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Eating Well on a Budget
The economic downturn of recent years has been an eye-opener for nearly all Americans. Poverty levels are at an all-time high, and a growing number of people belong to the “new poor,” meaning that they were previously middle class. Everyone, it seems, is trying to stretch a dollar. This is especially true when it comes to food, since there is such a wide range of options (and prices) available.
Regardless of their economic situation, many people with diabetes hold the misperception that healthy foods are unaffordable. In reality, foods that are packed with nutrition can be both affordable and simple to prepare. Eating well is the cornerstone of diabetes treatment, although specific dietary recommendations vary somewhat based on the individual. A registered dietitian can help you develop a meal plan that fits your medical needs, food preferences, lifestyle, and budget.
Eating well on a budget may require a number of behavioral changes. You may be in the habit of buying convenience foods at the grocery store, getting fast-food meals from the drive-through, or eating out frequently. All three of these options can be expensive, unhealthy, or both. The first step in developing a budget-minded approach toward food is to consider whether you are spending more than you should on convenience foods and other nonessential expenses. Where does the cash in your wallet go? How much do you spend on cups of coffee or bottled water? Developing and following a food budget can make you both richer and healthier. This is true regardless of your income level; following a budget simply means managing your finances rather than letting your finances manage you.
Preparing and maintaining a budget may be a new habit for you. If this seems daunting, remember that a budget is simply a written or typed summary of your income and expenses, accounting for both fixed costs (mortgage or rent, heating, electricity, car payments, etc.) and discretionary spending. There are many resources for managing personal and household budgets available in bookstores, online, and at your local public library. If you are new to budgeting, be aware that it takes focus, discipline, and time (some experts say four weeks) to form a new habit. Don’t resolve to rid yourself of negative habits, like spending too much money on food or buying too much junk food. Instead, focus on a positive goal and take steps to keep it in the front of your mind. For example, set a monthly or yearly savings goal for food, then post that goal and the main steps you’ll take to achieve it on your refrigerator. It can help to have a reminder that the $50 you save every month translates into $600 for the year.
Your entire family can participate in the household action plan for saving food dollars. They’ll benefit, too, from eating more nutritious foods, and you’ll likely have more time together the more you prepare healthful meals at home rather than eating out or buying premade foods. Your family will also likely feel the benefits if you improve your diabetes control through better eating and reduce your financial anxiety at the same time.
The following 12 tips and tactics offer suggestions for eating well on a budget.
There are, however, some basic dietary recommendations for everyone. These include eating balanced meals on a regular schedule, which may be five small meals or three larger meals daily, with midmorning and midafternoon snacks. Bedtime snacks that include a slowly digested carbohydrate and lean protein may also be a good idea, since they help some people maintain a steady blood glucose level overnight. Meals should contain a variety of foods including lean meats or other low-fat sources of protein, whole grains and legumes, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products. Avoid concentrated sweets, and drink six to eight glasses of water daily.
Know your resources
Have an action plan
Before you buy a name-brand product using a coupon, however, note whether there’s an equivalent generic (or store-brand) product. If the generic product is acceptable to you and is cheaper than the discounted name-brand product, it is the better buy.
When buying groceries, try to shop midweek and on a full stomach. Also try to avoid taking children along so that you can maintain your focus. Early-morning shopping may yield markdowns in the produce and meat departments as well as “end of the day” sales on items from the previous day such as bakery and deli items. Be aware that products at eye level tend to be more expensive; look high and low on the shelves for lower prices. Generic or store-brand items can be significantly less expensive than, and similar in quality to, name-brand items.
Take the time to check labels for hidden sugars and trans fat; to limit trans fat, avoid any product that lists partially hydrogenated oil in its ingredients list. Compare unit pricing, and weigh items to check for labeling accuracy, using the customer scales provided for produce. To avoid impulse buying, focus only on the items on your shopping list. The displays at the ends of aisles may look enticing, but they are not necessarily good buys. Purchase meat in bulk when it’s on sale, and freeze what you won’t use immediately. The deli department will usually slice a large block of meat or cheese for free, saving you money on presliced, prepackaged deli meats and cheeses.
Avoid buying processed foods sold in boxes, which tend to be both expensive and of lower nutritional quality than fresh or canned alternatives. Shopping the perimeter of the store will usually lead to the healthiest choices. Skip the specialty-food aisles, since cooking for diabetes requires only simple staples, with an abundance of fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits. You may find good deals on produce or other items at your local farmer’s market, where prices may drop just before closing time. Or try negotiating with a local farmer for whatever produce is in season; he may have a surplus he’s trying to get rid of.
Prepare your own food
Shop at yard sales or consignment stores for low-cost, used Crock-Pots, pressure cookers, countertop grills, mixers, and other kitchenware that can make you more productive in the kitchen. Crock-Pots allow almost labor-free cooking, since you can put seasoned food in it before work and have a hot meal when you get home. Steaming, grilling, and broiling your foods are quick and easy ways to prepare them. Stir-frying vegetables with a small amount of oil and meat can also make for quick and healthy meals.
Always have whole-grain rice or pasta prepared and available in the refrigerator for a quick side or to add to salads and casseroles. If you’re up for a challenge, bake your own bread; it will keep in the freezer for up to three months. Stretch your meat in sauces and soups with healthy “fillers” such as oatmeal, brown rice, and grated carrots, onions, and squash. Use ripened bananas with yogurt and low-fat milk to make smoothies in your blender, rather than buying premade smoothies. Add a couple of teaspoons of baking soda to simmering water to restore the vibrant color of wilted vegetables, rather than simply throwing them out.
Use the plate method
Strive for a plant-based diet
Remember that protein is available in nuts, seeds, legumes (peas, beans, and lentils), grains, soy products, dairy products, and eggs. The beauty of a vegetarian diet is that combinations of foods form a “complete protein,” providing all of the amino acids (building blocks of proteins) that are essential to human health. Examples of these combinations are grains with legumes (a bean burrito) and with nuts or seeds (peanut butter on whole-wheat bread). Beans are available in many varieties and are one of the cheapest, most nutritious foods you can choose. Tasty burgers, salads, side dishes, and even desserts can incorporate beans. Adding kale or turnip greens to bean dishes is an economical and healthful way to liven them up. Another good vegetarian staple is cabbage, which outlasts most other vegetables in the refrigerator, is high in vitamins, and can be served either raw or cooked in a variety of dishes.
Have snacks available
Grow your own food
Allow for the unexpected
For a few more tips on eating healthy at a low cost, click here.
The messy nature of life means that no matter how perfectly you plan your meals or your savings, events beyond your control will occasionally force you to go over your budget or eat a less-than-perfectly-healthy meal. When this happens, remember that it’s your overall pattern that really matters, and don’t be hard on yourself or give up on your meal plan. There will be difficulties along the way, but the financial and health benefits of working to eat well on a budget will make your efforts worthwhile. Just think how great it will feel to see the numbers go down on your blood glucose meter, and up on your bank statement.
Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.