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How to cook and eat well when food is more expensive than ever

Inflation is hitting grocery prices hard. So what trade-offs should a home cook make?

Kitchen table viewed from above strewn with garlic heads, squash, broccoli, and vegetable peelings. Hands visible preparing squash over a cutting board.
Preparing butternut squash stew.
GMVozd/Getty Images
Nisha Chittal is the Chief of Staff at Vox.

For those who love to cook, fall is peak cooking season. It’s literally harvest season, and there’s an abundance of beautiful produce that makes for cozy autumnal recipes: pumpkin bread, butternut squash soup, apple pie. And then there’s Thanksgiving, which can feel like the Olympics of home cooking: elaborate menus and cooking schedules, dozens of side dishes, and a giant turkey to roast.

At the same time, cooking in the fall of 2022 isn’t as simple as it used to be. Inflation is at the highest levels we’ve seen in decades, and food prices keep rising. Rising grocery prices have made it tougher than ever to eat and cook nutritiously. This Thanksgiving looks more expensive than ever thanks to a combination of forces: inflation, of course, but also Covid-induced supply chain issues, an avian flu outbreak resulting in a turkey shortage and a rise in poultry and egg prices, and the war in Ukraine causing a shortage of wheat and grain products. “When you think about things like turkeys and ingredients to make pies — eggs, flour, butter, fruit, vegetables — it’s going to be an expensive holiday season when it comes to putting food on the table,” says David Ortega, a food economist at Michigan State University.

On top of that, home cooks are inundated with messages about how they “should” eat: Food media encourages audiences to buy the freshest, highest quality in-season produce possible for their home cooking endeavors. Choose meat and seafood that is humanely raised — cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish. Shop at farmers markets rather than supermarkets to support farmers and small businesses. Eat less meat — especially red meat — and choose more plant-based options to do your part to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s increasingly complicated for consumers to know what decisions to make. Do they make the choice that’s best for their budgets, that’s best for the planet and for animals, the one that yields the best quality meals, the one that’s best for small businesses? How do you decide among your values, your budget, and your tastebuds? I asked several food experts for their perspectives on how home cooks can balance pressures in the kitchen.

Home cooks are facing a mix of competing demands

Many home cooks are bombarded with messages from food media, chefs, and activists to eat local, support farmers, and buy the best-quality in-season produce. Anjali Prasertong, a public health dietitian who writes the newsletter Antiracist Dietitian, says that chefs and food experts who send messages encouraging people to eat local often forget who that message excludes.

The day-to-day reality of many Americans often isn’t reflected by chefs and food media, Prasertong says; in a recent newsletter, she noted that farmers markets, CSAs, and other local food marketplaces can often be exclusionary spaces for people of color. She cites a quote from the famed chef Alice Waters in a Vogue interview last year, where Waters says: “We need to eat fewer animal products, and know where every bite comes from. I have beautiful eggs in my refrigerator right now, in every color, and I feel comfortable with that because I know the chickens are being raised right. Knowing where animal products come from is vitally important.”

When chefs and food media like Waters encourage everyone to shop at farmers markets and eat only the highest quality organic and local foods, they leave out a lot of people for whom that is simply not financially possible. “If you are a low-income person, if you have more than one job, you just don’t have the time to go shopping at multiple stores, let alone drive across town, use a lot of gas to visit a farmers market,” Prasertong says. She went on to explain how rarefied locations might not have familiar items, or might not accept SNAP benefits.

Indeed, the messages from food publications and chefs encouraging readers to buy only the best in-season heirloom tomatoes or the insistence that wild-caught salmon is worth the splurge or the pressure to shop at farmers markets can often feel jarring when compared to our current economic reality. Ortega noted that low-income households “are the hardest hit by these rising food prices since they spend more of their income on food — the poorest 20 percent of households spend more than a quarter of their income on food.” And while most food media in 2022 isn’t so prescriptive as to say “everyone should buy local and organic,” they often feel like they are writing largely for the people who can afford to overindulge at the farmers market buying all varieties of seasonal produce; rarely do they write stories for those who are struggling with inflation, let alone those who might be trying to feed a family healthy meals using SNAP benefits.

These messages about the supposed “best” way to shop and consume food are often exclusionary, Prasertong says. “I think there is a kind of universalism ... starting with the premise that everyone accepts your values, which are associated with the sort of affluent whiteness that you find in a farmers market and that kind of environment,” Prasertong elaborated. “Not everyone shares those values, and that’s not a bad thing. If your truth is, ‘I am trying to feed my family and I am on a limited budget,’ then you don’t have to think that the organic tomatoes from the farmers market are worth their high price. You can say, ‘That’s not worth it to me.’”

Sometimes “better” is just a scam designed to get you to pay more

Daisy Freund, vice president of farm animal welfare at the ASPCA, says that a big trap to watch out for is misleading and confusing claims on animal products that can often trick well-meaning consumers into paying more for products they think are more humane but actually aren’t. “Cage-free on egg cartons is meaningful, those birds otherwise would be raised in extreme confinement,” Freund explains, “but cage-free on chicken or turkey packaging, which I see everywhere, is meaningless and it adds no value because the birds are raised in giant crowded warehouses, not in cages.” Freund cited a recent example she saw at a grocery store in Brooklyn, New York: “There’s chicken thighs that are $4.49, and they’re labeled cage-free. Those birds had the exact same lives as the ones that are $3.09, the lowest-cost brand. So that’s $1.50 that someone just wasted.”

