Tuesday, June 7, 2016

How-To Manual: Eating Healthily, Ethically, and Cheap as a Student

This blog post is a practical response to an essay I wrote titled “Digging for Real Food as a Genetically Modified Consumer Culture.” I concluded that our modern food system – one of hyper-palatable edibles – leaves many consumers digging for authenticity by relaxing and redefining what constitutes ‘real food.’ We do this by making ‘real’ a factor of our relationship to food, less often a quality of the food itself. This relationship manifests itself through geography, emotions, cultural history, and our perception of simplicity. Respectively, these sound like: “it’s local,” or “it was cooked with love,” or “my grandma buys this ingredient,” or “it’s just a simple apple.” And, all of these are precursors to the idea “…so it MUST be healthy, right?”

Not necessarily. In reality, these factors do not inherently change a food. Yes, they contribute to the more ephemeral side of nourishment, but ultimately the ingredient remains the same. It might have been sprayed with pesticides, grown on land that practices mono-culture and clear-cut farming, and/or been transported by underpaid laborers.

How, as students, do we navigate this dilemma? How do we eat well, save the planet, save money, but avoid sounding like pretentious food yuppies? Moreover, why should we care? If you can sacrifice ten minutes to read below, you will discover the answer. Seven years of working at farmer's markets, restaurants, farms, and a cooking school has taught me much in the way of 'real.' My hope is that this can be a useful free resource to students who have the right intention but don't know where to start... 

Part 1 – Geography

We live in Southwestern Ontario, and our growing-season lasts approximately May-October. Unless you’re willing to subsist on cabbage, turnips, and oats all winter – which I did as a one year experiment and you can read about that here – a large portion of our diets will consist of imported foods. That’s cool. We live in a globalized world and oranges are tasty. What’s key, in my opinion, is to avoid taking advantage of it. If you’ve traveled to less fortunate locations, you will have noticed a contrast in access to food variety. In metropolitan Ontario, you can buy any food, anywhere, 24/7. But should you?

As a matter of geography, buy what’s local, in-season, and in-bulk. And, as a global citizen, sticking to a predominantly plant-based diet is cheaper, healthier, and better for the environment. In my experience, a savvy student can pack their fridge and pantry with about 30-40% of local, plant food items. That's a realistic goal. The cheapest ingredients are: oats, beans, root vegetables and cruciferous vegetables. Local plus in-season is the key, as many items sold at the local farmer's market are collected from the same import depot that supplies supermarkets. Buying in bulk ensures that you get the best price for the maximum amount of food. If you’re uneasy about dropping $30 strictly on May's  asparagus or strawberries, then pool your funds with a roommate or a friend. Freeze, dehydrate, or make into pesto whatever you don’t use. My favourite, $15 food preserving book is linked here. If you do this with most fruits and vegetables from May-October, you’ll have a constant supply of the best and cheapest produce well into winter. 

Familiarize yourself with what foods are in-season month to month – linked here. It took me about two years on this lifestyle to build up a working knowledge of “what goes” and what doesn’t; and six years later, I cruise by farmer’s market stalls easily recognizing what’s authentic and what isn’t. Ie: Zucchinis in June are imported, but zucchinis in June are still better than Doritos in June... You might find that your taste preferences naturally align with your local geography's seasonal bounty. That is, you will crave strawberries in June, but welcome heartier apple crisps when the weather turns cold in September.

Interactive map of Waterloo Region's local food is linked here.

If you're inspired to go level 2.0:
  • Grow your own garden. As a student this usually amounts to temporary potted plants or mason-jar sprouts. Don't be discouraged, as you're planting the 'mental seeds' for an epic veggie garden one day. 

