In an ideal world, I would shop every day at the farmers market, buy the best organic and local ingredients and make three made-from-scratch meals. I would bake my own bread, put up my own tomato sauce and always have homemade ice cream in the freezer.
But my reality exists somewhere between my weekly trip to the grocery store and my occasional swing through a farmers market. My cupboards bear witness to this compromise: homemade fig preserves in my pantry and pizzas stashed in the freezer.
Meeting someone like Linda Watson makes me think: Maybe I can do better.
I first wrote about Watson, 54, of Raleigh, two years ago. The spunky former website developer and project manager had started a website, cookforgood.com, to chronicle her efforts to challenge the assumption that healthy food is expensive. She was responding to news reports about what she saw as a pathetic attempt by an Ohio congressman to feed himself on a food-stamp budget.
Watson's initial three-week attempt to feed herself and her husband for about $1 a meal per person morphed into three months and eventually became a new way of life. She figured out that she could even upgrade to organic ingredients for only $5 a day per person by cooking all meals at home, not wasting food and buying what's in season.
Over the years, Watson developed a system: about five hours of cooking over two days plus some meal assembly each night. She bakes her own bread, makes yogurt and relies heavily on her freezer.
Of course, there are caveats. Watson's meals are vegetarian and use a lot of dried beans, that cheapest of grocery store proteins. She's feeding only herself and her husband. And for most of this time, her job was her website.
Watson has collected the lessons she learned into a book: "Wildly Affordable Organic: Eat Fabulous Food, Get Healthy and Save the Planet All on $5 a Day or Less." She says she wants to help folks "avoid the 6:30 p.m. food panic that forces us to choose processed foods. If you just do these things, you'll make such a difference in your health, your budget and the planet."
Few of us are likely to adopt Watson's entire method, but her book offers smaller steps: a cooking plan that devotes 20 minutes a day to increasing the home-cooked elements of your meals and about 100 recipes, many of which can be enjoyed one night and frozen for easy future meals.
Plus, the first half is filled with tips on being more efficient, environmentally conscious and frugal in the kitchen. I had no idea that shredded cheese can often be a better bargain than block cheese, and she might have convinced me that there's little point in buying fancy olive oil.
What I like most is her simple message that trying to do better doesn't have to be hard. After a few days of eating frozen pizza, I can pick up the book and be inspired to do better with my next meal.