Rosalind, whose husband, Earl, is just finishing an overnight shift as a detention officer, then returns and wakes 10-year-old Evan. His later school start affords him a comparatively leisurely 15 minutes to wolf down cereal before another mad dash to his school. After dropping him off, she then stops at a 7-Eleven to grab coffee before heading to work at an aerospace company. There, she's a principal director, with weighty responsibilities. Almost every day, she eats a bowl of instant oatmeal for breakfast and a hastily swallowed take-out lunch.
"There was a time when I cooked," Rosalind says with a sigh. "I liked cooking. I don't cook anymore. I assemble."
Several states away, geographically and metaphorically, the Rogerson family of Santa Fe faces a very different mealtime dilemma. Until recently, Hank Rogerson, 42, earned a respectable salary as an assistant professor of moving image arts at the College of Santa Fe, a private liberal arts school. But the college, rocked in part by the recession, slashed employee salaries in February, which for Hank meant a 78 percent drop in monthly wages. Food shopping for the family became a minefield. "On days when we've just paid bills and there's not much left in the checking account," Hank says, "I'll find myself standing in the store thinking, "Okay, if I buy eggs now, can I get milk, too? If I can't buy both, which do we need more?" We have two small children. How am I supposed to make those choices?"
Food is where many of the most reverberant, of-the-moment issues of family life and recessionary economics meet. How can you feed your family well when you're busy and exhausted? How can you buy healthy foods when your budget has drastically shriveled? "Those are almost universal problems right now," says organizational expert Julie Morgenstern, author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life. "I doubt if there's a single family out there that isn't wrestling with either not having enough money or not having enough time to eat well, and probably both."
Enter the pros. O went to a lineup of top chefs, organizational experts, nutritionists, and even the new secretary of the department of agriculture, asking them: How can these two families—and all the rest of us who are strapped for time and money—prepare meals that are healthful, speedy, inexpensive, and, not least, good? The advice that came back was, in part, philosophical, touching on the emotional import of food. But most of it was flat-out, you-can-do-this practical, with a surprising emphasis on pork shoulder. "Anyone can cook pork shoulder," one chef said. "It's easy to prepare. It's very, very cheap, and one shoulder can feed an army."
"These are tough times, financially and emotionally," Morgenstern says. "But they're also a chance to redefine our relationship to food and family and community."
"Way too many families are in that situation," says Cat Cora, the nation's first and only female Iron Chef, as well as a busy, pregnant mother of three young sons. "But it doesn't have to be that way. My mom was a nurse with three kids. She was busy, but we had family meals. Now, even though I'm always swamped with work, my family cooks and eats together."
Eve Felder, an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York, agrees.
"I have three girls under the age of 9," she says, "and I work full-time, but we manage to have home-cooked meals together virtually every night. I don't want to sound smug. But it can be done."
The experts' suggestions:
1. Learn to cook. It may sound counterintuitive, but learning to cook, or refreshing rusty skills, is the quickest way to fit healthy foods into a jam-packed life. "If you know how to sauté, braise, and stir-fry, you can make a variety of meals very quickly," Felder says. "Stir-fry beef and asparagus with oyster sauce one night, then chicken and peppers with hoisin sauce the next. It will seem like a completely different meal, but the methods are exactly the same." Don't have time for cooking classes? "YouTube has videos covering every technique you can possibly imagine," says Mark Rubin, the director of the Culinary Arts Center for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee in Nashville. "Type in 'Dice an onion.' There are dozens of video demonstrations. I watched one the other day on how to clean a squid. Fascinating."
2. Set aside blocks of time. "Think of your weekend as seven distinct three-hour blocks of time," says Julie Morgenstern. "There's Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening, and the same for Sunday. If eating healthy is important, you need to devote one of those blocks to cooking and family time."
3. Let your fingers do the shopping. Grocery stores are a time drain. Avoid them. Instead, "plan the meals you want to have in the coming week or two, including snacks, make a comprehensive list of what you need, and get on the Internet," Morgenstern says. Almost every city has at least one grocery store that allows online ordering. "Most deliver for free, too." In later weeks, you can conveniently reorder with a single click, adding or subtracting ingredients as you go.
4. Organize your kitchen. "Take one weekend afternoon to tear through your kitchen drawers. Throw out everything you don't need. Be ruthless," says Lori Greiner, an organizational expert. Ditto for cupboards and fridge. Then reorder drawers and your refrigerator with hard-nosed precision: "Line up cans of tomatoes, front to back." Do the same with all your staples. "If you're going to assemble meals quickly," Greiner says, "you have to be able to see exactly what you have and what you need."
