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Healthy food can seem to be expensive or overly time-intensive to prepare. That is why, when the budget gets tight, we tend to take the easy way out and buy fast food or heavily processed snacks. These foods are more filling and provide the immediate gratification of “comfort food” ingredients—fat, sugar and sodium.
Yet excess sugar and starch weaken the immune system, making the body susceptible to illness and running down our health in the long run.
Even in the face of financial difficulties, you can trade convenient, empty nutrition for a diet that will keep you healthy but not break the bank. The following are nine tips for eating healthfully even when times are tight.
For those not used to cooking, planning out meals can be daunting and unappealing. Even if it is difficult at first, however, it pays big dividends in the end! Not only will you save money by not spending it on unnecessary food items, but you will also minimize the number of trips to the store.
Take the time to sit down and calculate how much money you have to purchase food items. Then develop a weekly or bi-weekly meal plan.
Keep it simple! Think of dishes that are easy and quick to prepare, such as steak and roasted brussels sprouts with sweet potatoes or tuna casserole. Choose recipes that you can cook in larger batches for leftovers the following day, like chili or curry chicken and rice, or make a cycle of repeat meals such as “Taco Tuesdays.”
There are many websites that feature creative recipes with inexpensive but healthy ingredients. Many even include the cost per item so you can judge how much the overall cost of the meal may be. Do a bit of research and save the recipes that interest you.
Incorporate meals within your plan that use similar ingredients so that you do not need to purchase a vast array of items. Just searching for “beef and broccoli” can bring up five or more ways to prepare a meal with those ingredients. You may wish to get a large container of spinach and use it for salads with lunch for the first few days and then cook it with chicken for dinner on the fourth day.
Also, plan out what kind of foods you would like to have as a treat to yourself. Being excessively strict with a healthy diet can cause a pendulum effect, resulting in a return to old habits. Yet incorporating rewards in your plan will keep you interested and help you exercise moderation.
Elisabetta Politi, the nutrition director at Duke Diet and Fitness Center, told The Wall Street Journal: “It is important to integrate a favorite treat into your daily routine, especially in times of stress. Be selective. Decide what you want to have and where you want to be when you have it. Whether it’s a cookie or a piece of chocolate, apportion the treat ahead of time. Then ask yourself, at what time of day do I feel most vulnerable, when I would really enjoy eating this?”
Proper planning will help you buy what you need once you are at the store and curb impulse spending. You will also have many options of meals to make, thereby reducing the need to order food out, which is more expensive and less nutritious than recipes prepared at home.
In certain countries, using coupons can reap great benefits. Be careful, however, not to buy something simply because you have a coupon for it. Many discounted and advertised products are not nutritious. Remember, your health is at stake!
Processed and packaged foods are cheap, but they are often devoid of nutrition and will leave you hungry shortly after eating. Whole, nutrient-dense foods are more filling and promote satiety (the feeling of being satisfied after eating). This will also help cut down on how much you eat, aiding any grocery budget.
According to an article by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Dark green leafy vegetables are great sources of nutrition. Salad greens, kale and spinach are rich in vitamins A, C, E and K, and broccoli, bok choy and mustard are also rich in many of the B-vitamins. These vegetables also contain an abundance of carotenoids—antioxidants that protect cells and play roles in blocking the early stages of cancer. They also contain high levels of fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium and calcium. Furthermore, greens have very little carbohydrates, sodium and cholesterol.”
The organization further stated: “Perhaps one of the most appealing benefits of dark green leafy vegetables is their low calorie and carbohydrate contents and their low glycemic index. These features make them an ideal food to facilitate achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight. Adding more green vegetables to a balanced diet increases the intake of dietary fiber which, in turn, regulates the digestive system and aids in bowel health and weight management.”
Avoid items that contain white sugar, bleached flour or empty carbohydrates. These are processed by the body quickly and leave you desiring more. Instead, look for whole grains such as whole wheat, quinoa and brown rice. These complex carbohydrates take more energy to break down and will help you feel fuller on less, which will also reduce the amount that you need to eat to feel satisfied.
(3) Buy It Fresh or Frozen
Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals your body needs to stay healthy. Most times, these are best bought fresh, as certain nutrients are broken down when cooked or processed.
