If you are one of the many Americans who have lately fallen on financial hard times, your diet and health do not have to suffer. You may have to put a little more thought and pre-planning into your weekly menu and shop a little smarter at the grocery store, with just a few tips on what to pay attention to and how to navigate the maze of available produce. Not all foods are made equal and if you are on a budget, you need to shop – and cook – in such a way as to get the most bang for your buck without sacrificing the quality of what you are putting into your body. The checklist at the bottom of this post should hopefully aid you in making the best selections that you can. But in general, I stick to these principles:
1) Stay closer to nature – the less processing and packaging that goes into a product, the more value you will get out of it financially, in addition to avoiding any undesirable elements for your body.
2) Shop farmers’ markets – if available in your area. They are often cheaper – and fresher – than grocery stores, and you can bargain with them over the price. Also, some products such as honey, are always best bought local. Local raw honey in small doses overtime has been shown to help decrease allergies (think a vaccination-type effect).
3) If you have access to a wholesale club (Costco, Sam’s Club), I would highly recommend buying a membership. Yes, it costs a little bit of money upfront, but you will more than make it up in the price difference of most products you buy there, especially if you like to buy organic. For example, we buy organic ground beef at Costco for around $6/lb, whereas at regular grocery stores it is $10-$12lb. That is significant savings.
4) Buy what’s in season. Every season brings with it new and different fruits and vegetables. The benefit of buying what’s in season is twofold: it is usually cheaper because it is more abundant and it is fresher because it likely didn’t need to be imported from out-of-state.
5) Eat a vegetarian meal at least a couple of times a week. Meat is expensive, and not necessarily healthy for you, red meat in particular. With the addition of more beans, eggs and canned seafood into your diet, you should be taking in plenty of healthy (and affordable) protein.
6) If you do eat meat regularly – our grandparents were on to something when regularly consuming things that we now throw away. Those gizzard packets inside a whole chicken are full of iron and nutrition for a healthy liver. Chicken legs and carcasses, cow feet and rib bones – those are all parts that can be used to make highly nutritious bone broths, full of calcium and minerals for strong bones. Throw in leftover veggie scraps, and you’ve got delicious bouillon!
7) Finally, here is a quick checklist of what specific nutritious but affordable foods to pay attention to as you are perusing the various sections of the store:
_____ Root vegetables– potatoes, yams, carrots, beets, onions.
_____ Leafy greens (other than spinach) – lettuce, collard greens, chard.
_____ Other colorful veggies when in season – eggplants, bell peppers, asparagus, broccoli, pumpkin and squash. I am putting broccoli also in the “frozen” section because it is so good for you that you should just try to eat it as much as possible, year-around (the only downside I know of to broccoli and other cruciferous veggies is they can give babies colic).
_____ Fruit – apples and bananas are always plentiful, cheap and very good for you. Oranges and other citrus are cheap when in season.
CANNED or JARRED
_____ Tuna is cheap but tends to be higher in mercury, so don’t overdo it. I recommend salmon (for obvious health benefits, and you can make awesome salmon cakes with a recipe I’ll post later) and sardines (high in calcium, believe it or not).
_____ Olives and pickles are cheap, keep for a long time and add lots of flavor to salads and sandwiches.
_____ Tomatoes are actually more healthy for you when they have been prepared in some way, also they are highly perishable, so I am putting these on the canned list, rather than fresh.
DRIED or BULK
_____ Legumes (beans) of all kinds – black beans, kidney beans, lentils, black-eyed-peas, etc.
_____ Rice – brown is healthiest but white is okay too.
_____ Quinoa or buckwheat (click to check out my related post).
_____ Oats and oatmeal for breakfast and baking.
_____ Nuts and seeds – preferably raw and without added salt or flavors.
_____ Spinach, broccoli, corn, berries. Yes, you can get canned corn or spinach, but the flavor and freshness are not as good, and frankly you don’t want to get carried away with canned goods as a lot of can linings are known to contain BPA, a harmful chemical.
_____ Eggs – I cannot say enough good things about eggs. They are a high quality protein and full of skin-protecting vitamin E, not to mention the versatility of all the recipes you can make with eggs (scrambles, frittatas, quiches, etc).
_____ Whole milk, sour cream, plain yogurt. The only caveat I have about eggs and dairy is that I highly recommend paying a little extra to buy organic. Most conventionally-raised animal products these days are full of antibiotics and hormones that can really disrupt your health and especially your body’s metabolic processes. Yogurt has many probiotic benefits for your immune system and digestion (plain is best to avoid added sugars). Sour cream is not exactly a staple of American cooking (other than on top of a baked potato), but is actually a healthier (and I think tastier) alternative to mayonnaise in some salads.
SPICES and CONDIMENTS
_____ Cinnamon, turmeric – there must be something about that burnt orange color, but these two are definitely heavy-hitters in the anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting department. Cinnamon is great in anything from dessert, to oatmeal, to coffee. Turmeric adds color and a hint of flavor to soups, stews and rice (I frequently use it as an affordable substitute for saffron).
_____ Apple cider vinegar (good way to get probiotics into your diet without the use of dairy; also great for making home-made salad dressings).
_____ Dijon mustard; Italian seasoning.
_____ Garlic – serious health benefits and even more serious flavor.
_____ Honey – Cleopatra didn’t take milk and honey baths for nothing!
_____ Corn chips (100% corn) are versatile – you can use them with dip or to crumble into a chicken tortilla soup.
_____ Rice and brown rice crackers.
_____ Popcorn (just the kernels, no added flavorings or salt).
_____ Nuts and seeds – these can also go into your baked goods or oatmeal. BEWARE of trail mix and granola bars – most have lots of sugar and other flavors added. Best to buy raw nuts/seeds, roast lightly with some honey if you must, and mix yourself.
_____ Fruit and raw veggies – no explanation necessary.
_____ Dark chocolate has lots of antioxidants (milk chocolate is not the same).
_____ Hummus is a healthy multi-tasker – works well as dip for veggies, as a flavorful condiment for sandwiches, and even as a zesty salad dressing mixed with some crushed garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.
_____ Edamame (soy beans) – unless you have a hormonal or health condition that prevents you from eating soy.
_____ Ice cream is okay in moderation, if you buy one with all-natural ingredients.
WHAT TO AVOID
Soda pop – I am adamant about this one. Cut soda pop completely out of your diet and forget it ever existed. Do not go down the soda/juice aisle, if that’s what you need to do to avoid the temptation. You wouldn’t pay someone to actually make you fat and unhealthy, would you? That’s what you are doing by drinking soda pop – paying someone to make you fat and rot your teeth. Sorry if that’s too graphic. Juice is better, but a lot of juices out there are loaded with artificial flavorings and sweeteners, and “made with” fruit juice concentrate – what does that even mean?? It’s either juice or it isn’t! Just eat a piece of fruit – you’ll be better off. Drink plenty of water, and green tea. The occasional coffee is good for your mood and brain and reportedly, so is an occasional glass of red wine (pinot noir is best).
Also, avoid most things in the packaged snacks/chips/cereal aisle. Again, they tend to be loaded with artificial ingredients, salt and/or sugar – you cannot afford to waste your hard-earned money on anything that doesn’t actually benefit your health.
Hope the above information has been helpful and if you have any additional suggestions or feedback, let me know!