Lower on the Food Chain, Lighter on the Wallet: 18 Easy Elements of a Sustainable Diet


Your company is freezing raises long enough to give your bank account freezer burn and you know those Penny Pincher patties are cheap but not something you want to feed your dog, let alone the kids. Sustainability and your carbon footprint – of course you care, but you’re not about to invest a Whole Paycheck in eco d’oeuvres and with all the side jobs you’re taking on who has time to plant a garden? Sustainability? Sure, sustain my stomach, please!

Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. But by eating a little “lower” on the food chain you’ll not only save money and help the planet, you’ll enjoy what you’re eating, too. Just try out a few of these easy tips each week and gradually add in more as you’re able.

- Eliminate meat. A plant-based diet is what eating low on the food chain is all about. It’s healthy, incredibly cheap and of course it’s good for the planet. Wait a minute. Brakes. Can’t stand the thought of a life without bacon?


- If you don’t want to give up meat, just reduce. The Standard American Diet of having meat with every meal is not very healthy, nor is it cheap. If – as many argue – meat does your body good, you still only really need it a few times a week. A few easy tricks to eat less meat: only eat meat at one meal a day; cut portions in half; go veg one week a month. Use the money you save to seek out options that are organic and hormone-free. Try some lesser common, but sustainably harvested and exotic meats like bison, ostrich and emu.

- Do some foraging and gathering. It’s not stealing, it’s finding. Surely there are some blackberry bushes nearby, or a clean spring where you can gather watercress? Even if you live in the most urban area imaginable, you probably have a neighbor with a few fruit trees in their yard who would be grateful to give away a bag or two. Be creative and learn about local, wild foods such as wild fruits, mushrooms, grains, nuts and greens. Ever had miner’s lettuce? Chanterelles (below) are easy to identify and gather.


- Grow something. Even if you don’t have the greenest of thumbs, it’s easy to keep a few potted herbs. Nurturing plants and watching them grow will help you appreciate the delicious flavors they give while saving money on expensive prepared sauces and seasonings.

- Cook with fresh garlic. Although it’s convenient to go for fast food or a frozen pizza, you’ll be delighted by the savory difference and money savings when you use the fresh stuff. All you need is a little garlic. It’s amazing how the most basic meals – rice, beans, frozen vegetables – become gourmet treats with garlic. (Try shallots, too. Chef’s secret.)

- Plan ahead. Since fruit and vegetable-based foods will digest more quickly than meat-based meals, you may find yourself getting hungry more often. It’s actually healthier to “graze” throughout the day on smaller, healthier snacks than to pack in 2 or 3 large meals. Make sure you always have some fruits, nuts or fresh vegetables to snack on during the day so you don’t get overly hungry and head to the vending machine for a candy bar.


- Invent salads you can get addicted to. Venture beyond shredded iceberg and bulk up your salads with mushrooms, cheese, nuts, artichokes, beans, hummus, heart of palm, beets, carrots, tofu and other substantial ingredients. Check out these salad ideas.

- No packaged foods. Go for fresh, dried, or frozen foods over highly processed ones, and look for minimal packaging. A banana peel is a good package. 3 layers of impenetrable plastic casing around a pre-made meal? Not so good. Processed foods can seem cheap, but they’re terrible for your health. The only real drawback to cheap unprocessed foods like beans and grains is that you need to plan ahead for cooking time. You’d be surprised how easy it is to get into a routine, though. For example, cook up a big pot of rice and a big pot of beans on Sunday, and you’ll have dinners all week.

- Eat organic as much as possible. Conventional farming relies heavily on petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, not to mention all the machinery needed on huge corporate farms. Smaller organic farms use natural methods and more human-power to get the job done. Plus, organic farming replenishes, rather than depletes, the soil and has less of a negative impact on local water supplies. But organic can be pricey. The good news is that it’s cheap if you know where to look – try the farmers’ market or sign up for a CSA.


- Discover better grains. Are you sick of rice? I don’t blame you. Go for protein-rich quinoa instead. If you love rice, seek out new varieties that provide different flavors and textures (and nutrients) from what you’ve probably grown used to. Quinoa, by the way, is a complete vegetarian protein, cooks up fast, is pennies per serving, and goes with everything.

- Keep your kitchen stocked with fruits and vegetables. If you have them around, you’ll eat them, especially if they’re displayed nicely. Every kitchen needs a handy fruit bowl or basket. Making your food appealing is half the fun. Here’s a money-saving tip: buy all the frozen produce you want, from berries to green beans to peas. These are often fresher than the “fresh” produce, and you can usually get things on sale.

- Explore vegetarian proteins. Think outside the tofu cube – there are a lot more options than that. We’ve compiled a list of our favorite veggie proteins that are cheap and tasty. But, don’t write off tofu cubes. A large pack of extra-firm high-protein tofu costs a fraction of what a steak costs. True, it’s not filet, but tofu doesn’t deserve its bland reputation. Baked, cubed tofu with things like melted cheese, herbs, chili sauce, or soy sauce – to name a few additions – is really good. Don’t forget about eggs – they’re filling, nutritious and much cheaper than meat. I recommend finding a local farmer or buying organic. (Vegetarian eggs benedict: slightly more than survivable.)


- Beans, beans, the carbon cutting fruit. The humble bean has been much maligned for its tendency to turn us gassy, but I’m asking you to give beans a chance! Beans contain protein, B vitamins and iron, and have virtually no fat. With such a variety of beans available, it’s easy to experiment with soups and side dishes. Eat the beans with other foods like fruits, vegetables and a little fat (like olive oil) to reduce the “music” if that’s a frequent problem for you. Proper cook time helps, too.

- Try the “Five Day Eat-Low-On-The-Food-Chain Meal Challenge.” Check out the delicious, healthy meal plans provided and adjust them to suit your needs. You will not go hungry and you’ll save money.

- Choose your fish wisely. Mercury is prevalent in tuna and salmon is over-harvested. Besides, these things are costly. Seems like sardines, mackerels and herring are the new way to go. Sardines? Don’t turn your nose up at them until you try this easy, inexpensive recipe for Sardines with Gremolata.


- Add sea vegetables to your diet. Can you get any lower on the food chain than kelp, dulse and wakame? But talk about high nutrition. Sea vegetables contain trace minerals and nutrients that can be hard to find in other veggies. Try wrapping your salads or rice and beans in nori rolls for homemade sushi, or sprinkle dulse flakes on soups and salads.

- Sprout. Growing your own sprouts in your kitchen is the definition of low-maintenance. Check out these easy instructions. Sprouts are a living food, so they’re full of vitamins and enzymes that are destroyed when veggies are cooked. Move beyond basic alfalfa and add some extra nutrition to your salads and sandwiches. You won’t need all those condiments that, when factored in gallons, cost hundreds of dollars.

- Snack on raw nuts and seeds. Avoid the canned, processed and salty blends and just go for raw quantities in bulk for big savings and better nutrition. Nuts are particularly good for your heart and brain – essential during stressful times! (Check out our gourmet fruit-and-nut-mix recipe.)


– with reporting by Sara Ost

Top image: Crystl

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