Lately I've been reading a lot of articles from Dr. Mercola about food, diet, exercise, etc, and he usually has great information. He also interviews many experts on these topics for authenticity, however some of the recent articles have made me feel like I can't eat anything but organic home grown fruits and vegetables, and raw milk. Actually, he has even put out several articles about the scam of many organic food companies. So what is there left to eat?!
Honestly, I've never been into the whole "organic" movement for one because it is so much more expensive, but also because I never fully trusted that it was better for you, or that the companies were truly putting out "organic" stuff. Instead I have (in the last 10 years or so ) been much more a fan of "all natural" foods, with no added sugar, hydrogenated oils, food coloring etc. You do have to be careful with the label "no sugar added" because they sometimes sneak in splenda or aspartame. In fact, at BJ's the other day they had samples of "healthy Jello" with no added sugar, but it had aspartame in it, so this doesn't count! Here is my list of healthy substitutions for everyday cooking.
Most importantly, I try to make as much as I can from scratch as this is the best way to insure there are no dies, preservatives, msg, etc going into your food. This is also the best way to save money and cook healthy food on a budget. I make jello from the knox jello packets with 100% juice, and have a delicious recipe using knox gelatin for strawberry pretzel salad. I make homemade yogurt and pudding from scratch (even the dry mix when you need to add it to a cake or something). I no longer use taco seasoning packets, or any seasoning packets for that matter, but rather make tacos from scratch. I have to admit I do buy the cheap macaroni and cheese at Aldi sometimes because it is such a quick and easy (and cheap) dinner, but for the most part, I try to cook as wholesome and natural as possible.
I've tried to incorporate more vegetarian dishes into our diet in the last few years, not only because it is good for you, but because they are usually less expensive. We have lots of big eaters in this family, so if I can get my kids to like lentils, beans and rice, or other inexpensive dinners, this will be extremely helpful financially as the boys get older and begin to "eat me out of house and home." An added bonus is that many vegetarian dishes (like Indian food- lentils, turmeric, cayenne, yogurt) have great health benefits, and my kids learn to be great eaters of foods from around the world. Molly Katzen is an excellent author of vegetarian cookbooks.
There are definitely things that I feel it is worth it to spend a little extra money on:
WHEAT - I just got a grain mill for Christmas from my hubby!, so I am buying 50lb bags of wheat for $30-$40. When you figure out the cost, you really aren't saving any money grinding it yourself than if you bought wheat flour on sale at the store, and it is usually MORE expensive than buying white flour. However, from the research I've done, grinding your own grain has SOO many health benefits that make it worth while to spend the extra money. And in the end a loaf of bread costs about .50 to make, so I'd say that its worth it for heart-healthy and delicious bread! An added bonus is that fresh ground grain tastes amazing, and you can use ALL wheat rather than half white and half wheat. I've also been grinding soft white wheat for my peanut butter banana muffins, and you would never know it has ALL whole wheat flour in them because fresh ground grain doesn't get the bitter taste that store bought wheat flour has. After a lot of searching, I've finally found a delicious 100% whole wheat bread recipe!
Tofu is something that I only buy at Trader Joes or Wegmans now that I've learned Tofu is usually made from GMO's (unless marked "USDA certified organic"). This is something totally worth spending a little extra money!
Fruit snacks- I love fruit snacks! So I will spend a little extra to get the all natural- made from fruit juice rather than filled with corn syrup and food coloring. I feel much better about eating these (and giving them to my kids as snacks) than the others that are basically like eating candy.
Barilla plus pasta (or store brand of the same thing). Pasta isn't really the best thing for us, so if we are gonna eat it, I am a HUGE fan of this stuff because it is made with a legume flour blend rather than ONLY the semolina. It has double the amount of protein than regular pasta too, so I see it as a "healthy" pasta. You can often find coupons for Barilla plus, and many stores now have their own brand of this pasta.
Natural Peanut Butter - so the first time I had this stuff it was with ice cream and I loved it, however I didn't really like it by itself or on PBJ. After a couple of months of only buying natural peanut butter, I became addicted and now it is truly the ONLY kind of peanut butter I like. The "normal" peanut butter that most people are used to now taste over-processed and artificial to me. I personally LOVE Smuckers natural that you have to stir. The texture is wonderful, and tastes so. . . natural! . Oh, and I used to hate stirring this stuff, but my father in law just gave me a great tip. Turn the jar upside down a couple days before you open it, and you barely even need to stir it. If you buy the big jars at BJs, this peanut butter isn't really much more expensive than the traditional stuff! Target brand natural peanut butter is my new favorite find since I've cancelled my BJs membership. You don't have to stir it as much as the Smuckers, and it is a pretty good price too- about $2.29/lb.
Locatelli cheese - Ever since I worked at an authentic Italian restaurant where we had imported Locatelli Romano cheese in the little shakers on the table, I've become a bit of a cheese snob. It got to the point where I would take the lid off the shaker and DUMP the cheese on my spaghetti! This is truly the BEST cheese to put on Italian food! I always have it on hand now, and I won't make spaghetti and meatballs unless I have it (although I do still buy the cheap stuff for the kids).
Cabot cheese - I never used to care too much about cheddar cheese, but over time I've realized that Cabot cheddar is far superior to every other brand out there. I've tried them all- Bjs New York cheddar, Aldi brand, Cracker Barrel, Kraft (which is second best in my opinion), and every other store brand out there. Cabot is expensive, so I still buy the other ones, but I buy Cabot when it is on sale - either "extra sharp" or "seriously sharp" white cheddar.
When feeding my family on a budget, I stretch my food and only buy things on sale or in season. What I mean by "stretch my food" is things like: slice chicken thinly into cutlets rather than a whole chicken breast, as people tend to eat less when they are sliced this way. In other recipes, I will often double recipes, but don't double the meat (or whatever the expensive part of the meal is.) In my Pad Thai with Tofu, I always double the recipe for the sauce and pasta, but not for the tofu and eggs. Nobody ever notices a difference, so this is a great way to save money, and it really adds up faster than you would think. The More with Less cookbook is an excellent book for feeding a family on a budget.
I also have sale prices in my head for various items, and I won't buy these things for more than that sale price. For instance, I don't want to buy grapes for more than .99/lb, canned tomatoes for more than $.99/ 28 oz, or ground beef for more than $1.99/lb, (although I think I have to move this up since beef seems to daily increase in price these days). When I find a great deal on meats, I stock up on it and freeze it in 1 lb portions. Even grapes and pears I will stock up on when they are on sale, and they really last quite a while in the fridge. My kids actually love frozen grapes, so I will sometime freeze them if I've bought too many and they start to go bad.