Top Ten Ways To Get The Most Nutritious Food For The Least Amount Of Money
When you have plenty of money, it’s easy to buy lots of nutritious food. I read blogs that extoll the virtues of fresh berries in winter, grass-fed organic sirloin steaks, raw artisan-made goat or sheep cheese, endive, watercress, walnut oil and fresh-never-frozen-wild-caught sea bass. These foods are presented as requirements for a healthy diet, while the health benefits of low-cost staples such as dried beans, brown rice and peanut butter are ignored if not down right vilified. If I want to improve my health, overcome chronic disease and lose weight, then according to these blogs, I need to be filling my refrigerator with expensive, gourmet commodities. They tell me that if my health is a priority then I will give priority to the foods I eat. I will cheerfully spend $15 on goat cheese, $35 on grass-fed steaks and $8 on a half-pint of fresh red raspberries when it’s snowing outside. This will give evidence to prove my commitment to leading a healthy lifestyle.
I’m sorry (Not!) but I do not live in a world where walnut oil and sea bass are options for me. The only way I can afford artisan cheese, is if I am the artisan who makes it. Most organics are out of my price range unless I grow them myself. Grass-fed sirloin steak is as likely to grace my table as the dog making me breakfast in bed. I live on a budget. I am not ashamed or embarrassed about this. It’s simply my reality. I cannot afford these status foods that so many “experts” are recommending. I don’t know who can, but somebody must or they wouldn’t be so popular these days. I do not believe that I have to eat those types of expensive novelty foods in order to consume a nutritious diet. I think the “experts” who recommend those types of diets are probably trying to appeal to consumers who can afford the supplements and equipment usually advertised on their blogs. I am not that person. I am a person who has been trying to improve my diet for the last couple of decades, and I’ve done it while sticking to a limited grocery budget. Over the years I’ve picked up a few tips on how to get the most nutrition for the least money and those tips are what I’m going to share with you. Some of them are obvious. Some of them are controversial. Some will push you outside of your comfort zone. Most of them require work and planning. Gird your loins, then move forward.
1. Stop buying anything that makes you sick.
Soda pop, beer, chips, snack cakes, junk food–if it makes you sick, then don’t buy it. If you have allergies, heart disease, or diabetes, do not buy any foods that tempt you, and that you know you should not be eating. Do not put them in the grocery cart. Do not buy them at the gas station. Do not buy them for yourself or for your kids. Cash is a limited resource. In order to make sure that we have enough cash to buy the food we actually need to live, we must stop using what little cash we do have on junk that will only make us sicker. Processed foods such as prepared baked goods, cheese-doodles, sports drinks, sugar-filled yogurt cups, soda pop, frozen entrees, prepared snack foods and packaged mixes are not going to give us much nutrition. They will take a hefty bite out of our budget though, leaving less money available to buy the foods which really do help us eat better. Don’t buy processed foods. Choose to buy whole, natural foods instead.
2. Accept the fact that you will indeed have to spend time cooking.
It stinks, I know. Cooking can be a chore. It takes, time, thought, energy, planning. It requires us to invest our brain and our time into staying in the kitchen long enough to plan a meal, prepare a meal, serve a meal, and clean up after a meal. It’s hot, tedious, sometimes even drudgery. It still has to be done. Until we can accept this fact, we cannot accomplish the goal of eating better for less money.
I firmly believe that unless we are willing to cook, we cannot eat well on a budget. It’s just not possible. We can’t see when our eyes are closed and we can’t eat on a budget unless we cook. Affordable healthy foods require preparation and cooking time to become edible. Beans have to be soaked and boiled. Brown rice has to simmer for 45 minutes. Fresh vegetables have to be peeled and chopped. If we won’t take the time to prepare these foods, they will not be available for us to eat. Simple as that.
I look at it this way. I am so blessedly wealthy, my family lives so extravagantly, that I can afford the privilege of preparing 2, even 3-meals a day. We have such an abundance of food that I have to do the dishes several times a day to keep up with it. People in other countries (and even some in this country) are lucky to eat a single meal a day. I am so wealthy that I can afford to eat 3-meals a day, and even have enough extra food for snacks between meals. I am blessed with the opportunity to prepare this food for myself and my family. People who don’t have enough food to eat would scoff at my complaints. They would open their mouth in disgust and roll their eyes in disbelief. They would wonder, “How can anyone complain about having enough food to eat? How can anyone feel sorry for themselves for not going hungry?” On top of that, I even have the luxuries of running water and a kitchen stove to make preparation, clean-up and cooking as effortless as it can possibly be. I’ve got it good compared to my sisters in other countries. I have no room for complaints about my lot in life. I only have space for gratitude.
