What’s the truth about organic?

A new study has come out saying organic food isn’t necessarily better for you than conventionally farmed food.

Not a surprise. No one ever said organic is nutritionally better than conventional food. Nutrients are nutrients. One tomato is going to have the name nutrients as another tomato.

What is different, and the study suspiciously avoids to a large extent, is the pesticides and antibiotics used in producing conventional food. While the study said there “a few differences” in that regard, I think it’s the most important aspect when talking about organic food.

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I am partial to organic food. I grew up working an organic community garden and always had plenty of fresh vegetables from that garden growing up. When I moved on my own and began to shop for produce in grocery stores, I very quickly became extremely disappointed.

The reason: those vegetables just didn’t taste as good.

I will tell you that, regardless of all the studies and nutritional values, organic food (any organic food product whether it’s meat, produce, milk or eggs) will taste better.

We believe in locally produced, organic food, so we are using as much of it as we can incorporate in our catering business. It tastes better and we like knowing exactly where it comes from and how it’s produced. We like to support local farms and love the fact that no pesticides, antibiotics, or other artificial substances are used in its production.

However, I will also say conventional food is not of the devil as some pro-organic proponents suggest.

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Here’s the truth. Most vegetables are fine if you wash them. They meet federal health standards. Those with skins you shave or peel (bananas, oranges, carrots, potatoes) aren’t as big of a risk as far as pesticides go because chemicals are treated on the outside skin, the part you get throw away.

The bigger concern, for me personally, is with antibiotics in meat, milk and eggs, so that is where I put my focus cooking at home. I try to buy organic meat when it’s on sale but also buy other conventional meats if they’re on sale.

When talking pure health, kosher meat is the best. However, you have to go to a specialty store or a Jewish store for true kosher meat in a butcher shop. Whole Foods meat is highly rated also, although those stores can be inconvenient and the meat a lot more expensive.

The one kosher meat item I do like to buy is the Hebrew National hot dogs. Hot dogs are typically noted as the worst item, health wise, you can buy simply because traditional hot dogs are made up of a bunch of excess pork and beef parts. Hebrew National is very specific about what meat goes in and how it’s processed, so it is a healthier option.

I buy the natural eggs, as opposed to organic, because they are cheaper. Truly, if you look at the labels there is no real significant different. Neither use antibiotics, are cage-free and are fed an antibiotic-free vegetarian diet. The only difference is how the government classifies organic, which relates primarily to the grain fed to the chickens.

Organic milk is never on sale, but the cheapest is at Ingles at $5.82 a gallon. BJ’s Wholesale and Costco is actually the most expensive at roughly $4 a half-gallon. I sometimes alternate organic with conventional depending on our paycheck and whether the conventional milk is on sale. The way I see it, I rather have conventional milk than no milk if I have to make that choice.

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Other food items can be a bit tricky with all the labels. Juice products take a little label reading and thought. I decided on Florida’s Natural orange juice over organic after looking at the labels and cost. Other conventional juices, like Tropicana, included oranges from other countries where you can’t guarantee their farming and production standards. Although they pass the federal regulations, I prefer American grown products.

Looking at the organic label, it also said the organic oranges came from another country like Mexico or South America. In my opinion, that meant that they couldn’t be guaranteed to be authentically organic so there is no reason to pay so much more for them.

Florida’s Natural uses oranges from Florida with no artificial ingredients. That suited my concerns over extra stuff in my juice and the price isn’t much more than other conventional juices. I feel it’s worth it.

The basic advice here is to read the labels. Many times “all natural” will work just fine in lieu of “organic” if your concerns are the pesticides or antibiotics. If the labels show the food you are buying met the nutritional elements you are looking for, then buy it without fear, especially if it’s on sale.

 

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Know your grocery store

One of the most important tips to save money on groceries and get the best quality is to really know the store where you primarily shop.

I don’t mean just where the produce section is or what brands of bread they offer. I mean knowing every item, every price, when they have their sales, when their shipments come in, where their food originates.

All of this seemingly covert information translates into great deals on great food.

For instance, I know that shipments come into my local Ingles store on Tuesday and Friday nights. That means everything on the shelves goes on sale Tuesday and Friday mornings. Bread is .99 cents. Cut meat is packaged and half price. I also know I need to go a little earlier in the day to get these things because they are picked over if I wait until after work.

I know which produce is locally grown and when these local farmers have various crops. I also know that some slightly damaged or overly ripe produce is in boxes in the back cooler and they need to get rid of it before the end of the day Wednesday and Saturdays.

In my store, the organic company Harvest Farms puts their unsold meat on sale generally about every other day. I also know the butcher will cut a smaller cut of meat for me because, being a small family, a large cut would be a waste of money.

These are the things you need to know. The question is how do you learn?

It’s really simple. You walk around, look, and ask questions. When does the new shipments come in? When do you honor double coupons? Do you honor computer printed coupons?

You meet the produce manager, the butcher, and even the general manager. You visit a couple of times during the week at first to get an idea of when sales hit, what goes on sale, and when the crowds come.

Much of what you learn you will learn through observation. It’s like your on a secret covert mission and you must first scout out the territory. It may take some extra time in the beginning but it will save time and money in the end because you will go at exactly the right time to get the deals and avoid the crowds.

It also pays to become friends with those who work in the store, so be nice when you ask questions. They may, if your friendly, offer some advice that can be quite valuable.

“Better stock up on the beef now,” the butcher told me once. “Prices will go up next week.”

