Healthy Eating on a Skinny Budget
Eating Rich, Eating Poor, Eating Well
Health nuts have a nasty reputation for being rich. The theory is that rich folks can afford to pick and choose, while those of us who live on a limited budget need to make do with what we've got. After all, if you don't have to worry about house payments, car payments, babysitters and other bills then you have more time to think about other things to worry about. Like what you eat. However, a growing number of low income and working class families are taking an increased interest in healthy meals. This isn't altogether surprising. It turns out that healthy eating leads to a healthier overall lifestyle, which in turn limits the amount of time you spend in a doctors office. Besides, it just feels good to feel good.
Traditionally, the working classes have always endured the less desirable diets. In Victorian times, the peasantry chewed on whole grain loaves if they could afford the grain, and supplemented their diet with fresh meat, nuts and whatever produce they could scrounge up while the nobility suffered from digestive problems that come with rich seasonings, sumptuous pastries and refined bread. In today's society, this hierarchy has turned upside down, with whole grain baked goods being the staple of higher income pantries and refined white flour products the cheap, easy caloric choice of those on a limited budget.
In short, that old adage "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" had some truth to it. At least, it does if your apple replaces juice and soda. And if you supplement it with whole grains. And...wait. I'm getting ahead of myself.
Before we can discuss how to eat well on a limited income, we have to define what exactly healthy is.
What is a Healthy Diet
A healthy diet is a well balanced diet based on the food pyramid principals. Grains are whole, produce is multi colored and the meat group is better defined as 'protein'. Protein should be found in a variety of plant and animal sources, from eggs, nuts, seeds and legumes.
A healthy diet limits all refined foods. Artificial sweeteners don't have a place in a normal diet (there is an exception for those with specific medical conditions that require severely limited sugar intake) because a healthy diet limits sugary sweet tasting refined products to begin with. A healthy diet is naturally colored, with it's components resembling their natural state closely enough to be easily identifiable.
There is no inherently healthy formula to use when choosing a healthy dietary plan. Rather than focusing on "healthy", look for "Healthier". You can't change your entire lifestyle overnight. But you can start making small changes that will lead to big changes in the long run. Simply giving up one afternoon soda will save you up to a dollar a day (depending on your local vendor), increase the water you drink, and save you at least 150 calories a day. It also reduces your sugar intake by 10 teaspoons. Just giving up one soda a day can greatly improve the relative health of your daily diet without sacrificing any nutritional value (after all, the nutrients in soda are virtually nothing, being only beneficial to your taste buds)
Healthier might mean adding a salad to your dinner. It might mean eating at home nightly, or on specific days. It might mean bagging a lunch instead of grabbing fast food. Or, it might start with replacing your morning donut with a bowl of oatmeal. When you embark on a 'healthy diet', choose what specifically you want to target. What bothers you about your personal diet and what exactly do you want to do to improve it?
Setting out to eat 'healthy' is bound to set you up for failure.
Savor your salad. It's crunchy, like potato chips, and can be quite filling. If you aren't used to eating plenty of vegetables, start with a small salad just 3 times a week to avoid digestive distress.
An easy way to healthy up your diet for minimal cost is to start eating salad. By starting your meal with a salad, you'll eat less of the fat and calorie heavy entree, fewer less-healthy carbohydrate sides, and boost your nutritional intake.
You can purchase bagged salad for under $2. By itself, it will make 3-4 decent servings. You can add diced tomatoes and peppers from your crisper drawer (the ones you were probably going to let get mushy and mildewy) for pennies. Or dice up some cucumber (the small ones cost less than fifty cents apiece, the big fancy ones are under $2). For about fifty cents a serving, plus the cost to drizzle dressing on top, you'll have earned yourself a hefty dose of fiber and a variety of vitamins.
For a little less money and a steeper time investment, you can buy a few heads of lettuce (look for loose leaf lettuce, which is more nutritious than iceberg), wash and dry it and spend an afternoon chopping. Toss a large salad, then portion it out in several tupperware dishes. You'll have a week's worth of lunch salads. Add hard boiled eggs or leftover chicken nuggets for a full meal's worth, or just eat it along side your trusty sandwich. It's more nutritious than chips, and might even be cheaper.