3. Clean the kitchen and do the dishes.
Just as important as cooking the food, is cleaning up afterwards. I need a clean kitchen so that I have space to do my chopping, mixing and baking. I need clean pots and pans to cook the food, clean silverware and bowls to serve the food, and clean plates and cups to eat the food. I need a clean refrigerator so that the food I put in there can be seen and won’t be in danger of rotting or becoming contaminated by foodborne germs. I need cupboards and shelves that do not have sticky spots or bug infestations so that my food can be safely stored. I need counter tops and work space to spread out the food as I prepare it.
Cooking food is a chore. If my kitchen is a mess I will invariably run out for fast food or order a pizza instead. This is a costly choice that leaves less money available for the nutritious food I want to buy, eat and serve to my family. Cleaning the kitchen is free. It’s a chore, but it doesn’t cost me a single cent. The highest cost for a clean kitchen is the dish soap and bleach I use to wash the dishes and clean the counters. These cost less than a dime a day. What a clean kitchen really costs me is the time it takes to do the work. None of us like the drudgery of cleaning the kitchen, but if we want to save money on our food bill, if we want to improve our diet, we simply have to do it.
It helps to turn on the radio. It helps to plug in an MP3 player or play an audio book from the library. It helps if we have someone to visit with while we do the work. Even if we have none of these helps, the kitchen still has to be cleaned every single day. The dishes have to be done several times a day. When there’s nothing else to relieve the drudgery, we can sing out loud and we can pray. These may not be as glamourous as an audio book, but both are readily available and definitely make the time go faster. Time spent in prayer or singing praises is never wasted.
4. Determine which starches are the most nutritious and affordable in your area.
Focus specifically on whole grains and whole foods. Remember, we are buying for nutrition specifically. Whole grains such as whole wheat flour and brown rice are far more nutritious than processed grains such as all-purpose flour and white rice. All-purpose flour and white rice are less expensive. However they provide much less nutrition than their wholegrain counterparts. We are looking for the balance between cost and quality. We want the most quality for the smallest cost. Whole grains like quinoa, kamut, amaranth, and teff are tasty and good for us. They also cost a heck of a lot more than brown rice or rolled oats. We don’t need all of the whole grains to eat a healthy diet, just the cheap ones. Look around your local market and compare prices among grains, starches and starchy vegetables.
In North America usually the most affordable whole grains are whole wheat flour, brown rice, rolled oats (old-fashioned oatmeal) and wholegrain cornmeal. Whole wheat bread, wholegrain pasta, and corn tortillas are all affordable convenience foods that are made from whole grain.
Other good options are pearled barley, minute barley and converted rice. While both pearl barley and converted rice have the outer bran removed they are still more nutritious than most processed grains such as white rice. Many people mistakenly believe pearled barley is a whole grain because it is so nutritious. Converted rice is steam-processed so that all of the nutrients from brown rice are forced into the kernel of the rice before the outer bran is removed. Because of the lack of fiber, it’s not as good a choice as brown rice, but it is superior to white rice. If you have to store your food in less than ideal circumstances converted rice may be a better choice than brown rice because it keeps longer in the heat.
Next think about starchy vegetables. White potatoes, sweet potatoes, canned and frozen corn and even plantains are affordable and nutritious options in most of North America. When we are poor, just like people all over the world, it makes economical sense to make starches the foundation of our diet. In China it’s rice and noodles. In India it’s rice and wheat. In Russia it used to be potatoes and rye. In Scotland and Ireland it’s oats and potatoes. In Southern North America it’s corn, rice and wheat. By determining which starches are the most affordable and the most nutritious, you are discovering which foods will become the foundation or bulk of your diet.
If you have allergies or intolerances you will want to skip some foods in favor of others that do not make you sick. Wheat, for instance, makes me sick. Even though it’s affordable and nutritious, it’s not good for me to eat. I choose rice, corn and oats instead. After you determine which starches are the least expensive in your area write them down in a notebook. Write the starch’s name at the top of a page. Then make a list of all of the dishes you can think of that can be made with that starch. Some ideas to get you going.
