How to Fill up Your Wallet Instead of Your Arteries: Healthy Eating on a Budget

Eating Healthy on a BudgetOne of my favorite topics to discuss is how to eat healthy on a budget.  Many people hold the belief that eating healthy is expensive.  Eating healthy can be expensive, but that doesn’t mean it has to be.

Arguably the most expensive chunk of our grocery bill tends to be meat items:  chicken, beef, pork, etc.  Something to consider, not only to help your budget but also to help your health, is the implementation of meatless meals throughout the week.  I’m not saying that meat is “bad” or that thou shalt go vegan.  All I’m saying is that you can experiment with making your chili without hamburger (the beans provide plenty of protein!) and see what you think.  I’ve found that adding a bit of quinoa to my chili pot adds some thickening when I don’t use hamburger, and I save about $4-6 by leaving out the meat.

A few ideas for relatively inexpensive
sources of good-quality protein:

  • Canned wild-caught fish like sardines, salmon, tuna, mackerel. The bonus feature of canned salmon is that it is not only a great source of protein and omega-3-rich fat, but it also contains a whopping amount of calcium.  The same goes for sardines.
  • Dry beans – dirt cheap if you’re willing to do a teensy bit-o-prep. More here.
  • Canned beans or peas. Don’t freak about about the salt.  Not many people actually require an intense salt restriction; but if you do, there are “no salt added” versions.
  • Dry lentils. There are some really cool recipes for meatless “meatballs” made of lentils.  The same goes for lentil stews and chilis.
  • Whole grains. I know they are high in the oh-so-dreaded carbs, but 100% whole grains like rolled oats and quinoa have a decent amount of protein all by themselves.  A 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa has about 4 grams of protein.  My favorite bread has around 5 grams of protein per slice.  Winning!  My favorite waffle mix also can be made high in protein.  I like to make an entire batch all at once, and freeze them as homemade toaster waffles that can be heated up on busy weekday mornings.
  • Natural peanut butter. And, by “natural,” I mean the only ingredients are peanuts and salt.  You can make your own if you have a high-powered food processor or blender.  Just dump in whole, shelled peanuts and let ‘er rip.  Good-quality nut butter will seem like an investment up front (some jars go for $6+) but consider how many servings you get (or are supposed to get) from one jar.  All the same rules apply for any nut butter – it’s not limited to peanuts.  Get crazy.  Keep in mind that choosy moms would never choose Jif.  Several popular brands of peanut butter marketed toward kids contain gobs of shortening and sugar added.  Read ingredients, people!
  • Eggs.  They are great sources of protein, and often you can find certain brands on sale.  At $3 for a dozen, that is about a quarter per egg.  They’re not bad for you.

One of the other tips I feel strongly about is cooking real foods at home.  If you think you don’t have time, at least read this before resigning to prep boxed meals.  One example of how cooking simple from-scratch meals can be cost-effective while being healthier is recreating something like Hamburger Helper (HH).  A box of HH typically costs around $2.  A pound of the least expensive hamburger tends to cost around $4.  So, whipping up a not-good-for-you meal of boxed HH would cost around $6 and might feed 3-4 people depending on hunger levels.  That amounts to roughly $2 per person.

budgetHere’s an idea though…what if you made homemade HH from scratch?  It’s easier than you think (here is one version).  Cost breakdown:  hamburger ($4), a box of whole grain elbow macaroni ($1.50), milk (about $0.30 for the amount you need), shredded cheese ($2), and maybe $4 for incidentals (most of the other ingredients are probably things you have in your pantry already, but just in case).  So the total so far of the homemade HH is up to roughly $12.  Sounds like it is WAY more expensive than the boxed stuff, right?  Wrong.  This $12 homemade meal makes a larger volume of food, and could likely feed at least 6 people.  That amounts to around $2 per person.  Yes, it is the same cost as the boxed junk example…but without preservatives, fillers, dyes, and other artificial junk.  And, our homemade version uses 100% whole grain pasta, which adds nutrients and fiber to your belly.  Nuke a few cans of green beans with this yummy homemade HH meal, and you have a decent, inexpensive, nutrient-rich, family meal.

budget2

A few more of my favorite
healthy eating on a budget tips:

