It’s no secret that Americans eat a lot of fast food. In 2014, Britain’s Daily Mail reported that the average American eats fast food twice a week, spending a total of $1,200 a year. That’s a big problem for our budgets as well as our waistlines. And fast food isn’t exactly the most satisfying choice, either – physically or emotionally.
Unfortunately, for a lot of Americans, it’s also a habit that is hard to break. According to the Daily Mail article, many Americans rely on fast food because it fits into a busy schedule; because it’s easy to eat in front of the TV; or simply because they’re used to it. Roughly one out of 10 survey respondents said they had tried to give up fast food in the past without success, and one out of five described themselves as “addicted” to it.
Enter the Slow Food movement. Started in Italy in the 1980s, this movement aims to highlight the problems with fast food and offer up a healthier, more satisfying alternative. Organizations like Slow Food USA hope to teach Americans the joys of a more leisurely way of eating that is better for their health and for the planet.
If you’re one of those Americans who wants to quit fast food but doesn’t know how, Slow Food is worth a look. This kind of eating can be better for you, the planet, and your taste buds. And better still, learning to eat the Slow Food way can help you cut your food bills at the same time.
What “Slow Food” Means
Slow Food is meant to be the opposite of fast food in every way. The movement got its start when McDonald’s tried to open a new franchise in Rome in 1986. A group of protestors gathered at the site of the proposed restaurant to share a meal and chant, “We don’t want fast food; we want slow food.”
Three years later, delegates from 15 countries met in Paris to found the official Slow Food movement. Together, the delegates signed the official Slow Food Manifesto, pledging to “escape the tediousness of ‘fast-food'” and “rediscover the rich varieties and aromas of local cuisines.”
Problems With Fast Food
Criticisms of fast food these days tend to center on health. The Daily Mail story notes that nearly half the people who responded to the survey on fast food admitted to being overweight or obese, implying that all the fried chicken and pizza they eat is likely to blame for their size. The American media is likewise prone to tut-tutting articles about all the fat, sugar, and salt in fast food and the damage it does to the body. Lately, some fast-food chains have tried to fend off these charges by adding healthier items, such as salads and wraps, to their menus.
However, the Slow Food movement points out that problems with fast food go beyond health. For one thing, the whole point of fast food is that it’s easy to eat on the run – which isn’t very satisfying, either physically or emotionally. Going through the drive-through to grab a quick burger and eating it straight out of the bag in your car is nothing like sitting down to a multicourse meal with your family or friends and chatting as you savor each dish.
Then there’s the effect fast food has on the environment. One Green Planet calculates that a single fast-food burger has a carbon footprint of 1 to 3.5 kilograms – not even counting the methane produced by the cow. On top of that, there are environmental impacts from packaging waste, transportation, and pollution from factory farms.
Finally, there’s the actual cost in dollars. Fast food is cheap compared to other kinds of restaurant meals, but it’s still far more expensive than home cooking. According to the Daily Mail article, a typical fast-food meal costs $12.50, but a single home-cooked meal on the USDA Low-Cost Meal Plan costs less than $3.
What Slow Food Stands For
Slow Food aims to counter all the problems with fast food – health, environmental, and social. According to Slow Food USA, Slow Food’s three main principles are that food should be “good, clean, and fair.” In other words, it should be healthy and delicious, and also produced in ways that are safe for the environment and workers.
Specifically, the Slow Food movement promotes:
- Fresh, Delicious Food. The Slow Food Manifesto says food should be a “tranquil material pleasure” that delights the senses. Slow Food calls for cooking with natural, high-quality ingredients rather than heavily processed foods. The natural flavors and aromas of the food should shine through, rather than being covered up with added sugar and salt.
- More Relaxed Meals. Another important part of enjoying food is taking the time to savor it. The Slow Food Manifesto calls for “slow and prolonged enjoyment,” both in preparing food and in eating it. Followers of Slow Food believe in taking plenty of time to cook a meal and then sit down to enjoy it – ideally while surrounded by family and friends.
