You Get What You Pay For

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On Sunday night, Brandon and I returned from a very long weekend of amazing but exhausting wedding shenanigans to an empty refrigerator. Usually in our house this means time to go to Sprouts, a smallish natural food store chain a few blocks from our house, or occasionally to Whole Foods, but I have been hearing a lot lately (like, a LOT a lot) about Costco and their organic selection, so I thought it was time for us to check it out.

Let me start off by saying that I pretty much never go to Costco, because it terrifies me. But after waiting in line to even get into the parking lot, we managed to wrangle a giant cart and shoved our way into the enormous cave of STUFF. I put my blinders on and wheeled past the wholesale cabinetry, 5-gallon blenders, and build-your-own storage shed kits. After hearing from so many people about what a great organic selection Costco now has, I was sure there was going to be an organic section… I just needed to spot it.

But I pretty quickly realized that there was no organic section. We did find one cooler full of organic chicken breasts, but I am not really a fan of chicken breasts (even when they come in packs of 20), so we kept looking. Finally, we spotted some organic ground beef for $4/pound, but when I turned the package over it said, “Product of United States, Mexico, and Uruguay.” Three countries in two continents contributed to this one packet of meat? Well ok then, never mind.

And that was it. Those were the only two organic meat choices we came across at Costco. We found a few bags of organic frozen fruit, but ultimately decided that it wasn’t worth it to stand in line just to buy a few bags of blueberries that we really did not need in the first place.

Empty-handed, we made our way towards the door, and I finally took a minute to look around at the cases of frozen dino-shaped chicken nuggets, jugs of soda, bricks of cheese, and pallets of goldfish crackers that filled the carts around me. In the past year I have learned so much about food, and I live in this little microcosm full of educated, healthy people who are slowly realizing the importance of closely monitoring the quality of what they eat. But all it takes is about 10 minutes in Costco to remind me that I am still very much in the minority of people who realize that–even disregarding paleo, grain-free, dairy-free, whatever–you will never be healthy if you don’t eat real food.

But below that feeling was something else. As I walked out the door, I actually started to feel pretty guilty.

In the past year I have struggled a lot with the mental shift towards advocating for my food choices, for learning to be ok with being the girl who asks whether there are bread crumbs in the burger patties or milk in the scrambled eggs. But one aspect that I haven’t really addressed is the financial component. I make about $40k a year after taxes, and Brandon, who is a full-time student, is actually actively accruing debt at any given moment by way of student loans. We don’t live in the cheapest part of Denver, we spend $225 a month on CrossFit, and, ohyeah, we are in the middle of planning a wedding, which traditionally are not exactly the cheapest.

So waltzing into Whole Foods and spending $200 a week on food just does not seem like a “responsible” choice, even if that expense is carefully carved into our budget. But these Costco people? In my mind, were being “responsible.” They were feeding their families on bricks of cheese and cases of chicken, enormous bags of chips and incredible amounts of granola bars, all purchased at cents on the dollar. Sure, that cheese might have 30 ingredients and that chicken may come from Mexico and/or Uruguay. But, as I walked out of Costco, I couldn’t help but envy their “responsible” choices.

I carried that feeling around with me through Whole Foods, but as we drove home with bags full of organic, free-range chicken, grass-fed short ribs, wild-caught salmon, and even a few organic tomato starts that we will plant in our own garden, I started to think about the word “responsible.” Why was I feeling like the less responsible option was to rearrange my budget so that I could seek out high quality food? Why was I basically telling myself that being healthy shouldn’t be a financial priority?

This one little realization might be the root of the reason that so many people are at home eating ground turkey full of feces, ordering from the Dollar Menu, and complaining about the price of bananas. It’s because we are not taught to value quality–we are taught to value quantity. If I can get 10 chicken breasts for $5, why would I spend twice that much if I could help it? Even if that extra money meant getting a chemical-free product from a farm down the road?

I went home and unpacked my groceries, admiring my fridge stacked with little brown paper packages full of meat, cartons of fresh berries, and bundles of kale, asparagus, radishes, and green onions. I watered my new plants and rubbed a leaf between my fingers, taking in the earthy tomato plant smell that I love so much. You just don’t get that smell at Costco.

  • Rose

    The tomato plant smell is so great.

    • clairechapman

      RIGHT. We should figure out how to make that smell into a candle or something.

      • http://www.njpaleorunner.wordpress.com/ NJ Paleo

        Actually, I work for a fragrance company, and we have made tomato leaf fragrance! :-)

  • Kelsi

    This.

    • clairechapman

      You!

  • Evan;salt, dogs, and duct tape

    It’s kinda like Wal-Mart’s “local” sections. On the flip side, you probably spend less on medication and chronic pain than they do.

