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Frugal meals could convert you

September 30, 2009|By ANDREA WEIGL / Raleigh News and Observer

Linda Watson wants to reduce greenhouse gases -- one pot of beans at a time.

The 53-year-old Raleigh, N.C., woman has developed a cooking method that she hopes will help people eat healthy, low-cost meals that use less energy, send less waste to the landfill and create a smaller carbon footprint. She preaches her method on her Web site, www.cookforgood.com.

"I want to change the world," Watson says, seated at her dining-room table over a lunch of red bean chili, corn, carrot sticks and yogurt. "I would like people to eat differently; if they do nothing else than make a pot of beans once a week to replace a meat meal."

Over two days, Watson spends 4-1/2 hours cooking the foundation of a week's worth of meals.

On average, her meals cost $1.12 per person -- 49 cents less than the state's food-stamp allowance for a family of four.

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Watson, a IBM project manager turned Web-site designer, became a convert almost two years ago.

She and her husband were what she describes as "flexitarians" or vegetarians who occasionally ate meat, for instance, when invited for dinner at other people's homes. They ate canned pasta sauce and commercial ice cream and sometimes ordered pizza.

Two things spurred her to rethink their eating and cooking habits: hearing about an Ohio congressman's struggle to feed himself on a food-stamp budget, and Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma." The book, she says, made one point that bothered her -- that poor people should shop the grocery store's middle aisles, where processed food reigns, to get the most calories for their money.

"I wanted to enter the conversation," she says. "It is possible to eat delicious healthy food for a dollar a meal."

In the summer of 2007, she told her husband, Bruce, about her wish to spend no more than $1 per person per meal for a week. She said he didn't have to participate. His response: "Go for it."

Watson, a spunky woman with an explosive laugh, recalls that first shopping trip at Harris Teeter as a disaster. After a full workday, it took 2-1/2 hours to spend $42 on a week's worth of meals. The next morning wasn't any better. Her French bread hadn't risen enough, producing a puny loaf for breakfast. "We're doomed," her husband said when he walked into the kitchen. Laughter ensued, and things eventually got better.

After a week, they expanded the experiment to three months, spending $1.53 a meal per person, which was the food-stamp allowance at the time, and changed where they shopped each month.

Watson wanted to try one month of shopping at Whole Foods and the Durham Farmers Market to see whether organic, sustainable food cost more. (The answer is yes, but not very much; her "green" meals cost about 75 cents more per serving in February.)

At the end of three months, she and her husband had each lost 10 pounds. Both report feeling better on this diet. She was making sandwiches and yogurt from scratch. Their trash and recyclables diminished significantly. Over time, she developed the routine that she uses today.

One evening, she makes bread dough (a method using a whisk that doesn't require any kneading), yogurt and pudding; she also soaks two kinds of dried beans. The next day, she cooks the beans, bakes the bread and a dessert and makes pizza dough and two sauces to use on the pizza and pasta.

She tries to keep dishwashing to a minimum, using the same pot to make yogurt and pudding; she reasons that it saves water and time. She tries to reduce the amount of energy used to cook food by doing all the baking at once; she occasionally roasts vegetables while baking cookies.

The contents of her refrigerator reflect her focus on home cooking: the shelves are fairly bare but the fruit and vegetable drawers are full. Her freezer is stocked with leftover split-pea soup, ripe bananas, homemade peach ice cream base and yogurt starter. She also has a plastic container filled with bean soaking liquid and the water used to rinse out tomato cans. She uses it as a base for "stoup," a cross between a stew and a soup that she makes at the end of each month.

Watson isn't a nutritionist, but she thinks her menus provide a balanced diet. Freda Butner, a dietitian with the N.C. Department of Agriculture, reviewed Watson's Web site at our request and applauded her for making yogurt and having a menu high in fiber, folic acid and thiamin. She cautioned that the diet didn't appear to provide enough calcium, which could be corrected with some cheese and more milk. She said that others might need more variety in their menus than Watson and her husband have, but that can be addressed with frozen or canned vegetables, canned tuna or salmon and dried fruits. An additional 50 cents per person per meal would add more variety, Butner says.

Watson certainly has her fans. Jan Leitschuh of Southern Pines, N.C., discovered Watson's Web site via a local foods online mailing list. Her reaction to these low-cost healthful meals: "Holy cow! How useful in these times."

She continued: "It's inexpensive food prepared simply, and highly nutritious. A lot of cheap food is starch and highly processed. Here is someone teaching people how to cook from scratch."

That is part of Watson's motivation: Even if you are not struggling financially, learning how to cook healthy meals for little money is a valuable skill.

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