Snack drawer 'food revolution' starts with the right ingredients

The crushing part in Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" comes halfway through the second episode, when the woman who administers the cafeterias for the Huntington, W.Va., school district comes to Jamie to tell him that his first few delicious, fresh-cooked meals have cost twice the amount the processed, fried, chemical- and sugar-laden regular fare costs.

I worried that WalletPoppers would be turned off: it's hard to feed a family as it is without doubling the cost to buy real, fresh, pesticide-free food. But I've been cooking from scratch, from farmer's markets, and almost entirely organic, for my family for years -- and spending even less than I did the "old" way. My first post covered seasonal eating; this one is all about your snack drawer.
My take on this is pretty simple and nothing illustrates it better than this list published earlier this week by WebMD of eight not-so-healthy and eight healthier snack options. Each of the not-so-healthy options was packed with fat and often two or three times the maximum amount of added sugar the AHA recommends feeding each day to young children. Each of the not-so-healthy options could represent about a quarter or a third of their recommended daily calories; each was highly processed, expensive and very, very simple to prepare; even the hot food only required some time in the oven or microwave, with no preparation other than tearing off a plastic film. Each of the healthier options was cheaper, fewer calories overall and was a little bit more difficult to prepare -- to make a quesadilla, for instance, you need to slice or grate cheese and cook on a stove top. The convenience difference is minor, but the quality and price differential is enormous. And my answer to the conundrum is absolute:

Just say "no" to snack food.

Taking the chips, cookies, crackers and "fruit" snacks out of my family's diet made an enormous difference in my budget. You could spend hours walking the aisles staring at packages and colorful labels, hemming and hawing over ingredients. Is raw cane sugar a good thing? Can I afford $4.99 for these chile lime cashews? If I buy the veggie chips, they're good for us, right? No, no, no. You'll spend a lot of money, too; a couple of servings per family member per day of organic snacks would set us back $200 a month, and we still have to buy actual meals (for which the kids may not be hungry after having filled up on toaster pastries and organic cheddar popcorn).

Try this: $2.99 for a two-pound bag of organic carrots. $1.49 a pound for organic apples. And all the good organic whole grain bread your family will eat. Our go-to snacks aren't all rabbit food (though all three of my little boys will eat carrots, like a pack of freakishly oversized bunnies); I am often asked for so many servings of toast and honey that I find I've gone through a loaf of bread in one day. It's real food, and not empty calories; even when I splurge on a pound of organic dates and serve them stuffed with organic cream cheese I've spent $8 for luscious, healthy snacks and we don't need dessert.

Grab a grocery receipt and tally the "convenience."
If you're not yet a convert to from-scratch cooking, look at a recent grocery receipt; I'll bet desserts, snack food and other empty, unnecessary calories make up at least half of the spending. While I wouldn't go so far as say "never eat ice cream again" I'd challenge you to shop for two weeks without buying snack food -- unless it's fruits, vegetables and other whole foods like cheese, pickles, unsweetened yogurt, plain nuts and whole-grain bread (the stuff without chemicals, preservatives or sugar). It may take some adjusting, but I'll bet you don't starve, and you discover that some of the substitutes are really delicious.

There's a rule of thumb that works equally well for one's health, budget and (I think) spiritual balance: you shouldn't eat a snack unless you're willing to make it from scratch (and here you can define the elements of "from scratch" as "from foods your great grand-mother might have purchased," for simplicity -- yes, good bread counts; no, bagel chips do not). If I want blueberry muffins, I must mix and bake them myself; if I want cheese popcorn I must pop the corn and grate the cheese; if I want nachos I'll have to plan ahead, setting a batch of easy red beans cooking in the oven several hours before my snack attack. If the time investment is too much to spare, that should tell you something about how much you really need that food. If you're truly hungry, stuck in a pit of despair without snack food or time, might I suggest a piece of fresh fruit?

Snack food smackdown diminishes unhealthy impulse buys.
If you are one of the millions of people who, every day, violates the cardinal grocery shopping rule: "don't do it hungry," you should promise yourself you won't buy snack food. The worst that might happen (should you be like me) is that you'll leave the grocery store with a bag of organic avocados all the way from Mexico, or rather too much cheddar cheese. A very hungry person on a budget is unlikely to leave the grocery story carrying a few whole chickens, more onions than required, and a bag of whole wheat flour she didn't need, just because she was so very hungry. If you can pop it in your mouth while still in the checkout line -- unless it's fresh organic produce or dried fruit, of course -- you probably shouldn't be buying it.
Once you start shopping like this, will you become crafty, figuring ways to make snack foods ahead of time so you can grab a handful of homemade granola or a jar of already-refried beans out of the fridge for your nachos? Yes. And I don't have a problem with this at all. It's far cheaper than eating snack food the way food manufacturers would prefer you do; it's far better for you, as it's made from only the whole unadulterated ingredients that you understand (no dimethylpolysiloxane in your kitchen? bummer!); and best of all, it's probably not deep-fried.

In the end, forcing yourself to eliminate most deep-fried foods from your diet is the simplest way to healthy eating. Rules like "no snack food" and "don't eat it unless you can make it" will most likely prevent you from any but the occasional deep-fried indulgence. And if there's one way I change the eating habits of America, I want this to be it.
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