    • http://twitter.com/SnowfoxBandit Simone

      That’s a good point. Definitely saving money in medical bills down the road!

    • clairechapman

      Haha I mean I guess everywhere is “local” when you’re Wal-mart? And yes I totally agree, I’m sure that their budget saved on food is spend immediately on blood pressure medication and anti-depressants…

  • http://twitter.com/fatgirlhealthy Fat Girl Healthy

    Seriously, you rock! I have had to make major changes in my budget to afford healthier foods and crossfit. It’s all about priorities. I choose crossfit over cable TV. It’s what is important to me. I feel powerful that I can make that choice.

    • clairechapman

      We don’t have TV either! We choose CrossFit and organic/natural eating over TV and we have the most basic internet, Netflix, etc plans to try to save a few dollars wherever we can. We also almost never go out for drinks on the weekends, whereas most of our friends will go out and easily spend $50 just for a night of gin and tonics! I definitely feel better about my choices about spending money when I think about that…

      • Kate Stevenson

        This is awesome! My fiance and I are getting married in three days. We are canceling Direct TV, SiriusXM, and making one of the rooms of our house into a home gym and trying to meal plan together. We feel the same way about our friends being able to go out and blow money on drinks, but we value our health so much. We want to live together for a long time.

  • http://twitter.com/SnowfoxBandit Simone

    Hear, hear! I’m a student (for three more weeks!) too and my boyfriend is paying off his world travels with his dad, and we always feel bad with our $100+ weekly grocery bill, since we’re still relatively new to meal planning and cooking. But when the rest of your life is so much better because you’re actually taking good care of yourself, it’s so worth it. Since I’ll be done with my 90 mile commute soon, I’m looking forward to allocating part of my gas budget towards my health food budget. :)

    • clairechapman

      Yikes, I bet you are ready to be done with that drive!! It definitely is so worth it to eat well, and it has been a lot of fun experimenting with new foods and ways of eating, but there was also definitely a moment at Costco where I thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could just load up on dino nuggets? Ignorance is bliss sometimes… until you get diabetes…

      • http://twitter.com/SnowfoxBandit Simone

        Haha, yeah. Plus, nuggets shaped like dinosaurs, I mean, come on… Who doesn’t want that for dinner sometimes?

  • Mom

    Here, here! I don’t know how the idea got started that our food bill should only be a tiny percentage of our budget, but it probably happened about the time that the food processing industry met Madison Avenue.

  • Mom

    And it’s not impossible to eat well on a budget. You just typically can’t do all your shopping at one store. Many, many conventional grocery stores have decent natural foods selections for things like canned tomatoes and even Lundberg brown rice in their bulk sections. We only go to Whole Foods for two things – meat and fish. Sprouts has a great bulk spice section from Frontier coop to get fresh spices for literally pennies when you aren’t paying for another glass container, and their produce prices are their lead items. But the real secret is eating simply. Okay, I’m done talking about my favorite thing.

    • clairechapman

      Haha yeah we don’t typically do full buys at Whole Foods unless we are feeling very spendy. Usually just meat and ghee (which they don’t always have at Sprouts). But we got the best tomato plants from there yesterday!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21306089 Caroline McPartland

    Agree with all of this–packaged foods scare the hell out of me (except vegetarian meatballs, which are like my diet-junk-food, sigh). Three cheers to things that are 1) easily identifiable (spinach, avocado),2) have one/few ingredients (kale, beans, quinoa, etc.), and you can eat raw (tomatoes, delicious nuts). I get that people are busy but feeding your children (or yourself!) packaged macaroni and cheese is just gnarly…

    • clairechapman

      I mean I do actually have a major weakness for Annie’s mac & cheese :) It has been a long time since I indulged though! I totally agree with your 3 points for food quality! Just because you are busy is not an excuse, we don’t get home until after 8 most nights and we still find time to cook dinner. It’s all about priorities!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=21306089 Caroline McPartland

        amen sister…and by the way, i hinting more at the Kraft/Velveeta Macaroni and “cheese” crowd, not the parents who buy Annie’s for their kids to eat in a pinch! :)

        • http://www.njpaleorunner.wordpress.com/ NJ Paleo

          Agree with you here! I absolutely refuse to feed my kids that nasty Kraft/Velveeta fake junk “food”. Why would I pump my kids full of that stuff?

  • Danielle

    This could not have been posted at a better time. I just left Whole Foods feeling mighty ticked off that I couldn’t get everything I needed with the amount of cash I brought with me and wondering why the heck I don’t just go back to No Frills, Freshco and Walmart. Thank you for the reality check and reminding me why we’ve increased our weekly grocery budget by $50.00. Unfortunately there aren’t a ton of options in our area for healthy shopping so we’re kind of held hostage by the Whole Foods prices which can be frustrating.

