Eat Healthy For Less?

Fire up any web browser, turn on any television, listen to any radio station, and at some point you'll hear something about how America has unhealthy eating habits. Those who are reasonably well-off worry about not having time to cook healthy meals, or have concerns about chemical additives and carbon footprints. Those from lower economic backgrounds have to fight the fact that the foods that are worst for us - soda, processed foods, etc - are made with the least expensive ingredients, and therefore cost less to buy, even though they don't provide adequate nutrition.

It's easy to read an article or listen to a news story that urges you to shop at a high-priced organic food store like Whole Foods, but what if you can't afford it, or what if you live in a place where such a store doesn't exist. Can you eat healthy foods on a budget, and does "healthy" have to mean "organic" and/or "time consuming"?

Stretching the Budget

When it comes to stretching your finances, it really is less expensive to eat at home. Sure, it may seem more expensive to spend $5 on a pound of hamburger, when you can get five double-cheeseburgers for the same price at any fast food joint, and not have to cook, but the hamburger you buy, especially with another $5 worth of vegetables, provides a lot more in the way of healthy calories, and necessary vitamins. Ways to stretch the food finances, then, are:

  • Cook at home. If you have kids, get them involved in the process so that making dinner is as much a part of family time as eating them. If you don't have children, cook with your spouse; it can be a lot of fun.

  • Make one-pot dishes. Stir-fries, curries, and soups are filling, use more vegetables than meat, are easy to make, easy to clean up after, and often provide leftovers for lunch the next day. Pasta primavera or a stir-fry without any meat are also options.

  • Avoid junk food. Snack on fruits, vegetables, hard cheeses, and whole-grain crackers, not chips and dip. An apple wedge dipped in peanut butter is not only pretty tasty, it also provides fiber and protein. If you're a cookie lover, bake your own. It's fun, and not only can you control the sugar, but cookie dough freezes well, so you can bake just what you need.

  • Drink water instead of soda. If you can't abide flat water, a 2-liter bottle of mineral water is roughly the same price as a bottle of soda, or, alternatively, you can add lemon, lime, or orange wedges to cold water for a dash of flavor.

  • Buy locally grown foods. Especially in warm weather, visit your local farmer's market, or see if there's a farm co-op where you pay a minimal monthly fee and get a weekly box of seasonal vegetables. Not only will shopping from local growers save you money on in-season produce, it will also benefit the environment. Local foods don't use as much gas getting from the grower to you.

  • Avoid chemical substitutes. Generally speaking chemical sweeteners do more harm than good - they may not have the calories of actual sugar, but they also trick your body into wanting more food than you really need. Also, they're more expensive.

When To Go Organic

If you have a source of organic foods, you should try to choose them over non-organic offerings whenever possible, but shopping for such things is a little like buying health insurance: you need to balance what you need with what you can afford. When making the move to organics, then, you should prioritize your choices.

  • Dairy first. If the only organic thing you buy is milk, it's better than nothing. Eggs and cheese should be organic if you can afford to do so, but with milk it's important, so that you aren't ingesting synthetic growth hormone.

  • Peanut butter. Even some mainstream grocery stores have grinders where fresh peanuts go in and peanut butter comes out. Even if the peanuts aren't organic, fresh peanut butter is healthier than processed, and isn't that expensive.

  • Meat. When it comes to meat, organic isn't as important as making sure it's the leanest meat you can afford, and that there are no additives (poultry is often injected with flavoring, and fish is often colored.)

  • Fruits and vegetables. These should be organic if you typically eat the rind or peel, but don't necessarily have to be, on items with thick, inedible skins. Specifically, apples, bell peppers, berries, celery, cherries, grapes, lettuce, peaches, pears, potatoes, nectarines, spinach, and tomatoes should be organic whenever possible, while asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, kiwi, mangos, pineapples, sweet corn and sweet peas are among the cleanest (chemically speaking) produce available, even when not organic.

Eating healthily is always a challenge when we're constantly bombarded with advertising for restaurants and junk food, but doing so on a budget is doubly difficult. By knowing how to stretch your dollars, and when it's not essential to buy organic, you can eat healthy food, and save money.

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