Whole Wheat Flour: Biscuit, Tortillas, Pancakes, Yeast Bread, Muffins, Hot Cereal
Cornmeal: Cornmeal Mush, Polenta, Cornbread, Muffins, Hoecakes, Spoonbread, Pancakes
Brown Rice: Plain Cooked Rice, Rice & Beans, Lentils & Rice, Fried Rice, Yellow Rice, Dirty Rice
Brown Rice Flour: Hot Cereal, Muffins, Waffles, Pancakes, Skillet Bread
Rolled Oats (Old-Fashioned Oatmeal): Hot Cereal–with raisins–with peanut butter–with bananas, Meat Loaf, Meat Balls, Muffins, Pancakes, Granola, Scones, Cookies
Potatoes: Mashed, Baked, Potato Salad, Oven Fries, Hash Browns, Boiled, Fried, Scalloped, Curried with Peas
Make as complete and thorough a list for each starch as you can. Collect recipes for these starches and compile them in a notebook or binder. At every meal you will serve at least one, and sometimes two of these starches. Examples include beans and rice with corn tortillas. Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and rolls or muffins. Hot cereal with toast on the side. Since these starches will be the main workhorses in your kitchen they need to provide as much nutrition as possible.
If you’re trying to lose weight then be careful to measure your portions of these foods. Some foods like biscuits or fried potatoes are easy to overeat. Keep your portions moderate and be sure to include plenty of vegetables in your meals.
5. Determine which lean protein sources are the most nutritious and least expensive in your area.
Since we’re eating for nutrition, we’re going to avoid the fattiest cuts of meat such as pork bacon and beef oxtails. They provide less protein for the money. While the fat from grass-fed, organically raised animals has some beneficial properties, such as omega-3 fatty acids, the fat from most inexpensive, supermarket meat that we’ll be eating, is not especially good for us. If the only meats available to you are very fatty, remember that you can remove the fat before eating it. When you drain the fat from ground beef or pull the skin from chicken, this is what you’re doing.
In most of North America eggs, chicken, ground turkey, canned fish, peanut butter and dried beans, peas and lentils are very affordable. Regular ground beef, the kind with 27% to 30% fat, is affordable too, although we must take the time to drain off the excess fat before consuming it. Include dairy and soy products such as milk, soymilk, tofu, yogurt and cheese in this section too. Dairy and soy products are very high in protein and usually cost less than meat.
In your notebook write down all of the proteins that are most affordable to you. Once again, leave out any foods that make you sick. If you are allergic to shellfish, you won’t want them on your list. If you are intolerant of soy foods, then you will not include them on your list. Write each protein food at the top of a page and then list all of the dishes you can make from that food underneath.
Dried beans, peas and lentils are usually especially affordable, as well as versatile. To keep your costs down, make a special point to find ways to prepare them that are appetizing to the family. Beans, peas and lentils are the feasts of peasants around the world. Share their wisdom in making them a mainstay of your own diet.
Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Pinto Beans: Brown Beans & Onions, Refried Beans, Red Beans & Rice, Burritos, Chili
Blackeyed Peas: Gumbo, Jamaican Blackeyed Peas, Hoppin’ John, Fritters, Vegetable Stew
Lentils: Lentils and Onions, Lentils & Tomatoes, Spicy Lentils & Rice, Herb & Garlic Lentils & Rice, Lentil & Vegetable Soup, Lentil Chili
Peanut Butter: Peanut Butter & Banana Oatmeal, Apples with Peanut Butter, Thai Peanut Noodles, African Peanut Butter Curry, Peanut Butter Soup, Peanut Butter Pudding
Canned Salmon: Salmon Patties, Salmon Loaf, Salmon & Rice, Salmon with Cream Cheese & Onions, Salmon in White Sauce with Peas and Onions, Salmon Tetrazzini, Salmon Pot Pie, Ginger Sesame Salmon
You can probably think of plenty yourself for eggs, chicken, tuna and ground turkey or ground beef.
Which brings me to a new point. Only choose foods that you and your family actually like and will eat. Chicken livers are super nutritious and extremely cheap where I live, 20-ounces for $1.58. I serve them at least every other week. Chicken livers are on my list of nutritious, affordable proteins, but they may not be on yours. My family looks at shake-and bake chicken livers or fried chicken livers and onions and sings songs of rhapsody. Yours may howl at your cruelty. If your family will not eat chicken livers no matter what, then don’t include them on your list. Don’t buy them at the market. It’s a waste of resources. Milk and cheese may be on your list, but they aren’t on mine. We don’t eat dairy products, so no matter how nutritious they are, I don’t buy them and don’t eat them. Take careful thought, then customize your list for your family. Include things you like; exclude things you don’t.