  • Buy in bulk. This works quite well if you have a warehouse membership, but it can be done at the regular grocery store too.  Buying things like ground beef or chicken pieces in bigger packages often costs you less per pound.  When you get home, you can repackage into smaller baggies and freeze.
  • If the organic, grass-fed, wild-caught, or whatever “healthy” version of that food is twice the cost of the conventional kind, sometimes you have to choose your battles.  If you can afford better quality food, then buy it; but if you can’t afford it, buy the versions of food that make sense in your life and in your budget.
  • Canned and frozen vegetables can save money because they last longer. I like to recommend a variety of fruits and vegetables—buy only the amount of fresh produce you think you can reasonably eat in a week, but also buy frozen and canned.  When you plow through the fresh stuff, you still have frozen and canned to get you through until your next grocery trip.  Less wasted fresh produce that went bad before getting eaten = money saved.
  • Add vegetables to your soups and casseroles to increase the number of servings in that meal but also to add nutrients at the same time!  A bag of baby spinach cooked into your spaghetti and meat sauce can stretch that meal to serve at least 1-2 more people.  Plus you added gobs of nutrients and fiber.
  • Plan your cooking agenda based on what is on sale! If 100% whole grain bread is on sale, buy several loaves and freeze (if you have the space, that is).
  • Consider what is an appropriate amount of food for one meal. For example, an 8 ounce steak should make 2 meals, not 1.  If you practice building a healthy plate, the money you save on reducing your meat portion can be spent on increasing your vegetable portion.

There are so many branches from this conversation, this post could become endless!  I will digress for now; but I hope you found some different perspectives that will help you improve your health while you save some money.

Let me know how it goes!

xoxo – Casey

Create a Great Plate and Good Health Will Be in Your Fate

Ok, so now you’re an old pro at meal planning because of these guidelines.  But you’re not sure what exactly you should be whipping up for optimal health.  Today I hope to simplify healthy meal planning for you with my greatest hits of tips.  Here goes…

Although some people are insistent on counting calories and macros and all sorts of numbers, you’re not going to find that here.  Why?  Because healthy living does not come from your calculator.  As a matter of fact, some of the individuals who are the most proficient number counters have some of the most heavily processed, terrible, nutrient-lacking diets imaginable.  What you will find if you truly embrace the wonders of a whole-food, plant-heavy, real-life eating style is that the coveted “numbers” (i.e. calories, sodium, fat, etc.) tend to actually be exactly where they should be in terms of good health.  Calculator not required.

The absolutely, most simple method of building a healthy meal is the “plate method.”  There are many, many versions of a healthy plate template; and, I have to admit, I don’t agree with all of them.  But what most healthy plate templates seem to have in common is that the aim is for half of our plate coming from non-starchy vegetables.  In my favorite versions of the plate method, the other parts of our plate would be roughly one-fourth coming from good-quality protein-rich foods, and one-fourth coming from either starchy vegetables or 100% whole grains.  The EASIEST way to distinguish the type of vegetable you have is that the most commonly eaten starchy vegetables are potatoes, corn, peas, winter squash, and legumes; all the other vegetables would then be considered “non-starchy.”

Non-starchy vegetables

Where does fat fit in?  Well fat is often implied.  For example, if you are using some salad dressing on your half a plate of salad (non-starchy vegetables) and you are also having some salmon (protein-rich food) with it, you are including plenty of fat.  The best way to achieve a good fat intake is to obtain most of your dietary fat from whole food sources (salmon, sardines, almonds, or olives, for example), and limit your intake of most added fats.

What about fruit?  Well, we need two to three times as much vegetables versus fruit.  Fruit isn’t “bad,” but it doesn’t pack nearly the punch of nutrients as most vegetables do, calorie for calorie.  Fruit can be included as a small hunk of our “half a plate of non-starchy vegetables” or it could be consumed as your one-fourth a plate in lieu of starchy vegetables or 100% whole grains.

The real key is to not over-think this whole healthy eating business.  If you’re choosing and eating mostly whole vegetables, some whole fruits, some whole grains, some good-quality protein-rich foods, reasonable amounts of good-quality fats, and limiting sugary or fried foods, then you’re going to be just fine.  Ask yourself “is half of my entire day’s eating composed of non-starchy vegetables?” and if the answer is “yes,” then you are highly likely to achieve and/or maintain a healthier weight.  If you’re not looking to change your weight, then keep in mind that the style of eating I’m encouraging is not just for weight.  A nutrient-rich, whole-foods-based eating style is paramount in preventing chronic illness, keeping your brain healthy, etc.  Good nutrition is not just about your weight; underneath every single medical condition exists a nutritional influence.

Alright, so…back to meal planning.  Not all meals are going to be perfect, nor are they going to be a separate protein-starch-vegetable setup.  Sometimes you’re going to want soup, or a casserole.  Still, the same rules of the plate method apply.  Does your soup have mostly non-starchy vegetables?  If not, then plan to have a smaller bowl of soup and a side salad or a handful of raw vegetables.  Is your casserole super-cheesy?  Maybe back off on the other fat-containing parts of your meal.  You don’t necessarily have to search for “healthy recipes” or “healthy cookbooks.”  It’s been my experience that “healthy” recipes tend to be shoved full of things that are not real food, such as fat-free cheese YUCK, really?!  or other artificial items.  My simplest advice is to dust off your old church cookbooks from 1987 and simply use good, practical modifications.  Does your recipe call for shortening?  Replace it with butter.  Does that online recipe tell you to put a pound of cheese in that casserole?  Use a cup of shredded cheese and double the vegetables instead.

