How You Can Still Eat Healthy While on a Budget
Stock your fridge and keep money in your wallet by planning grocery lists, comparing prices and hitting up local farmers markets.
Eating healthy can be a challenge with current produce prices and an abundance of cheaper, mostly unhealthy choices.
So, how can we keep money in our wallets while stocking the fridge?
Emily Stasko, outpatient dietitian with UPMC, is planning to teach a six-week class, “Eat Healthy, Spend Less,” for the Community Wellness Initiative in Larimer, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays, starting April 12.
“We will be discussing meal planning, making lists when you go grocery shopping and proper food storage to prevent waste,” she says. “We will also discuss where we can find healthy foods that are a little cheaper, and the cost of always ordering fast food — both financially and nutritionally.”
Stasko notes the class will focus on different ways to incorporate produce in their diet, whether it’s through frozen fruits and vegetables or opting for canned veggies. If purchasing canned fruits and veggies, she suggests low sodium and sugar options or draining and rinsing them to remove some of the additives.
“We hope that participants will learn several nuggets of helpful information that they can use and share with family and friends,” Chris Howard, executive director of the Community Wellness Initiative, says. “With the recent reduction of the additional $95 lost from the SNAP program, we believe every saved dollar will benefit those that have lost this benefit.”
The class will visit a local farmers market or community garden to find locally grown produce, and even learn how they can grow some of the foods, herbs or spices. Stasko will also teach participants to prepare an easy breakfast meal, like overnight oats or egg cups.
“Our health is so important. What we put into our body every day plays such a huge role in that. If we can make it a priority to get nutrient-dense foods every day, these classes will help people figure that out with budgets. If we teach them that these nutrient-dense foods are still out there, we can get them into our diet without having to break the bank,” she says.
Some tips for meal prep include planning a few meals a week if you don’t have the energy to plan seven, she adds. Slow cooker or Instant Pot recipes are great to start with.
“It can also be good to have theme nights for variety. Like, every Tuesday can be taco night. You can change it up with fish tacos or breakfast tacos. Or, every Friday is grill night,” she says.
Greg Austin, project manager with the Good Food Project at 412 Food Rescue, teaches clients how to prepare meals through Cooking Matters online tutorials, produced in partnership with UPMC Health Plan.
“Cooking education provides individuals with the tools they need to feel empowered to feed their families,” the website says. “This means supporting every step of the cooking process, including which items to pick when shopping at the store, how to process those ingredients, tricks to alter recipes to make them appetizing and especially ways to reduce food waste.”
Austin adds the program teaches clients to work with food “in a way that harkens back to older food conservation practices.” It also gives tips for grocery shopping, knife skills and various recipes.
“It’s about leveraging our culinary knowledge to keep an eye out for efficiencies like making a sauce from the cheese and water you are cooking your pasta in.”
Austin also teaches clients how to make soup stock from trimmings and bones. He likes to scour his fridge at the end of the week for leftovers or things he didn’t get around to eating and creating a soup out of the ingredients, which then becomes his take-to-work lunch.
“If you feel like you’re throwing a lot of food away after going grocery shopping, there are tricks you can start to do to mitigate that loss,” he adds. “For instance, if I peel a carrot, I’ll freeze the shavings and put other pieces in for the soup at the end of the week.”
He notes there is a learning curve to practicing to cook at home for yourself and your family.
“The recipe is often written to be precise to recreate something exactly; it doesn’t necessarily build confidence in cooking skills, it builds confidence in the recipe,” he says. “It isn’t the same as showing them the core basics of that recipe and showing them how it can apply to different regions of cuisine.”
Austin stresses that you have to make time to cook healthy meals at home, to help both your budget and health.
“I’ve found it really helpful to buckle down and commit to the practice of forcing myself to cook at home, regardless of how exhausted I might be,” he says. “I try to keep it at a pace that’s sustainable and reasonable.”
He suggests looking at your schedule and carving out two hours here and there to prepare meals for the week. He says he usually sees success if meal prep is done on Sundays.
“It’s the same discipline as a workout program,” he adds. “You have to decide to do this personally because you are fighting a culture of convenience.”
Austin isn’t discouraging people from enjoying meals at a restaurant from time to time. But, he stresses we need to be more deliberate about those decisions, both for our health and our budget.
The Cooking Matters program helps clients become invested in thinking about cooking, “and the power they have over their relationship with food.”
He also wants clients to ask themselves what they hope to gain from the instruction.
“It’s about dedicating yourself to these goals and not beating yourself up for missing a goal. Just keep at it and try to reach the next one. It also helps to be as open as possible to trying new foods. The more you limit what you like, the more limited your options will be.”