- Human Health. Slow Food doesn’t just taste good, it’s also good for you. According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy diet features a variety of whole, minimally-processed foods – vegetables and fruits, grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, legumes, seafood, nuts, and oils. At the same time, it cuts down on added sugar, salt, and trans fats. This whole-food approach to eating is exactly in tune with Slow Food’s goal of serving food in its natural state.
- Environmental Health. Choosing less processed food is better for the environment, as well. Highly processed foods require a lot more water, energy, and other resources to produce, as well as create packaging waste. Slow Food also promotes environmental health by urging people to choose foods that are in season and locally grown, which means they tend to be fresher and better-tasting, as well. The movement promotes sustainable farming and opposes the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). All this means that choosing a Slow Food diet can help you reduce your carbon footprint and tread more lightly on the earth.
- Animal Welfare. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), over 99% of all food animals in the United States come from factory farms. These giant farms overcrowd animals, let waste pile up in their living areas, provide little to no veterinary care, and sometimes clip off tails, toes, or beaks. The Slow Food movement opposes factory farming and supports smaller-scale farms that treat animals humanely.
- The Rights of Farm Workers. Slow Food promotes fair treatment for people as well as animals. The movement recognizes that the workers who grow and harvest food are an essential link in the food chain and fights to protect their rights. This includes lobbying for fair wages and against the use of dangerous chemicals that harm workers’ health. Slow Food often includes products with the Fair Trade label, which guarantees a fair price to farmers in developing countries and fair treatment to their workers.
- Local Food Cultures. You can go into any fast-food restaurant anywhere in the world and get pretty much the same meal you’d find at any other. Slow Food, by contrast, offers up an array of dishes that vary widely from place to place. Slow Food aims to preserve local recipes and old-fashioned food traditions. In the words of Slow Food USA, the movement uses food as a way to “cultivate joyful connections to community and place.”
What Slow Food Does Not Mean
To some people, the goals of the Slow Food movement sound like a nice, albeit impractical, idea. They worry that adopting a Slow Food diet would be too expensive, or would involve too big a change in the way they eat. However, this doesn’t have to be the case.
Here are a few things a Slow Food diet does not need to be:
- Fancy. Stories about Slow Food often focus on elaborate gourmet dishes loaded with fancy ingredients like organic radicchio, portobello mushrooms, or pancetta. This gives a misleading impression that Slow Food has to be fancy or complicated, which isn’t the case. A perfectly simple meal, such as a bowl of chili, can be Slow Food as long as the chili is made from fresh, whole ingredients instead of poured out of a can. In fact, part of the goal of the Slow Food movement is to honor the traditional recipes of the place you live. Switching completely from this kind of traditional fare to “nouvelle cuisine” completely misses the point.
- Organic. In its FAQ, Slow Food USA stresses that Slow Food doesn’t have to be organic food. It points out that there are many small farms that grow food in ways that are healthy for workers and for the planet, but don’t have organic certification because they can’t afford it or can’t meet the strict rules for certification. At the same time, there are some farms that meet all the technical requirements for organic growing, yet aren’t always fair to their workers or kind to their animals. The group concludes that the best way to meet the Slow Food goal of eating “clean” is to “learn the story behind your food,” and choose food from farms whose practices match your values.
- Vegetarian. The Slow Food movement doesn’t oppose eating meat on principle. However, it stresses that all meat – as well as eggs and dairy – should come from animals “raised with a high quality of life.” Raising animals this way is more expensive, and the products that come from them cost a lot more per pound. However, Slow Food argues that it makes more sense to spend $8 on a single pound of grass-fed beef from healthy cattle than to pay the same $8 for two or three pounds of factory-farmed beef, which doesn’t taste as good anyway. Eating better meat in smaller quantities costs the same and has a smaller impact on the earth.