Although food is usually most nutritious when it's close to it's natural state, produce that has been frozen soon after harvest retains as much nutritional value as, if not more than, the produce that's been shipped hundreds of miles to end up sitting in your supermarket for days before you purchase it. Frozen vegetables that are intended to be cooked for any amount of time often retain similar taste and texture to their fresh counterparts.
Frozen vegetables can be a surprisingly economic way to get your rainbow of produce. Frozen produce stores well, if you have the freezer space, and store brands frequently go on sale for extreme discounts. Keep an eye on your local circulers or stop by the freezer section to take note of the fluctuation in prices. When you see a good deal, stock up. Buying 10 packages of frozen peas when they're on sale for 2/$1 may cost you $5 up front, but in the long run it'll save you money on the veggies you'd have been paying full price for in between sales. Just remember to continue using those peas the same way you would have used full price ones. Just because you buy them on sale doesn't mean it's okay to toss a full serving.
What to buy
When you want to eat healthfully, you need to have healthy choices that are easy to access and quick and easy to prepare. Unfortunately, healthy looking versions of traditional convenience food cost twice as much. Ironic, given the shorter ingredient list. You do not need a perfect diet. Anyone on a budget, or who has taste buds, needs to make their peace with the idea that they can only do so much. Choose what matters and stick to it. For everything else, make a healthier choice, rather than a 'healthy' one.
Frozen vegetables are an economic and healthful choice. Buy fresh veggies in season, since seasonal produce doesn't have to travel as far and is usually plentiful and accordingly inexpensive.
Whole grains store well in sealed air-tight containers, so you can buy a large bag of brown rice and keep it in a cool place for 6 months. It will keep longer in the freezer or if vacuum sealed and kept in a cool, dry place. You can also stock up on whole grain pasta during sales.
Beans are cheap, easy comfort food. They are packed full of vitamins, proteins and fiber. Although they can take some getting used to, beans are an excellent addition to your regular meal rotation. You can buy dried beans in bulk, and use a crock pot or pressure cooker to cook them up regularly or you can buy canned beans for quick preparation. If your dried beans tend to sit in the cupboard for months on end waiting for you to 'get around to preparing them', the canned version is worth 'splurging' on. Look for simple ingredients, just beans and salt and water. If you're buying refried beans, get the fat free version.
Let's face it, fun food is fun, and you have to have a little bit of fun in your life. So go ahead and buy a bag of chips now and then. Choose a fun food that you will really enjoy, but make it a healthier version. That might mean organic potato chips, or baked crackers. It's okay to have a little bit of chocolate or ice cream. And it's even okay to have a sandwich cookie, even if it's the full fat version. If you define your diet by removing the fun stuff without making room for any compromise, you doom yourself to failure. Even if food sensitivities limit your diet for medical reasons, you can find room for fun. Just choose safe options; and remember to enjoy them in moderation.
Spice Things Up
Dried spices have a high up front cost, but once they're in your cupboard they are a free source of flavoring. Experiment with rosemary, thyme and sage as well as cardamom, ginger and anything else that might be hiding up there. Take a sniff, and add just a little to a small taste of whatever dish you're working on. If you like the taste, add a few dashes to the actual dish before serving.
Vegetables are the mainstay of any healthy diet. Whether you are looking for low carb, detox, yeast free, paleo or simply well balanced meals, vegetables take center stage. They also happen to be the bane of some people's taste buds. But veggies don't have to be tasteless or something to struggle with. They don't have to be purchased preseasoned or in a sauce to be palatable. In fact, the tastiest vegetables are the fresh, or fresh frozen, variety.
Taste is an important part of the healthy diet overhaul. You want your food to taste good, not just be good for you. Those raised on boxed mixes of noodles and sauce may think you need a lot of 'stuff' to make food taste good. And comparing the price of an all in one 'meal kit' to a package of noodles and a bottle of sauce may make healthy eating look insurmountable.