5. Prep, prep, prep. "Run your home kitchen like a restaurant kitchen," Rubin says. "Cut things up in advance." During your weekend block of time, clean and chop carrots, celery, onions, spinach, and broccoli—all of which keep well after being prepped—stuff them in ziplock bags, and put them in the refrigerator. Your meals are now half-complete.
7. Simmer—and then forget about it. Every expert stressed that cooking can be faster, easier, healthier—and more convenient—than eating carry-out foods. "Throw a pork shoulder or a chicken in the Crock-Pot," Felder says. Then ignore the kitchen for hours. "At the end of the day, you'll have enough meat for three or four different meals. All you have to do is make some rice and steam your cut-up broccoli. Fifteen minutes and you're done." Or have your children help you make lasagna, freeze it in meal-sized portions, and, during the week, have a microwaved Italian feast.
8. Don't be afraid to use frozen veggies. "The frozen vegetables you can buy today are so much better than even five years ago," Cora says. "They're not those blocks of spinach that you had to break against a table." Look for flash-frozen, unprocessed corn, peas, spinach, beans, or broccoli in microwave-ready steamer bags, she says. Avoid presauced varieties, which tend to be overprocessed and salty.
9. Establish mealtimes. "Being busy can be paralyzing," Morgenstern says. Structured mealtimes ameliorate some of that anxiety. "Set a family dinner hour, at 6 or 7 or whenever," she says. "Then stick to it. If one parent can't be there, leave it to the other." Kids' activities impinge? Talk to coaches about rescheduling. "Kids need order and consistency in eating habits," Morgenstern says. "We all do." Plus, it can be liberating to have boundaries, "to know that at this hour, dinner takes place. You can't control everything in your family's life. But you can control that."
10. Rethink what "eating well" means. "I grew up having a sit-down family dinner every night," says Tom Vilsack, the U.S. secretary of agriculture. "But I know it's not realistic for most people to spend 90 minutes every day preparing dinner and sitting down together." Maybe instead, he says, "try family breakfast." The type of meal counts less than the context. "A shared meal is one of the last bastions of ritual," says Ted Allen, host of Food Network's Chopped. "It gently reaffirms your affection for the people you feed." So go ahead and "buy a prepared rotisserie chicken if you're too busy to cook that day," Morgenstern concludes. "It's healthier than fast food. Just be sure to sit and talk with your family while you eat it. That's what we should mean by 'eating well.'"
Plus: Feeding Active Kids: Don't Sweat the Sugar
Between them, Taylor and Evan Lewis-Battey play softball, soccer, and basketball (and Taylor dances). Each has one practice a day. Their interstitial snacking consists of candy bars, cookies, or fruit roll-ups."That's fairly typical" of the diets of active kids today, says Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist and author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. But, she says, even though the snacks are suboptimal, "you have to look at the overall diet," not just the sugary portions. The best current nutritional science suggests that "about 10 percent of calories can be sugar," she says. Since active children should be consuming around 2,000 calories a day, she says, that leaves them about a 200-calorie daily sugar allowance. The remaining calories should be more nutritional. For snacking, stock peanut butter, English muffins, yogurt, raisins, and cut-up fruit and vegetables. And avoid blanket prohibitions. "There's no science showing that forbidding sugar or anything else is healthy or desirable," Clark says. "Everyone will be better off if you allow treats but encourage healthful meals that reduce the desire for sweets."
That process was revelatory. "I was shocked by how much we'd been spending on food," Hank says. Between grocery stores and restaurants, their family of four had easily been dropping $1,500 a month. "That's not supportable now." Cutting back, though, is wrenching. "It's not that I mind giving up things," Jilann says. Imported chocolate bars? Gone. Wine? Rarely. "But as a parent," she says, "I cannot cut down on the quality of what we feed our kids. Or ourselves." You shouldn't, agree our advisers, many of them professional chefs. Interestingly, their tips for how to maintain high food standards on a frugal budget focus on thinking like a professional chef, for whom every meal is an attempt to do exactly that:
1. Eat less meat. "No one needs a 20-ounce rib eye," says Ted Allen, host of Food Network's Chopped. Current nutritional guidelines suggest, in fact, that about five to six ounces of meat or any another kind of protein per day is sufficient for most adults. Since meat is one of the costliest food items, "making meat part of the meal, not the centerpiece of the meal, can save you lots of money," says Cora. "It's also more interesting, tastewise." Make at least one meal a week vegetarian, she adds, to save even more.
2. Eat different cuts. "Ask chefs what their favorite cut of meat is and they never say 'beef tenderloin,'" Allen says. "They say pork shoulder or flank steak or brisket"—cheaper, more flavorful cuts. "Flank steak needs only a quick sear, whereas meats like pork shoulder require longer cooking time," Allen says. When they are braised, the result is tender and ample. "You can get a lot of meals out of one pork shoulder," says Culinary Institute of America's Felder.
