Eating Well on a Budget

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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 near 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.

Know yourself

Behavior changes will probably not be very sustainable if you buy items for salads when you are really a “meat and potatoes” sort of person. Take some time to honestly assess your personal preferences. Tally your food likes and dislikes, including low-calorie snacks and the meal schedule that best fits your lifestyle. Is your life a perpetual hurry that requires quick meal preparation, or are you an accomplished cook who loves to spend time in the kitchen? Do you prefer eating large meals three times a day, or are you a “grazer” who enjoys eating small amounts of food frequently? Evaluate the relationship between your thought patterns and food habits. Does stress or do emotions (positive or negative) lead you to eat impulsively, even when you’re not really hungry? Knowing your personal preferences, and your strengths and weaknesses, will help you in planning how to eat 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

If you have serious budget woes, there are several resources available to help you obtain food at little to no cost. In most states, you can dial 2-1-1 to obtain assistance on navigating state and local social service agencies and resources. Helpful online resources include, which can help you locate free food assistance programs in your community, and, which offers tips on saving from an extremely resourceful husband-and-wife team. Meals On Wheels ( is a program in which community volunteers deliver meals directly to senior citizens who cannot leave their homes. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), more commonly known as food stamps, helps millions of Americans buy food. SNAP does not pay for nonfood items such as soaps and paper products, pet food, or alcohol. Eligibility for SNAP benefits is based on a number of factors, including income, savings, family size, and work status. For more information on the program, visit

Take inventory

What foods do you already have in your pantry, freezer, or kitchen cabinet? When you take inventory of what you already have, you may be surprised to find that you have enough to survive for a long time with some creative meal planning. Sometimes the best meals can be made from what you already have, by making substitutes in recipes. However, be sure to discard any foods that have passed their use-by date or that appear spoiled in any way.

Have an action plan

Your action plan should include your money-saving goals, menu plan, and shopping lists. For menu-planning to be successful, it is best to take small steps at first. For example, start by planning dinners for one week and then gradually expand to monthly planning. Create a standard grocery-shopping list of the items you eat regularly, and modify it as necessary for special meals. Countless sample lists are available online, and they can be adjusted to your personal preferences. Organize your list according to sections of the grocery store.

Use coupons

Using coupons can save families as much as $1,000 a year (or even more) on groceries. Coupons are widely available in newspapers, magazines, and online, and they are often attached to receipts at the cash register. Clip and sort coupons according to the sections of your shopping list. Be sure to read the small print on coupons to check for any specific instructions and to note the expiration date.

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.

Shop savvily

It is usually best to shop at one grocery store to avoid the time, labor, and expense of driving to multiple stores. However, you may find great food deals at dollar stores and pharmacies. Read and review the weekly sales in your local newspaper. There may be price markdowns, known as “loss leaders,” that are promoted simply to get you into the store to buy more. This means you can come out ahead if you only buy what’s on sale.

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

Learn how to prepare healthy meals with simple ingredients, then make a point of having those ingredients on hand. Just after you go grocery shopping, take the time to do your own chopping, dividing, freezing, mixing, and storing of your foods to prepare for quick meals on busy days. Cook in bulk and freeze half of what you make when feasible, such as when making soups and stews. When a dish cannot easily be frozen, cook enough for at least two meals, and immediately refrigerate half of it for the next day. Use leftovers for meals at work or school. Repackage bulk foods into smaller servings as needed.

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

The plate method is an easy-to-understand guide to what foods should be on your plate. Using this method simply means filling roughly one quarter of your plate with each of the following food groups: lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain carbohydrate foods. Select colorful vegetables and fruits (think of a rainbow) to provide a range of essential vitamins and minerals. Season foods with low-sodium spices and herbs, and serve low-fat dairy products and water on the side.

Strive for a plant-based diet

There are several categories of plant-based diets that might fit your personal preferences. Ovo-lacto vegetarians eat eggs and dairy products while avoiding meat, poultry, and seafood. Lacto vegetarians consume dairy products but subtract eggs and seafood from the list of options. Vegans do not eat any animal products, maintaining a diet of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Flexitarians avoid meat most of the time.

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

Low-calorie snacks can be affordable and fit well into a diabetes meal plan. Snack ideas include air-popped popcorn, fruits in season, sliced vegetables, whole-wheat pretzels, and low-fat cheese and yogurt. Even desserts can be made more healthful by adding pumpkin or squash puree to puddings or to cake recipes or mixes in place of some of the oil or shortening.

Grow your own food

Home gardening is an enjoyable way to obtain healthy foods. If you don’t have much experience or outdoor space, try container gardening. Do some research into what grows well in your area, then choose a few easy-to-grow vegetables and herbs. Small pots of herbs can even be grown in a sunny window. You will be impressed by both the fresh flavors and the joy that gardening can bring.

Allow for the unexpected

Have almost-ready foods available in the freezer or pantry for days when you have no time to prepare a regular meal. Many healthful and delicious foods can be prepared quickly; for example, you can cook up a frozen turkey burger and serve it with fresh lettuce and tomatoes. In situations where you cannot prepare food at home, remember that it is usually cheaper to buy prepared deli foods for a meal than to eat out at a restaurant.

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.

Originally Published September 24, 2013

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