is 1) ethical 2) healthy and 3) under $50/week.

One of my goals for the coming year is to be more ethically responsible in my food choices. I recognize that the first step is to eat more frequently at home, where I can control the sourcing for the most part. As a young person in a big city, I am on a budget- $50 a week for groceries is the most I can put out.

I am not a vegetarian or vegan, but I do want to reduce my meat consumption. I eat a lot of seafood (generally wild-caught and per the Monterey Bay Aquarium recommendations). I eat a lot of fresh produce, which I get from a variety of places. I lean toward local and organic produce, but local is more important to me than organic. I eat dairy in the form of yogurt and cheese, not so much on milk. I drink water, coffee, beer and wine. I also get bored easily and like to try new things, so rice and beans 5 times a week is not an option.

At my disposal are farmers markets, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, Costco and standard grocery stores. I don't want to go to more than 2 stores a week for food (but I am willing to stock up, at say, Whole Foods for meat for the month, and go to 2 different sources on a different week). I like to cook and am very willing to try out new foods, recipes, cooking techniques, etc.

Where do I start? I am looking for help in menu planning, and acquiring the foods on a sensible, ethical and affordable way.
posted by whodatninja to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 120 users marked this as a favorite
Oh and I forgot to add, I'm not big on single serving anything, because of the packaging problems, and the price inflation.
posted by whodatninja at 10:30 AM on December 23, 2009

It appears to me that you answered your question in the asking of it.
posted by torquemaniac at 10:34 AM on December 23, 2009

Whole Foods is, IMO, not a great place to buy "meat for the month". If you're in a city, there are probably butchers near you that are served by local farmers and who can get you much better deals.

Even better, learn some basic butchering skills and buy as close to whole-animal as you can. Make stock with the bones. Learn to cook offal.

Also, consider joining a CSA near you. What you give up in choice you more than make up for in quality, volume, and freshness/seasonality. And you can't get much more local than that.
posted by mkultra at 10:40 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

When the vegetables are in season, I make easy, cheap and nearly package-free polenta recipes.

Canned or bulk organic cannelini beans from WF are cheap cheap
Bulk polenta
Farmer's market tomatoes
Farmer's market or frozen, organic spinach
Local cheese
posted by lunalaguna at 10:46 AM on December 23, 2009

Torquemanic, to clarify, I'm looking for guidance on how to best put this into action. Where is the best place to buy each of these things in accordance with those preferences and in budget? What types of "seals of approval" should I look for in grocery stores? What consitutes ethical/sustainable in dairy? Etc. And most importantly, how can I make this a productive and maintainable habit?
posted by whodatninja at 10:46 AM on December 23, 2009

Less-desirable meats. I'm thinking tripe because I love it. Menudo is a childhood favorite that is great in big batches. Go to stores with in-house butchers and ask for the super-cheap meat.

If you can find a livestock share, yay. You buy part of a cow/whatever and they butcher it and give it to you. Growing up, we always had a side of beef in the freezer. That's half a cow and included steaks, tongue, etc.

Eat rice and beans often and flavor them differently. Different meats, different spices. Different beans. Chickpeas with lemon is good.

You want to use meat as a seasoning. Half of a piece of bacon can season a LOT of food.

Learn to make your own yogurt. It's not that hard.

Brands that I like:
Westbrae, great black beans and reasonably priced, they have other beans too
Bionature, good whole wheat organic pastas
posted by kathrineg at 10:53 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Trader Joe's is great for healthy and preservative-free food, however if you're trying to support a local system you would do better to find a co-op or join a CSA or something. I'm pretty sure Trader Joes has a central distribution system, so most of your products have traveled far
posted by Think_Long at 11:00 AM on December 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

2nding the CSA rec. That will definitely get you to start thinking locally/seasonally. Get to know the meat purveyors at your farmers' market. Be aware that local meat is not cheap - more often than not, you will go without. If you want this to be a continuing project, pick up some canning and preserving skills. No tomatoes in December unless you packed them yourself in July.
posted by Gilbert at 11:02 AM on December 23, 2009

Do you have any older relatives who grew up in a less fortunate situation? My grandmother would have been able to answer your question in her sleep, at least as far as cheap, local, and nutritious.

mkultra: "Even better, learn some basic butchering skills and buy as close to whole-animal as you can. Make stock with the bones. Learn to cook offal."

