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Healthy/Organic Eating on the Cheap
Julia learns a happy lesson from Healthy Dining Chicago publisher Laura Bruzas.
Monday Apr 09, 2007.     By Julia Steinberger
Sure, I've been there. I'm on my way home from work with an empty belly and no clue what to make for dinner, so I decide to go healthy and stop at Whole Foods. I find myself cooing over pretty pictures of happy cows and friendly farmers, and adding extra stuff to my basket: garlic-stuffed olives, quinoa (I just read some hype about its benefits) and hey, there's some yummy raw-milk cheddar samples, which reminds me I want cheese and crackers, and of course vegan chocolate mousse. All of a sudden, I land in checkout facing a $70 grocery bill, which is, oh, about $62 more than I intended to spend on dinner.

Ugh, it's like a slap in the face of all my good intentions! I guess some of us just can't afford healthy and organic food, right? Wrong. Last month, I caught Laura Bruzas, editor/publisher of the Healthy Dining Chicago newsletter, speaking at the FamilyFarmed.org EXPO on how to make healthy food fit your budget.

An idealistic-yet-practical veg-head, Bruzas left a lucrative management career to follow her passion for teaching everyone—not just those with surplus cash and free time—to eat well for themselves and the earth. She's so serious about it that she insists on selling her booklet, Eat Well For Less, for a mere $7 despite repeated propositions to make a killing off it.

Bruzas is no preacher; she admits to having "no time for slow foods" and choosing conventional over organic when the price gap and her principles allow. She's just a no-nonsense thriftster: She peers at labels, carries a calculator to compare prices and totes a measuring cup to the bulk section. Her book offers tips on stocking your kitchen, saving on cooking gear and innovative recipes.

This week, I took some of her suggestions for smart shopping to the grocery store. The first and most important rule: Shop with a list to nix impulse purchases. Other prep tips include taking inventory of what's already in your cupboard and planning meals in advance. Whew, who has the time? Turns out that my strategizing for the week took a whopping 15 minutes. Seriously, I spend more time picking out what to wear.

Instead of spacing out while shopping and leaving myself wide-open to marketing tricks, I stayed alert and checked for deals. I wanted to do a victory dance when I scored two pounds of organic quinoa in the bulk section for less than $4 (five bucks cheaper than the non-organic package I previously purchased). I then scoured the high-up and low-down shelves for better-priced staples and saved a few bucks on my canned tomatoes and chickpeas.

In the produce section, Bruzas recommends checking the Environmental Working Group's (EWT) lists of pesticide-ridden and pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. If you can't foot the bill for all organic all the time, opt for organic versions of EWT's "Dirty Dozen" such apples and peaches. Also: Flash-frozen and canned foods often contain as many nutrients as their fresh counterparts, especially if said "fresh" produce has been sitting in a warehouse or a truck for days.

Other shopping tricks involve re-thinking your diet to get the best nutrients for the least cost. Buy beans, which cost next-to-nothing (especially dried), for antioxidants and protein and sesame seeds and spinach for calcium. Save yourself five bucks a pop and grow fresh herbs for better-tasting recipes. Ditch the cash-draining salad dressings and drizzle your greens with vinegar and olive oil or lemon juice and black pepper.

I was stoked to leave the supermarket without buyer's remorse. And the best part: I have what I need to cook tomorrow, so I won't have to spring for last-minute unhealthy carryout.

Soak up more of Laura Bruzas' wisdom on April 22 at the Green Festival.

After four greener-than-average college years as a co-op dweller-turned-aspiring-permaculturist, Julia Steinberger finds it hard not to feel guilty about her one-bedroom apartment, daily commute and indulgence in the occasional dollar burger. She'd like to dream that she could live in a tent/treehouse/rabbit hole, but the truth is, she'd rather stay in the city while doing her best to leave a lighter footprint on the earth. You can contact her here.