Meet Alex Caspero
Alex Caspero is a Registered Dietitian, New York Times Bestselling Plant-Based Chef and mom of two. She aims to cut through the nutrition noise by providing real-life, nourishing tips for body and mind. Learn more about Alex.
I’m a budget girl. While I definitely appreciate the finer things in life, I’m also fairly conscientious when it comes to spending. I prefer to shop at second-hand stores, scour travel websites for deals and drive a 10-year-old car.
So, it’s no surprise that I take the same stance when it comes to food. I want the best (organic, non-gmo, ethically sourced, fair-trade) but I don’t have an unlimited budget to pay for it. Since my job is full time
grocery shopper recipe developer, I know my way around the stores and what’s worth it and what isn’t. Below are my tips for what works best for my family.
I don’t purchase everything organic. While I’d love to, I also know that would severely limit my overall food funds, especially when I sometimes make multiple versions of a meal to get it right. Therefore, I buy organic when it matters. I know there’s the “dirty dozen” list (the twelve foods with the highest pesticide exposure), but I don’t always abide by that.
Instead, I think about what vegetables and fruits we eat the most. I purchase fresh raspberries only a handful of times throughout the year, mostly in June and July when they are in season and actually taste like berries. The rest of the year, I’m happy to skip (or use frozen). So, even though fresh raspberries are at the top of the dirty dozen list, it doesn’t always make sense for me to purchase them organic. The exposure I get a handful of times I enjoy them is dwarfed by the foods I eat on a constant basis.
Therefore, I consider what vegetable and fruits I’m always buying and purchase organic there; lettuce, apples & carrots top the list. If it’s a vegetable or fruit with a hard shell, I usually opt for the conventional version since I’ll be taking the peel or outer layer off, like in avocados or melons. Picking and choosing which foods I buy organic allows me to feel like I’m getting the biggest bang for my pesticide-free buck.
There was a study a few years back that said organic food wasn’t any healthier than conventionally grown produce. Well, duh. Organic food doesn’t claim to have more nutrients (like vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) than other produce, but it does claim not to be sprayed in pesticides or come from GMO-seed. I don’t know how concerned I am about GMOs (except that they are not a solution to our food inequality issue, but that’s a whole ‘nother post) but I do worry about pesticide exposure and I’m not convinced those can be rinsed off with water. Plus, there’s the larger environmental and community conversation. As someone who is currently growing another human and will soon be feeding that small human, I’m trying as much as I can to reduce toxin exposure, though I know I’ll never be perfect. It’s a small try that feels good at this stage.
If you read the side bar above on organic vs. conventionally raised food, then you may be wondering about frozen food. And, I’m so glad you asked.
Ripeness and nutrients are on a bell curve, the more un- and over- ripe a piece of produce is, the less nutrients in contains. It’s why you see phrases such as “picked at the peak of ripeness.” And, while this is a really good marketing slogan, it’s also true. When food is picked at the top of the bell curve, it’s perfectly ripe and also contains the highest concentration of nutrients. As it continues to ripen, that will change. Produce in the grocery store can vary in ripeness, but most frozen fruits and vegetables are frozen as soon as their picked, locking in nutrients since they can’t ripen any further once frozen.
When texture doesn’t matter, I opt for frozen. Not only is it less expensive, the organic versions are usually a fraction of the cost compared to the fresh options. So, I can enjoy frozen organic raspberries for half the price of fresh ones. Since I use frozen raspberries a few times a week in my smoothies, it’s a win-win. Same goes for other frozen fruits and vegetables.
This is a matter of time vs. convenience. For me, I’ve got an extra ten minutes in the kitchen to make my own nut butters, so I often do. Of course, convenience wins out sometime but for the most part, if I can DIY it, I will. Not only does this allow me to control my own ingredients, but I get a cost benefit as well. If I buy almonds in the bulk bin, I can get almost two cans of homemade almond butter for the same cost as buying a jar. Over time, that’s a lot of savings.
