How to eat healthy on a limited budget

Empty Wallet
“I am single, on a very limited budget, and buy the cheapest food I can. Over the last year I have gained a lot of weight I need to get rid of. The food your book says to avoid just happens to be the stuff I can afford. How can a person eat healthy on a limited budget?”

Semi-regularly I write a column in the Montgomery County News responding to questions posed by my readers. This reader has a dilemma shared by many, what the heck to eat when the wallet is usually empty.

I certainly appreciate the frustration. The foods to avoid are not only unhealthy but also guaranteed to cause weight gain. Many people believe that eating right is just “too expensive”. My personal experience doesn’t support that.  And given that I wrote It’s All About the Food, I suspect you know that I eat healthy. Surprisingly, I find that I spend less for food now than ever in my life. I have several suggestions that can make that possible for you.

First, in a real financial bind, the most cost effective approach for protein is eggs. Fried, scrambled, hard boiled, egg salad, omelets, on top of a salad, etc. Find a local supplier and save money. It works for me.

Know a hunter or a fisherman? Wild game like deer and fresh catch from the lake are actually healthier choices than the typical meat in the grocery store. Canned cold water fish like salmon , tuna, and sardines are cost effective options. A single person can go a long way on eggs and canned fish.

Processed starchy carbohydrates are the danger area.  Cereal, breads of any kind, corn, pastas, rice, chips (any kind), potatoes, a zillion snacks and sweets that are combinations of flour (grain) and sugar, etc. These are the foods you think you can “afford.” These are also the foods that will cause you to be hungry and have allowed you to pile on the pounds. Why? Because instead of buying and eating healthy stuff, you buy all different kinds of the unhealthy stuff and then snack on them perpetually. Do your best to remove all processed foods from your diet.

The safe area is plain old vegetables that grow in the ground. If you can’t grow your own, then make friends with those who do. In the off season lean on frozen vegetables. For most people, there is no limit to the amount of vegetables you can eat because they are very low carb and calorie.

The vegetables you eat are not really that expensive. The expensive part is the vegetables you throw away because they spoil in the frig. To minimize this problem, limit your purchases and maximize variety. I suggest choosing mixed greens of any kind, only the amount you will eat in a week. Then choose two other vegetables (like cauliflower, broccoli, squash, okra) enough for a week. Next week, get two different vegetables. And then if you really can’t even buy fresh vegetables, then depend on your frozen stores. Build up those frozen stores when you have a little extra money.

As to fruit, if you are in a real financial bind, vegetables are more important than fruit. Both have the same essential nutrients. In the interest of losing weight (and saving money) minimize fruit unless you can harvest it yourself. I keep frozen blueberries and blackberries in my freezer, available to grab a handful. Note that avocado is actually a fruit but very low carb and very healthy fat. So if you like avocado and can afford it, go for it.

Good fat is important in your diet, no matter what you read. I’m not going to suggest the best (and more expensive) options. But I will say that the vegetable oils at the grocery store are not good fat. The fat in your eggs and fish, the (full) fat in hard cheeses (like cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss), and real butter are good fats. Depend on coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil for cooking and salad dressings. Red wine vinegar and olive oil are my go-to for salad dressing. Good coconut oil (at least organic, cold pressed) isn’t cheap, I admit. But you shouldn’t be frying so there is no reason to consume a lot of any oil.

Any package that is labeled “low fat” is processed to remove fat or never had any fat in the first place. . Count on some form of sugar being added to compensate, another reason to avoid starchy processed food and grocery store salad dressings.

In summary, you only have so much money. Get the best sources of cost effective meat protein, avoid starchy/processed foods completely, and purchase a narrow range but a variety of vegetables (fresh first option, then frozen). Remember, in the end, your health is all about the food.

Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All About the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Pat is a resident of Montgomery County, president of Ouachita Village, Inc board of directors  (Montgomery County Food Pantry), chairman of the Tasty Acre project, and member of the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

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