A few years ago, I read a story in a magazine about the ability to eat healthy being the “new rich.” Namely, that the wealthy have another advantage in life: the unique opportunity to be optimally nourished. I recall having a strong reaction to the article. I didn’t feel the argument was convincing, and it seemed a bit of an excuse for making poorer food choices.
At the time, I was significantly more “comfortable” financially. Fast forward to the present: I am a now a single mom on a tight budget.
I’ve always been a health-focused individual: I’m in love with fitness, and I do my homework on how to optimally fuel my body. But, with my new economic status, I’ve had to navigate a new challenge: How do I shop for myself and my two kids in a super healthy —yet affordable — way? Can I continue to provide a high-quality diet and stay within the confines of a stringent budget?
Some healthy foods are very pricey. Conversely, some unhealthy foods are very inexpensive. A $1 cheeseburger is a cheap, path-of-least-resistance way to feed a kid. But is it possible to eat really well on a limited budget? I believe that it is, and I’d like to share some of my personal experiences.
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Some things about my family’s eating habits have changed. First, we don’t eat out much. Actually, almost not at all. Next, some of the items I’d like to buy no longer find their way into my grocery cart: organic yogurt, organic poultry or free-range beef to name a few. I also pass over the healthy prepackaged “convenience” snacks like high-end protein bars. We appear to be surviving just fine without those items. Perhaps some of them were less healthy or essential than I wanted to admit. Here are some of the other principles of eating well on a budget that I’ve incorporated into our lives.
• Buy more of what is in season and less of what is not. It tends to be cheaper, and we maximize buying food from the local area. Since the food didn’t have to travel far to get to our table, it’s more affordable as well as healthier (since it’s fresher).
• Buy foods in their simplest, least-processed form. This is healthier and often cheaper. Beans are a great example: Prepared, canned beans are much more expensive than dried beans and contain added preservatives that I don’t really want in my body. (Not to mention what chemicals might be in the lining of the can.) Yes, soaking beans and cooking them myself is more work, but if I cook a big batch and freeze them in small containers, it’s not too labor-intensive.
• Stock up on staples when they are on sale, provided they aren’t perishable. I tend to do this especially with frozen items, since I don’t buy much canned or prepackaged food. Obviously, it doesn’t work well with produce, with a few exceptions such as apples and oranges.
• Be conscientious of not wasting food. For me, this means paying attention to how much we will actually eat before things spoil and making sure I buy accordingly. Leftovers go in the freezer if I don’t think they’ll be eaten soon. I’ve also got an agreement with my kids: What they don’t eat at school makes its way back home rather than into the garbage.
• Buy organic items strategically. There’s a lot of talk about organic these days, and certainly I have nothing against organic (aside from wishing it was as affordable as conventional products). So, as a gal on a budget, I buy most of the “dirty dozen” of produce (the 12 worst offenders in terms of toxic-pesticide residue) in organic form. The 2015 list includes: apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, imported grapes, imported nectarines, peaches, potatoes, imported snap peas, spinach, strawberries and sweet bell peppers (per the Environmental Working Group). I go conventional for my remaining produce items (including buying conventional cucumbers and peeling them). I also avoid imported grapes and nectarines. If buying items in organic form is outside the limits of your budget, you can strategically wash conventional produce so as to optimize pesticide removal. (You can find some tips for washing produce on my website atboisestrongmom.com
• Keep meals simple. To focus on the basics I ask myself: What protein, whole grain, veggie or fruit will I prepare for a meal? I find that when I do this, meal prep is less stressful and less expensive because I don’t have to buy a lot of complicated items. In the fact box is a list of the items I emphasize as staples that are highly affordable.
According to an analysis conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, it costs about $1.50 more a day (per person) to eat a diet full of fruits, veggies, whole grains and high-quality proteins such as fish compared to an unhealthy diet full of highly processed foods, relatively few fresh fruits or vegetables and lower-quality proteins.
Certainly, even $1.50 a day adds up quickly over the long haul. But consider the potential costs of NOT eating well: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity and a lower quality of life from a lack of optimal health. When you look at it that way, $1.50 a day seems like an incredible bargain. My grocery list has had to endure some liposuction, and it’s a bit more labor-intensive at times, yet I know my children and I don’t have to sacrifice our excellent eating habits in order to stay within our budget.
Maggie Williamson is a health coach, NASM-certified personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist and weight-loss specialist. She has a master’s in social work and a bachelor’s in psychology. Her business, BoiseStrongMom.com, specializes in working with women seeking to improve their overall health and well-being.