One fresh produce strategy is to buy items that can be eaten raw or cooked later. For example, kale lasts several days in the refrigerator and can be eaten fresh in a salad or sauteed later if it starts to wilt. This also applies to tomatoes, peppers, and green beans, among others.
Sometimes, fruits are even better for you when bought in the frozen food section. These fruits are usually picked ripe and frozen within hours—versus fresh fruit that is usually harvested underripe to ripen while in transit. For this reason, frozen fruits often have a higher nutritious value—they also do not go bad quickly!
Strive to strike a balance between fresh and frozen. Find what works best for you.
Science has shown that protein is critical for brain and muscle development and can provide better stamina than carbohydrates alone. Protein is also filling, which helps limit total caloric intake.
While it is somewhat more expensive than other types of food, strive to incorporate sufficient protein into your diet. Certain fish (e.g., wild-caught salmon and tuna) are high in nutrients such as vitamin C and essential fatty acids, making them an investment that will boost overall health.
Eggs are another good protein source. Unlike meats, they have a fairly long shelf life. A Men’s Health article labeled eggs “the perfect protein”: “The protein in eggs has the highest biological value—a measure of how well it supports your body’s protein needs—of any food, including our beloved beef.”
While beef also contains protein, be careful what you buy. The most commonly available varieties are laden with antibiotics and hormones and can be higher in fat and cholesterol.
Other options for protein are chicken, turkey, lamb and plant proteins such as quinoa, beans and nuts.
Preparing food from scratch means limiting the amount of hidden ingredients and chemicals that can be damaging to our health. To gain these benefits, however, does require tons of our precious time!
Some items can be purchased ready-made. Try to find items that are made mostly of whole foods, such as pasta sauce with only tomatoes, olive oil and garlic. Even frozen vegetables can have hidden additional ingredients.
One popular additive is white sugar. When reviewing labels, remember that four grams of sugar is the equivalent to one teaspoon, and try to minimize and eliminate it from your diet. New York Daily News reported: “The average American eats a third of a pound of sugar every day—130 pounds a year.
“[California-based endocrinologist Dr. Robert] Lustig says his research proves that the sweet stuff causes heart disease and cancer, as well as Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
“And it’s not just the added sweeteners we add to our foods, like table sugar, or the desserts we eat.
“Sugar is everywhere in foods where we least suspect it, including breads, yogurt, peanut butter and sauces.”
Instead, Discovery News advised, “Turn to natural sweeteners for your drinks and food alike. Honey, organic maple syrup, molasses, date sugar, brown rice syrup, and stevia are just a few…”
Most premade sauces also contain synthetic additives or unnecessary sweeteners. A better idea is to create your own using spices and herbs. Many have health-promoting properties.
Dr. Wendy Bazilian, a nutrition adviser for Golden Door Spa & Fitness Resort in Escondido, California, told Fitness Magazine: “Technically, spices are vegetables in concentrated form. Like veggies, they contain thousands of healthy phytonutrient compounds, including antioxidants.”
She further stated: “I think of dried oregano leaves as miniature salad greens.”
One teaspoon of the spice contains bone-building vitamin K and just as many antioxidants as three cups of spinach. Some research shows oregano can help fend off stomach flu.
Dr. Bazilian continued: “Bacteria often hitch a ride on the food we eat, and oregano may keep them from multiplying and making us sick.”
Skip sugar-filled barbecue sauce for your baked chicken and opt instead for a flavorful marinade of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic and red pepper flakes.
In addition, try mixing a few pinches of dried basil into some olive oil with salt, pepper and a trace of lemon to create an easy Italian dressing. This is a welcome alternative to the substances found in most store-bought salad dressings such as polysorbate 60 (an emulsifier that conjoins ingredients) or “caramel color” (which can contain contaminants).
(6) Be Price Conscious
Before even entering a shop, make sure you know your budgetary limits.
It is helpful to have an overall number in mind before going shopping for items. If you determine, “I allow myself to spend this much,” it is much more likely you will stay in the confines of your budget. It will also help you decide which brands and quality of products to purchase.
Once you have determined your number, spend time comparing brands. You may find store brands are just as good as name-brands for less cost.
If while shopping you calculate you have exceeded your limit—do not checkout! It is worth the effort to return items to their shelves if you not need them or if you can find cheaper substitutes.
Typically, the items that put shoppers past their budget are “cravings” items: bags of chips, cookies, soft drinks. Realize that spending $2 on a bag of frozen collard greens is a much better investment than spending $3 on a bag of chips.