This practice of misleading labeling on animal products, often called “humanewashing,” is all too common and is designed to confuse shoppers. Freund cautions that terms like “natural” or “family farmed” have no regulated standards and don’t require anything from a legal perspective. She cited an example of chicken that was labeled “‘all-natural, antibiotic-free, and hand-raised on a family farm,’ which is laughable,” Freund says, since there are no regulated standards behind those terms. “It’s really a trap, and it’s unfortunately a place where a lot of people waste a lot of money, and the industry gets away with a lot,” Freund says. It’s clever marketing on the part of meat producers; by appealing to consumers’ good intentions, they can profit while not actually taking any action to improve animal welfare conditions.

Prioritize what’s right for you — and don’t feel guilty about your food choices

So what trade-offs should home cooks make, and what should they prioritize? Ultimately, that’s a decision each person has to make. As Prasertong says, not everyone has the same shared values: Deciding what trade-offs you want to make starts with deciding what values are most important to you. It may be unrealistic for most people to eat healthfully and shop at the farmers market and buy higher-welfare animal products while food costs continue to rise at rapid rates. So it’s okay to choose what matters most to you and not feel guilty about it.

Carey Polis, a freelance food editor and avid home cook, says that for her, it’s worth shopping at the farmers market for select items that she loves when they’re in peak season but going to the supermarket or other more affordable sources for the rest of her groceries. “I shop from Amazon Fresh, I shop at the farmers market, and I buy different tiers of eggs,” Polis says. “I’m not shopping at the farmers market every week for all of my vegetables, I’m shopping at them when there’s something special or something that I know is really going to make a difference ... I will buy in-season tomatoes at the farmers market because having those a few times a year is special and wonderful and exciting and really is absolutely delicious. But I’m not buying them twice a week year-round, it’s something I look forward to a few times in the summer,” Polis says.

Prasertong has another tip: consider frozen vegetables. “A lot of people disparage frozen produce, but that often is preserved at a point soon after it was picked, so using that type of produce is completely fine from a health perspective and often from a taste perspective,” Prasertong says. “And if you’re watching what you spend, it makes a lot of sense to have vegetables on hand that aren’t going to go bad in a week, they can last much longer.”

Many home cooks want to eat more humane animal products, but better quality products can often be more expensive; in the face of inflation, it’s reasonable to want to buy the most affordable options possible. But Freund says it is possible to buy humanely produced meat, egg, and dairy products while still saving money. “There is this perception that eating higher-welfare products is cost prohibitive, but small changes really can make a really big impact, and it starts with knowing what to look for and not getting tricked into buying something expensive without actually adding that value,” Freund says.

For shoppers who want to buy more humanely raised animal products, Freund and the ASPCA recommend looking out for products with one or more of the following certifications: Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership. If you can’t find affordable brands with those certifications, Freund has other recommendations on what to look for on animal product labels if you want to buy higher-welfare products. With meats, look for organic and pasture-raised; with eggs, look for organic and/or cage-free; and with dairy, look for 100 percent grass-fed.

Freund also suggests that cost-conscious consumers who want to buy more humane animal products look for generic brands — there are store brands that have met the ASPCA’s welfare certifications, and store brands are generally cheaper than name brands. She named supermarket chains Aldi, Costco, and Stop & Shop as three examples whose store brands have met the ASPCA’s recommended welfare certifications.

Another strategy that many in the animal welfare space recommend: eating less meat, but better meat. Choosing to eat less meat doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, Freund says — small changes to your meat consumption, such as eating plant-based meals one night a week, can make a big impact; you don’t have to go fully vegetarian or vegan to make a difference. And choosing more affordable plant-based proteins, such as beans or tofu, more often can help minimize costs so that when you do choose to eat meat, you can afford to buy higher-welfare meats.

Whatever you choose to prioritize, there’s no need to feel guilty. If you feel ashamed about choosing to shop at the supermarket instead of the farmers market or buying the cheapest brand of eggs instead of the more expensive, higher quality ones, Prasertong says you shouldn’t feel bad for making the choices that are right for you.

“I completely understand the guilt and shame and feeling pressure over what is the right thing to do. And I think it’s sort of a distraction, and it’s very American that we’ve made all of these characteristics of our personal choices [around food],” Prasertong says. “Instead of demanding organic, ethical food be available to everyone, we’re treating it more like it’s a choice, so if you choose, then you are kind of a better person because you’re making that choice. [But] that’s not really a choice for someone who can’t afford it.”

And know that you’re not alone: Data shows inflation is changing consumers’ choices broadly, says Ortega: “Consumers are cutting back, especially in categories where we are seeing the highest increases. And they are also shopping around more, bargain hunting. Consumers are trading down in terms of brands, and we are seeing a rise in demand for store brands or private labels.”

“It feels like almost any food purchase you make is just wracked with guilt, because either you’re spending too much money or you’re doing something bad for the earth,” says Polis. “You can’t do it all, so choose the few lanes that you can do because I don’t know how anyone could afford to do everything.”