The psychology of getting on track with groceries

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When I was young and poor I got my first copy of the Tightwad Gazette (number II, if I am honest). Hilariously, I had received as part of one of those mail order clubs that were so prevalent in the 80’s and 90s. There were book clubs just like we had Columbia House, for cds. Ahh, memories.

The irony of choosing this as one of my “free” books is not lost on me, however I think in the end I came out ahead. That book spurred a life-long love affair with personal finance. I haven’t always made great financial choices but I always knew I had a secret weapon in my back pocket if I never needed it – black belt tightwad-ery.

When I first got the book I was fascinated – especially with the part on how to save on groceries. At the time I lived in a house with 4 other roommates and we were hella, hella poor (but always had money for cigarettes back then, how?). I figured if I could eat for a lot less money, I would be laughing! So eager to save, I tried to incorporate more vegetarian meals into my diet a la TWG, and bought a bunch of food I hadn’t really eaten before: brown rice, lentils, beans, etc.. I whipped up batches of food, stored them nicely in the freezer…aaaaaaaaaand then let them sit there until I moved out and had to chuck all my hard work and money.

So what went wrong?

Looking back, I moved too fast, too soon. I had grown up on heavy meat and potatoes dishes with a bunch of white, processed food so that is what I was used to. So when I suddenly stocked my pantry with things I hadn’t really eaten before and didn’t really know what to do with it’s no wonder I didn’t want to eat them. I made a bunch of food not knowing how to cook it properly for the best outcome, was disappointed, and then threw in the towel. The thing is, changing habits takes time and while some people like the band-aid approach and it works for them, but other people – like myself – need a more staggered approach.

Today my diet looks a million times different than the diet I had at that time. I eat a lot more fresh fruits/veggies, whole grains, tofu, beans, and rarely eat things from a box, but it took a lot of time and energy to get to this point. It required learning skills over the years and working on one food or skill over again until it became the default. I mean sure, you can do a few at a time but a complete overhaul was too challenging to me because I didn’t understand how to cook the new foods properly so I never truly enjoyed them. Seasoning, cooking methods, and pairing all have to come into play when you are learning.


A loaded baked potato is a family favourite & can be a meal on its own

Everything is an acquired taste

I am not here to argue picky eating, or argue what the best diet for humans is. I know everyone has an opinion on optimal feeding. What I do believe though is that humans are omnivores and omnivores are one step up from scavengers in terms of the ability to consume a huge variety of food & survive. We see this in the fact that humans can actually have terribly unhealthy lifestyles and still live a fairly long time. If you think about it, it’s super impressive. It also explains why we are on top & why animals like the koala – who mostly eat one freaking thing – are at a disadvantage.

Still, looking around the world humans survive on different foods that are available in their particular regions. While we may never acquire a taste for cows blood mixed with milk, people who are raised on it believe it to be delicious. You are what you meet, I suppose. Humans can adjust their tastes based on exposure and most of us have done it to varying degrees our entire lives. This doesn’t mean necessarily that we will get over our life-long hatred of mushrooms but it doesn’t mean we can’t or can’t try. Mr. Tucker and the kids love mushrooms and I have always disliked them. After enough time cooking with them I now like them just fine (although I don’t see them topping my favourite food list anytime soon).

Having said that, I don’t think shoving mushrooms down my throat would have worked. I had to slowly incorporate them into my diet. I started putting them in things like spaghetti sauces and slowly worked my way up to dishes where they were the main event, such as portabella mushroom fajitas. I learned how to cook and season them properly and that was the key. This is also why oysters will never be my thing: generally, they are eaten on their own. I don’t think I have enjoyed an oyster yet and I can’t see that changing much unless I am starving and oysters are the only available food (starvation makes everything palatable).

The point is, don’t just disregard something new if you don’t like it on the first try. If you have a visceral, sick reaction to it – of course throw in the towel. But if it is just something that doesn’t feel familiar, keep trying. There was a point in your life where you hadn’t yet eaten Sushi or Thai food or probably even Cheetos and my guess is that now you enjoy one or more of these things today.

Our problematic food choices

I am not going to go too far down the yellow brick road of discussing the challenges in the typical western diet. Companies know we are biologically pre-programmed to enjoy sugar, salt, and fat-laden foods and they create products that we will love to maximize their bottom line. Certain foods are subsidized, and broccoli isn’t one of them. For the poorer segments of the population, time, access to cooking spaces, and food deserts are huge challenges to accessing a better diet. I know there are problems and they are too large for this small blog post.


