10 Ways to Eat Ethically, Cheaply, and Well

Michael Pol­lan said it best: “Eat food. Not too much. Most­ly Plants.” I am a firm believ­er that eat­ing health­ful­ly is ulti­mate­ly uncom­pli­cat­ed: the earth is brim­ming with nat­ur­al foods that make our bod­ies thrive. Below is a col­lec­tion of tips for eat­ing in a way that not only ben­e­fits our bod­ies, but ben­e­fits our souls and taste buds as well. Feel free to chime in with your own sug­ges­tions for eat­ing eth­i­cal­ly, cheap­ly, health­ful­ly, or deliciously!

1. Buy local.

On aver­age, pro­duce in the Unit­ed States trav­els 1,500 miles to get to your local gro­cery store. While this might be a con­ve­nient way to pro­vide us with a vari­ety of cheap food, it is ter­ri­ble for the envi­ron­ment and tax­ing on our nat­ur­al resources: More fuel is need­ed to trans­port the food from oth­er states or coun­tries, and more pol­lu­tion is pro­duced in the process. Not to men­tion our food is far less fresh, as it makes quite a long trek from its ori­gins to our plate. And let’s not for­get the warm, fuzzy feel­ing we get when we sup­port small, local busi­ness­es. So, check out your local farmer’s mar­ket, or join a CSA, and par­take in the gas­tro­nom­i­cal joy of local food.

2. Grow your own food.

Even bet­ter than buy­ing local food — grow your own! No fos­sil fuels wast­ed in trans­port­ing the food. No pack­ag­ing dis­card­ed and fill­ing a land­fill. And, best of all, you can’t beat the cost! Of course, it takes some skill and land to grow your own food. (My own adven­tures in grow­ing toma­toes were less than boast-wor­thy.) If you are intim­i­dat­ed by the idea of gar­den­ing (as I am) and/or you have lit­tle land to do so, you may start with a mod­est col­lec­tion of herbs on your win­dowsill. Even if the cost sav­ings are neg­li­gi­ble, there is a dis­tinct aes­thet­ic plea­sure in snip­ping off some fresh, ten­der basil leaves from your herb gar­den to use in a fra­grant pas­ta dish. Self-suf­fi­cien­cy, even in its tini­est forms, embold­ens the soul.

3. Eat less meat.

Until quite recent­ly in human his­to­ry, meat was a lux­u­ry that was enjoyed on occa­sion. Now (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the U.S.), meat is an every­day sta­ple, and it is tak­en for grant­ed by many that meat is a part of every meal. In fact, some peo­ple con­sid­er it down­right unpa­tri­ot­ic not to embrace the “meat and pota­toes” phi­los­o­phy of the Amer­i­can diet. But such enthu­si­as­tic con­sump­tion of meat strains the envi­ron­ment and our waist­line. Much more land and water is need­ed pro­duce meat than is need­ed to pro­duce the equiv­a­lent in grain, and bil­lions of tons of ani­mal waste are dumped into our water­ways every year. Even if you don’t switch com­plete­ly to a plant-based diet, you can reduce the neg­a­tive impact on your health and the envi­ron­ment by cut­ting down your meat consumption.

4. Buy fair trade and organic.

Buy­ing fair trade and organ­ic food lets you vote with your dol­lar for a bet­ter world: a world in which farm­ers oper­ate under fair labor con­di­tions and are paid fair wages for their goods, a world in which food pro­duc­ers work with the earth, rather than against it, and in which we need not fear the tox­ic effects of pes­ti­cides and growth hor­mones in our pro­duce and meats. We vote for a world that not only pro­duces healthy sus­te­nance for our­selves, but also nur­tures the envi­ron­ment and sup­ports the peo­ple that pro­duce it.

5. Keep meals simple.

While com­plex recipes laden with exot­ic ingre­di­ents may seem impres­sive, sim­pler meals enjoy dis­tinct advan­tages: As they require few­er ingre­di­ents and spices, sim­ple meals are gen­er­al­ly cheap­er. They are, for the most part, eas­i­er to pre­pare. And there is some­thing to be said for an uncom­pli­cat­ed dish in which you can taste the indi­vid­ual ingre­di­ents: the tang of the lemon, the bite of the salt and the sweet pun­gency of the cilantro. Sim­ple dish­es high­light the ingre­di­ents used, because they aren’t lost among a pletho­ra of oth­ers. There is a cer­tain aes­thet­ic beau­ty to a sim­ple dish — which is that much more enjoy­able when you can save time and mon­ey in its preparation!