3. Eat different proteins. "Beans are sorely underrated," at least by home cooks, Allen says. "Chefs love them. Black beans are a restaurant staple. And you see adzuki beans even in desserts now." Whatever your bean preference, try to buy the dried variety, not pricier cans. "A bag of dried beans and some rice will feed a family of four for at least two meals," says Rubin of the bustling Second Harvest Food Bank. Soak the beans for several hours or in a pressure cooker for a few minutes. Cook them with spices and "maybe a few slices of bacon or a ham hock," Allen says, add some rice, and you have dinner, for a few cents per person.
4. Game the farmers' markets. Farmers' markets are an unparalleled source of fresh, local, organic produce and meats. They can be pricey, though. So time your shopping. "Go near the end of the day," Cora says, in the last hour or so of the market's schedule, when some farmers drop their prices. The selection of goods may be scantier, "but you can get some bargains," Cora points out. "The farmers will be glad to sell their goods before they close up."
5. Waste nothing. This is the essence of chef-think. "In a professional kitchen, you use everything," Rubin says. "There's no waste. For a long time, most Americans haven't had to consider how to use all of the pig or cow or chicken. Now we do. That's one silver lining of the recession." As Felder says: "There's no reason you can't get at least three meals out of one chicken. You have chicken and rice one night, Vietnamese chicken salad another, and chicken soup, using stock you made from the carcass, another." Even if you buy $7 natural, free-range chickens, she says, "each dinner costs well under $10."
6. Haunt ethnic markets. "At Asian or Hispanic groceries, you'll find aisle after aisle of unusual spices and produce," Allen says. "You may not be able to pronounce the names, but they're usually markedly less than the cost of similar goods at conventional stores."
7. Share. "I recently bought a quarter of a cow," Felder says—100 pounds of natural, grass-fed beef at $5 a pound, which she keeps in a five-foot upright freezer in her basement. "It will feed us for two years." To buy grass-fed meat from farms or ranchers directly (at a price that may be much lower than what you pay for natural meats in grocery stores), try EatWild.com.
8. Grow your own. "Gardening is so easy," Vilsack promises. Thanks to the example set by First Lady Michelle Obama and her compact, organic garden on the White House lawn, it's also hip. And it is mind-bogglingly frugal. For tips on how to fertilize, compost, and naturally repel insects, visit www.NRCS.USDA.gov/Partners/For_Homeowners.html; to learn how to plant a vegetable garden, go to WeekendGardener.net. And you don't have to stop with growing greens, either. "I have a childhood friend, once a very urban guy, who's now keeping chickens," Allen says.
9. Savor the small, good things. Don't forsake every beloved food. Just rethink portions. "Buy a good chocolate bar once a week, if that's what makes you happy," says Morgenstern. "Then eat only one square a night. Good things should be appreciated. We had so much for so long. Now it's time to savor and enjoy the little things."
10. Rethink what "eating well" means. "One of the big lessons of this economic downturn is that we need to revalue things," Morgenstern says. "All those jars of fancy sauces and gourmet salad dressings that we were buying before? We never needed them, and if we did, we could have made them ourselves. Self-sufficiency is being thrust on us. But that's not bad. Frugality is in our bones as Americans. We can make our own salad dressings and they will be better than anything we could buy." Or, as Cora says of feeding her young sons, "Eating a peanut butter sandwich with them—now that's eating well."
Next: Organics: When are they worth it?
Since her husband's salary was gutted, Jilann Spitzmiller has begun openly voicing the questions that bedevil many of us when we shop in the pricey organics aisle: "Does our milk really need to be organic?" she wonders. "If we can afford only some organic produce, which?"
In answer, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.–based advocacy group, annually publishes a list of the most and least pesticide-contaminated produce, using data from the USDA.
This year peaches head the "dirty dozen," followed by, in order: apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears. The least contaminated vegetables are onions, frozen sweet corn and peas, and asparagus. Avocados, pineapples, and mangoes are the cleanest fruit. (For the complete list, visit FoodNews.org.)
As for milk, the direct health benefit of buying organic remains unclear. However, Consumer Reports recommends that families with babies or small children stick with organic when they can to avoid any unnecessary exposure to antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones, and most synthetic pesticides.
But if, even with careful shopping, organics are still too costly, "have a traditionally grown apple," says Richard Wiles, executive director of EWG. "Better to have some fruit than none."
Back to Eating Well
Gretchen Reynolds, a fitness columnist for the New York Times Magazine and a frequent contributor to O, is currently at work on a book about the frontiers of human performance. She lives in Santa Fe.