Chickens are an easy way to start. If you've ever been mailed a KFC coupon, you've seen a complete set of standard cuts.
posted by d. z. wang at 11:03 AM on December 23, 2009

By the way, as much as I love coffee and wine, unless you get them local they're very resource intensive for very little nutritional value.

CSAs are a great idea. Google for your location and CSA. Local and seasonal, yum!

The best seal of approval is knowing the farmer/rancher, and checking out the operation to ensure that it's not sketchy.
posted by kathrineg at 11:07 AM on December 23, 2009

Thanks for the tips so far- I had previously ruled out CSAs because the ones around here are fairly pricey, but I looked again and a half-share would be about $20/week, which sounds reasonable if it meets most of my produce needs.

A little more clarity- while eating in is one of my goals, it is not my only goal. I work full time and am in grad school half-time so DIY butchery and canning and other time and skill intensive routes are probably not doable right now.
posted by whodatninja at 11:08 AM on December 23, 2009

It would be helpful to know where you are located to give more specific recommendations. I'd recommend cheaping out on non-perishables since your budget is fairly low, and splurging on local vegetables and fish/meat. Costco has cheap oatmeal, but most of it's bulk goods are too big for a single person to use. Their salsa is surprisingly good, if you are the type of person that can average a cup of salsa a day until it is all gone. I'd recommend getting bulk grains like rice, and bulk things like beans from ethnic markets - again, I don't know where you are, but depending on what kind of immigrants live near you changes your options. I recommend finding a cheap ethnic market (some are all around expensive, some have a few prepared expensive things and cheaper bulk goods) and experimenting with cooking $Ethnicity food. I love my CSA share, but it doesn't help with a budget unless someone else is paying for it (at least in the Boston area, your area may be different as Boston is rather expensive). My share has wonderful things, but I often find myself buying extra supplies (especially for foods which aren't my favorite, but I don't want to waste) which can be a big money sap.

Ok so that was a lot. In short, spend the bulk of your money on local veggies, some on local fish, meat and dairy, and a little bit on cheap grains and beans.
posted by fermezporte at 11:12 AM on December 23, 2009

I'm very focused on this kind of eating and am looking forward to reading answers. I think overall to eat cheaply, healthy, and ethically, you need to be willing to devote time to "working for your food."

For example:

1. We can foods, especially tomatoes, when they are cheap and in bulk by purchasing at the farmers' market, end of the day, peak of production. Canning has a learning curve and takes time but it pays off.

2. We make yogurt in our crockpot

3. Make your own bread (and buy yeast in bulk).

4. If you're going to eat meat, find a farmer that sells shares of an animal and then freeze. Call around or research in your local newspaper---there are a lot of local articles about this kind of stuff lately.

5. Learn to cook vegetables IN SEASON. Learn to freeze vegetables too, in addition to canning.

6. Join a good, reputable CSA. Look at their past years' harvest to better assure you'll be happy. Find one that harvests year round. Ours is a coop of local farms.

7. Have you checked out the "edible" magazines? They are a good resource. So is Local Harvest.

8. Find a food coop for bulk grains.

9. Eat less!
posted by rabidsegue at 11:18 AM on December 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

Semolina couscous is my go-to carbohydrate. It's damn near free, is completely scalable in the amount you make, takes water-boiling-time + a minute or so, and can be cooked in/seasoned with whatever you want. Cook it plain and put pasta sauce on it, cook it with brown sugar and more water for breakfast. Or my most frequent application, steam vegetables, including something colorful like beets over 1/2 water and 1/2 lemon juice and salt. Make the couscous with the steaming water and you're in business. Delicious, no lost nutrients (other than cooking in the first place), and nice color.