For just one meal, try buying the pasta and a bag of veggies. But you don't want to doctor it up with all sorts of not-so-healthy toppings and sauces. Start by letting the food's own natural flavors shine. A simple pat of butter or drizzle of oil can really highlight a humble side dish. What's more, for the 'more expensive' pasta and veggies, you'll have leftovers and won't need as much on the side to fill you up.
When you want a stir fry or some sauteed veggies to top your pasta or rice or potatoes, learn to carmelize onions. There is something about carmelized onions as a base for just about any dish that makes most people's mouths water. Onions aren't just a garnish. They happen to be a powerhouse of vitamin C, and contain a decent amount of fiber. There's a significant amount of folate, potassium and manganese in onions. And, they have an unexpected tendency to cure sweet tooths. Weighing in at under a dollar a pound in many markets, the lowly onion makes a tasty addition to most meals. You might pair it with a clove or two of fresh garlic, peeled and grated, for extra immune power.
For the sake of your taste buds and your wallet, eat with the seasons. Learn what produce grows well locally, and when there might be a bumper crop. Zucchini is cheap in August and September. Winter squash tends to dip in price around October. Strawberries are available in spring and summer. Apples are a fall crop. Salad greens peak in early summer. Not only do things taste better in season, the price goes down when the crop is in abundance.
When you stock up on 'fun food', remember to continue eating it as if it were not on sale. That way you actually save money. If you buy 4 boxes of granola bars for the price of 3; and you normally only buy 1 a week, put them away in the pantry and pull one out each week on a designated day. You'll get the 4th week's box for free...instead of suddenly going through 2 boxes a week because they're available, and either feeling deprived or adjusting your grocery list and budget later.
Where to Shop
Where you shop will have a big impact on what things cost. To get the most nutrition in your dollar, you'll need to spread your shopping trips out and learn how and when to buy in bulk.
The Farmer's Market: If you don't know what grows locally, find a local farmer's market. Not only will the vendors be able to educate you, you might be able to find a list of seasonal crops on their local website. If you want a really good deal on local produce and don't mind slightly wilted merchandise, hit up the farmer's market just before closing time. Some stands will be happy to negotiate a deal on their excess offerings rather than return home with unsold (and perishable) merchandise. Stock up on your favorites and go home and start prepping them. Spending extra time scrubbing and dicing within a day or two of purchase makes you much more likely use those veggies. Some vegetables can easily be frozen for later use.
A Warehouse Club: Sometimes the warehouse club, like Costco or Sam's Club, can give you a great deal. Usually a warehouse club requires an annual membership fee. Do some calculations, and decide if you can and will save more than the fee by shopping there. Some things to consider stocking up on in bulk at the club: Oil, grains (like rice), oatmeal, sugar, baking soda and vinegar (for cleaning), whole grain crackers, frozen meat, etc.
Your Local Market: Get to know the prices and the general sale prices of your local market. Buy a few extra when things are the right price, and let the store do the storing when things are full price.
Trader Joe's: Trader Joe's may have a reputation for prepackaged goods, but it actually carries just about everything you could need. It doesn't carry a lot of variety in sizes of packages or in brand names, and most of the items sold there are store branded. They're still delicious; and often as cheap or cheaper than the sale price elsewhere. Applesauce, nut butters, nuts and trailmix, dried fruit, dairy case items and real fruit juices are relatively inexpensive at Trader Joe's. They also carry a variety of cereals and crackers. There are a few frozen dishes, too, some healthier options than others.
Don't Forget To Clean Healthy Too!
Cleaning supplies can take up a generous portion of your grocery and discretionary budget. Cut back on that cleaning bill by using baking soda to scour and vinegar for most disinfection. You can also find peroxide and bleach for pennies compared to preprepared cleaning solutions.
Keep a labeled spray bottled for vinegar and water; and use it as an all purpose cleaner. You may still want to use the occasional CLR or a bleach tablet in the toilet tank, but by eliminating the kitchen cleaner, bathroom cleaner and all purpose cleaner from your shopping list you'll save a bundle. You can also replace disposable dusting rags with old socks. Label them or cut them so that you know they don't go back in the drawers after laundering. It's cheaper, and lighter on the environment, too.