I don’t make everything. I’m not Martha Stewart or a perfectionist. Nut butters, salad dressings, vegetable broth base, sauces and seasoning blends are items I almost always DIY. The rest, I buy.
While you can find a recipes for these DIY items on the internet, I love The Homemade Vegan Pantry and America’s Test Kitchen for these recipe basics.
I’m not a die-hard Whole Foodie. In fact, I will usually head to most grocery stores first before stopping by Whole Foods. One, I get annoyed at all the ridiculous gimmicks they try (asparagus water anyone?) and two, I find that their markup is crazy for items that I can find at a much lower price down the street. The only exception to this is their own 360 label and their impressive bulk bin section.
From there, my favorite stores are Trader Joe’s, ALDI’s and Fresh Thyme. I know that Trader Joe’s seems expensive, but honestly, I find the opposite to be true. Just yesterday, I went to both a local grocery store and Trader Joe’s to grab items for the week. I needed quite a few bell peppers for an upcoming recipe and stopped by the local store first. Since I needed some items that I knew TJ’s doesn’t carry, I picked up a few red bell peppers as well since I wasn’t sure what TJ’s pricing would be. Sure enough, by the time I got to Joe’s, I was kicking myself for that decision. I paid 2 for $3 at our local store and TJ’s wanted only $0.79 per pepper. Since I needed 8 of them, that could have been quite the savings cost.
I also find that Trader Joe’s has an awesome selection of organic pantry items for much less than Whole Foods. In the online space, Thrive Market and Amazon sometimes have great deals on hard to find ingredients.
I don’t shop as much at the farmer’s market since moving to St. Louis. I wish I did, but the time and locations don’t match my schedule the way they used to in California. However, for the most part, I can find amazing deals at markets, especially with in season produce. This can be another great way to cut down on costs. Lastly, ask your farmer if the produce they carry is organic. Many times, it is though they can’t afford the organic label.
I hoard spices. If you want to know the secret to making healthy food taste amazing, its lots and lots of flavor- usually in the form of condiments and spices. To me, a well-stocked pantry also includes quite a bit of spices, vinegars, and oils. Even a handful of these ingredients can be combined to make spice mixes, dressings and sauces to bring recipes to life.
For those here on my blog, I might have 12 ingredients in a recipe, with 5 of those being spices. This allows me to use a small jar of spice many, many times and only buying the fresh ingredients that I need. Overtime, while spending on condiments and spices can be an up-front cost, it will save money in the long run.
That being said, you don’t need to go as crazy as I do. Cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, cumin, oregano, paprika, salt, freshly ground pepper, cinnamon, vanilla extract, rosemary, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder and thyme will get you through most recipes. Maybe a curry powder, ground coriander and nutmeg if you’re feeling fancy. I skip packaged seasonings for chili, tacos and the like and make my own with my spices on hand.
I go through a lot of spices, but if you find that you don’t- opt for the small jars. Spices do go bad and if you aren’t rotating through your supply, you’ll want to replenish every year or so.
If you are trying a new recipe and aren’t sure if you like a certain spice, or find that you don’t want to buy a jar of something that you’ll only use a handful of times- buy in bulk. Our Fresh Thyme and Whole Foods has a small bulk spice section that’s perfect for purchasing a teaspoon or two. Since these bags often cost only pennies, it’s a nice way to stock up without spending a lot.
Having a wide variety of spices, oils and vinegars also allows you to make your own sauces at a fraction of the cost. I don’t buy packaged versions of marinades, stir-fry sauces or dressings. Not only do they not taste as good as homemade, they are often a lot more expensive then if I were to quickly whip up my own version. For these, I’ve always got soy sauce (or tamari), rice wine vinegar, olive oil, red wine vinegar, chili garlic sauce, tahini and white wine vinegar in my pantry.
Like I mentioned in this post, I’ve got a knack for creating extra meals with a small amount of ingredients. They’re not going to win any Top Chef honors, but they almost always work in a pinch.
