Growing up I had my fair share of powdered milk and government-issued cheese – not exactly the healthiest food, but it was what we lived off of during some financially difficult years. The upshot to all that…I learned to be savvy when it came to food shopping, ensuring I always ate healthy, even on a tight budget.
First and foremost, have a plan. Not necessarily a day-to-day meal plan, but, at the very least, an idea of some key items you can purchase that, combined with some pantry staples, you could whip up a healthy meal at any given time. For example, every week I buy a free range roasted chicken that I use for a plethora of meal options – salad, soup, stir fry, wraps. I also prepare a hearty batch of amaranth, quinoa or wild rice, which can be added to tacos, eaten with fresh avocado and salsa, mixed with scrambled eggs, or even eaten with a smidgen of soy sauce. And, of course, I purchase a wide variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, always including at least one dark green vegetable and bananas, based on seasonal prices and availability. Any combination of these items makes a quick, nutritional meal.
Secondly, comparison shop and stock up on sale items. If I learned anything over the years about food shopping, it was to know my prices and where to shop to obtain the best value for my money. With the exception of farmers markets, I purchase all my food necessities at three main stores – a local business, a corporate chain and a warehouse. Each week I peruse the sales and specials, online or in store, to find the best prices for my meal requirements, especially when it comes to fresh produce or, during salmon season, fish, which can be divided up into meals and frozen. I also buy in bulk, but even here I err on the side of caution; sometimes you can find a similar product on the shelf for less. The nice thing about buying in bulk, though, is you can purchase exactly what you need and avoid the unnecessary post-consumer packaging.
The third big win-win in keeping costs down is to utilize your freezer. Whether it’s a leftover batch of pasta, a two-for-one deal on pizza, fresh picked summer berries – freeze it. To keep bread fresh, I freeze precut loaves and take out slices as needed. A quick thirty seconds in the microwave or leave out overnight…sorted. I also love making large batches of my favorites – chili, black bean soup, fresh pasta sauce, sweet potato stew – jar them up in inexpensive, glass mason jars (freezer friendly). Not only is this a great go-to option for last-minute meals, but it’s also a healthy and delicious way to solve your work lunch conundrum. And, without a doubt, lessen your food wastage (and costs) by freezing anything, literally, that can be used at a later date, especially stale bread, great for croutons, pudding and stuffing; wilted vegetables that can be thrown into soups, stews or smoothies (e.g. spinach!); or even those overripe bananas, which are indispensable for cookies, pancakes and post-workout shakes. Waste not – want not.
My fourth money-saving idea is to know the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 list published by the Environmental Working Group to avoid harmful chemicals in your food. If you’re on a budget, organic is not a 100% option, by no means, and it doesn’t have to be, honestly. According to the EWG list, you can purchase common non-organic fruit and veg staples like avocados (a regular in my home), grapefruit, onions, and sweet potatoes. The items to be cognizant about, hence be more shopping savvy with, are the ones you most definitely need to purchase organic due to their high levels of pesticides. The organic-only list includes apples, grapes, potatoes, strawberries, as well as kale. Most of these items I either buy on sale or source from a warehouse. And, one note of caution when buying from farmers markets, don’t assume everything is organic, nor that it is local – buyer beware. Ask, make inquires and find farms that offer produce without pesticides.
Lastly, I want you to consider reducing the amount of meat, including fish and poultry, you consume. Animal products make up the bulk costs of most food budgets, with folks opting for cheaper rather than healthier. As I learned more about the quality of meat (factory farming versus free range and organic) and the benefits of a mostly plant-based diet (e.g. T. Colin Campbell’s China Study *), I began to appreciate, and come to love, meals with little or no meat. As an athlete, I can attest that consuming copious amounts of meat is not only unnecessary, but is actually very unhealthy and has well-documented long-term effects on your body. However, if you absolutely cannot do without your bacon, T-bone steak or spaghetti bolognaise, please bear in mind that the quality of the meat is critically important – not the quantity.
There are numerous other ways to save on your food budget without sacrificing your health. Knowledge and planning are vital to beating the odds in terms of quality and nutrition. More importantly, keep in mind the bigger picture – your health and that of your children. What we put into our bodies is not just empty calories; it’s the vital building blocks of optimum health.