Broccoli sale? My friend Justin loads up

Having said that, my readership is such that you are probably middle class and have access to a wide selection of foods – and the ability to purchase them. Most of us have been raised on what they call the SAD diet – standard American diet. As I mentioned above, this is the meat, cheese, and white-bread laden foods of my youth where most things came from boxes or tins and where most recipes started with “open a can of cream of chicken soup.” But most of us were also raised where more and more health research was happening and we know that certain foods (such as fruits and vegetables) contribute to health more so than other foods. Of course, the jury isn’t out on anything yet and people squabble between ketogenic diets, veganism, and everything in between. All that may be up for debate but what isn’t is that we are all looking to get the most nutrition – including satisfaction – from our grocery budgets and sometimes that requires thinking differently.

Building on success

I can 100% say without a doubt that my one bowl of msg-laden hamburger and cheese soaked white pasta a day at 18-years-old was not an ideal way to eat. But running out, buying every “health” food I read about didn’t work, either. We get used to a certain level of sugar, fat, and salt in our diets and when we make a drastic change we often leave the table feeling dissatisfied which – in my case – just led to overeating later. But when I just started substituting certain foods I found as soon as I got used to one change, I could incorporate another, then another, etc. When I decided to reduce the sugar in my coffee, for example, I didn’t just cut it out completely. I went down from 2 teaspoons to 1 1/2 teaspoons, to 1, to ½, to nothing. It took a month but now I no longer need sugar in my coffee. As humans we have an incredible ability to adapt.

Conversely, I did the same thing to incorporate healthier foods into my diet. I switched out brown rice or quinoa for white rice fairly easily because they had similar tastes and textures. Choosing a bean chili over a meat chili was also easy because the flavours are so rich that the mouth feel was similar. Choosing fruit over cookies however was impossible because cookies are sweet & delicious little fat bombs. It made more sense to eat the fruit and then follow-up with one cookie instead of just reaching for 3 cookies. Fruit isn’t the substitute, it’s the building block to fullness: with a stomach full of fruit, I need fewer cookies to feel full.


Loaded black bean vegan nachos

Nutrition vs. cost vs. research

Here is something kind of depressing: new research is coming out all the time so what we think of as an optimal diet today may not be an optimal diet tomorrow. However, let us all be grateful for this: if you are reading this blog the chances are that you have access to healthy food for you and your family. This is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of humanity and one that many people in the world don’t share. So whatever your particular nutritional goal is, or your choice of diet, or your view of food in general let’s all take a minute so ignore the splitting hairs and have some gratitude that we even have choice.

Also, if you are reading this blog you are probably looking for ways to reduce your food bill and still have a varied, healthful diet. No matter what your particular food philosophy there are some very real ways we can all reduce our food costs by changing the way we eat. Here are a few things that have worked for me.

I didn’t cut food out of my diet, I added better food: the main key for me to cutting out junk food was to crowd it out of my diet, not cut it out. By filling up on high quality foods, I found myself craving junk less because I was full. When I moved to a mostly-vegan diet for example, I just ate so many beans, nuts, fruits, and veggies that I didn’t have room to eat meat and I didn’t miss it.

I work for my junk: I don’t care how good of a deal sale potato chips are, I don’t keep them in the house. Why? Because it’s easier to grab low-quality, high-satisfaction food than it is to make something healthier and more satisfying. I make myself either walk to the store if I want an ice cream, or I force myself to make it at home – which I do with fries. The PITA factor alone helps me avoid these foods a lot of the time. In the end, it doesn’t matter how cheap junk food is, it’s still junk and junk is never a deal nutritionally.

Expensive foods drowned out by cheap food: if you are having steak for dinner and find yourself still hungry, the key is not to eat another steak, it is to have seconds of vegetables, potatoes, or whatever else you are serving. I often make two kinds of vegetables and then have one small “main.” It ensures we are getting the nutrition we need but still walk away from the table feeling satisfied.

Serve vegetables first: I started having a salad course with the kids because when they are hungry and you put mashed potatoes, sausage, and a salad in front of them they will completely ignore the salad. But if you serve the salad first, they will eat that because they are hungry and it’s in front of them. So if you are having a hard time convincing your family to eat their veggies, try serving veggies first and then serving the more calorie-dense stuff after.

