First off, let’s talk about intelligent cheating. Many people associate the “paleo” label with the work of Robb Wolf and Whole9′s Whole30 plan, which are very strict interpretations that can powerfully heal your health. However, if you don’t have serious health problems, or if you have a good strong handle on what foods cause you problems then often you can get away with some flexibility. Hence, in the Primal style of eating, many people talk about the 80/20 rule. Typically, it’s an escape valve that relieves a little stress, people feel better transitioning over if they feel like they can sometimes have some beer or ice cream. I’m going to propose that if you’re really struggling with the financials of eating Paleo, that you can intelligently use the 80/20 rule to save some money.
If you think of really, really low budget foods you’re probably thinking beans, rice, corn, oatmeal and white potatoes. Super cheap starchy foods that can make a small serving of meat and generous veggies into a filling meal. However, these foods are typically out on a strict paleo eating plan because they often cause health problems for people. I propose that if you know what works for your body and your family, that 20% of these foods can stretch your budget far more than devoting your 20% to scotch & fine chocolates.
Step 1 is to think carefully about your health. If you have Celiac disease you might want to stretch your budget with rice and potatoes, but probably not oatmeal or barley (which both have gluten). If you have joint problems or an auto-immune disorder, steer clear of beans & white potatoes which both contain natural chemicals that can aggravate these conditions. If you are diabetic or have blood sugar issues, you would want to stick to beans, which release starches into your system very slowly. For me personally, I know I need to avoid corn and all corn products (corn tortillas, corn chips, tamales) because they aggravate my digestion.
Once you’ve identified whether any of these super cheap starchy foods are appropriate for you and your family, then the idea is to use them to stretch out your meals NOT to replace nutrient dense meats and vegetables on your table. The goal is not to replace a thick steak, or grilled salmon fillet for “meatless Monday” but to add these foods to nutrient dense scraps and leftovers to stretch them out into meals. For instance, say I roast a chicken for dinner on Friday. Saturday I can turn the carcass into chicken broth, and use a bunch of scrap veggies from the crisper drawer to make a soup for weekday lunches. Say I’m able to pick about 6oz of cooked chicken off the carcass… that doesn’t make for a terribly filling soup, but if I stretch it with 1/2 cup of rice or beans it becomes a more robust meal that can get me through a work day. Or say, shrimp is on sale, I buy enough to make my family’s favorite paleo coconut shrimp and a cheap cole-slaw, but there’s 5 or 6 leftover shrimp… another night I can combine the leftovers with rice, a couple eggs and some veggies to make fried rice.
There’s four keys to making this work:
- Keep the focus on nutrient dense meats, veggies, fruits, eggs and optional dairy. Don’t let super cheap starches dilute the nutrient quality of your diet. If you notice in my examples above, meat, veggies and eggs still feature prominently, and I do not eat these “stretching” foods every meal.
- Know thyself. Keeping to a budget is no excuse for eating foods that aggravate any health problems.
- You still want to eat real whole foods. Think of bulk dried beans and rice, 5 pound bags of russet potatoes. Avoid canned beans, microwave rice pilaf mixes, and frozen french fries. Sticking to real foods not only sidesteps damaging additives, it is much cheaper. Canned beans may seem inexpensive, but for the same price you can get a pound of dried beans that makes up equivalent to 3-4 cans.
- These foods are your 20%. If you can’t eliminate splurges on craft beer, fancy chocolates or meals out at nice restaurants then you need to re-think your food budget (and your eating) from the ground up. I’m still flexible for the occasional In-n-Out protein style burger, and an occasional ice cream with my kiddo, but these are cheap indulgences that still have some nutritional value. If you’re adding rice to your otherwise paleo diet, but then also splurging on a fancy Starbucks drink every day after work you’re kind of missing the point.
That all being said, my family’s favorite super cheap starch is beans. Mark Sisson may think that kidney beans are less exciting than cheese, but my family actually likes a nice bean salad at a BBQ, or some cuban black beans alongside pork. However if you’re not used to cooking with beans, they take some planning. I strongly advocate buying dried beans and soaking them before cooking, not only because they’re cheaper but because it nearly eliminates the lectins (a phytochemical that can cause problems with absorbing nutrients). It’s not complicated, it just takes some planning ahead. Measure out your beans the night before, and throw them in a bowl or jar with double the volume of water. In the morning, drain them and cover with more water. When you’re ready to use them, drain them again, put them in a pot and fill the water 1″ over the level of the beans. Simmer for 1 hour and voila: cooked beans! They can then be chilled for bean salad, or added to soups or stews. You can even soak/cook double quantities and store the cooked beans in the freezer for later use.