How to eat more healthily, on a budget, without creating strict eating plans that leave no room for change, for fun, or for much creativity has been a hot conversation topic among my friends and I lately. They (wrongly) assume that moving to Italy has made me a font of knowledge on eating (instead it’s a constant work-in-progress).
As with so much else, I think it comes back to trust. You have to back yourself. Pre-planning all my meals has always felt too schematic, too rigid. A good look through the fridge and pantry and some meal prep though? Yep, absolutely.
So I’ve compiled a few tips, less listicle, more narrative (surprise, surprise…). It’s long, but I hope you enjoy it and I’d love to know what you think.
But let’s start with a confession: I’ve always been a pretty bad in a grocery store. Where did all the money I earnt working corporate jobs go? Well, apart from on expensive gym memberships and lots of Ralph Lauren shirts, Uber, Friday night Negronis, Saturday brunches, you get the drift…I also spent way too much on groceries.
I love checking out the supermarket in a new place: especially a fancy gourmet or health food shop. When I lived in Dublin, I was a regular at Select Stores in Dalkey, buying Slippery Elm Powder for my self-diagnosed digestive issues; Green & Black’s (hint: it’s got the same amount of calories as normal chocolate), fancy grains and whatever was on special.
Whether it was pimped-out gluten-free snacks or carob bears (I know you know what I’m talking about), you name it, I’d try it. And it’s fine from a fiscal point of view at least, to do that while you can sustain it. We throw out ONE THIRD of the food produced for human consumption each year. That’s about $680 BILLION USD in industrialised countries. It’s hideous, environmentally unconscionable and unethical. And nutritionally, as much as I hate to admit it, hummus, cheese and crackers is not a great dinner choice. Even for a single gal living in an inner-city apartment. It’s not glamorous: it’s just setting you up to be tired the next day.
But as so often happens in life, circumstances converge and over the past two years I’ve found myself not just with a less secure income stream, but also a far greater interest in sustainability, simple living, eating ‘better’ (less processed, more veggies, eating meals, rather than snacking). Finally, I found myself ready to get real, live within my means, and take care of my health. **
1. Put away the packets
Processed food is cr*p. There you go. I reckon the biggest favour you can do for your eating is not to cut out bread or sugar in the form of fruit or go paleo (hi Pete) but to simply stop eating processed food. It seems boring. It seems simple. It’s not sexy. These kinds of messages won’t get you eyeballs on your site or Instagram likes but that’s precisely why they are critical to keep sharing.
What does this look like in real life? Getting honest. When you’re tempted to get a peanut butter caramel protein smoothie from a health food shop, masquerading as a health food item, have a banana.
When you want a bliss ball? Try a portion of natural yoghurt and a few almonds or an apple.
When you get home and want to collapse on the couch hommus and crackers, cut up carrots instead. If you hate carrots (I don’t understand you but…) cut up whatever else is in the fridge: cherry tomatoes, cucumber, the sky (ok the veggie crisper) is the limit.
Instead of eating granola (not a health food, necessarily) from a packet, make some overnight oats.
The pattern here? When you think processed treat, substitute ‘real food’. It’s a bit of a psychological hit at the beginning. Yeah, the bliss ball feels better and cooler. But it’s not healthier. We all know that deep down.
2. Big batches are best
My biggest piece of advice about this, from a personal perspective, it to get your head straight and have a bit of discipline. When I first lived on my own, not in a share a house with mates or with my parents, it was as a journalist in Carnarvon, a rural outpost ten hours’ drive from my hometown of Perth. I knew one way to cook, and that was for a family of five, or a house full of people. So that’s what I did. It no surprise then (except to me, in denial that I was eating for three every night, and two the following lunchtime, no pregnancy included) that I put on weight.
Have a meal, a coffee, and a big glass of water and then food prep. Don’t pick. Chop, slice, bake, broil (actually no, don’t broil. Yuck), let it cool, then pack it away.
One-pot meals are the best for this: think spaghetti (see below on why you need to stop bloody worrying about carbs); curries, rice dishes like Kedgeree: traditionally an Indian breakfast food but works perfectly for dinner and is a favourite of my mum Glen; chilli con carne, quinoa, chicken and veggies, burrito bowls,…there are heaps of options.