Remember to serve the least expensive proteins the most often and the more expensive ones less often. This is key. Dried beans can cost as little as $1 a pound. A single pound will provide 95 grams of protein and cook up to 2-1/2 pounds or 40-ounces of edible food. A pound of regular ground beef costs about $4. It provides 73 grams of protein. After cooking it provides 10-ounces of edible food. The beans cost 1/4 as much as the beef. They provide 4-times as much edible food and more protein to boot. Clearly the beans are a more economical choice. To save the most money serve the beans more often than you serve the beef.
When we are trying to eat as nutritiously as possible, for as little as possible, legumes such as dried beans, peas and lentils are one of our greatest allies. They cost very little and their versatility is proven through many delicious ethnic dishes. If you haven’t yet experimented with a wide variety of legumes, I encourage you to do so. You will be amazed at how dramatically their use can reduce your grocery bill.
Fruits and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses. We need to eat them at every meal, at least 5-servings a day. It’s better to get 6 to 10-servings a day, especially if we’re trying to lose weight or improve our nutrition to optimal levels. Fruits and vegetables are the very best thing we can give our bodies to improve our general health, to heal our bodies from chronic disease, and to reduce our weight. They are not simply side dishes, they are absolute necessities for our bodies to function well. Plan to serve some raw and some cooked or canned fruits and vegetables daily.
In every area of the world there are some fruits and vegetables that are cheapest and most plentiful in that locale. In my area when peaches are in season they are very cheap. Watermelon, in season is another good buy. Greens such as collards and mustard greens are popular and affordable too. Produce costs vary greatly by season and location. In the spring and early summer fresh strawberries are very affordable. In the fall and winter they are far more expensive.
In your notebook, make a list of the produce that is most affordable in your area. Be sure to think about all varieties including canned, dried, frozen and fresh fruits and vegetables. If certain produce is only affordable part of the year, write that in your notebook too.
In North America some fruits and vegetables are affordable year round and across the nation. For fruits this includes apples, bananas, oranges, grapefruit, raisins, prunes and frozen juice concentrate. In my area fresh pineapple has been especially cheap over the past couple of years. The cheapest canned fruits are applesauce, mixed fruit, peaches, pears and pineapple. Choose unsweetened versions when possible. We don’t need the extra sugar. Affordable vegetables include fresh cabbage, carrots, celery, cucumbers, green peppers, lettuce, leafy greens, turnips, roma tomatoes and onions; frozen broccoli, cauliflower, peas, green beans, mixed veggies, spinach and stir-fry veggies; canned greens, pumpkin, tomatoes, tomato paste and tomato sauce, low-sodium when possible.
We need both cooked and raw vegetables every day. If you don’t like vegetables then you need to keep trying different varieties until you discover some you do like. If you’ve spent most of your life eating mushy, overcooked vegetables then you may find that you like them better raw or lightly-cooked. Stir-fried or oven roasted vegetables taste a lot better than boiled veggies. Salad made with a variety of lettuces and vegetables tastes better than bagged iceberg lettuce drowned in bottled ranch dressing. Bad vegetables are hard to savor and enjoy. They must be endured so you can finally get dessert. Do not punish yourself or your family with bad vegetables. Take the time to learn to serve and prepare them so they taste good.
After making your list write down how you like them prepared. Most fruits and vegetables are prepared in fewer ways than starches or proteins. They don’t each need their own page in your notebook. A few lines will be sufficient space to list the dishes you like.
These are some ideas to get you started.
Bananas: PB & Banana Tortilla Roll, Banana Oatmeal, Banana & Carrot Salad, Banana Pancakes, Bananas sliced over pancakes, Banana Muffins
Raisins: Plain, as a snack, In Cereal, Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, Oatmeal Raisin Muffins, Raisins & Peanuts, With Curried Chicken, Raisins & Peanut Butter on a Rice Cake or wrapped in a tortilla, Ants On A Log
Cabbage: Shredded on Tacos, Coleslaw, Fried with Apples & Onions, Stir-Fried with Soy Sauce, With Corned Beef, With Ground Beef, Cabbage & Apple Salad, Curried with Onions & Carrots
Onions: Raw chopped, Fried with any Bean or Meat or Vegetable, Roasted with Potatoes, Sliced on Sandwiches, Fried with Rice & Eggs, Roasted Onions & Mushrooms & Zucchini
Fruits and vegetables are the superheroes of a healthy diet. We all need them. Few of us eat enough of them. When you start adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, it might be best to choose those which keep well, so that they don’t have a chance to rot in the fridge before you get around to preparing them. Frozen vegetables keep indefinitely in the freezer. Fresh root vegetables such as carrots and turnips keep well in the fridge, as does cabbage and celery. Canned vegetables keep well too. When you do buy fresh vegetables make an effort to use them up before they spoil, especially when you start. Wasted food is wasted money. Rotted fruits and vegetables cost us twice as much–both in wasted cash and lost vitamins and minerals.
