Access to healthy food is a basic human right (at least it should be). Without access to healthy food, people are at a higher risk for conditions such as heart disease, type II diabetes, and obesity.
However healthy foods, along with many other basic costs of living, can add up quickly. These costs of living have increased dramatically over the years, and yet wage rates and income supports have not increased at the same rate of inflation. This means people have to spend more and more money on fixed costs such as housing, electricity, etc., and the most flexible basic expense is the food budget (you can’t pay half of your rent, electricity, or power, but you can sure cut your food bill). Does this seem fair? Many people blame themselves for not being able to afford enough healthy food for their families, when in fact it is more of a societal issue (when you look at the issue as a whole and not on an individual basis). Does this sound like your situation? Then throw away that blame and don’t being so hard on yourself. You are doing the best you can with the social circumstances you are given. And if you’re one of those people who say well people should do this, or shouldn’t do that…just try to be a little more understanding about the fact that everyone is doing their best with their given circumstances.
Most people will say that a healthy diet should be affordable to everyone. The truth for many is, if you have an extremely tight budget for food for the week for yourself and your family (I’ve worked with mothers that have $20 to stretch for the week for food), a few boxes of Kraft dinner and some hot dogs, or a $3 on sale pizza, go much further than an array of lean meats, healthy carbs and veggies. A bottle of pop you can get for 50 cents on sale, yet the same size carton of milk would run about five dollars. The examples are endless. The fact is that many of us have to make some tough choices that we judge ourselves harshly enough about. Healthy eating can be done on a budget, but it takes some time, patience, understanding, effort, and trial and error to figure out the best system that works for you and your family.
Here are some tips for eating healthy on a budget:
1. Buy Generic Food and Store Brands
- Generic versions of raw foods such as rice, pasta, eggs, milk, cottage cheese, and frozen fruits/veggies taste like brand name foods (or at least comparable), and they’ll save you money on packaging & advertising.
2. Buy in Bulk
- Especially when there are sales. Foods like pasta, rice and oats are easy to stockpile. If they’re on sale, buy as much as you can afford and store to last you until the next sale.
3. Invest in a Deep Freezer
- Even if you have to buy one second hand and clean it. It will save you tons of money in the long run because you can stock up on fruits, veggies, meats, etc., when they go on sale.
4. Buy Only What You Need
- “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. The best way to avoid impulse buying is to prepare yourself before you do the grocery.
- Plan your meals ahead, including portion size. List all foods you need for the next 7 to 14 days. Go the grocery store, get what’s on your list and get out.
- Eat before you go shopping. This prevents buying foods not on your list because you’re hungry. Eat a solid meal before doing the grocery.
- Shop alone as it prevents impulse buying from the significant other and/or kids.
- Keep a list in the kitchen to write down items that you need to buy for your menu or to restock your pantry.
5. Prepare Your Own Food
- Cook all your meals for the day on waking up or before going to bed (place ingredients in a slow cooker, or cook and then store in the fridge/freezer). It takes 30-40mins, saves you stress about what you’ll be eating the rest of the day and you eat healthy while saving money. Or choose one afternoon or evening a week to prep some meals for days when you know you will be busy. There are many websites where you can get ideas on family meal prep, such as this one.
- Reduce processed foods: Buy oats instead of cereals, make home made protein bars, home made tomato sauce, home made pizza (recipes can be found online).
- Keep it simple: make double portions, take leftovers with you, use cans of tuna & mackerel, rice, pasta, and frozen veggies.
- Learn to cook from scratch: Learn to work with spices & herbs. Invest in a budget-friendly eating on a budget cookbook, or free sites such as this one for recipes. Note: it takes time, patience and practice to learn new cooking skills (as with learning any new skill). Don’t get frustrated if you burn something or don’t get it right the first time. You will slowly start to develop your skills over time.
6. Make One Meal for Everyone
- Try to offer everybody the same foods at mealtimes. As tempting as it is to please everyone, avoid making something special for ‘picky’ eaters. Children will learn to like many different foods only if they are encouraged to try them. Making only one meal also saves money and prevents waste. (Disclaimer: this might not be true for some households with picky eaters, so I do understand that sometimes you just ‘gotta do what you gotta do’ with a very picky eater).
7. Offer Water Instead of Juice for Kids
- Or try diluting juice with water. It’s better for their teeth and also helps reduce the risk for childhood obesity (through drinking too many calories).
8. Plan for Leftovers
- Make larger amounts of food and plan to use leftovers for lunches or suppers the next day. Add leftover vegetables, meats, fish, or poultry to salads, pastas, soups or spaghetti sauces.
9. Use Community Gardens or CSAs
- Community gardens offer people the opportunity to grow their own vegetables and fruit. A group of people come together to grow food, maintain the garden and share the harvest. Ask your local community centre or public health department if there is a community garden that you could join.
- ‘Community Supported Agriculture’ (CSA) refers to a particular network of individuals who provide money to support one or more local farms. CSA subscribers pay at the beginning of the growing season for a share of the anticipated harvest; once harvesting begins, they receive weekly shares of vegetables and fruit. Often, CSAs also include herbs, honey, eggs, dairy products and meat, in addition to produce. Check if there is a CSA in your area.
10. Buy Frozen Fruits & Veggies.
- Unfreeze berries in microwave and eat warm with cottage cheese. Buy large bags of spinach and freeze half of it so it does not go bad; use the fresh spinach in salads and the frozen in cooked recipes. Try frozen beans, broccoli, carrots, corn, etc.
- Benefits of using frozen fruits and veggies: Saves Money – often half the price of fresh and almost infinite shelf life when kept in freezer; Saves Time – frozen fruits & veggies are pre-washed and pre-cut, which saves preparation time; Nutrient Dense – if frozen right when picked, frozen fruits & veggies can contain just as much or even more nutrients than fresh ones.