- Expensive. Some folks have criticized the Slow Food movement as being elitist. They argue that looking down on fast food, which is popular with the working class, is snobbery. On a more practical level, they point out that the kind of ingredients Slow Food promotes – fresh, high-quality foods from sustainable farms – are often too expensive for working-class people to afford. However, Slow Food doesn’t need to be pricey any more than it needs to be fancy. After all, the movement started with protestors in Rome sharing big bowls of penne, which you can buy at any supermarket for $1 a pound. There are lots of inexpensive dishes, such as homemade soup, pasta, or even a vegetable omelet, that meet all the goals of Slow Food without breaking the bank.
Benefits of Slow Food
There’s no doubt that Slow Food takes more work than fast food. You’ll spend more time shopping, cooking, and eating a home-cooked meal than you will dashing through the fast-food drive-through. But Slow Food pays you back for this extra effort by delivering a wide variety of benefits:
- Save Money. Cooking healthy meals from scratch is much cheaper than eating out – even at a fast-food place. Each time you replace a fast-food meal that costs an average of $12.50 with a home-cooked meal for $3.50, you save $9. Do this twice a week, and you can save over $900 a year.
- Improve Health. It’s a lot easier to eat healthy when you do your own shopping and cooking. You know exactly what goes into every meal you make, and you can choose to cook with healthy oils and limit the sugar or salt you add. Of course, unlike the money you save by skipping the fast-food drive-through, the benefits of eating healthier don’t show up right away. But in the long run, you’re likely to find that you look and feel better. And because your healthy diet makes you less likely to get sick, you could end up saving even more money in reduced healthcare costs.
- Improve Relationships. Slow Food can also improve your relationships with other people. Sitting down to a leisurely meal with your family or with a group of friends gives you plenty of time to talk and bond together. In addition, Slow Food gives you a chance to build new relationships by getting to know the other people who help the food get from the field to your plate. Visiting a local farmers’ market and asking growers about how they run their farms, or chatting with the clerk at the corner store about which veggies are organic, is a much more social experience than pushing a cart through the Mega-Mart.
- Do Good. When you eat the Slow Food way, you don’t just help yourself; you also help others. Each time you shop, you’ll know you’re doing your part to help farm workers, protect animals, and preserve the environment. You won’t change the world all by yourself, but you’ll be part of a movement that just might.
- More Pleasure. For many Slow Food fans, all these perks are nice, but the real bottom line is enjoyment. The chief benefit of Slow Food is being able to make delicious meals that it’s a joy to sit down to. Coming home and spending an hour preparing a homemade butternut squash pizza with sage is more work than calling up Domino’s – but all that effort is rewarded when you sit down, pour yourself a glass of wine, and bite into a chewy crust topped with sweet, tender squash and fresh herbs.
Slow Food on a Budget
News stories about Slow Food often present it as a trend for the rich. They highlight food items like pasture-raised turkeys that cost $125 each, or artisanal cheeses for $9 a pound, and interview earnest shoppers who say it’s worth paying these prices for real quality. Reading these stories, it’s easy to get the impression that Slow Food is simply too expensive for most people.
Fortunately, there are ways around this problem. With a little knowledge and effort, you can enjoy Slow Food on a budget that is well within reach for the average worker. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average American household spends about $600 a month on food, and you can easily make all or most of your meals Slow Food for that amount.
Cook at Home
A meal made at home is always cheaper than dining out. When you eat out, only about one-fifth of the price you pay for your meal goes toward the food itself; the rest pays for the restaurant’s other expenses, such as the building, cooks, waitstaff, and so on. If you’re used to eating out most of the time, cooking all or most of your meals at home can cut your food budget by up to 80%.
Of course, cooking your own meals also takes longer than swinging by the drive-through. As the Daily Mail story noted, the main reason Americans give for relying so heavily on fast food is that they’re too busy to cook every night. However, with the right kitchen tools, you can cut down on cooking time significantly – so your Slow Food meal can get on the table faster.