6. Choose your fats carefully.
Cooking fats have a bigger impact on our health than I realized. I used to think that fats were fats and that the type I used didn’t really affect my health much at all. I vaguely understood that vegetable fats were supposed to be better than animal fats, but even that I was fuzzy about. Later I learned about saturated and unsaturated fats and later still hydrogenated and trans fats. To be honest I still find it pretty confusing. There is a lot of conflicting information available online and printed in books. All of the information seems to be backed up by scientific evidence, so it’s hard to know who to believe.
If you have hard core beliefs about fats then I won’t try to change your mind. If you’re still not sure then it’s probably best to do your own research and figure out which school of belief you are most willing to throw your hat in with. Whichever fat you do choose to consume, find the cheapest prices and then use them in moderation.
It used to be that all fat was vilified. Now it’s “legal” to eat fat again, but all trans fats should be avoided because they really do damage our bodies and make it harder for our bodies to heal damage that has already been done.
If you are really poor and pinching every penny until it squeaks, then I recommend choosing a store-brand of canola oil and using it for most of your needs. Canola is recommended by many experts including the American Heart Association, The Mayo Clinic and the National Heart Lung & Blood Institute. It may not be a perfect choice but I believe that when cost is a significant issue, that canola oil is the best compromise.
If you have more money to spend, olive oil is probably the best vegetable oil we can use. Extra virgin olive oil is the most expensive. I save it for recipes where it will be used without cooking it, such as salad dressings. Heating extra virgin olive oil negates many of the benefits that justify it’s high price. For cooking I choose light or classic olive oil. It costs much less, and since it has already been heated, I don’t feel like I’m ruining it by cooking with it. Light olive oil is widely available in store brands. In my experience, larger containers usually have the lowest unit price.
When I can afford it, I prefer to use high oleic safflower oil and expeller pressed peanut oil along with olive oil. I believe these are the healthiest choices available to me. You may feel differently, that’s okay. Good quality vegetable oils are not cheap. I routinely economize on meat so that I have more money to spend on good quality vegetable oils. To me eating good quality oil is more important than having meat at every meal, or even every day. When we are broke though, I just buy canola oil and am grateful that I can afford any oil at all.
After choosing a vegetable oil you need butter or margarine. If you can eat dairy, then butter is a good choice. It’s relatively affordable in store brands and it tastes very good. If, like me, you can’t eat dairy, then Smart Balance Dairy-Free Butter is a good choice. It’s free of all dairy products, trans fat free and tastes good. It’s not the cheapest margarine in the dairy case, but it’s not the most expensive either. If you can’t afford Smart Balance then look for a liquid or tub margarine that is free of trans fat, or if necessary, as low in trans fat as you can find. Store brands are coming out all the time that are free of trans fats. Stick margarine almost always has trans fat and hydrogenated fats in the ingredient list. Read the label to be sure of what you’re buying.
Next you need a solid shortening for pie crusts, baking and homemade mixes. For many years I used a store-brand version of Crisco. I no longer do so. Crisco says on the label that it contains “Zero trans fat per serving.” If you read the label though, it clearly has hydrogenated fat in the ingredient list. What this means is that Crisco, and most other solid vegetable shortenings, contain less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per tablespoon. It can have as much as 0.49 grams of trans fat per tablespoon and still be labeled “Zero grams per serving.” That means that 1/4-cup of Crisco can have 1.96 grams of trans fat, and the label can still claim zero trans fat. Crisco and other vegetable shortenings are not the best choice when you’re eating for nutrition. Some experts claim that lard is a better choice than vegetable shortening, because while it may be saturated animal fat, it is free of trans fat. I have mixed feelings about this issue so I recommend you examine your own priorities and make the choice you feel is best for your health and your budget.
