Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ways to Eat Well When You're Broke

One of the saddest statistics about obesity in the United States is that it is very closely tied to poverty.  The availability and relative low cost per calorie of fast and packaged foods translate to folks with limited income doing what they can to keep from being hungry, but winding up being malnourished.

It's a crazy phenomena that a person can be 50lbs overweight and be considered deficient.  But when a person consumes a diet high in salt, sugar and fat, and one low in vitamins and minerals what you get is a body that stores excess calories as adipose tissue, yet remains in a state of hunger in an attempt to get the missing nutrients.  A cycle of over eating continues.

There are a lot of different schools of thought regarding nutrition.  Low-carb, low-fat, Paleo, Vegan, and the like.  But for our purposes, we will assume a balanced diet.  One that includes 5+ servings of fruits and vegetables as the base, with a rotating feature of wheat, rice and quinoa as grains and meat about 3 times per week.  Oh, and a few sweets here and there of course.

Here are my suggestions for eating right on a tight budget.

1.  Make peace with repeats.
When looking for ways to eat healthily on a budget, I look for the most nutrient quality + the highest volume for the lowest price.  There aren't hundreds of foods that fit this category.  There are several that I enjoy and those are the ones I purchase weekly.  Some examples are - frozen blueberries, brown rice, lowfat milk, bananas, kale, and canned beans.  I eat these items almost daily, in different preparations.  I do buy different items from time to time, but the sale has got to be really good.  I like high volume for low price!

2.  Get over Organics.
Okay, those with the fattest wallets go ahead and cast the first stone.  I really tried, in the past, to feed the family organic produce.  When that got to be way out of our budget, I then pared down to just the Dirty Dozen in an effort to at least reduce the amount of pesticides that we ingest.  With our financial situation in the last year, I had to get over it completely.  Here's the deal - is it better to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and risk ingesting some pesticides OR is it better to avoid the produce because you can't afford organics and eat primarily processed foods?  Answer - eat produce.  Wash it, compare prices with organic (sometimes it is actually less expensive), and after all of that, just get over it.  Do what you can with what you have.

3.  Learn to love leftovers.
We all know that batch cooking is a great way to save money.  I've found that most any recipe can be doubled or even tripled and saved for later in the freezer.  Or if you're like us, eaten for lunch the next day!  The Dollar Tree has foil pans that are inexpensive and disposable.  Capitalize on produce that is on sale and make a giant batch of a healthy recipe utilizing it.  Freeze some for a busy night when even McDonald's looks like a viable option.  Cook ahead when you have time and energy and don't sweat it when you don't.

4.  Explore the World (of spices).
A large part of maintaining a healthy diet is eating things that you like.  For me, I love Mexican food.  The more cheese and guacamole, the better.  But I discovered that what I really like about the food is the spices. Cumin, garlic, chili powder, herbs like cilantro and veggies such as onions and jalapenos can pretty much make anything taste good in my opinion.  I cook with these flavors often, and find that I need less cheese, sour cream and guac when the level of spice is right!

Another point about spices - making a simple recipe taste totally different by using a different spice set.  Beans and rice is a very inexpensive, nutritious option for the budget minded.  Though, it doesn't have to be boring!  By using different flavored canned diced tomatoes, you can make Mexican, Italian, or Indian rice and beans.  I even change the type of beans - use black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, or lentils.  Figure out what you ethnic spice set you like and then buy those babies in  bulk.

Eating a nutritious diet can seem very confusing with all of the advice out there.  I think that sometimes we get inundated with suggestions on what is best for us.  Admittedly, I would LOVE to be able to go to the grocery store without a calculator and an unlimited wad of cash. I would buy all organic, free-range, grass-fed, sang to and massaged foods...and man, would I feel good about myself.

But making an effort to eat a clean diet, and to feed your family a healthy diet is really something to feel good about.  It's something BIG.  So don't feel badly if you can't do it perfectly.

Just do your best.  Your best is always good enough.



  1. I love this! I have been trying to feed our family organic, humanely-raised-and-slaughtered, hormone-free etc etc food. It's *very* expensive. Our diet has become mostly vegetarian because of that. Everything tastes pretty much the same as the bad stuff (with the exception of milk - of course the most expensive stuff tastes the best). I'm grateful for the permission to keep it real and keep it within budget. I would *really* love to see some of your menus and recipes.

    1. So much guilt along with being a mother...sometimes we need a group hug and a pat on the back for the effort! Glad you found some encouragement here.

  2. Isn't it crazy that obesity and poverty correlate? We imagine that those who are on the low income side would look emaciated and hungry, but that's typically not how it is in our country. Of course poverty here is totally different than poverty elsewhere but that is a different story...

    Something else along those lines is that lower income families that are uneducated tend to have to work a couple of jobs (each) meaning long, hard hours of work, so the quality of the food takes a back seat. Those families (and a lot of families these days) value a quick SEEMINGLY cheap meal over a freshly prepared one. I really really wish more was taught about nutrition and cooking in schools!!

    Hope you're doing well, friend! <3

    1. Better education in schools is beginning to emerge. I'm excited for the future and happy to see reform in the school lunch program!