One very nice general manager at a local Publix even had an employee drop off a lamb roast at my house, which is in the country, for Easter. He had to get it sent from another store because they were out and I always bought my lamb – and a few other specialty items for our catering business -  there over the years. By the way, they didn’t charge me for the lamb either.

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You CAN make stuff! Including Salsa!

One of the first things to learn about eating well on a budget is the cost difference between buying prepared food versus what you prepare at home.

For many, the thought of preparing everyday items at home appears daunting. The head starts swirling with thoughts of “I don’t have all the ingredients” and “it would never taste like what I buy in the store” or “I just can’t cook.”

Excuses. All excuses. The truth is most things really can be simply made, taste better than what you buy – sans preservatives and terrible artificial items – and are really cheaper.

Case in point: a jar of salsa. A four-pound jar of Pace Medium Salsa is around $5.58 at Walmart. That’s pretty good really because at a traditional grocery store a one-pound jar runs of any name-brand salsa runs around $3.50.

However, if you buy the products and make four pounds of salsa would cost around between $4.50 and $5.60 depending on whether the vegetables were in season and whether you had items like chili powder, salt and sugar already. Generally, I come out cheaper to make it and my numbers include buying the entire item i.e. a bunch of cilantro. If you break down actual cost of what goes into it, it comes out much cheaper than buying it premade..around $4.25 for four pounds.

I use leftover cilantro, onions, peppers and in other dishes or for a new batch of salsa later in the week. No waste.

Salsa takes about 15 minutes to make. My husband, Chef Mike, likes my salsa much better than anything we’ve bought and it never gives him heartburn.

Here is my salsa recipe. It makes around two pounds of salsa.

 

Homemade salsa is typically cheaper than store bought and tastes a lot better!

Ingredients:

3 medium sized ripe to overripe tomatoes Hint: if you ask the produce person for tomatoes they will be getting rid of today because they are too ripe to sell, they will either sell them really cheap or give them to you. Cost: $1.50

1 medium onion – either Vidalia, white, or green onions – I get whatever is on sale. The Vidalia is best for taste, the green onions is best for color. White if you want it hot. Cost: 75 cents for either one onion or a bunch of green onions.

1 medium green bell pepper Cost: 78 cents right now

Cilantro – you have to buy it by the bunch. One bunch is plenty. You’ll have a good bit left over for other meals. Cost: 78 cents a bunch in season

Two small cloves of garlic Hint: if you buy fresh, it’s cheaper. Cost: 30 cents for a full garlic bulb which has about eight cloves

1 T White sugar

2 T Chili powder $1.00 for a full jar at the Dollar Store

2 T Salt   $1.00 for a full box at most stores including the Dollar Store

Wash all your vegetables and cilantro. Cut the tomatoes into quarters, coring out the stem area. Cut about half the onion and half of bell pepper into quarters. If using green onions, cut two up into smaller pieces (size really doesn’t matter), including the greens. Cut the ends off the two garlic cloves and remove the outer skin. Cut in half.

Put all of these items on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray. Cook on broil for about 10 minutes, until you can smell the garlic and the green pepper starts to get a hint of brown.

Put all items in food processor. Add about one-quarter of the cilantro bunch. You don’t have to cut it, but make sure the bottom of the stem isn’t brown. I usually cut that thicker section off.

Add your seasonings and process. Taste and adjust seasonings to your likes. I usually add more salt or chili powder at this point, but it’s really a matter of individual taste.

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Creating cheap family dinners they will love!

As many of you may know, I have a particular passion about home dinners. Some of that comes from being raised by a stay-at-home mom who cooked every night, usually with organic vegetables from our own garden.

Some of my passion comes from living as a single gal for many years where I grabbed a sandwich on the go in between reporting interviews. Some comes from being married to a chef husband, who lives to create new and interesting dishes.

A bit is economy related, as it is cheaper to fix meals at home rather than eat out. They usually are healthier and turn out better tasting also.

However, I really realized how important a meal is by watching one of my favorite television shows “7th Heaven.” In the episode, the mom, Annie is reluctant to allow her daughter Lucy go grocery shopping with her even though Lucy must do so for a home economics class.

The reason, it turns out, is that Annie considers shopping for her family’s food a near-religious experience that she takes very seriously.

She remembers the first meal she cooked for her husband when they were dating. She remembered special holiday recipes, what her mother’s favorite foods were, what her parents did as a meal on her birthdays. Annie stated that creating a meal was more than just eating, it was creating a memory the rest of the family will always remember and perhaps carry to the next generation.

Although Annie is a fictional character, I realized she was absolutely right. Far too often, we look at meals as simply eating. They are far more than that. They are comforting, adventurous, educational, artistic, sensual and fun. I firmly believe the best moments should be around the dinner table.

I was fortunate in that Mama began teaching me to cook at age 4. Thanks Mama, for my husband is quite grateful. Unfortunately, many of my generation and younger have no clue.

Now, with a focus on the economy, health and celebrity chefs, these young men and women are finding themselves in a pickle and more than an bit hungry.

I will help you. Not only can I give you easy 30-minute or less recipes that are healthy, but I have tons of advice about how to shop for the best food at the best prices.

I do mean the best prices. Generally, the two of us spent about $170 a month on food…that’s about $5.83 a meal. The price becomes even more attractive when you are including things like ribeye, shrimp, and organic vegetables.

We eat well. You can too.

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