Another option is to use coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature. It performs very well in pie crusts and baking as a substitute for shortening. It does contain saturated fat, but I’m not convinced that all saturated fat is bad for us. I think that coconut oil is a better choice than shortening, and I think it’s better choice than lard too. Since coconut oil has become so popular lately, it is now available in store brands. I buy a Kroger store brand and have been very pleased with the quality.
Naturally occurring fat is also found in avocados, olives, nuts and seeds. These are all healthy fats and when you can afford them they are a great addition to a nutritious diet. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are usually the most affordable. Look for unsalted versions when possible. Salad dressings are another source of fat but it’s more nutritious and economical to make your own. Mayonnaise is more work to make than other salad dressings, but it too is better priced and better quality when homemade.
In my house the quality of the fats we consume varies greatly depending upon how much money I have to spend on them. When I can afford to do so, I do pay more for better quality fats.
With fats, you have to make your own choices. They are one of the most controversial topics in health circles right now. Use a search engine to examine the situation in depth and make the choices that you feel most comfortable with. My opinions on the issue have grown and changed over the past 15 years. I do not believe what I used to believe and as more studies become available I will probably change my mind some more over the next 15 years. Examine your own priorities and make the choices you can live with.
7. Choose your sweeteners carefully. Make all your sweets and baked goods from scratch.
After fats, sweeteners are probably the next most controversial category of foods. Most experts agree that we eat too many sweets, but the solutions from the experts are often filled with mixed messages. Like fats, you really have to make your own choices, based upon your own research and your own needs.
My practice is to use pure cane granulated sugar, powdered sugar and brown sugar. I can afford to use some honey and I regularly buy molasses. Most other sweeteners are outside of my budget. I am not convinced that other concentrated sweeteners such as Sucanat, Rapadura, Turbinado Sugar, Maple Syrup and Coconut Palm Sugar offer enough nutritional benefits to justify their higher prices. Instead I use regular cane sugar that I buy in bulk from Sam’s Club, for the lowest unit price. When I can afford to use more honey, it is my sweetener of choice. Usually I can’t afford to use it as much as I would like, so I make do with sugar.
It’s important to note that if you don’t eat processed foods, then you don’t eat as much sugar as the rest of the population. The only real sugar I eat is sugar that I put into a recipe myself. My family eats muffins, homemade cookies and sometimes cake or pie. I add sugar when I prepare the recipe, using moderate, not enormous amounts. We don’t drink soda or buy candy besides chocolate chips. There is some sugar in the kid’s peanut butter, but not a great deal. There is sugar in the low-sugar jelly and jam that I buy. I can’t really think of any other foods that we regularly eat which do contain sugar. I use cornflakes sometimes, and they contain sugar, but that’s about it. I use unsweetened soymilk. We eat homemade hot cereal, and buy fruit that is frozen or canned without added sugar. Simply by avoiding processed and convenience foods, we’ve cut our sugar consumption drastically.
Since most of the sugar we eat comes from homemade from scratch foods, I can choose recipes which use less sugar and which provide a lot of nutrition for the sugar we do eat. Oatmeal raisin muffins made with 1/4-cup brown sugar are sweet, kid friendly, and provide a lot of nutrition for the calories. They contain 1-teaspoon of added sugar per muffin. Comparatively speaking, store bought snack cakes are a factory processed, overly sweetened, nutritionally poor alternative. They don’t taste as good either.
When we’re cooking for children especially, I think it’s okay to provide some homemade sweets. If you agree, then get out your notebook. Make a list of sweetened beverages, snacks and desserts that you are willing to allow as a part of your healthy diet. You don’t have to provide sweets every day, or even every week. Sometimes they are appropriate though, and it’s a good idea to gather up your favorite recipes for healthy sweets and store them in your notebook or binder.
To get you started, here are some of the sweet dishes that I am willing to serve my family.
Beverages–Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie with molasses, Hot Chocolate, Lemonade
Puddings–Chocolate Pudding, Peanut Butter Pudding, Tofu-Banana Pudding
Cookies–Oatmeal Raisin, Peanut Butter Oatmeal, Oatmeal Chocolate Chip, Pumpkin Bars, Lemon Bars
Sweet Muffins–Banana, Oatmeal Raisin, Applesauce Raisin, Zucchini, Pumpkin Raisin Muffins
Fruit–Apple Crisp, Peach Crisp, Baked Bananas, Fried Plantains, Banana Coconut Custard, Strawberry Shortcake
Special Occasion–Brownies, Layer Cake, Boston Cream Pie
When we’re trying to eat as nutritiously as possible, sweets should take a backseat to other, more nutritious foods. If we’re trying to lose weight then we owe it to ourselves to minimize the amount of sugar we eat. I make it a goal to limit myself to no more than 1-tablespoon of sugar or honey per day. Some days I have more, especially during family celebrations. Day in and day out though, 1-tablespoon is my limit.