Beans are gonna be common for you. Look around, there's a lot more variety to be had than you think.

Tofu: I always had trouble with it. I'm not against it, the way some people are, I just didn't know how to do it until this episode of Good Eats. Alton Brown's tofu steak recipe is delicious, scalable, and flexible, as his recipes tend to be. Tofu is the most protein for your buck, and organic tofu around here is the exact same price as non-organic.

That said, eggs are my main protein. You already know how to cook them, they're cheap and great for you. And again, infinitely flexible.

Greens! Organic greens are cheap, are available all year round, and also come in huge variety. Salads, steamed, creamed, in soups or stews, omelettes... you can stick 'em anywhere. I keep kale, spinach, and sometimes chard around.

Pitfalls: Seafood, meat, and chicken (chicken the least so) will become prohibitive for regular consumption. As you rely less on them, you'll want them less, and your body will tolerate them less, especially meat.

The issue of seafood is a little nuanced. Wild caught can't be organic, because the ocean is not organic any more. (Mercury isn't the issue except in top-o'-the-chain predators (tuna) and bottom feeders (catfish)) Organic farming is, apparently, very expensive and can't be as good as wild caught. Also, there are ethical issues (pop up, sorry) with some wild caught. I do what I can, but I love my sushi.

Some fruit is about the same organic, local, toxic, whatever. Namely, apples, pears, and citrus. The good stuff, though, like berries and melons are very expensive, but also the most better when organic.

About ethicality... if that's a word...

I've never been to a whole foods, but my locally owned organic food store labels anything that's locally produced. Likewise, the shelf label says if something is organic or natural. Some things are organic, but don't put it on the box because, I assume, there's some hassle involved in FDA certification. "Natural" means nothing at all.

As for dairy, if health is a primary concern, you should think about cutting way down. Cheese is addictive. Literally. Try to go cold turkey, and you'll see what I mean. I compromise and just don't keep it in the house so that it's a treat when I'm going out to eat anyway. I keep live goat's yogurt, which is also cheap as hell and goes a long way. I used to drink a lot of milk, but don't hardly at all any more, so my stomach has become... lactose ambivalent? If at all possible, source whatever milk, cheese, or yogurt from a local farm. That way you know it's still alive, too. And it's probably cheaper. I don't know, I don't consume enough dairy to befriend my local farmer.

You will have no trouble maintaining your habit when you feel and look better while eating and cooking better. Your sense of smell will even improve. At least mine did.

One last tip: Check out freegan websites. Dumpster dive behind Whole Foods. They throw away as much perfectly good food as anywhere. Of course, you don't know what's organic, natural, or local, or you may not be down for the legally (actually, the supreme court has ruled that such activity is perfectly legal, but beat cops don't usually stay up on the case law) and socially gray activity. Whatever you think.
posted by cmoj at 11:25 AM on December 23, 2009 [7 favorites]

30 Bucks A Week is a good, budget-conscious, vegetarian recipe blog.
posted by electroboy at 11:28 AM on December 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

Mercury isn't the issue except in top-o'-the-chain predators (tuna) and bottom feeders (catfish)

That's not exactly correct. Catfish are one of the lower mercury fishes.
posted by electroboy at 11:31 AM on December 23, 2009

With a budget of $50/week you are going to have to make some compromises–there's no way to eat wholly local/organic/ethical, and well, on that budget. But it seems like you know that. That said:

Start growing herbs in your kitchen, or in your yard if climate permits. Having fresh parsley, thyme, basil, oregano, sage, mint, etc. on hand turns otherwise humdrum dishes into awesome meals, and allows for variety with very little cost, and takes almost no effort at all. Plus what could be more local?

Spend at least a half-week's budget on spices. Spend the other half on olive and vegetable oils, soy and worcestershire sauce, mustard, etc.

With even a small stock of herbs, spices, oils and condiments you can shop cheaply and eat well without getting bored.

