Budget-Friendly Healthy Eating

March 11, 2014 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Food Economics, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Eating a plant-based diet, not only protects your waistline, but it also guards your purse. It’s interesting that so many people erroneously espouse the idea that eating fruits and vegetables is terribly expensive. I’m fortunate in that I’ve shopped and cooked for many decades and in my experience, fresh fruit and vegetables do not have to drive up the cost of what can be really great eating.

In today’s world there are many people who have not cooked much food from scratch; some families are accustomed to picking up Micky D’s; Kentucky Fried or Domino's Pizza and opening the box. These are the skills they have learned to prepare dinner. So my heart goes out to those, who are reading the research and realizing with increasing surely that eating a plant-based diet or at least eating less meat and more plants is what’s going to make a real dent in their own overweight and health problems. The reason my heart is open to so many people in this situation is that many are struggling with issues that make it multiply difficult. One is the idea that vegetables are expensive. Another is that cooked vegetables are never delicious. The other main factor is that they are just beginning to learn that knowing what to eat is just the first step; in addition, they’ve got to learn how to prepare the foods to make them truly delicious. Heaven knows it is pointless to serve up a pile of boiled vegetables that don’t taste good. Who can get kids, let alone themselves, to eat unpalatable food? Once people gain a few experiences showing how absolutely wonderful vegetables can taste in delicious recipes and they have the experience of seeing the food budget decline, then it may be easier for them to take steps toward making permanent the healthful benefits in their lives of eating a plant-based diet.

Mayuree Rao at Harvard School of Public Health and others found that it cost, on average, only $1.50 more per day to eat a healthy diet than an unhealthy diet. With a little creativity in shopping, storage, and food preparation, especially if you cut back a lot on expensive meat cuts, it can be less. When you add in health-care costs – there is no comparison! Healthy foods win hands-down. I know that eating a healthy diet can be not only inexpensive, but in addition, delicious.

As many things we want to accomplish seem; it may appear to be an insurmountable project. But if you make a goal to learn one new recipe a week/four per month you’d have 52 or so new recipes.  You wouldn’t really need to go for an entire year, because most people don’t cook that many different recipes. It really can be a doable goal; especially if you work on it incrementally. Once you make the recipe it becomes easier and easier, and after a few times it’s in your recipe sack of tricks – it’s easy for you.

I’ll share a few ideas that work for me.

