Surprisingly, a wide variety of cheap healthy meals can be derived by looking at the culinary traditions of cultures famous for their cuisine. These days, with our hankering for scientific explanations for everything, we often miss the forest for the trees.
When we ask ourselves, what is healthy eating, we should not exclude tried and true traditions that have proven their worth. As a matter of fact, recent research has shown that some of these traditions, which inherently save money and conserve resources, are not only impressive strategies, but very healthy as well.
In another article on cheap healthy meals I introduced the strategy of supplementing some of our normally large portions of meat with pulses and legumes. More recent culinary practices have leaned towards getting half of our protein from animal products.
Now, I am aware that animal protein, from meat, fish, eggs and milk and its by-products, is more well balanced than that found in vegetable matter. Just the same, cuisines of various cultures have adopted ways of balancing the vegetable proteins by combining grains and pulses.
Having said that, it is also true that we humans find animal protein more easy to assimilate than vegetable protein. This problem also has been worked out through different traditions. Whether our ancestors knew instinctively what we have since discovered through research or acted only for economic considerations, they were right on the money!
Traditional, cultural cuisines abound with examples of the principle of consuming small amounts of animal protein with pulses and grain. Have you ever eaten pizza in rural Italy? If you have you will know that our now famous dish sprung from pretty simple fair.
Coming out of Western culture, I was actually disappointed to find that pizza in Italy consisted of nothing more than a tasty cheese on a crust. Many Italian dishes reflect this principle such as pasta with Parmesan cheese or, perhaps, a tomato sauce with a bit of meat.
If you cross the border and dine in rural France you may well encounter similar traditions like pot au feu, which consists of nothing more than some tasty french bread with beef bouillon. Or if you drop down into Spain and find some traditional paella, you will discover that it was originally a pan fried rice dish to which peasants would add whatever little bits of animal protein they could find including snails.
While we are headed south, let’s cross the Mediterranean into North Africa and enjoy the Berber tradition of couscous. A pasta made from durum wheat, couscous is a staple here, eaten with small portions of whatever animal protein is available.
If you search the net for recipes for any of these traditional staples you will find they are not only very popular dishes, you will discover that they also have been radically altered. Now, coming out of western culture, which dominates the internet, you will find large quantities of expensive meat with relatively small amounts of grains and pulses.
Some really eye opening research was conducted in Latin America where corn and beans are enjoyed together in many traditional dishes. This was something natural to research there, where these foods are the basis of the diet for large proportions of the population.
In this study, groups of lab rats were fed with combinations of corn and beans in differing ratios. No matter how much they were given or in what proportions, these foods were unable to provide the nutrition necessary for sufficient growth.
However, when a small amount of animal protein was added to the bean-corn mixture the results were startling. With the addition of as little as 2% fish to the mix, the growth rate of the animals increased by an astonishing 70% to 120%, depending on the ratio of corn to beans!
Obviously, there is nothing in and of the fish itself to account for such a spectacular improvement. On the contrary, it is clearly the synergistic effect of adding a small amount of animal protein to the beans and corn.
I have found the least expensive way to take advantage of this synergy is to add bone broth to the grains, lentils and pulses I eat. I have included some recipes and ideas in other articles I have written on cheap healthy meals.
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