If I’ve got a handful of produce leftover, that’s my cue to either make a pasta, egg or tofu scramble or tacos. Even a small amount of spinach, tomato and canned artichoke hearts can transform into a delicious bowl of healthy pasta. Soups and salads are my other go-to, as it’s hard to mess those up.
From there, I think about grain bowls. By the end of the week (or a long few days of testing), I’ve got small jars of cooked grains, vegetables and sauces from other meals. Experiment with what tastes good together. Some of my favorite meals have come from this need to use what we have. My recent Butternut Squash Tahini bowl was inspired by a meal of leftover couscous, roasted squash and a tahini sauce.
If you’re more purposeful, abide by the cook once, eat twice motto. I’m sharing a full week of meal planning on Friday and I’ve got two recipes next week that are in this same spirit, if you’re looking for ideas. However, it doesn’t need to be complicated. Sometimes it’s cheaper to buy and cook in bulk, so repurpose in meals that make the most sense to your family.
Here’s where I’ll make the case for plant-based eating. You know what’s expensive? Meat. Especially if you favor the organic, grass-fed kind. You know what’s not? Grains and dried beans. I’m a big fan of complex carbohydrates, which I’ve made the case for several, several times. They are healthy, inexpensive and the cornerstone of my diet. This type of eating is also backed by countless studies of the relationship between a predominately plant-based diet and overall longevity, lowered cancer risk, lower BMI and lowered diabetes risk.
We eat some form of legumes, whether dried lentils or canned beans almost daily. At less than a buck a can, they are a great way to get in essential protein and fiber. Plus, they don’t really spoil. My pantry is packed with different kinds of lentils (green, black and brown are my favorite) plus canned beans in every variety. If I need a quick meal in a pinch, I’ll open a can of beans, find a grain, use whatever produce we have and call it a bowl night. Since I’ve got my pantry stocked with lots of spices and condiments, I can have a DIY sauce in no time.
Grains are pretty inexpensive as well, including whole-grain pastas, couscous, bulgur wheat, farro, and quinoa. These are also fairly quick cooking grains and taste great cold in salads, in soups or as a side.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, these are the tips that work best for my family. I always love your feedback, what works for you?
The Ultimate Plant-Based Protein Cookbook + Course
(Includes 40+ recipes!)
FREE 7-DAY COURSE + COOKBOOK
(7 comments) leave a comment
Hi! I love all of your recipes, and have come to trust your wisdom :). I have been scouring your website and have not yet found where you talk about quality of rice. Your info on organic in this post was awesome. How important is organic brown and white rice? Thanks!
Hi Cassie– really depends on what you are looking for. When it comes to rice, my concern is usually related to arsenic content– which doesn’t matter whether it’s organic or conventional. Where rice comes from is more important than organic vs. not with arsenic levels and you can reduce levels by consuming both broth and white rice, rinsing rice and cooking rice like pasta. I DON’T stress about rice and levels– but I don’t consume rice every day and try not to consume lots of gluten-free rice-based products. Hope the helps!
Thank you Alex, that’s helpful! You mentioned WHERE it comes from is most important. Where do we want it to come from, ideally?
That’s a little tricky as the soil content can vary but in the latest FDA report and Consumer Report, White rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. on average has half of the arsenic amount of most other types of rice. Rice from the southern part of the US– like Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, has more. Brown rice has 80 percent more arsenic on average than white rice because arsenic accumulates in the outer bran layer, which is removed for white rice. But, it has more nutrients so I serve both in my house. Like white rice, brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan has about a third less arsenic than other brown rices.
Wow, I am just so impressed with your responsiveness. Thank you so much for taking the time. This is extremely helpful!!
Hi Alex, thanks for this excellent post. I also believe that organic food isn’t any healthier than conventionally grown produce. Besides organic farming is more costly and labor-intensive.
Great post Alex! So many people don’t realize how you can really shop healthy on a budget, and I love this simple list to make it possible! I don’t buy organic but follow the same principle and instead rely on the fresh, flavorful and seasonal items. When in doubt, frozen usually wins!