  • Cook recipes that yield more than one meal. Soups and casseroles lend themselves very well to this concept. Cool them down a bit and divide into meal-sized portions and freeze. When you’re in a hurry – voilà! You can take them out of the freezer the day before or the morning before and put in the refrigerator. Or thaw in the microwave at the last minute.
  • If you make one of your new recipes a stir-fry, you can change it with what ever you happen to have on hand, whatever is in season. What’s in season is also what is the bargain that week. Stir-fries lend themselves very nicely to paring down the serving of animal food proportionately to the vegetables. The nice thing about stir-fries is that different ingredients make it a different recipe; so your family will not be bored with it.  My first stir-fry recipe used celery, sliced peppers and mushrooms, and a can of drained and rinsed bean sprouts with a little sliced sautéed chicken. It was flavored with garlic and powdered ginger (when I didn’t have fresh on hand), and topped with low sodium soy sauce mixed with a little cornstarch to give it a touch of glaze. It turned into a dozen different recipes, sometimes I used shrimp, sliced beef, sliced pork, scallops or eventually tofu. Learning the technique of making stir-fry is worth your effort, if you’re moving toward a plant-based diet. Note: Don’t forget frozen veggies can make your stir-fry easier; especially if time is a big limitation.
  • On March 17, 2010, almost exactly four years ago, I posted Budget Friendly Homemade Soup. That post has been referred to so frequently.  It’s filled with budget ideas. I priced out the ingredients to make homemade chicken soup and compared with the anemic Campbell’s chicken soup. To see how anemic it is in terms of having serious chunks of veggies and chicken, just compare your home-made soup in terms of size and frequency of nutritious chunks of both veggies and chicken. Those pitiful little tidbits Campbell has floating around in its over-salted chicken broth show how inexpensive their soup ought to be, with so little nutritional value in it.  But you will be surprised how the price comparison comes out. In my earlier post, I was able to show that (price comparison). Seriously, buy a can of soup and count the chicken bits, and vegetable flecks; don’t forget to look at how much sodium you get. Yikes!!!
  • Your own cooking is almost always less expensive than eating in restaurants, or even fast food establishments. Yes, I’ve heard of the dollar meal. How yummy is that?
  • When choosing fruits and vegetables you don’t need exotic specially imported items. For example, goji berries are no better than far less expensive blackberries, raspberries or strawberries. Yes, I know that the marketers will tell you otherwise, but there is not a significant difference to compel you to shell out the big bucks. In addition, you may use frozen berries. I use frozen berries for a number of applications. One is as topping on my whole-wheat pancakes, yogurt or desserts. I just take frozen strawberries or mixed berries purchased in a large plastic bag at a great price, put them in the microwave and then blend them a bit with some non-caloric sweetener. It’s simple, inexpensive, low-calorie and everyone loves it.
  • Since I mentioned frozen berries, I want to also remind you that frozen and canned foods are often just as nutritious as fresh produce, and often at a lower price. When vegetables and fruit are flash frozen, they are fresh. The freezing stops the rapid deterioration that continues until they are refrigerated. In addition using minimally processed, frozen or canned foods is often a benefit in time for the consumer. You are not paying for the parts you don’t use, and you can prepare them very quickly. One caveat is the amount of salt in some canned vegetables. Fortunately some processors are supplying low sodium versions. In addition, you can rinse some items, like canned beans to reduce the salt. (Salt is the wonder ingredient in the food processors arsenal.  Once costly, it is now dirt cheap, and thus profitable.  It provides a real jolt to the taste buds, which detect salt well, and has come to substitute for other, more subtle tastes found in whole, natural food. Children fed a lot of fast and processed foods think that is what flavor is supposed to be, and often rebel against real food because “it tastes like something.”  (Translation, other than salt, sugar, and crispy fat).
  • If you’re really lucky like me, you may be able to find a farmer’s market that has terrific fresh vegetables at great prices, year round. Near me there’s one called Sprouts; I can save so much that it’s worth a trip to pick up a big supply of vegetables every week or two.
  • If you sometimes have meatless meals, you will discover that the animal proteins really are the most expensive part of the meal. Tonight for example, I made a tofu recipe that had a Marsala Mushroom sauce from the Eating Well site. Lots of flavor, which I think is the main key for eating tofu; tofu doesn’t taste like much, but if you serve it with flavorful ingredients, you’ll have a winner. The 14 ounces of tofu was $2.00. I wasn’t really doing it for the budget, but it was a pleasant surprise that the ‘meat’ part of my meal was two bucks instead of much more. Wow! If you’re on a budget, consider tofu, the price is right, there’s lots of protein and even some fiber and there’s almost no saturated fat (unlike most animal protein). Win – win.
  • Beans and rice (hopefully you’ll choose brown rice) are often the brunt of jokes, but really there’s no joke to the delicious flavors that bean and rice dishes can supply, while protecting your budget. Of course, the fact that beans and rice dishes can be very nutritious is not lost on me. It’s nice when something can be both nourishing, tasty and budget friendly.
  • I’ll remind you here that I keep items that take a long time to cook, on hand. I often put dinner together in a hurry. If the brown rice is in the refrigerator all ready cooked (and it almost always is) I can put the amount that I want in a bowl, cover it, microwave it for a few minutes and I’m on a roll. Waiting an hour or so for the rice to cook would prevent me from using it as frequently as I do. Cooking up whole grains like brown rice or wheat berries in advance is really a great way to get whole grains into the menu.
  • I don’t want to get started on a diatribe on processed foods, but seriously so many of them are so highly processed. So filled with refined flour, sugar, salt, and cheap fat. I believe that Big Food is beginning to realize that they will have to listen to the public, because the demand for healthier options is growing. But there are still so many suboptimal offerings.
  • Don’t forget that the cost of cheap, processed foods can have secondary costs. It may take a while before you end up with poor health, but an important part of keeping our body healthy is by the fuel (food) we supply it. Dr. Grandpa wrote two articles that are still frequently referred to and cited: Full, or True Cost Accounting for Food: Part 1; Full Food Cost Accounting: Part 2: Designing Foods for Craving.

Please don’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed, if you haven’t been a cook in the past. Getting healthy involves creating new habits. If you chose to make incremental changes, changes that gradually become part of your routine, it’s much less likely to stress you to the point of quitting. If you gradually add new cooking techniques and new shopping skills, you may be surprised how soon you discover that you’ve made some relatively big changes. You notice the weight registering on your bathroom scale creeping down, and a few extra dollars left in your purse. Good Health Can Be Yummy and doesn’t need to cost a fortune.