Since sugar is not especially good for us, I intentionally limit it’s use. Fresh fruit, dried fruit and canned, unsweetened fruit, give me all the yumminess of a dessert, with all the fiber, vitamins and minerals of a whole food. I think they are a much better choice than any sweet, even the homemade kind.
There are a few sweeteners I do not buy, and I avoid foods which contain them. I try not to buy anything with high-fructose corn syrup in it. I do not buy or use granulated fructose or agave nectar. Agave is simply syrup that is made from cacti instead of corn. Both are very high in fructose. Fructose used to be recommended as a sweetener for diabetics because it doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar. This is because fructose is metabolized in the liver instead of digested in our stomach and intestines. The problem is that the byproduct of metabolizing fructose in the liver is the production of fat molecules. When this fat builds up it can cause high triglycerides, high cholesterol, liver disease and insulin resistance. So no, I do not use fructose in my home, and I avoid products which contain it.
I do not personally use low-calorie sweeteners. I have some stevia that I use on rare occasion, but it doesn’t taste good enough to me to justify using it very often. My husband uses saccharine as his artificial sweetener of choice. He has diabetes and likes it in his coffee and iced tea. Saccharine has been around since the 1880’s, or for more than 130 years. I think it is probably safer than a lot of other artificial sweeteners, but that is just my opinion.
8. Make liberal use of low priced condiments, herbs, spices and seasonings.
These are very much a matter of personal taste. Look over your supermarket and consider your family’s taste preferences. Then give yourself permission to buy a wide variety of herbs, spices, seasonings and inexpensive condiments. To get the most nutrition for the least cash, we have to do most of our cooking. One of the BIG problems with doing all of our cooking is food fatigue. That’s when you have eaten so much of your own cooking that you’re willing to do anything to get a taste of something different. It’s common to bust the budget with a splurge on take-out or even fast food, just so you don’t have to spend another meal eating your own home cooking.
The best way to beat food fatigue is to branch out and try cooking with some new flavors. Start out in your supermarket’s section of herbs and spices. There is probably a discount brand that costs $1 or $2 per bottle. Choose a few that you have never tried before. Cumin, thyme, nutmeg, allspice all cost very little and lend variety to your diet. Another time look in the condiment section of the International foods area. You’ll find small bottles of all types of goodies, from curry paste, to hot pepper sauces, fish sauce, sesame oil etc. Also check out the vinegars–raspberry, balsamic, red wine. Buy a new one each time you have a few extra dollars and use them to add variety to dishes you already prepare.
In the produce section try flavorful fresh choices like garlic, fresh ginger and cilantro. Most fresh seasonings can be chopped and frozen in small portions to preserve them. If you don’t think you’ll use them all at once, this is a good way to make sure you get your money’s worth.
I cannot over emphasize how important it is that you do what you can to make your own home cooked food taste as good as possible. Simply doing your own cooking will improve the quality of the food you eat. Even that has it’s limits though. There comes a time when it’s cheaper to buy a bottle of curry paste than it is to get Thai take-out. Think about the types of foods you already know you enjoy, then figure out how to prepare them at home. If you have to buy a few specialty ingredients to get the flavor you want, then give yourself permission to do so. In the long run this is much cheaper than succumbing to food fatigue and spending $40 on restaurant food. For a few tips see my article Best Budget-Friendly Gluten Free Dairy Free Flavor Boosters.
9. Make a list of healthy snacks, then make time to keep stocked up on them.
Snacks are not bad. Eating junk food and then not being hungry for a meal, only to get hungry a couple of hours later and then eating more junk food, is bad. Snacks shouldn’t take the place of meals. They can however, contribute to a meal, or become a nutritious mini-meal of their own.
Processed foods and junk food are often eaten as snacks because they do not require preparation, or if they do, it’s usually less than 5-minutes of prep time. To compete with the family your own homemade, healthy snacks have to require very little preparation. They have to be already portioned out, and they have to taste good. Sometimes this means you will have to prepare them in advance and repackage them yourself in small snack bags or flip-top sandwich bags. If kids are expected to prepare their own snacks, they need a visual list of ideas so they don’t have to think too hard when they are hungry. Make one and post it on the fridge to give them ideas.