6. Avoid processed, packaged foods.

We all know that fresh food is best. Pack­aged foods try to trick you with claims of health­ful­ness: “High in Fiber” or “Good Source of Iron”, but scan the label and you will most like­ly find a food that is high in sug­ar, high in sodi­um, or which includes a long, scary, cryp­tic list of ingre­di­ents. Of course, I am over­gen­er­al­iz­ing here: there are some healthy pack­aged foods. But, for the most part, the clos­er a food is to its nat­ur­al source, the bet­ter it is for you. The more you process food, the more fiber, vit­a­mins, min­er­als, and phy­tonu­tri­ents are lost. The more you process food, the more ques­tion­able ingre­di­ents are added. And, to top it all off, processed foods gen­er­al­ly include more waste­ful pack­ag­ing: box­es, pouch­es, and plas­tic bot­tles and con­tain­ers. Be kind to your body (and the earth): eat whole, fresh, unadul­ter­at­ed food from which your your body is designed to draw nourishment.

7. Eat less.

There have been stud­ies that indi­cate that decreased caloric intake increas­es lifes­pan. You may or may not agree with this con­tro­ver­sial claim. But, giv­en an obe­si­ty rate of over 30% in the U.S., many of us would enjoy health ben­e­fits from eat­ing less. Admit­ted­ly, this is a hard one to imple­ment. (Believe me, I know!). But, think about it: not only will our health prob­a­bly ben­e­fit from avoid­ing that sec­ond-help­ing of lasagna dur­ing din­ner or that hand­ful of Hershey’s kiss­es at work, but we will also spend less and waste few­er resources by doing so. Of course, I am not sug­gest­ing that we go hun­gry, or dras­ti­cal­ly deprive our­selves, but con­scious­ly cut­ting down a bit on what we eat dur­ing the day is worth the effort, and has cumu­la­tive effects in the long run.

8. Eat slowly.

With no dis­trac­tions — no tele­vi­sion, no radio (and cer­tain­ly, no dri­ving!). Turn­ing our atten­tion to our meals, chew­ing slow­ly, savor­ing the fla­vors of our food, not only makes the eat­ing expe­ri­ence more plea­sur­able, but gen­er­al­ly makes us eat less. It is com­mon­ly known that those who scarf down their food end up eat­ing much more than those who take their time, but med­i­tat­ing on your food also lends to long-term sat­is­fac­tion from food. If we tru­ly expe­ri­ence the fla­vors and tex­tures of the the food, we derive more plea­sure, more sat­is­fac­tion from our meals…our minds more deeply reg­is­ter that we’ve eat­en, and we are thus less like­ly to reach for those pota­to chips lat­er. Addi­tion­al­ly, if we extend that atten­tion and focus on how our food makes our bod­ies feel after­wards (the slug­gish­ness we feel after a fat­ty, salty meal, vs. the vital­i­ty from some­thing health­ful), then we are more like­ly to change our eat­ing habits for the bet­ter. Slow eat­ing puts us more in tune with our food and its inter­ac­tion with our bod­ies, yield­ing a more holis­tic under­stand­ing of our eat­ing habits.

9. Ignore hype.

Trans fat. Low-carb. Low-fat. Antiox­i­dants. Whole grains. Heart-healthy. The food world is a whirl­wind of nutri­tion­al claims, promis­es, and sound bytes: much of it good, some of it sus­pect. And even the well-sup­port­ed claims will quick­ly be exploit­ed by food com­pa­nies who want you to buy their stuff. My advice? Ingore it. Just con­cen­trate on eat­ing a vari­ety of unprocessed, organ­ic veg­eta­bles, fruits, grains, and beans, and you’ll do fine. Even if Acai berries are chock-full of antiox­i­dants, the hum­ble col­lard green is just as pow­er packed (and much cheap­er!). Ignore food trends and crazy diets that promise unre­al­is­tic tran­for­ma­tions: real nutri­tion is time­less and com­mon sensical.

10. Say grace (or a secular equivalent).

In oth­er words, pay homage to the spir­i­tu­al and phys­i­cal sources of your food. Be grate­ful that you have food to eat (many do not), and acknowl­edge the long jour­ney that the food has tak­en from the sun to your plate. Your nour­ish­ment is a prod­uct of lives and labor…your life is indebt­ed to the nat­ur­al, spir­i­tu­al, and eco­nom­ic cycles that under­pin our world. Our food runs deep, and pay­ing rev­er­ence to this fact can help us pay clos­er atten­tion to the things that we eat, and to focus on con­sum­ing things that are spir­i­tu­al­ly and phys­i­cal­ly nourishing.

More resources:

  1. The Omnivore’s Dilem­ma: A Nat­ur­al His­to­ry of Four Meals
  2. Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair
  3. One Bowl: A Guide to Eat­ing for Body and Spirit
  4. The Slow Down Diet: Eat­ing for Plea­sure, Ener­gy, and Weight Loss
  5. Unplugged Kitchen: A Return to the Sim­ple, Authen­tic Joys of Cooking