So after you've spent a week's budget or so on basics, buy staples that can be had pretty cheap from the farmer's market (again, climate permitting)–potatoes, rice, beans, onions, garlic, carrots, etc. Then you're on to the treats: see what seasonal vegetables look good, grab some greens, spinach or arugula or whatever, and rather than trying to plan a menu in advance take that stuff home and think about what might be good to make with out, or just google food combinations based on what you've got. (Always get a couple shallots).

The hard part is the meat/fish/dairy. Beef stew meat is cheap-ish at whole foods and trader joe's; tj's usually has good chicken which they claim is raised ethically. Is there an Aldi's in your area? I've been surprised by how good their frozen seafood selection is–wild-caught salmon for like $4.99 for 2 pounds. I don't know whether it's ethically sound; I prefer to remain ignorant and do my best in other areas.

On preview, your clarification is difficult to respond to without knowing where you are. I, like you, am much more concerned with buying local and supporting local businesses than with organic seals of approval and so forth. I'm way more likely to buy non-organic produce at a locally-run market than Dole-brand organic items from Whole Foods. With meat, dairy, and eggs, I'd rather support the conglomerate (if no other option is available) and buy stuff that's, at least ostensibly, ethically raised. With limited time and limited money, you can only do so much, but that little that you do is good.
posted by generalist at 11:37 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm in DC!
posted by whodatninja at 11:45 AM on December 23, 2009

If you're in DC, you're set in terms of ethically raised meats. Lots of Polyface Farms outlets down there.
posted by electroboy at 11:58 AM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

That's not exactly correct. Catfish are one of the lower mercury fishes.

Nice link. Marked. I can't find the source quickly, but I thought I'd read that river catfish and lake catfish can be have very different Hg levels.
posted by cmoj at 11:59 AM on December 23, 2009

Forget the labels , packaging, and "seals of approval" - it's mostly marketing. Think about the ultimate, ideal shopping situation: an outdoor market near your house full of vendors selling cheap, local, organic food across the spectrum, from cheese to meat to yogurt to produce to grains. How much of that can be represented in a label? Not much. But how much of that can be recreated by an informed, skilled home cook? A lot. Tips:

1) Stop buying supermarket produce, which is made for looks rather than flavor. Instead, hit up an Asian grocery store - which will, in addition to having great deals on quality produce, also be a great source for cheaper spices/herbs, rice, and fish.

2) Read up on the Environmental Defense Fund's list of "eco-best" fish choices (with recipes!), and choose the cheapest of the best. (Sardine Puttanesca is GO!)

3) Check your pulse.

4) Soup! Soup makes the most of less-desirable cuts of meat, about-to-go-off veggies, and other "marginal" ingredients, from bread ends to single eggs. Soup (plus grains/plants, plus legumes) = complete nutrition.

The fewer steps from the earth to you, the better. Less plastic, less cardboard - sure. But walking to the store and saving the gasoline may be the best move of all. Get reusable bags. Eat a lot of leftovers. Get a shopping trolley. Learn to improvise ingredients.

Also, if you want to explore vegetarian (read: cheap) Indian food a bit, there is no better place to start than Manjula's Kitchen.
posted by mdonley at 11:59 AM on December 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been trying to do the same thing, and menu planning does seem to be the hard part. If you've got a CSA that will do a half share for $20/week definitely go for that. I've got the UK equivalent (veg box scheme) and it's solved so many of the issues you raise - my food is now seasonal and local and organic and ethical (and delivered! ha!), but the bonus is that because I'm already committed to whatever they bring, I have very few decisions to make other than how to cook the stuff (and what order to eat it in, usually decided by what has the shortest shelf life). I don't have to think about what I should buy every week, and figuring out what to cook is now a) easier and b) can be done a few days or a week in advance instead of every damn night, which is what I used to do even if I did plan out a menu ahead of time (and then I'd give up and have frozen pizza nine times out of ten anyway). And it forces me to try things I wouldn't have otherwise, resulting in the improbable outcome that cauliflower and cabbage are now two of my favourite foods.