Time-saving gadgets for the kitchen include:
- Microwaves. A microwave oven can speed up all kinds of kitchen tasks. You can use it to thaw meat quickly or cook veggies to perfect tender-crispness in under a minute. It also makes great, fluffy rice and can cook up crisp bacon with less grease and less mess than a skillet. With the right recipe, you can even use it for baking. And, crucially, you can use your microwave to heat up dinner leftovers for a quick lunch, which means you can enjoy Slow Food even in the middle of a busy day.
- Pressure Cookers. For some types of cooking, a pressure cooker works even faster than a microwave. It can cook dry beans in as little as 20 minutes if they’ve been soaked first, and in less than an hour and a half without soaking. It also greatly speeds up the cooking time for whole grains like brown rice or barley. It can make delicious homemade risotto in minutes without the need for constant stirring. It’s also great for homemade stock, tender braised meats, and even cheesecake.
- Slow Cookers. While microwaves and pressure cookers are great for quick cooking, there are some dishes that can’t be rushed. They need a long, slow cooking over low heat to bring out their flavor. However, just because some dishes take time doesn’t mean it has to be your time. With a slow cooker, you can load up the crock before you leave for work and have a hot meal ready and waiting when you come home in the evening.
Cook From Scratch
If you’re new to cooking, you probably rely fairly heavily on convenience foods. Your “home-cooked” meal could be a TV dinner heated up in the microwave, or a rotisserie chicken from the store with a side of instant mashed potatoes. This is cheaper than a restaurant meal, but it’s still more expensive than cooking from scratch – and in most cases, not nearly as tasty or healthy. Replacing those pricey convenience items with fresh, whole ingredients will bring your home cooking more in line with Slow Food goals and save you money at the same time.
If you’re not used to cooking from scratch, here are a few tips to get started:
- Get a Good Cookbook. A good cookbook is a new cook’s best friend. A great one to start with is “Good and Cheap” by Leanne Brown, which is full of Slow Food recipes you can make on a really tight budget – no more than $4 a day. You can buy it as a bound book in either English or Spanish, download it from Brown’s website as a free PDF, or view the individual recipes online. You can also search the Web to find other cookbooks written for newbie cooks.
- Use Online Recipes. If you can’t decide on a cookbook, search for recipes online. Cooking sites like AllRecipes and Delish offer a huge variety of recipes you can download for free. Start with simple recipes for cheap and easy meals that don’t call for too many different ingredients or cooking techniques. Then, over time, you can work your way up to more complicated ones.
- Start Slowly. If the shift to cooking from scratch seems intimidating, ease into it gradually. For instance, you could replace a frozen lasagna with a homemade one that uses sauce from a jar. Once you’re comfortable with that, you could try making your own sauce from canned crushed tomatoes. Eventually, you could work your way up to cooking down fresh tomatoes into a sauce that’s 100% homemade.
- Prep Ahead of Time. If you don’t have the time to cook from scratch on weeknights, try doing part of the work ahead of time. For instance, you can make the sauce for a spaghetti dinner over the weekend, so all you have to do on Monday is heat it up while you cook the noodles. You can also chop all the vegetables for a stir-fry in the morning, or even the night before, and stash them in the fridge. That way, when you come home from work, you can just toss them in the pan.
Eat Less Meat and Dairy
Meat and dairy products are two of the priciest foods in most people’s shopping carts. According to food price charts from the BLS , ground beef cost around $4.07 a pound in January 2018, and cheddar cheese cost about $5.02 a pound. By contrast, most fresh fruits, vegetables, and grain products cost less than $2 a pound.
If you’re making a point of buying sustainably grown foods, the price markup for meat and dairy is even higher. A Consumer Reports story on the cost of organic food found that organic meat and dairy products could cost as much as 167% more than conventional versions. By contrast, organic fruits and veggies were often as cheap as the conventional kind, or barely more expensive.