I learned how to cook different styles: the internet is a treasure trove of great recipes all vetted by communities of people. Again, when I moved to a mostly-vegan diet I read a lot of recipe blogs by people who cook different regional foods. Exploring how a good curry is built and how to flavour beans properly ensured that the resulting dish was delicious and satisfying. Just replacing ground beef with lentils didn’t make a satisfying pasta sauce until I learned to up my spice game. You are not just looking to replace one ingredient but instead learn a new way of cooking.

When at first you don’t succeed: if you have made up your mind that you hate beans then you will always hate beans. However, maybe you just need to up your exposure. Add small portions of foods to extend the foods you do like and then just keep adding more and more every time you make it. I once read that it can take 15-20 times for a child to enjoy a new food. I don’t see what that is different for adults but in my experience it takes less time for us. So do what parents do: incorporate new foods into foods you already enjoy.

Water is our main beverage: aside from coffee, I mostly drink water. I do also enjoy beer and wine but my kids have the option of water or milk – never juice. Although juice is packaged like a health food it really is straight sugar with a few meager vitamins. You are much better to eat a piece of fruit and drink water than to aim for the same nutritional goal with a cup of juice. It goes without saying that we only drink pop in extremely rare circumstances. If you are having a hard time cutting down your pop consumption, a Sodastream machine may help give you the fuzziness you need & you can wean yourself off the syrups that way.

Eat your food as close to its natural state as possible: not everything needs to be processed. Eat an apple, not fruit leather. The more processed the food, the lesser the quality and the cost for fruit leather is sky high compared to fruit in its natural state.

Frozen food is your friend: In the summer months we have a local CSA that we are a part of but in the winter there is just no way I am going to eat fresh cauliflower when it climbs to $5 a head. Frozen food is often nutritionally superior to fresh if your fresh food has to travel long distances.

Stop food waste: when I first caught the frugal bug I would stock up on sale-priced foods cheaply but then a lot of stuff would either go bad or expire. It takes awhile to get a sense of what your family consumes regularly & how much you should buy but with fresh stuff I aim for what we can eat in a week unless it’s something that keeps, like carrots or potatoes. If I get 10 packages of strawberries at rock-bottom prices but end up having to throw half out because we didn’t eat them in time, I am no further ahead. So don’t buy more than you reasonable need. You won’t hit the mark 100% of the time but you will reduce waste significantly.

Don’t cover good food with junk: the prevalence of horrific food masking itself as healthy is one of these trends that makes me roll my eyes. If a vegetable dish is one part vegetables but the rest is cheese, bacon, and white bread of some sort, it is not a health food. A good rule of thumb when trying to eat healthier is avoid recipes that rely on cheese and bacon for flavouring. Choose spices, herbs, citrus, hot sauces and vinegars for flavour instead. We have cut back completely over time and now eat vegetables without flavouring. I know it sounds strange but you can train your palate to enjoy vegetables on their own.

Hara hachi bun me (please don’t ask me to pronounce this!): this is a Confucian teaching that means eating until you are 80% full. As someone who was raised on huge portions (and restaurants are notorious for this) and who confuses satiated with overly full and uncomfortable, this is a huge challenge for me. I suspect it is for many people. But try and get to the point where your hunger is satisfied but that you don’t feel bloated or tired after your meals.


Our weekly CSA basket in the summer

Finally…

Buy food you enjoy. This is especially true if you are moving from a diet heavy in restaurant or pre-packaged foods. It’s ok to take baby steps towards eating better so just don’t announce one day that you are moving from McDonalds for dinner to a vegan raw-food diet because that isn’t sustainable. Food is meant to be enjoyed, and while I think you can adapt to enjoying a variety of foods over time (yes, even a vegan raw-food meal) it won’t happen overnight. Don’t buy 20 lbs of beets when you know you eat maybe three beets a year. Humans are creatures of habit and find habit comforting. If you slowly create new tastes and habits towards cheaper, healthier foods your body will thank you and your wallet will thank you.

I am sure many tomes could be written on a variety of other strategies to help you with your food budget but as with most things I find the psychological aspect of change always the most difficult. Since groceries are often one of the largest parts of a household budget, it’s worth the time it takes to move towards eating less expensive and more nutritious meals. Hopefully this post will get you thinking about the little ways you can enact change to meet your health and financial goals.


One of my favourite – and filling – vegan sandwiches