Favourite vendors at the Kitchener & St. Jacob's Farmer's Market:
- Oats from Oak Manor Farms 
- Mushrooms from Shrooms
- Anything from The Unfactory Farm
- Meats from Charles' Quality Means 
- Hemp and Flax products from Millstream Foods (best free samples)
- Honey and balms from Backyard Honey Co.
- Baked goods from Golden Hearth Bakery

Non-market shops that carry local food:
- Eating Well Organically
- Relish Cooking Studio
- Healthy Foods and More
- Fiddleheads
- Old Kitchen Cupboard

Part 2 – Emotions 

Student life can induce a lot of stress and anxiety. Nourishing oneself emotionally is therefore incredibly important. Without a doubt, this includes non-food factors: uplifting company, positive self-talk, etc. But, when we feel crappy, physical health is often the first thing to slide. We drink, we guzzle caffeine, we turn to junk food, we sacrifice sleep, we cram... and it only adds insult to injury. Emotional health is compounded by physical health. When everything goes to sh*t, being able to count on (if nothing else) your ability to maintain a sense of physical well-being is a really powerful thing. It cultivates a great deal of trust in oneself, and that practice contagiously rubs off on your ability to mentally tackle a challenging situation. In short, don't stop eating green vegetables and exercising just because ten things are due this week.

Some foody emotional boosters:
Improvising a dorm-room meal with friends, during exams

Part 3 – Culture/History 

As you know, food is a great way to experience a culture. Familiar smells and flavors offer us a sense of both home and travel. Being able to offer oneself this luxury - through the ability to cook and bake - is wildly cheaper and more liberating than relying on restaurants...or mom. Incrementally building upon basic culinary know-how allows you to stack your skills into store-able, shareable, and edible pieces culture. Better yet, doing it yourself lets you customize the flavor, nutrition, and ingredient profile. If you can build a decent spice collection - collecting different cultural flavors - then you can replicate different cuisines using local ingredients.

Free resources to increase your cooking skills:
Cheap Around-the-World Dishes 
My favourite food culture/history books: 

Part 4 – Simplicity

Finally, when it comes right down to eating healthily, ethically, and cheap as students, we will always gravitate towards that which is easiest. If breakfast takes more than five minutes to prepare, and going to the farmer's market doesn't fit between a part-time job and seeing family, neither will happen. Food isn't everything - I get that. Instead of making excuses, we have to make the lifestyle work for us. Often, the simplest dishes are the cheapest, fastest, most nutritious, and lowest on the scale of food-industry corruption. To genuinely enjoy simple food and feel satiated we simply have to cut out the crap. Hyper-palatable, low-nutritional food has the same effect on our taste buds that a blaring television has on our ears. Turn the volume down, so you can have a real conversation with your friend. If we can get over needing intensely rich, sweet, or salty food, and re-condition ourselves to enjoy simple foods - a bowl of berries, apples smeared with nut butter, rice and beans, etc. - we can easily unlock this lifestyle. Furthermore, we learn to live more authentically.

Top tips for keeping it simple and cheap:
  • Have a smoothie for breakfast. When fruit turns too ripe, add it to your "smoothie bag" in the freezer. 
  • Once or twice/week, cook a huge pot of rice & lentils, or quinoa, or barley & black beans, or any other complete-protein combo. Store it in the fridge and use spoonfuls throughout the week. You can add it to soups, stews, burritos, salads, etc. A whole pot costs around $2.00. 
  • Upon returning from the market/grocery store, prepare and chop your vegetables. You'll be more likely to eat salad on a busy Wednesday night if it's washed and ready to go... 
  • ...Except squash. Slice and half and roast in a 425F degree oven for 40 minutes. Don't bother to peel or scoop out the seeds. Do everything once it's cooked and soft. 
  • Good quality oil can be expensive, and you can make dressings and vinaigrette without them! Blended chickpeas, tomato, zucchini, or apples can be substituted 
  • If you have a spare weekend afternoon, make a big batch of tomato sauce, pesto, or other items you can store in the freezer. Defrost for busy nights.  
  • If you have leftover wine, keep it in a mason jar in the fridge. When you need "a splash" for a future sauce or stew, it's ready to go. 
  • Freeze leftover egg yolks and whites for future omelettes or dessert making 
  • I said it already, but RICE & BEANS! 


  1. You just made my day. What a great and informative article with so much thinking involved. Eating healthily, ethically, and cheap as a student is what you should adapt in any cost. You should know what are you eating and in what manner.

  2. Thank you for your wonderful comment. This was a university project and I'm glad it has real-life value to others. A hug,