This means if you want to eat an eco-friendly Slow Food diet, cutting down on meat and dairy is one of the best ways to save money. It’s also the single most important thing you can do to shrink the carbon footprint of your food. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), meats and cheeses produce between 6.9 and 39.2 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per kilogram of food, while tofu and dry beans produce only 2 kilograms.
You can save the most money, and have the biggest environmental impact, by cutting out meat completely and becoming a vegetarian. However, if you don’t want to go this far, there are several other ways to enjoy a diet with less meat and dairy:
- Cut the Amount. Make the same recipes you enjoy now, but with less meat. For instance, if you normally use a pound of ground beef in your spaghetti sauce, cut it down to half a pound. You’ll still get the flavor and texture the meat provides, but at less cost. You can do the same thing with cheese, reducing the amount you add to recipes like pizza or enchiladas.
- Substitute. You can also substitute other protein-rich foods for meat in your recipes. For instance, replace the meat in your chili with an equal volume of beans. Or, instead of adding chicken to your stir-fry, try using tofu.
- Go Ethnic. The traditional American diet tends to make meat the centerpiece of the meal. To cut your meat use, switch it up and try some dishes from other cuisines. Dishes like pad thai, minestrone, or fried rice use small amounts of meat to add flavor without building the whole meal around it.
- Go Meatless Occasionally. Even if you don’t go vegetarian, you can enjoy vegetarian dishes sometimes. The EWG offers a gourmet vegetarian recipe to everyone who takes its “Meatless Monday” pledge, promising to go without meat at least once a week.
One of the goals of Slow Food is to promote local food cultures, and one way to do this is to buy food that’s actually grown in your area. Locally grown food is often tastier and more nutritious because it doesn’t take as long to get from the farm to your plate. Also, local farmers can offer varieties of produce that aren’t sold in stores because they don’t ship well. Local produce tends to have a lower carbon footprint, as well – partly because it hasn’t been shipped as far, and partly because it’s more likely to come from small family farms that are sustainably run.
The easiest way to eat local on a budget is to shop at your local farmers’ market. This gives you a chance to meet the people who grow your food and ask questions about how they farm. You can find farmers’ markets in your area through Local Harvest.
Prices at farmers’ markets are sometimes higher than supermarket prices, but not always. A study by the Vermont Department of Agriculture found that organic produce at farmers’ markets was “almost always competitively priced” with organic produce in supermarkets. Farm-raised meats were competitively priced more than half the time.
You can save even more on local produce by joining a CSA program. In a CSA, which stands for Community-Supported Agriculture, farmers sell shares of their crop directly to buyers for a flat yearly fee. Local Harvest can put you in touch with farmers near you offering CSA shares.
A study of CSA prices done by the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program found that a typical CSA share cost $22.28 per week. The average delivery contained 14.55 pounds of produce, which works out to about $1.53 per pound. The same amount of food at a supermarket would have cost 1.4 to 1.5 times as much.
Grow Your Own
If you can spare the time, the cheapest way of all to enjoy local produce is to start a home vegetable garden and grow your own. After all, you can’t get much more local than your own backyard.
Gardening can offer great value. I crunched the numbers on my own backyard garden and found that with about $43 worth of seeds, plants, and compost, I was able to grow about $234 worth of fresh produce. My garden is pretty small – around 100 square feet – so a bigger one could offer an even bigger profit.
However, tending a garden also takes work. You have to dig the ground and plant the seeds in the spring, water the crops and pull weeds all summer, and pick veggies through the summer and fall. If you can’t spare an hour or two each week to take care of your garden, you’re better off looking for other sources of produce. On the other hand, if you really enjoy spending time outdoors with your hands in the dirt, gardening can be a relaxing hobby as well as a source of cheap, delicious food.
