$10 and 30 Minutes a Day: My Healthy Food Challenge

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I’m still catching up from the spring (!). So here is my report on my healthy food challenge during March and April 2019 …

People often tell me that they would like to eat healthier food, but it’s too expensive and takes too long to prepare. Of course that is generally very true (and a big part of our food/health problem today). But I know there are also cheap, healthy foods that are easy to prepare (beans, oatmeal, canned tuna, frozen peas!), and so I said to myself: I’ll accept the challenge and explore what is possible.

My quest: for two months, March and April, I would eat healthily on a budget of only $70 per week and an average of no more than 30 minutes of prep time a day. (I’m currently living alone in Virginia while my husband works in Brussels, so it was extra easy for me to take on this kind of experiment — only my food in the house!)

My healthy food rules:

  • Plenty of fruits and vegetables (at least 5 servings per day).
  • At least 60 grams of protein per day (1 gram per kg of my bodyweight, which I’ve calculated is a minimum for me as I try to maintain/build my muscle mass as I age).
  • Few or no processed foods/additives.
  • No factory-farmed animal products.

Avoiding factory-farmed animal products while insisting on plenty of protein was a tough challenge on this budget. But besides the obvious ethical issues with factory farming, I think it’s an important health principle to avoid added hormones and antibiotics, and there’s strong evidence that healthy animals provide more nutritious meat (with more omega-3 fats, for instance).

To start, I cleared out my pantry, boxing up longer-lasting items to hide in the basement. (Such a psychological difference simply not to have it in the pantry!) I quickly realized that I would be in awful shape starting from absolutely nothing, so I cheated just a bit, “borrowing back” a couple of key spices along with a little olive oil and apple cider vinegar, reasoning that I could “return” them later on my budget.

Friendly neighbor helping clear out the fridge
This is what I allowed myself to start with 🙂

Rescued-produce boxes delivered to my doorstep once a week from Hungry Harvest were a key part of my plan. In fact, this is what actually gave me the confidence to take on my challenge. (A million thanks to my friend Jan for signing me up!) I got the “Super Harvest” just for me, at $35.00 a week, which I calculated would give me seven fruit or vegetable servings per day if I ate it by myself! So this was the centerpiece of my healthy eating plan, and it didn’t even involve any shopping time (except for logging into my account and sometimes adding on extra items).

Hungry Harvest for the first week of March — the birch water was a free add-on they offered

To plan for the rest of my food needs, I went to Trader Joe’s and Aldi (recently opened near me!) and checked prices. I was very pleased to find grass-fed cheddar cheese at $2.99, a jar of Kalamata olives at $1.99, and Winking Owl wine at $2.89 a bottle!

Aldi shopping cart. Checked the internet before buying: Pacific Whiting is considered a sustainable wild-caught fish, and it’s also cheap, nice!!
Photo from March 8. These were the groceries I stocked up on for the month (in addition to my Hungry Harvest boxes and Polyface Farm order)
Calculating the protein in my breakfast
All of the food in my pantry/fridge/freezer on March 14. The most sorely missing thing here: Tabasco.

I was also searching for local, affordable (?) sources of free-range animal products. I posted this question on Nextdoor.com and discovered to my delight and amazement that Polyface Farm, familiar to me as an example of healthy farming from the documentary Food, Inc., delivers eggs and frozen meats to Northern Virginia once a month (the pickup spot is actually right in my neighborhood!).

My first Polyface order: eggs, ground pork, (beef) soup bones and a whole chicken, $44.48, not cheap, but outstanding quality
Mushroom omelet, avocado toast, mango, wine: I was not suffering!
Calculating, crossing things off (peanut butter, yogurt and oats crossed off then added back)
New delights every week from Hungry Harvest

At my local Giant Food, I discovered dried beans on sale for $1.00 each, definitely the best protein value I found. But don’t dried beans take a lot of time and effort to cook?