Keep in mind that some of the age-old recipe substitutions simply try to trick you into thinking you’re eating something healthier.  The best example of this trickery is the “applesauce instead of fat” substitution for cakes and brownies.  Applesauce doesn’t magically turn your sugar-filled cake into a salad, nor is having a little fat “bad.”  As a matter of fact, that little bit of fat in your sugary treat actually probably helped slow down the blood sugar spike that is inevitable when we eat that stuff.  Use good ol’ common sense when it comes to “substitutions,” people.  Or better yet – EAT REAL FOOD.

Let me know how it goes – comment below!

Kisses, Casey

A Guide for the “I’m Too Busy” Person for How to Prepare Home-Cooked Meals

A Working Mom's Guide for How to Have Home-cooked Meals Every Night of the Week-2.png

If I had a dollar for every person who has told me they don’t have time to cook, I’d own an island.  If you find yourself saying that you “don’t have time to cook,” the reality is you either a) need some practical encouragement (hint: that’s what this post is about); b) have convinced yourself it is simply too ____ (difficult, time-consuming, expensive, etc.); c) simply don’t want to but use the “don’t have time” thing as an excuse; or d) don’t know how to cook at all.  I will argue that, when compared to dining out, cooking at home can be much simpler, cheaper, and healthier.  Let’s find out how, shall we?

The key step that most people who “don’t have time to cook” fail at is the planning aspect.  I, too, am sometimes guilty of failure to plan.  However, this step is critical.  Here is your recipe for successful planning:

Ingredients

  • 15-30 minutes
  • Your week’s personal/family schedule
  • Recipes (cookbooks, Pinterest, etc.)
  • Pen
  • Paper
  • Grocery ad (optional)
  • Food budget (optional)