    • clairechapman

      That is frustrating! Have you tried looking online for wholesale meat options? We got some meat from US Wellness Meats a few weeks ago and while it wasn’t significantly cheaper, they had an amazing selection. I’m sure there are a lot of other delivery services available! And the way I look at that extra $50 is that I would otherwise be spending it on drinks and drunk munchies on Saturday night in downtown Denver, and then I would wake up feeling terrible… this is a much better plan!

      • Danielle

        Wholesale meat is something I need to look into more. There is one farm near us that delivers an assortment of different meats/cuts (beef, lamb, pork, chicken) every month between Jan – May but I missed the cut off this year so didn’t look much more into it. We really haven’t missed the $50.00 since it came out of our entertainment money which really only went to eating out. Now that I have weekly meal plans set up I really don’t miss eating out that much.

  • dre@grackleandsun

    You nailed it. What I often wonder is what the actual breakdown is (as in, what would this look like on a pie chart?) between people who buy/eat the SAD because they don’t know any better (ie, lack of nutritional education, buying into the marketing, etc), those that buy/eat the SAD because even though they know it’s not the best choice, it is the only affordable or available option (either for realz or perceived), and how many people just don’t think or care about it one way or the other? It would be interesting to see those numbers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/hannah.guel1 Hannah Elizabeth Guel

    What many people don’t realize is that if you are not paying some extra money for quality foods and exercise, then you will probably pay a good amount of money in medical bills one day. Personally, I would rather pay for Crossfit and good food. :)

  • http://www.njpaleorunner.wordpress.com/ NJ Paleo

    I do most of my shopping at a conventional supermarket, and I can find most of the things I need — an OK selection of organic fruits and vegetables (I buy the organic “dirty dozen” and often buy the conventional “clean 15″ to save money). I go to Whole Foods to get organic greens and a few specialty items like coconut aminos, etc. Trader Joe’s has a few things too. At the conventional supermarket, I buy organic eggs, organic chicken, organic beef. When I can, I order grass-fed meat from a place in upstate New York. We don’t have a lot of local options in the metro NYC area, though there are some local farms where I know the owners and can get fresh veggies/fruits in season. It’s tough, and I do the best I can. I estimate that I spend about $250 per week on food for a family of 4 (my kids are 13 and 11 so they eat just about as much as an adult). In line at the supermarket, I see that the average shopper buys a LOT of processed/packaged foods, and it honestly makes me sad. Why sad? Because I’ve learned enough to understand how people are unwittingly malnourishing (at the least) their families. Yet I’m considered the oddball for trying to feed my family REAL foods. I’ve even received comments in line like, “Wow, you’re really healthy with all those vegetables.” It makes me sad that it’s considered somehow odd. If more people knew, there would be a lot less illness. So I do what I can, gently, one person at a time…… The way I look at it, one of the most important things I can do for my family is to give them the best quality nutrition that I can, and I firmly believe that my kids will perform better in school, on the sports field, in dance class, etc., when they are fueled by nutritious food rather than nutrition-devoid filler “foods”. Yes, my kids’ friends make comments, but I am gently educating my kids about nutrition and health. Sorry for the rant but it’s a topic near and dear to my heart.

  • elle

    I agree with everything that was said before me. I love the freedom to buy quality items and eat and nutritious diet. Unlike the other comments I remember what I was like before I discovered paleo, clean eating, and gluten/dairy free eating. Everything I knew about food and cooking came from my mother and one semester of nutrition. For some it is a matter of quantity over quality, but for others they simply don’t know another way to eat. People buy what they know and do what conventional medicine tells them. I discovered a better way of eating and living because I knew to look. Lots of people just don’t know where to start to change their lifestyle. They’re eating ground turkey full of feces because they don’t have access to this article and their Dr. recommended ground turkey. You can only do better if you know better. Being responsible, values and priorities are relative.

  • Chelsea

    AH SERIOUSLY THANK YOU! This post really resonates with me and it’s so eloquently said. Ever since making the shift from the typical bread-starch-cracker-chip diet to the paleo-whole-food lifestyle, I’ve been feeling some kickback from my parents and my sister about choosing to eat the way I do. And I feel guilty/pretentious about saying that I don’t eat potatoes or sandwiches or muffins/bagels if I can help it. But honestly nothing beats how GOOD I feel after eating a great chunk of meat and some roasted cauliflower vs. pasta and garlic bread. We make crossfit/clean eating a priority, simple as that.

  • Jaimelee

    I am so sad your Costco stinks, I am in KY and the reason we even go to Coscto is because they have great organics. Not too long ago I even score cold pressed coconut oil. Our Costco carries a rotating supply of organic produce (I say rotating because while there is always organic it may not be the same each month) I even got a HUGE bag of organic baby kale that I use for cooking and juicing. Poo on your Costco.

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