Econ 101: Eating Healthy on a Budget

It's a sad fact that when it comes to eating healthy, people in the lower income brackets tend to make the more unhealthy food choices. Some would say that the reason is that healthier foods like fresh vegetables and fruits, lean protein, and carbohydrates with higher fiber cost more. Others will point out that the availability of these types of healthier foods is limited or not present in communities, specifically neighborhoods, where people with low incomes live. Although some of those reasons may have more than a few grains of truth, I think it is also safe to say, where there is a will, there is a way.

In college I majored in one of the least popular academic fields; Economics. To most people just hearing the word "Economics" makes their eyes glaze over and their mind wander. Okay, so maybe it is a bit of a dry and nagging subject. However, it is a the core of everything we do. Scarcity and choice. When it comes to making healthy choices...if the choices are driven by the budget, well then need I say more.

The choices are yours

Back to, "if there is a will there is a way". If you really want to eat healthier on a daily basis you can do it on a shoe string budget, however, you will have to work at it a bit. Here are some suggestions that will help you move into the mindset and, hopefully, get you going on your quest.

When Shopping:

  1. Seek out healthy meat substitutes such as store brand canned beans or better yet, buy a bag of dried beans for $1.00 or so and cook them at home. Cooked beans store great in the freezer, if you have one, and are loaded with fiber, vitamins, and are a good source of plant protein.

  2. Pair your beans with rice, particularly brown rice, and you have a healthy complete protein with loads of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Rice and beans are a great pair. Each alone is not a complete protein, however, what the one is missing the other one has. This makes them an excellent complementary protein.

  3. Another good option, notice I didn't say great, is peanut butter on whole grain bread. If you are not allergic to peanut butter, then this combination is a healthy choice that will fill you up. Words of warning though: "Peanut butter is high in fat!" Okay, so yes that is true, however, as higher fat foods go, peanut butter contains the healthier poly-unsaturated oils. I suggest, in this case, you put out a few more pennies and opt for the natural peanut butter or one like Jif Natural that is lower in sugar and doesn't use hydrogenated oils. Hydrogenated oils are the bad boys of oils. Avoid these as their reputation is super not good when it comes to heart health.

  4. Here is a really great value...tuna in a pouch. One pouch of Star Kist chunk light tuna costs about $1.00. Two pouches gives you 34 grams of pure omega rich protein. You can't find a better value than that.

  5. Oatmeal is a great low cost go to for breakfast or even as a snack later in the day. BUT do NOT go near the instant oatmeal in a pouch. That stuff is loaded with sugar and pretty much strips the fiber and goodness from the oats. Instead, go for the "old-fashioned" oatmeal, or if you have time to cook use steel-cut Irish or Scottish oats. The texture is well worth the wait. Mix in some frozen berries, cinnamon, or some cocoa powder, add some low-fat milk and Voila! You have another great complementary protein with lots of good vitamins and minerals.

  6. When shopping for fruits and vegetables, seek out those that are in season. These will cost less, be fresher, and last longer in your fridge. Seasonal is very dependent upon your region of the world. Firmer fruits such as apples, and even green bananas will last several days to a week on the shelf at home. Berries tend to have the shortest shelf-life and unless you buy them in season the cost can be up there. Vegetables such as Brussels sprouts and carrots last the longest as long as they are refrigerated.

  7. Speaking of berries, a good alternative to fresh berries is frozen. If you have a freezer this is a lower cost option to fresh. I'm not a big fan of eating defrosted/thawed berries. I find the texture is, meh! However, eating frozen berries right out of the bag on a hot summer day is a great way to cool off. Or, throw them in the blender with a banana and some milk and "Bob's your uncle"!

  8. As far as milk and dairy, of course if you are allergic or you choose a vegan lifestyle, but then if you are vegan I'm kinda preaching to the choir, anyway, if either of those are you, then avoid milk. If not then low-fat milk and low fat dairy can be a healthy complement to grains and legumes, that's the scientific word for "beans and lentils". Which reminds me, lentils are another great low cost, high fiber, complementary protein option to pair with rice, other legumes, and whole grains.

  9. Now that we've trimmed the cost of our protein and fruit selections a bit, we have a little more latitude when it comes to purchasing leafy greens. These are absolutely necessary to a healthy lifestyle. Especially spinach, kale, and other deep green leafy greens. If all you can afford is iceberg lettuce or romaine in a bag, then hey there is value there too. So do what you have to do. However, if you can eek out a bit more go for the darker greens. These are loaded with vitamins and minerals like vitamin C and magnesium, copper, and selenium. All are really important in keeping your cells healthy.

  10. Lastly, opt for high fiber low cost foods like pasta and bread. These should not be your daily staples, meaning you don't need to nor should you eat these at every meal, especially if you are eating more plant based proteins, like our friends Mr. Bean and Ms. Rice. However, when you do eat them, choose wisely. There are plenty of cheap brands of pasta out there. I mean we've all had times when all we can afford is Ramen noodles. Spend an extra dollar on something like whole grain pasts and bread or Barilla High Protein pasta. It is worth the extra cost.

What NOT to choose on a budget

  1. Don't kid yourself into thinking that chips and soda area meal. They may be cheap but they are not life sustaining. Not for you and not for your children. You can justify your need for these in you shopping basket by telling yourself you deserve a treat and they don't cost much. Remember Econ 101... scarcity and choice. Your money is scarce, is that the best choice?

  2. Avoid dried fruits like raisins, cranberries, etc. These may seems like a healthy choice but they are loaded with sugar (after all the water was sucked right out of them). And, honestly, they cost a small fortune.

  3. Avoid nuts and nut based "milks". Nuts are a good snack but they are a high cost food that can drive up your food bill really fast. Another nut food to avoid is nut "milk". These popular dairy alternatives are a high cost luxury that also tends to contain more sugar than you may realize. Of course, if you are allergic to dairy and you really enjoy nut "milk", then you may want to save a bit of extra room in your budget for this. But weigh the cost against the benefit before you do.

  4. Convenience foods and pre-packaged frozen meals are more of a luxury than a regular option. Yes it is nice to have something in the freezer for when you just don't have the energy to whip up something in the kitchen. However, these foods tend to be high in sodium and fat. Plus when you are really scraping by, one frozen entry can really eat up your budget.

  5. Skip the organic section. Although organic is a great concept and very altruistic, when you have a limited budget paying the higher price for organic versus conventional is probably not in your best interest. No scientific studies to date show a significant difference in your health outcome when eating only organic foods versus conventional1. Science does show that not eating fruits and vegetables will impact your health outcome. So if the budget is what is driving the choice between eating fruits and vegetables or not...Econ 101 once again...need I say more?

No more $$ excuses.

Okay, so there you have it. A jump start on your new low budget healthy lifestyle creative thinking process. Now go out and see what you can find.

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