When possible, check out the bulk bin in your grocery store. “The bulk bins typically contain dry foods such as grains, rice, beans, and nuts, as well as a variety of seasonings and spices,” Everyday Health reported on its website. “Because these containers allow you to buy exactly the amount you need at a lower price than brand-name goods, you can save a significant amount of money while cutting down on waste.
“‘The bulk bin is fresh and affordable,’ says the Buffalo, New York–based dietitian Noelle DeSantis…‘The items are much cheaper for staples, such as oats and beans, and you don’t wind up with a jar of spices in the cupboard for years that will only be used a few times.’”
(7) Make a Meal Schedule
While planning out your meals requires some effort, it results in less wasted food. Statistics from the United States Environmental Protection Agency showed that in 2017 alone, the total national food waste stood at 40.7 million tons—accounting for more than 15.2 percent of total solid waste generation! You can reduce or eliminate your share of this massive amount of wasted food.
Do not forget that wasted food means wasted money!
Once you plan what you will buy, arrange a time within your schedule to cook meals. This may take some practice and experimenting to find what works, but developing a routine will help you stay within your monetary means.
Try to find meals that take 15 to 30 minutes to prepare for a busy weeknight, or prep food ahead on your day off. For example, if you shop on Sunday mornings, set aside a few hours on Sunday afternoon to chop produce or pre-cook ingredients for the meals during the week.
This can include preparing a casserole and freezing it for use later, cooking a breakfast dish that can be eaten every morning, roasting any fresh vegetables that you do not plan to use in your salad that week, freezing coconut milk mixed with berries and honey for dessert, and baking several pieces of chicken to eat with the roasted vegetables for dinner. Anything you do not use can be stored for later in reusable containers or frozen.
Having meals for the entire week also makes it easy to bring lunch to work or school, rather than resorting to heavily processed convenience foods, which negatively affect both your budget and your waistline.
Using a crockpot can help you eat a more wholesome diet while also saving time. One of the most popular crockpot meals is pot roast, which consists of a cut of beef, potatoes, carrots and onions. All of these ingredients can be simmered in a crockpot for a number of hours. Start it before you leave for work, and your meal will be ready about the time you return!
Often, cheaper cuts of meat like corned beef take longer to cook and using a crockpot can help you save money on food and time on cooking.
Another option for a hectic schedule is to slow cook frozen vegetables while you are away.
Collard greens are an example of a vegetable that is easy to make in a crockpot. Just add a little water, olive oil, salt and pepper and set on low for several hours. Then enjoy all the healthy nutrients once you arrive home!
If you do not have a crockpot or the funds to buy one, visit a used-goods shop, where they can be found for as low as 10 percent of the original price. It is a worthwhile investment and the health benefits that you reap from your homemade food beat a microwave dinner any day.
While water is not food, it will help you feel full and keep your body running well. Some sources recommend drinking one ounce per two pounds of body weight daily.
“Water serves as a lubricant,” a New York Times health guide stated. “It makes up saliva and the fluids surrounding the joints. Water regulates the body temperature through perspiration. It also helps prevent and relieve constipation by moving food through the intestines.”
Soda is increasingly expensive and can be detrimental to health given its high levels of sugar and salt. According to USA Today, Americans drink an average of 44 gallons of soda per person per year! Think of the health benefits and cost savings that would result if soda was replaced with water.
This article has briefly addressed some ways to stretch your budget while building your health. To realize the full benefits of these strategies will require more research. A myriad of articles and books are available for free online and at the library.
Our booklet God’s Principles of Healthful Living states: “God’s physical creation is governed by definite, physical laws. These include laws that regulate our bodies. To be healthy, you must follow them.”
“When a person breaks these principles and laws of health—whether through omission or negligence—the body suffers. Among the negative results are malnutrition, atrophy from inactivity, or exhaustion from lack of rest—simple cause and effect.”
Healthy eating is only part of the equation. While it will help your mind stay sharp and minimize illness, it takes a balance of proper diet, sleep, exercise, good hygiene and other elements to maximize your wellbeing.
These principles are discussed in greater detail in God’s Principles of Healthful Living. Thousands have put them into practice and are already living healthful lives with more vigor and vibrancy than they ever thought possible.
It can take time to improve your eating habits. But the benefits you reap are worth it!