Nutrition studies agree: Cooks have healthy diets

One sure strategy for convincing people of the value in wholesome foods is to give them away for free.

That’s exactly what ACCESS, THRIVE and Happy Dirt Veggie Patch did Saturday in the “food desert” of west Medford, as explained in my previous post. Thanks to community gardens operated by ACCESS and private donations of garden-grown produce, area food pantries have been offering more fresh produce for the past couple of years.

But when it comes to paying for food, the belief persists that healthful foods are more expensive. Two recent studies do nothing to clarify the issue.

Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new analysis indicating that fruits, vegetables, grains and low-fat milk tend to be less expensive by weight and serving size than fatty, sugary foods and meat, fish and poultry, according to a recent story by the Chicago Tribune.

This ran counter to many studies that measured the cost of “good” and “bad” foods by calorie and concluded that nutrient-poor foods generally cost less. Then another group of researchers, including Adam Drewnowski, director of nutritional sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, recently decided to look at the cost of foods that deliver key nutrients, especially those associated with lower risk of chronic disease. They found that foods rich in key nutrients did cost more per calorie than nutrient-poor counterparts. 

The two studies did align on one front: People who know how to cook are at a distinct advantage when it comes to nutrition on the cheap. That’s because they chose whole, unprocessed foods, which is not how most Americans allocate their food budgets. The USDA recommends spending about 40 percent of one’s food budget on fruits and vegetables.

Drewnowski conceded that his analyses found that many low-income food dollars are spent on processed, convenience foods, which are more expensive than whole foods. However, he is analyzing data about people who are able to eat nutritious diets on unusually small budgets. And yet another of his studies so far indicates that the more time people spend in the kitchen, the better their overall diet quality.

The last point should sound supremely obvious to all of us who do cook. And it need not sound overwhelming to people who don’t. Most novices make cooking much harder than it needs to be, spending needless hours browsing through cookbooks, shopping for another batch of ingredients every night before dinner and slicing and dicing until they can’t stand it any more.

Real, wholesome, honest cooking is about simplicity and versatility — using what’s fresh (produce, meat and dairy) in a dish with staples from the pantry (whole grains and legumes). You and your family may not love the results as much as take-and-bake pizza, but you’ll love how easy it is on your wallet, meaning that you have room to splurge on pizza every now and then. And you won’t have to feel guilty about the calories in the pizza because you’re eating healthy the rest of the time.

If you have no idea how to embark on the path to wholesome cooking, there’s yet another free opportunity in the Rogue Valley through Seventh-day Adventist churches. The Central Point congregation’s Healthy Living Ministries hosts potlucks every month and even puts organizer Iris Eastwood to work in private homes locally. Read more about it in this month’s Oregon Healthy Living magazine; you don’t have to be a member of the church or any other denomination.

And in gratitude to Eastwood, who’s from Puerto Rico, here’s a way with rice and beans from that island (courtesy of the Chicago Tribune) to get you started. It feeds a family of six for 87 cents per serving.

THE RICE

Heat 4 cups water to a boil in a kettle. Meanwhile, cook 2 cups brown or white rice and 1⁄2 teaspoon salt with 1 tablespoon olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring to coat rice with oil. Pour boiling water over rice. Let water boil down until you can see the surface of the rice. Cover; turn to a very low flame. Simmer until rice is tender.

THE BEANS

Cover 3 cups dried beans with 2 inches water in a bowl or stockpot. Soak overnight. Drain soaking water from beans. Place beans in a stockpot; fill with water to cover beans by 1 inch. Heat to a simmer and simmer until soft, 1 hour or more. Wait until beans are tender before adding 1 teaspoon salt. Taste for seasoning. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan; add 1⁄2 green pepper, finely diced; 1⁄2 onion, peeled and finely diced; and 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced. Season with a pinch of salt. Cook until fragrant and tender. Stir in 1⁄4 cup cilantro and cook until herb gives off its aroma. Add half a can (from an 8-ounce can) tomato sauce; cook to meld flavors. Drain cooked beans, saving 1 cup cooking water; pour beans into vegetable mixture. Add cooking water, heat to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Salt to taste. You also can add half packet of Sazon Goya seasoning blend and/or 1⁄4 cup chunks cooked winter squash for extra flavor and texture. 

Serve beans over rice with a green salad.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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