More Bulk for your Buck

posted in: Ruminations | 16

I am such a fan of Tara Parker-Pope, probably because I don’t know very much about health and biology, so the way she explains these topics in such a relevant and easy to understand manner makes me think of her as something like a trusted doctor family member whom you can always call when something’s up.

In her “Well” blog, Parker-Pope reblogs from another wellness-centered site, Divine Caroline, to discuss the Healthy Foods for Under $1. In this kudos-giving spirit, I wanted to regurgitate that article, too, which is terrific, and also drop in my favorites that were missing from the list. I encourage you to chime in with some of your own, too.

It already hits many of my favorite buy-in-bulk carbs, like oats and garbanzo beans, and cheap antioxidant-rich vegetables like beets and broccoli. I really like how it touches on how whole foods, stuff that typically has less packaging and branding, often gives you a better bang for your buck, and nutritional value to boot. For example, buying steel-cut oats or whole rolled oats instead of individual packets of instant oatmeal not only gives you a more nutritious breakfast, but these canisters of grain really, really last. I’d like to add that the bulk sizes minimizes packaging waste, too.

Here’s a few more grocery items that have those three virtues: frugality, nutrition and earth-friendliness.

Cabbage. I love cabbage, red or green, as the post before this one can attest, and while browsing my local Associated Market yesterday, it was on sale for 49 cents a pound. Need I say more?

Brown Rice. The article mentions wild rice and that it “won’t cost you much more than white rice,” but sadly, I have yet to see that being the case in my neighborhood. Wild rice tends to be sold in expensive small bags tucked inside small cardboard boxes, too often with MSG-laden spice packets. Until that’s not the story, I’ll happily settle for brown rice. Brown rice has much of the same vitamins and minerals quoted for wild rice, as well as its “mild nutty flavor.” It can be short-grain (which my friends used for their prize-winning risotto), and long-grain, as with my five-pound sack of fragrant Thai Jasmine brown rice.

Carrots. My favorite way to cook carrots lately is by coating big, unpeeled hunks of them in olive oil and throwing them into a 400-degree oven for about 20 minutes (turning once). They’re divine afterward. It might even be easier than carefully peeling and chopping carrots into sticks, too. But however you like them, carrots are cheap, versatile, and highly healthy. Plus, everyone loves them, which is kind of rare with this list.

Popcorn Kernels. These are sold in bags for a much better value, too, and once you figure out how to pop them in a heavy-bottomed skillet (which is often on the back of the package), then you have a quick, hot, old-fashioned snack that’s really fun to make (I’m talking beware the ones that decide to fly across the room as they fluff up even after you’ve poured them into a bowl). Microwave packets and JiffyPop, begone.

Dried Black Beans. Compared to garbanzo beans, black beans require much less soaking and cooking time to become tender when you start off with them dry. If you can remember to submerge a pot of them in water before you go to bed, or as you leave for work, then you’ll be rewarded with a lot of protein for very little cash. These dry beans typically run you less than a dollar a pound, and that’s for protein. Oh, and they expand to almost twice their size once cooked.

Not that it’s a problem, really, but I’ve gotten a little overzealous when soaking them in the past, and have dealt with the issue of what to do with approximately a gallon of black beans. So I boiled them down to ready-to-use tenderness (a little less than an hour), and throughout the week made black beans and rice, black bean and chopped fresh veggie salad, and black bean “hummus” so I wouldn’t get sick of the little buggers cooked in any one way.

Related: Six Ways to Combat Soaring Food Prices

16 Responses

  1. gretchen
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    I’d love to see someone tackle the problem of cooking with these foods with very limited cooking time. I absolutely agree that these are frugal, nutritious, and for that matter, delicious — but I work crazy hours and lots of these foods require long simmers or braises or soaks to make them palatable. I gravitate towards pasta and salads and fast proteins because when I get home at 8:30, I just don’t have the time to start a pot of brown rice. Any thoughts?

    Also, I have to recommend air popping popcorn kernels in your microwave, which is my favorite low-calorie snack of all time. Dump 1/3 a cup of kernels in a brown lunch bag, fold over the top twice and staple, and toss in the microwave. Easy, delicious, and totally fat-free (though if you like, you can toss the kernels in olive oil or your fat of choice prior to popping).

  2. Midge
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    As far as making time to cook these types of foods, I would recommend a pressure cooker. Instead of cooking your black beans for almost an hour, snap on the lid and come back in 20 minutes. The same can be said for the carrots and brown rice, pressure cook them in half the time.

  3. [email protected]
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    LOVE this post!

    Excellent call on the pressure-cooker. It seems counter-intuitive to invest in an appliance when you’re trying to cut costs, but if you roll with the bulk wave, it can conceivably pay for itself with what you save on buying those more cost-affective goods.

    If you’re the truly industrial type, trying cooking a double batch of beans or grains when you’ve planned on making some for a recipe. Refrigerate the rest and use it within a week; the heartier ones can be frozen and thawed without compromising their flavor or texture (like that godsend, brown rice).

    My own go-to guy for bulk grains is the lovely lentil: quick-cooking (1 cup lentils in 3 cups of water, boil then simmer, covered, for about 30 min), cheap (about $1.50/lb at my co-op), and versatile (soups, stews, stir-fries, dal). I too keep a bag of carrots on hand for stocks, soups, and roasting, along with other roots vegetables – I can always reach into my stash of sweet potatoes for a roasty dinner treat.

    Consider keeping a collection of glass juice and tomato sauce jars around to house your bulk buys. You’ll always have a place for a newcomer, and it adds funky-boho look to your shelf or pantry!

  4. caroline
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    @gretchen–i second midge on the pressure cooker and also nominate the rice cooker. even a basic one. it’ll pop up when (pretty much) done and sit just fine in your kitchen til you get home. sometime a little underdone, and works with some items better than others, so experiment.

    also, the staple is key on the popcorn. paperclip = kitchen fire!

  5. helen
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    lentils!!
    they cook fast and are impossible to mess up. i always dump in lots of dill. and onion or garlic.

    also, tomato paste — super healthy and super cheap. in fact, probably too cheap. 🙁

  6. Nick
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    While your waiting for your bulk vegetables to cook, drink some bulk wine. Although I don’t shop at Trader Joe’s, buying a bottle of Charles Shaw wine (usually $2-$3) at Trader’s Joe’s is an amazing deal for the bargain wine shopper. It basically turns out to be 40 to 60 cents a glass. It’s good for the heart as well! Resveratrol, a compound found in the skins of red grapes will probably become the drug of the future as it potentially fights cancer, aging and a bevy of other health disorders.

  7. cate
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    great post!

    i tried the simple carrot roast tonight – delicious. i’ll do it again soon i’m sure.

    i agree with the other comments about pressure cooking and making ahead in bulk. and, the more you do it, the easier it is to build into your routine and it seems like less work.

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  9. cathy
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    Pressure cooker, lentils, those are both great suggestions! And thanks for the tips on microwave air-popping popcorn kernels, too! (I don’t have a microwave, so I lose. Hmmph.)

  10. Jennfier
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    I got a pressure cooker for free off of Freecycle… it was sitting unused in someone’s cupboard but I use it every week!

    My other hint for fast meals out of black beans is to cook LOTS of beans ahead and freeze them in can sized (1.5 cups) container. Then just heat them and use them like you would a can of beans! I use these precooked beans to make huevos rancheros (I have green chili in the freezer, too), southwestern salads, enchiladas, and more. I have a whole stack of 10 minute meals!

    Oats take 2.5 minutes in the microwave… I eat them every morning. 🙂

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    Right on !! Damn I’m getting addicted to your blog 🙂

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