It's fairly easy now to figure out what meat to get to fit in around what veg I'll be cooking, and there's so much veg (and it tastes so good) that I'm actually less interested in meat and I'm cutting back. (I used to live on quesadillas, nachos, and black beans when I did ever cook anything, so I actually had to learn to cook meat for this whole experiment as well.) Also, even organic/local ground beef should be cheap enough to allow a huge vat of chili every two weeks.

For breakfasts, I can strongly recommend cheap/generic quick oats, one part oats, one part apple cider/cloudy apple juice, one part water, microwaved for 2ish minutes (for 1/4 cup dry oats), with raisins, dried cranberries, toasted almonds, or whatever mixed in after. Easy, quick, cheap as, only gives you one bowl to clean up, and tasty and good for you.

(Browser crashed and ate this the first time I wrote it, and now I'm paranoid that the original version will mysteriously appear again and post itself, so apologies in advance if it does.)
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 12:05 PM on December 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

Dude - if you're in DC, please tell me where you found a CSA a) that doesn't have a waiting list and b) with half shares at $20/week!! Well done. (I used to live in Eastern Market. Don't buy from the cheese man in the indoor market, unless a half a pound of cheese is all you want to eat that week.)
posted by magdalenstreetladies at 12:08 PM on December 23, 2009

A lot of good info so far. Since no one has mentioned it yet, I'll add: sardines. Super good for you, super flexible in recipes, super sustainable.
posted by whiskeyspider at 12:23 PM on December 23, 2009

Seconding magdalenstreetladies - both points re CSA and cheese man!
posted by semacd at 12:25 PM on December 23, 2009

Keep in mind that "local" does not necessarily mean less energy consumption. The economies of scale in big, efficient farms reduce energy consumption as compared to small farms, and local may not be organic.
posted by yarly at 12:41 PM on December 23, 2009

As an alternative to a CSA, a slightly more expensive, but also more flexible option is Washington Green Grocers . They deliver very high-quality produce, dairy, and eggs as often as once a week and can cancel boxes any weeks you don't want them. They source locally when things are seasonally available. They are really nice and I was very happy with them and only stopped because I moved away. I think I got every other week deliveries and as a single person that was about right for me. I also liked that it was a small, family-run business that I was supporting.

I always find that I eat much more simply and healthily when I have a delivery box or CSA type arrangement. Having to figure out what to do with all the veggies is fun and challenging, but also narrows the scope so I don't have to struggle with infinite options. I also spend less overall because I make fewer trips to the grocery store where random items tend to make it into my cart.
posted by munichmaiden at 4:02 PM on December 23, 2009 [3 favorites]

I am currently also in the process of revamping my diet to be more ethical, specifically where the environment is concerned.

You might be interested in this website: I was a little surprised on where some items fell on the scale of things (like tofu). If you click through to the FAQ's, you can find the sources for their data.
posted by smalls at 5:21 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Since you are so busy you might try having a big cooking day. Spend two or three hours once a week cooking up a storm and then freeze everything in single serving containers. If you make two or three different things and make three or four servings each, pretty soon you will have a very stocked freezer with lots of different meals. Just remember to label everything really well.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:33 PM on December 23, 2009

For the benefit of anyone else that doesn't know what a CSA is, it's:

Community Supported Agriculture.

I had never heard of it before and when the 10th person recommended a CSA without defining it I decided to look it up.
posted by Bonzai at 10:54 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

One note on spices: never, ever buy spices at Whole Foods or Safeway or it will eat your entire paycheck. However, you can get spices at bargain prices in ethnic grocery stores where customers still cook for themselves. If you rotate your shopping to hit an Asian, Mexican, and Indian/middle eastern grocery store once every few months you should have plenty of spices for cheap. The spices also keep and taste better if you buy them in forms that aren't as susceptible to oxidation (going stale) - e.g. whole cumin seeds will last longer than powdered cumin. I like using the whole cumin seeds after a quick fry in oil on top of rice or vegetable dishes.

2nding the recommendation for growing spices indoors. Basil, parsley, and dill are all fairly easy to grow and taste great fresh.
posted by benzenedream at 10:07 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

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