The new balanced diet: prioritizing nutrition, cost and foodie concerns

The title of a new report by the Environmental Working Group could very well be my grocery shopping mantra: “Good Food on a Tight Budget.” But my favorite part about this new report, which features all sorts of user-friendly food tips and recipes, is that it attempts to make “good food” accessible to more people through a key grocery shopping ingredient: prioritizing.

Few people can afford to devote the time, energy and money it takes to eat the most environmentally sustainable, grass-fed, whale-saving, hormone-, pesticide- and guilt-free foods all the time. Plus, that doesn’t leave room for much variety, since every food comes with its share of caveats. Sometimes the heartiest exercise my brain gets is standing in the grocery aisles, weighing the pros and cons of every bit of print on that packaging and hoping I don’t, with one poor buying decision, effectively undo all the good ones I’ve made thus far.


The folks at EWG did some of that grocery-aisle thinking for you in this report, reviewing government surveys and tests for nearly 1,200 foods in the process. So what was their methodology?

“We looked at food prices, nutrients, pesticides, environmental pollutants and artificial ingredients and picked the top 100 or so foods that ranked best on balance.”

Then they had it reviewed by a host of experts. The lists and references in the report are a great place to start, especially for those intimidated by all the food buzzwords and unclear about which ones matter. Another factor to consider is which fruits and vegetables are local and in season. Perusing farmers markets this time of year will give you a good sense for that. In-season foods taste exponentially better (I wondered this week if maybe, just maybe, that fruit that Eve fell for in the garden was a Virginia-grown peach, or something like it).


There’s so much to consider while food shopping. So what’s on my short list for grocery considerations?

  • Buy from the farmer when possible.
  • If not, look for terms like “locally grown,” “organic,” “grass-fed” or “free-range” on meats and eggs, “no additives or hormones,” etc. Here’s a rundown of buzz words.
  • And then, the most important part, flip over the carton or package and read the label. If it’s the right kind of food, this shouldn’t take too long.
  • Look for works like “hydrogenated,” which means there is trans fat in it — even if it says “0% trans fat.” They don’t have to claim it if it’s less than 1 percent. If you see this word, put. it. back. That means something that should be a liquid is a solid and other unnatural things that do odd things to your fat cells are present.
  • A general rule of thumb: if there are so many words in the ingredients list that you don’t want to read it, you probably shouldn’t get it. And whichever ingredient is listed first is generally the ingredient that is present in the highest proportions. So if that first word is “sugar,” rethink the purchase.
  • When at a farmer’s market or even your local grocer, don’t be afraid to ask questions. I know, I know, I felt like I was straight out of a Portlandia episode last time I asked if a slab of pork was grass-fed (we were tempted to continue, just to make fun of ourselves, “But was the little piggy happy?”)
  • Go with a plan! This is what works best for me, to enter those auto-opening doors at Trader Joe’s armed with a list. Every item I buy has a place in a meal or a snack I’m making that week, besides a few items I just like to have handy. Going without a plan is risky business for me.
Our load from a visit to Polyface Farms, the epicenter of know-your-farmer.

Even seasoned foodies might have something to glean from the Good Food report. It was, for me, a reminder to work more beans into my life, especially ones I’ve never tried like mungo. And — who knew? — goat is the world’s most commonly eaten meat! Now, where to get it in, say, the DC area? I’ll have to let you know once I figure that out.

The report goes beyond the typical work of EWG, which puts out a Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 report each year to help consumers prioritize their organic purchases. It’s the first comprehensive guide like it that teases out the most nutritious, economical and least polluted fruits, veggies, protein-sources, grains and dairy goods. So which foods come in as sort of all-around winners? Here’s a sampling:

  • Fruit: Watermelon is an all-around winner on price, pesticide-free potential and nutrition (a great source of hydration for run-around kids in the summer, too). It also grows in most parts of the country and can be found locally.
  • Green veggies: Broccoli was a clear winner on price and pesticide-free potential. Most other leafy greens, while wonderful for variety, sometimes carry higher pesticide levels if non-organic. I read recently about the surprising trajectory of broccoli from a little-known Italian veg to American superiority today.
  • Colored veggies: Tomatoes. These are a dime-a-dozen the right time of year. Grow ‘em if you can (my attempts failed this year) or buy them locally while in season. If buying them canned (a cheaper option year-round) look for low sodium.Image
  • Other grains: Barley. I’ve been wanting to work this into more of our diet, like soups or baking, since a grain farmer told me about its stellar health profile. Sure, it’s especially great made into beer, but maybe we can experiment with other options, especially since its cheap to buy in raw form and go from there!
  • Fish: Fresh or frozen Alaskan or Pacific salmon is best, though canned is an option (it grosses me out, with the bones and such). My preference is Pacific, but since I’m on the wrong coast these days, I’m buying Atlantic.
  • Dairy: Try using dry milk mixed with water in recipes to save on cost. I don’t bake much, but this could be a big cost saver for folks that do (and don’t insist that the liquid stuff is better for it… can anyone speak from experience on that?)
  • Cooking fats: Olive oil is my preference for cooking, but canola or corn are cheaper. Look for organic options in those if you want to avoid genetically modified additions.

Check out the report yourself for the full skinny on eating healthfully and inexpensively.

3 Responses to “The new balanced diet: prioritizing nutrition, cost and foodie concerns”
  1. rachelps says:

    I love that episode of Portlandia!

  2. It’s amazing to me sometimes that “food” has gotten so complicated — but as the report and your article show, keep with “real” food (i.e food that is not processed) , preferably in season, and you will be better off. That of course assume that we we all learn back the basic of cooking: making a simple sauce, knowing how to stir-fry or roast… simple nourishing every day family food.

    I just want to add a couple of comments: home-rendered lard from a pastured pig is a fat alternative. Olive oil bought in bulk (especially when on sale) is not necessarily more expensive than corn or canola (especially the organic kind). And finally, let’s remember that Atlantic Salmon does not mean it’s coming from the Atlantic. I wish. No, Atlantic Salmon is a species of Salmon, naturally found in the Atlantic, now also in the Pacific…. and almost always farmed. It’s very difficult to buy wild Atlantic salmon. If it does not say wild, one may assumed it is farmed — something to think about. And those canned bones contains lots of minerals, including calcium.

    Also from experience, having tried it for the sake of it, yes, making ice-cream, custard, flan, clafouti and other milk-based dishes with real milk – instead of powdered milk – is vastly superior.

    All the best.

    • whitneypipkin says:

      Thank you Sylvie for sharing your wisdom! The Atlantic salmon reminder and powdered milk comparisons are especially keen. Spoken like a true connoisseur of food sources:

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