On a new page in your notebook, make a written list of the types of healthy snacks that you and your family are willing to eat and prepare.
Here are some ideas to get you started.
Kids Prepare Themselves: Peanut Butter Toast or Rice Cakes with Raisins on top; Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich; Tortilla wrapped around lunch meat; Apple Slices spread with Peanut Butter; Carrots with or without Dip; Any Fresh Fruit; Any Dried Fruit
Mommy or Daddy Made: Quesadillas; Scrambled Egg & Salsa in a Tortilla; Fruit Smoothie; Plain Yogurt with Fresh or Canned Fruit; Hot cereal with fruit and milk; Leftover rice fried with an egg; Any Leftover, reheated as desired.
Prepare Ahead for Grab & Go: Muffins, all types; deviled eggs, homemade Popcorn in flip top baggies; Homemade Trail Mix in zipper-type snack bags; cubes of cheese and cooked meat in a baggie; fresh veggie sticks in a baggie; any type of sandwich, cut into quarters, wrapped in a baggie and stored in the fridge.
Snacks are just small portions of regular food that can be prepared and eaten quickly when we are hungry but it’s not yet time for a meal. After school, kids need a snack or a mini-meal. If dinner must be postponed then kids will need a snack to make it until mealtime. Snack time is not an excuse to indulge in processed cookies, crackers and chips. It’s simply a time to eat a small portion of any regular food, to tide you over until the next meal.
10. Collect your recipes together and take the time to plan your meals.
Throughout this entire article I’ve suggested that you make notes in your notebook. Get it out now and look over the results. You’ve created your own roadmap to help you find the most nutritious and affordable foods in your area. Your list will look different from mine. That’s okay. It’s supposed to. As you look over the dishes and meals that you’ve written down in your notebook take the time to collect the recipes you need and write them down in one place. I use a large binder. When I print recipes from the internet, including my own recipes, I punch holes in the sides of the paper and store the recipe in my binder. Some recipes I copy out of books onto regular notebook paper. I also record menus that are especially popular with the family and affordable to make. When I want to prepare a dish I simply look up the recipe and refer to it as needed. I only save the recipes for dishes that my family really enjoys.
If I need inspiration I can look over the recipes in my binder or the notes in my notebook. This is especially helpful when I’m planning menus. To save the most money, meals should be planned at least a day in advance. This gives us time to soak dried beans, prepare hot breads, snacks, and salads ahead of time. It allows us to make sure we have enough time available to prepare the meal we want to serve. If we know we’ll be pressed for time on certain evenings we can start a crock pot meal in the morning. If we need to pack lunches, we’ll have the time to do most of the work the night before so we’re not swamped during the morning rush.
Some people plan all 3-meals a day, plus snacks, a week at a time. Some people do it the day before. The less money I have to spend, the more important it is that I take the time to plan I advance. If I only have a single can of tomatoes for the week, I will want to make sure that I don’t plan on using them in more than one meal. If I have 2-pounds of pinto beans I want to use up, I can do so more effectively by planning to use them for beans and rice on Monday, refried beans on Tuesday and chili on Thursday. If I don’t plan the meals ahead of time then I’m looking at a cold pot of beans congealing in the fridge and thinking “Yuck! There’s no way the family is going to go for brown beans again.”
Menu planning is a tool that makes it easier to stick to my budget. It allows me to get creative and think up ideas for things that taste good and which I am actually willing to prepare and eat. Packaged mixes and frozen entrees seem attractive because they have a pretty picture on the front. We can look at them and think “Oh, we can have lasagna for dinner tonight.” It’s harder to look at package of lentils and think “Oh, we can have taco style lentils and rice.” Our menu plans give us the same visual boost that a picture on a packaged food does. Our menu plans do it for less money and allow us to provide more nutritional meals too.
Getting the most nutrition for our grocery dollar is like anything else we do when we’re on a tight budget. It requires research, planning and work on our parts. Like weight loss, it doesn’t magically happen overnight. We don’t have cash to throw at the problem to try and solve it. We have to use our ingenuity, creativity and determination instead. The good news is, these qualities are all free to any of us who want them. They are not a “easy” as throwing money at the problem, but they do build character, allow us to learn new skills and improve our self-esteem. Throwing money at a problem does none of these things.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.–Luke 1:53