And if you’re living alone? Remember cooking for one is way more economical like this. And that you’re worth it.
3. No more than four ingredients please
Last year when we were in Australia, my then-boyfriend and I were watching Michela’s Tuscan Kitchen. She was doing something with polenta and he (being both Tuscan and a polenta-lover, I *assume* that’s why, anyway) was fascinated. It was all going well till she put a balsamic glaze on top. He lost it. ‘Too many ingredients!’ he shouted. He grew up in the kitchen with his grandmother, and subscribes strongly to the ‘fewer ingredients the better’ theory. This used to infuriate me. But in what seems to be an ongoing theme in our relationship (we are now married), I have to admit that on this simplicity front, he was right. How often I had avoided making a dish because I didn’t have exactly what I needed to make it. Save for baking, which requires a degree of precision, you can, actually, just make stuff up. Don’t use what you don’t have. Don’t go to the shops. Find something you’ve already got that will work. You nearly always can. On that note…
4. Forget about SLAVISHLY FOLLOWING recipes
Once you have some recipes downpat, or if you grew up cooking or around people who were cooking – even if you’ve eaten out a lot (seriously), you’ll find you have a sense of what works and what doesn’t; of what flavours go together and of what you like. Instead of looking for recipes to make, google whatever fresh ingredients you’ve got and get a general idea of what might work. Then go for it. Sixty per cent of the time, it works every time. *
5. Superstar spices
Confession (again, I know). I use chilli in everything. Nearly. In our Tuscan kitchen we use a lot of grains and legumes and spices save our lives – and palettes and can transform something simple into something tasty. Flavouring lentils, spelt grains, chickpeas and barley with chilli, cumin, oregano, even just a dash of salt and pepper and some good olive oil, plus some veggies chopped and cooked through, is a super simple, cheap, nutritious, easy-to-clean-up and tasty dinner. My top five: cinnamon, cumin, chilli, oregano, pepper and organic stock cubes.
6. Eat less meat
It’s good for your wallet, it’s good for the environment, and it’s good for your waistline. Here’s a great piece (hello science!) on the benefits of plant-based diets.
7. Get over your obsession with protein and get over your obsession with carbs
In the wise words of my husband: you won’t die from eating pasta. Or my Year Ten health teacher: bread and toast are fine – it’s what you put on them that counts. If you don’t take my word for it, or his, or hers, read the science at The Lancet. It’s legitimately their job to publish only reputable info. What has worked better for me than radically cutting things out, has been to take a longer-term approach and focus on whole foods, stacking your diet full of plants, and then seeing what else you have room for. Living in Italy, I see nearly zero obese people. We don’t eat much meat. Our protein sources are legumes, and dairy (PS, when I said we don’t eat much meat, I mean when I’m craving a steak, I go and visit Elena, the meanest lady butcher around, for a t-bone).
8. Take the Pressure Down
It took me ages to get my head around this. Maybe it’s an Aussie thing (like the subheading – hello John Farnham), maybe it’s just my friends and family, but I always felt I had to ‘present’ a meal, rather than just slap something on the table. Sometimes, a bowl of soup or a salad is enough. End of story. I’ve experimented in Italy: making desserts for dinners we go to, and more elaborate stuff. But the biggest lesson so far? When I tried to do Patatas Bravas, everyone ignored the tomato sauce that took ages to make, instead going stark raving mad over the fluffy little roasted potatoes. Keep it simple.
9. Take note of what you’re chucking out
Good intentions can mean wasted money, fridge space and time. If you notice you constantly buy an ingredient with the good intention of using it, just stop. Like crossing something off your to-do list that you know you’re never going to use, wave it goodbye.Just like that.
What have I left out? Got your own tips to share? Comment below.
* Not bad maths, just a reference to The Anchorman, in case there was any confusion.
** Please note I am not a qualified nutritionist and am writing based purely on personal experience. If you have any health or dietary conditions or are considering making any changes to your diet, exercise or lifestyle, please consult an expert.