These were my keys to minimizing my cooking time:

  • The Instant Pot! Within one hour I could start with dried beans and end up with the fully cooked “Bean of the Week” while batch-cooking other foods at the same time. I also learned to make bone broth and other slow-cooked foods from my cheaper Polyface meat cuts.
  • Oven-roasting. No time for fancy vegetable recipes, but nearly all of my vegetables were excellent roasted in the oven with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. I also oven-roasted frozen wild-caught whiting from Aldi, with mustard smeared on it for flavor. It was not gourmet fare, but definitely edible.
  • Gloriously messy soups and salads. I tossed whatever I had with some beans and/or greens and seasoned it with olive oil, olives and spices.
  • Batch cooking. On one day of the week, I washed, cut and cooked nearly all of my Hungry Harvest vegetables, made the Bean of the Week, roasted some frozen fish, and made a canned fish salad (with olive oil, mustard and onions). This took a total of about 1.5 hours, but then for several days I could simply microwave and assemble my meals.
My three key batch cooking tools: Instant Pot, oven roasting pan, big sauté pan, all going at once (electric plug arrangement by Homer Simpson 🙂 )
Typical “everything soup” meal
At a conference on April 5. Couldn’t afford to buy lunch or even coffee at the conference. Took my messy to-go containers: salmon, salads and fruit.

Yes I can go out for coffee! (as I spend my last $2.00 on peanut butter)

Early in March, it hit me as I drove through town that I wouldn’t be able to go to a restaurant or get any takeout food until May. I couldn’t even stop for coffee, I thought. But then I realized … actually, I can go out for coffee!

Most of my March funds were rapidly committed to my weekly Hungry Harvest fruit and vegetable boxes, my Polyface Farm order, and some basic supplies from Aldi. So as I walked through Giant and Trader Joe’s to spend my last few dollars (enjoying the free coffee and happily eating whatever samples they offered, including some kind of colorful round kids’ breakfast cereal I would usually never eat!), I knew I couldn’t afford basically anything I saw. Of course this was nothing like truly living with poverty, but it gave me some new insights and additional healthy psychological distance between “that looks good” and “I must have that.”

Batch Cooking Fridge: kind of a good feeling, actually, life simplified!
700 ml in a bottle = 100 ml per day for a week, a nicely moderate serving. And no internal wrestling: “Should I have another glass, or not?”

The most enjoyable meals during my food challenge were those where I invited a friend to my house and had to come up with something tasty, or at least acceptable, from my limited foods with only about 15 minutes of prep time. My friends Melissa, Joanna and Tina and my beloved now-daughter-in-law Lauren were totally game, and Tina even filmed me racing around the kitchen throwing unevenly chopped vegetables into a sauté pan, microwaving batch-cooked lentils and greens, and roasting the usual frozen whiting fillets with mustard. We even got 100 milliliters each of Winking Owl wine! And Hungry Harvest fruit for dessert.

Dinner for me and a friend: red cabbage, lentils and roasted Pacific whiting
Another nice dinner for two! Note fancy fruit parfait in Mexican glasses. And the pink things are watermelon radishes from Hungry Harvest, new and fun!

Of course I was relieved to finish my challenge on May 1 and shop at Trader Joe’s and Whole Paycheck Foods for products I’d longed for (like Primal Kitchen chipotle lime mayo, which would have been SO amazing with the cheap fish!).

But I learned something important about myself on this 2-month journey: I actually enjoy restrictive challenges like this, because they feel like a game. Games (of any kind) have rules, and the point is to test your skills within the constraints of those rules.

Can I eat healthy food on $10 and 30 minutes a day? It involves rescued produce, the Bean of the Week and a lot of canned and frozen fish, but yes I can. Clearly I haven’t suddenly found the ideal solution for everyone, but I did uncover some interesting finds that I will continue to write about here.

This is what I bought on May 3 at Trader Joe’s after my challenge ended. Just looking at this again makes me want to eat blister peanuts … excuse me while I run downstairs and get some …

And I will continue setting fun challenges for myself, in a playful spirit. I’ve found that they don’t make me feel restricted or deprived, but creative, empowered and in control. I know that wouldn’t be true for everyone, but I’m glad it is for me. And I appreciate things more after restricting them for a while, like the hummus and mixed nuts I could suddenly afford again.

All the food left over at the end of my challenge! Lauren brought me the delicious organic oats from the UK; I fed her lots of vegetables in exchange 🙂

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