If you’d love to plant a garden, but don’t have the space, there are a few ways to get around the problem:
- Container Gardening. If you have a small outdoor space, such as a patio, deck, or balcony, you can use it to grow vegetables in large pots. Plants that grow well in containers include tomatoes, peppers, green beans, lettuce, and carrots. A container garden doesn’t need as much tending as a regular in-ground garden, since it’s harder for weeds to sprout in the pots. However, it needs to be watered more often, since the small containers of soil can dry out easily.
- Window Box Gardening. If you have no outdoor space at all, you can still garden on a small scale with a sunny window. Make sure to choose one that gets six to eight hours of full sunlight, which is what most vegetables need to thrive. A window box planter is good for growing fresh herbs, which are one of the most expensive foods to buy at the store. Window boxes can also be used for greens, such as lettuce and spinach, and edible flowers, such as nasturtiums.
- Community Gardening. Consider joining a community garden, if your neighborhood has one. These are shared plots of land in the middle of a city or town where residents can grow flowers and vegetables. Most community gardens have a common area where people gather, as well as individual beds people can sign up for to grow the crops of their choice.
Hunt for Bargains
Even at regular stores, it’s possible to find gourmet ingredients on a budget if you shop strategically. Here are a few tricks to try:
- Choose Store Brands. Many grocery stores these days offer high-end or organic house brands in addition to their usual store brand. For instance, Stop & Shop/Giant has a line of gourmet products called “Simply Enjoy” and a line of natural and organic products called “Nature’s Promise.” Even the budget grocery retailer Aldi is getting in on the act with its “Simply Nature” and “Specially Selected” products. An analysis on Ecofrugal Living found that organic products at Aldi were almost as cheap as the conventional versions at other stores, and sometimes even cheaper.
- Use Coupons. Using coupons for Slow Food is tricky, since most coupons are for processed foods rather than the whole, fresh foods you want for Slow Food. However, you can find some coupons for fresh foods on the websites of their distributors, such as Driscoll’s Berries and Earthbound Farm, which produces organic bagged salads. You can also save on fresh foods with rewards apps like SavingStar and Target’s Cartwheel app.
- Buy in Bulk – Sometimes. Some ingredients are quite a bit cheaper when you buy them in bulk. For instance, spices sold in bulk bins at natural food stores tend to be cheaper than the same spices in jars. Olive oil also costs less per quart when you buy it in a big three-liter can than in a small bottle. However, it’s a mistake to buy anything in bulk that could go bad before you get a chance to use it up, such as fresh herbs.
- Buy Marked-Down Produce. Many stores have a bargain bin where they toss all the fruit and veggies that don’t sell. Some of these are past their prime, but others are damaged in ways that affect only their looks, not their flavor. For instance, you might find knobbly carrots, stunted onions, or scarred pomegranates. You can pick up this kind of “ugly” produce at a significant discount and suffer no loss of flavor.
- Buy Online. Many ingredients are much cheaper to buy online than they are in stores. For instance, Fair Trade, organic cocoa powder usually costs $15 or more per pound in stores, but Dean’s Beans sells it in five-pound bags for $9 a pound (plus shipping). The global shortage of vanilla beans has driven prices up to $5 or more per bean in most stores, but the “vanilla products” store on eBay offers them for as little as $2.50 each with free shipping.
Cooking and eating Slow Food in your own home is a great experience all on its own. However, if you really want to promote the ideas of Slow Food, you can do even more by joining together with others in your area.
Slow Food USA has over 200 local chapters spread across the country where members come together to take part in food-related events. Some of these are both fun and educational, such as festivals that celebrate local food. Some are purely educational, such as lectures on the problems of factory farming or classes that teach gardening skills to students. And others are political, such as lobbying for laws to promote sustainable farming.
By joining a Slow Food USA chapter, you can continue to learn more about how to eat healthy on a budget, and help spread the idea to others at the same time. You can find your local chapter on the Slow Food USA website.
How often do you cook at home? What would make it easier for you to cook for yourself more often?