Directions

  1. Map out the week; pay attention to which nights you are getting home later than usual or which nights you have an event or task that will prevent you from any fighting chance of even heating leftovers in the microwave
    • Determine how many nights you plan to eat at home versus nights it would make more sense to dine out.
    • What is the activity preventing you from eating at home?  If it’s something like a kid’s sporting practice or event, consider making sandwiches and packing a cooler with some raw vegetables and fruit!
  2. Go shopping in your own pantry, fridge, and freezer.  Take note of foods that are nearing the end of their storage life, and consider looking for recipes that use those ingredients (e.g. you found a bag of brown rice and some almost-freezer-burnt-chicken thighs – how about chicken and rice casserole or soup?).
  3. If you have a strict budget, consider grabbing the grocery ad and searching for recipes that use sale items.
  4. Browse through your recipe files, noting the recipes that you’d be interested in preparing this week.
    • Pick out one recipe for each night you will be at home to eat.
  5. Take a look at the ingredients of each recipe.  Does it use realistic, attainable, practical ingredients?  Do you have a lot of them already?  If not, consider a different recipe.  time2.jpg
  6. Map out your week using a blank notebook page, Excel spreadsheet, printable blank menu, chalkboard, marker board, or any writing surface that works for you. It’s up to you how detailed you want to be.  In other words, if you have a good handle on breakfast, you can just write down lunches and dinners.  But if you’re struggling to have a balanced breakfast, I’d encourage you to plan all meals and snacks on your planning map.  Include meals for which you’ve already planned to dine out.  A basic, rough outline of a meal plan could look a little something like this (here’s a snapshot of mine):
    • Monday:
      • Breakfast: Oatmeal w/sliced almonds
      • Lunch: Boiled eggs, avocado, tomatoes, Triscuits
      • Dinner: Baked chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes
    • Tuesday:
      • Breakfast: Protein-rich waffles (these are amazeballs)
      • Lunch: Leftovers
      • Dinner: Chili (slow-cooker), cornbread
    • Wednesday:
      • Breakfast: Almonds, banana
      • Lunch: Leftovers
      • Dinner: Going out to ______ restaurant
  7. Plan to purposely make extra in some cases.  For example, if you’re taking the time to cook ground beef for tacos, cook 3 pounds instead of 1.  Now you have taco meat for the meal you planned, and you have extra taco meat that you can freeze for another quick meal one day (and you’ll remember that next time because of step #2).
  8. Don’t plan to cook something every. single. night.  It’s been my experience that just when I have the perfect amount of chicken or roast beef thawed and ready to go as scheduled, something unexpected happens.  Perhaps a friend unexpectedly wants you to go out to dinner because s/he happens to be passing through.  Maybe you don’t feel well when you get off work and can’t fathom rubbing down that chicken with seasoning.  If you leave some wiggle-room in the mix, you can either have leftovers (from this week or those that you’ve previously frozen) or grilled cheese (on whole grain and with real cheese, of course) or whatever; but you can reduce wasting the perishable ingredients you had so carefully planned for that night.
  9. Go buy the food.  I have had people tell me that, not only did they not have time to cook, they didn’t even have time to get the groceries!  I thought this was ridiculous until earlier this year when I found myself alone (husband was away), single-momming two babies, and with a broken foot.  What worked then (and still) for me to shave hours off my grocery grabbing each month is online ordering.  You order online, then you simply go pick it up.  Not every grocery store has it, but many do; check in your area.  I am so in love, I can’t even put it to words.  Try it; you’re welcome.
  10. Once you have all the food, again take a look at the 3-5 recipes you’ve picked for the week, and take another look at your week’s schedule.  Is there a block of time you have?  Perhaps you have a few hours on a day off?
    • If you have a block of a few hours one day, you can consider “batch cooking.” This entails you doing some marathon cooking and whipping out all of the recipes you’ve chosen all at once.  In other words, you’re about to make all 5 meals on Sunday, for example.  Sounds weird, but once they’re all cooked and cooled, they are just placed in the fridge ready to be simply reheated when you get home after a long, hard day.  The best part?  Everyone can pick their leftovers of choice if they all want something a little different!
    • If you absolutely don’t have a “block of time,” which is less likely but possible I suppose (do you actually not have time, or are you not willing to make time would be my question…) you can do some segmented cooking prep.  One thing I’ve found helpful is making tomorrow’s dinner (or parts of it) the night before.  I’ve baked a whole chicken at 8:00 pm, cooled it, and placed it in the fridge.  Guess what’s for dinner tomorrow night?  Chicken.  If I purchased some pre-cut vegetabletime.pngs, dinner might be that chicken I cooked last night, raw vegetables, and Triscuits.  Seriously.  Healthy eating doesn’t have to be a big deal.  I’ve also cooked the meat (or noodles, or whatever) for the next night’s recipe the night before.  If you cook the most time-consuming part of the meal the night before, then prep is a breeze.
  11. Again, purposely make more than you need and freeze it.  I often get the “it’s so hard to cook for one or two” comment.  My reply?  NOPE.  Cooking for only one or two people can actually work out much better because you get MORE leftovers when you make a standard recipe meant for a family.  Get some containers (I just got a fresh supply from Costco this week!), put a meal-sized portion of that chili or that roast beef dinner in one of them, and freeze it.
    • Important: put a piece of masking tape on top, and write what is in there and the date.  You’ll think “I don’t need to do that; I’ll remember.”  But you won’t, and you won’t want to eat the “mystery meal” you find 4 months from now.  Trust me.
    • Now you have some homemade TV dinners at your service any night of the week, and they are likely MUCH healthier than the store-bought version.
  12. If you’re rolling with a slow-cooker meal the next day, take the time to get the slow-cooker out of the cupboard and ready on the counter.  Grab the non-perishable ingredients (canned foods, etc.) and put them on the counter too.  Get out the can opener.  Cook any meat that needs pre-cooking (ground beef, for example).  This way, when you’re running late (because you always are), you are ready and able to still dump everything in the slow-cooker and out the door you go.
  13. If you still have leftovers at the end of the week, you can and should freeze them for lunches or back-up meals. (See step #11).
  14. Find gadgets and gizmos that simplify your cooking. My two favorite kitchen appliances in the universe are my pressure cooker and slow cooker.  Maybe this is the year you ask Santa Clause for one or both of these…My pressure cooker can make me a meatloaf complete with potatoes and carrots on the side in 12 minutes.  Yes, seriously.  And my slow cooker can make me soup while I’m at work.  I’m so in love with them it’s nearly sickening.

Listen, if there is a will, there is a way.  How does eating on a tight budget fit in?  Well, it goes hand in hand with this whole meal-planning gig.  The more you eat at home, the more $ you will save.  The more planning you do, the less impulse/random buying you’ll do, therefore the less food you will waste.  If you truly don’t feel like cooking, that’s fine by me; just don’t complain about it!  Enjoy your restaurant meals.  Eating healthy on a budget and healthy dining out principles will be future posts, as they are deserving of their own spotlights.

If you go “OMG she really considers 14 steps to be ‘simple’?  Is she nuts?” then I encourage you to really grasp what these steps are telling you.  Once you’ve gone through the motions once or twice, you’ll truly see how simple and easy it can be.  If after trying it out it’s still difficult for you, then perhaps you need simpler recipes or maybe it would be worthwhile sitting down with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help coach you through to success.

Do you have your own tips to share?  Leave us a comment!

xoxo
Casey