11. Plan Easy Meals Around Whole Grains
- Add meat, chicken or dried beans, peas or lentils and vegetables to brown rice, quinoa, bulgur or barley. Follow the directions on the package to help you cook the grains.
12. Healthier Cereal Options
- Buy unsweetened whole grain cereals when you can. Sweetened cereals are higher in sugar and are often lower in fibre.
- Hot cereals like oatmeal and multigrain cereals are the best buys. Instant flavoured hot cereals in single serving packages are easy, but they may cost more and are higher in sugar and salt.
- Add your own toppings to cereals to make them more flavourful: banana slices, berries, canned fruit, dried fruit (raisins, apricots, dates, dried cranberries), nuts, yogurt, applesauce, chopped apples or cinnamon.
13. Buy Discounted Meat
- Grocery stores often discount meats by up to 70% as they approach expiration date. Buy several pounds and store in your freezer.
14. Buy Less Expensive Types of Meat, Poultry and Fish
- Stewing meat
- Outside, inside or eye of round
- Blade or flank steak
- Regular or medium ground meat
- Pork shoulder
- Chicken pieces (legs, thighs) or whole chicken (or buy breasts when they are on sale and freeze)
- Plain frozen fish fillets such as salmon, tilapia, sole, haddock and Pollock
- Canned fish like salmon, “light” tuna, sardines and herring
15. Keep Portions Small
- A serving of meat, poultry or fish is just 75 grams (2.5 oz) or about the size of a deck of cards. Have 2 to 3 servings per day. Enjoy meals that use small amounts of meat and lots of vegetables, pasta or rice. Try stir-fries, casseroles, curries and pasta dishes.
16. Lower priced meats can be less tender because they are lower in fat. Try these ways to make meat more tender:
- Marinate meat overnight in the refrigerator.
- Pound the meat using a mallet before cooking.
- Cook meat slowly for a few hours in a liquid such as water, broth or tomato juice.
17. Explore meat alternatives like eggs, dried beans, peas and lentils, soy products and nuts and seeds. Try eating a few meatless meals each week:
- Curried chickpeas and rice
- Vegetable cheese omelette
- Vegetarian bean chilli
- Lentil casserole or soup
- Tofu stir-fry
- Egg salad sandwich
- Hummus and vegetable pita
18. Ways to Save Money with Dairy Products:
- Buy milk in 4 L bags or jugs instead of cartons. Milk can be frozen for up to three months. Thaw bags of milk in your refrigerator and shake it before you open it.
- Skim milk powder costs less than milk and is just as nutritious. Once skim milk powder has been mixed with water, try mixing it with an equal amount of milk from the bag or carton for a creamier taste. You can also use it for cooking or baking. Buy yogurt in a larger container instead of single serve portions.
- Buy cheese in blocks when it is on sale and slice or grate it yourself.
- Freeze grated or block cheese to help make it last longer. It will crumble when you thaw it, but it will be just as nutritious.
- Buy yogurt in a larger container instead of single serve portions. Note: plain yogurt can be used as a much healthier substitute for mayonnaise.
- Low fat cottage cheese can be a good substitute for regular cheese in some recipes
- Compare brands and the price of cheese per kilogram.
19. Try These Budget-friendly Meal Ideas
- Make a stir fry and serve it over brown rice.
- Toss leftover pasta with diced canned tomatoes, canned or frozen vegetables and cooked meat. Put in a casserole dish and top with grated cheese. Heat in the oven or microwave.
- Add chopped vegetables and dried fruit to quinoa, bulgur or barley and toss with oil and vinegar salad dressing.
- Add cooked brown rice or barley to soups.
- Cheese, bean and vegetable quesadillas on whole grain tortillas.
20. Last but not least – Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
- Everybody has rough times for various reasons. People are usually too embarrassed to ask for help because there are judgements and stigma out there around this. Try to look past that and understand that no matter what people will always judge. Don’t refrain from seeking help just because there is a lack of understanding around who should and shouldn’t need it.
- Community Kitchens: are small groups of people who prepare low-cost meals together to divide among their families. Ask your local community centre or public health department to connect you with a group.
- Food Buying Clubs (e.g. The Good Food Box): The Good Food Box is a non-profit food buying club that makes fresh vegetables and fruit available at an affordable price. Community organizations and volunteers help pack and distribute the boxes. Go to www.foodshare.net to find a Good Food Box program near you.
- Food Banks and Food Cupboards: provide basic food items to help when you do not have enough money for food. They try to offer healthy foods, but the types and amounts of food you will get depends on what is available. When you find a location, be sure to ask about the hours of operation and what information you should bring with you when you go.
- Meal Programs: Sometimes you need a place to get a meal when money is tight. Nutritious meals that are free or at a very low cost may be available where you live. Ask about meal programs at local places of worship, community centres and other non-profit organizations in your community.
- Student Nutrition Programs: Many schools offer breakfast, lunch and/or snack programs for their students. Ask the principal at your child’s school if they offer a nutrition program.
Felicia Newell, BScAHN, MScAHN(c), RD(c)
Official NEM Nutritionist
For the past several years, Felicia has been working at a university research centre with a focus on food security (Food Action Research Centre), and has taught university level nutrition courses. Her passion lies in working toward a future where everyone has access to enough affordable, healthy, safe and culturally appropriate food, that is produced, processed and distributed in socially, economically and ecologically sustainable ways. Felicia has recently published a paper in the Canadian Journal of Public Health titled, ‘Is the Minimum Enough: Affordability of a Nutritious Diet for Minimum Wage Earners in Nova Scotia’.