Healthy Eating on a Budget

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Healthy Eating on a Budget

“Healthy food costs too much money” is a common meal-planning myth and one that could be preventing you from enjoying the benefits of eating healthfully while spending less. It may be true that sugar-free and fat-free versions of certain food items cost more, but you don’t have to buy special foods to meet your diabetes nutrition needs. You can eat the same, ordinary foods your entire family eats as long as you pay attention to portion size and nutrient content. As a bonus, your family’s health also profits from your good-for-you eating plan.

The average American consumer spends nearly 10% of his income on food, so tightening your food budget can pay off in substantial dividends. Healthy eating is also a great investment, both economically and physically, because it helps in keeping your diabetes in control. Research studies have shown definitively that improved blood glucose control lowers the risk of diabetes complications such as eye disease and kidney disease. Spending your food dollars wisely will improve your blood glucose control now and help prevent costly complications and expensive medical care later.

If you think that the words “healthy” and “affordable” don’t belong in the same sentence, you may be interested in information from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) showing that a 1200-calorie meal plan can cost $6.99 for the entire day — about the cost of just one “super value” lunch at a fast-food restaurant. This meal plan, based on the recommended foods and portion sizes from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat or nonfat dairy products, and alternative protein and calcium sources. A nutrient-rich meal plan won’t necessarily increase your food budget, so don’t let cost concerns stop you from eating healthfully. (For a comparison of the cost of sample shopping lists, check out Shopping Cart Smarts.)

Ready, set, save!

The following surefire strategies will help you save money while meeting your healthy eating goals:

Know your meal plan. Invest some of your hard-earned money in a visit to a registered dietitian who has expertise in diabetes. Learning as much as possible about healthy meal planning and diabetes control will pay off. Whether your meal planning approach is carbohydrate counting, the plate method, or the exchange system, you should eat a wide variety of wholesome foods that are relatively inexpensive — whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruits, lean protein sources, and low-fat dairy products. An even healthier approach limits meats, sweets, and high-fat snacks, which can also be quite costly. Pay special attention to portion sizes; if you eat the recommended serving amounts, your daily food costs will stay affordable.

Map out your menu. Before you hit the grocery store aisles, take a few moments to think about what you’ll be eating in the upcoming week. Planning your meals in advance allows you to purchase everything you need at once, saving time and gasoline that would be wasted on frequent trips to the store. You’ll also be able to take advantage of sales by planning your meals for the week around the grocery specials. If the thought of planning 21 meals for the week seems overwhelming, start by planning five evening meals. Your diabetes meal plan is the starting point for your menus because it outlines the food groups and number of servings you need from each. Keep a list of all the meals that meet your needs so you can select from those favorites rather than plan new menus every week.

Shop smart. Affordable, healthful eating starts with smart shopping. Surveys show that shoppers spend almost $2 for every minute they’re in the market, so shopping efficiently will save dollars and cents. Always make a list and stick to it. Picking up an extra two or three impulse items on a shopping trip can add $5 to $10 a week to your bill, or almost $500 over the course of a year. Clip coupons and cut costs by using your store’s loyalty card or frequent buyer programs. Don’t be snobby about store brands; the same manufacturers that make brand-name foods often produce generic foods that taste great and cost as much as 30% less than the name-brand products. Compare cost per serving and don’t assume that economy-size items are always a better buy, particularly if you don’t have storage space or the food spoils before you can use it. Keep in mind that you may be paying a price for convenience if a food has been grated, chopped, precooked, presliced, or individually packaged. Doing a bit of the food preparation yourself will slice your grocery costs.

Plan on leftovers. “Planned-overs” are a budget’s best friend. Save time, energy, and money by cooking once and eating twice. If you roast a chicken on Sunday, use the leftover meat to make chicken wraps on Monday, and save the remaining scraps for a chicken–rice soup later in the week. If you make a spaghetti supper, cook twice as much spaghetti as you need, and use half for a pasta salad for tomorrow’s lunch.

Leftovers have, perhaps unfairly, earned a bad reputation. Author Calvin Trillin said, “For 30 years, my mother served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.” But cost-cutting doesn’t have to mean serving the same, warmed-over meal three times in a week. Think about easy and interesting ways to stretch your entrées, perhaps by adding some fresh ingredients the second time around.

Eat out economically. Cooking and eating at home is less costly than eating out, and it is generally more nutritious as well because when you’re in the kitchen, you control the carbohydrate, fat, and calorie content of your meals. While eating at home is the ideal, the time crunch of busy schedules makes eating out an easier, but more expensive, alternative.

An average American family spends $2,668 on average each year on sit-down, carry-out, and delivery meals. Careful planning can help prevent dining out from taking a big bite from your budget. Try not to eat out impulsively. Think about what’s in your pantry at home; it’s often quicker to microwave your own meal at home than it is to wait in line at a fast-food drive-through.

If you do go out, make smart nutrition choices from the menu and ask questions of the restaurant staff to satisfy any concerns you may have. Use the often oversized portions of restaurant food to your advantage. For example, have your dining companion order a large salad while you order a traditional entrée with side items. Combine your plates to save money. Or order a full meal and ask for a to-go container as it is being served. Pack up half of your entrée immediately. That way you won’t be tempted to overeat, and you’ll have another meal “in the bag” for the next day.

Grow a garden. Don’t overlook the bountiful benefits of a backyard or windowsill garden. For the price of a few starter plants or seed packets, you can enjoy your own home-grown fresh herbs or vegetables. Freeze or can your extra harvest for savings year-round. If you’re a new gardener, start small and plan carefully. Resources such as your county Cooperative Extension Service, the public library, and the Internet can provide more advice for your gardening situation. Of course, gardening is a bit of work, but as an added bonus, it is a stress-relieving activity that can burn up to 300 calories per hour as you plant seeds, push a wheelbarrow, or pull weeds.

Healthy eating on a lean budget

Your budget shouldn’t be a barrier to eating foods that are a healthy part of a diabetes meal plan. Making intelligent food choices is fundamental to taking care of your diabetes, because eating nutritiously leads to improved blood glucose levels. Plan smart, shop smart, and cook smart. Slashing your food costs means a bit more time and effort on your part, but the reward is well worth it.

Originally Published February 11, 2008

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