“What is a healthy diet, and can I afford it?” Millions of Americans feel like this question is a quandary. Through the holiday season and beyond, it is possible to both meet our daily nutrient needs and stick to a budget. Like almost any successful outcome, it requires a little planning. The rewards are delicious meals, wellness and vitality.
THE BASICS OF A HEALTHY DIET
Our bodies require a combination of nutrients in the form of carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, which are converted to energy for proper metabolism. With a staggering amount of information and opinions about what comprises “good nutrition”, it’s key to understand that scientifically research-proven food combinations, rather than fads or quick fixes, are the right choices to provide the fuel that supports the body’s functions. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Whole foods are the foundation for a nutritionally sound diet. Whole foods are self-descriptive: they contain nothing but themselves. They’re preferable to processed foods because they contain less sodium, fat, sugar and artificial ingredients, and can actually be cheaper than prepared convenience foods or fast foods. Within the past two years, the USDA has revamped its nutrition guidelines for a diet that is whole-foods based, and proven healthful by overwhelming scientific evidence; its nutrition proportions have been presented to the public as the MyPlate model. Human nutrient balance can be achieved by filling one half of the meal plate with vegetables and fruits, emphasizing leafy greens and brightly colored produce for their diverse vitamin and mineral profiles; one quarter of the plate with protein, mostly poultry, fish, beans and nuts; and one quarter of the plate with whole grains such as whole wheat pasta and bread, whole grain rice, and quinoa.
THE GAME PLAN FOR HEALTHY MEALS ON A BUDGET
There are three steps involved in saving money while taking in the best, healthiest foods: planning ahead, shopping mindfully, and strategic cooking.
Reallocating an hour each week to plan weekly meals yields substantial savings, because the less time spent in return trips to the grocery store means fewer opportunities for impulse buying. It’s also useful for planning multiple meals from one food item. Leftovers from a turkey roasted on Sunday night can transform into a tetrazzini pasta dish, provide sandwich fillings, and become a breakfast turkey hash in the days to follow. To assist in planning, grocers’ websites feature weekly deals and offer online manufacturer coupons. Knowing what’s on special is the starting point for lowering food costs. Most people need ideas for appetizing, easy meals. A bit of time spent browsing food websites, blogs and magazines can help answer the ever-present question, “What’s for dinner?”
Putting together a shopping list while mapping out meals for the coming week is an effective money-saver. There are also several tips to grocery shopping. Having a small snack or meal before shopping quells hunger and cuts down on impulse buys. Grocery store layout is carefully designed to promote maximum purchases. The healthiest, whole foods in the store are located on the outside perimeter - produce, dairy, eggs, fish and meat, requiring customers to travel through aisles of expensive, processed, packaged foods to reach the staples. Staying on the outer border aisles while shopping supports healthier food choices.
Substitutions to consider. In working towards eating well within the parameters of a budget, here are some ideas that support the nutrition guidelines mentioned above.
Exchange white foods for brown foods. Brown rice and whole-wheat pasta are a good source of fiber, magnesium, zinc and B vitamins. Whole wheat bread provides iron, phosphorus and magnesium too. Add nut butter for a perfect complementary protein meal without the cost of meat.
Meet protein needs through vegetarian sources. These options are generally lower in cost and bring substantial health benefits. Protein is plentiful in chickpeas (garbanzos), lentils and split peas. All of these are naturals to add in to soups and salads. They’re much lower in fat than meat, and are satisfying to boot. Protein needs of 0.8 to 1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight are also easy to meet with the help of nuts - especially raw or roasted. Walnuts and almonds are great choices.
Choose whole fruits and vegetables instead of juices. This leads to increased satiety, extra fiber and reduced calorie intake at no additional cost (often less).
Simple additions. Integrating these foods into your diet is a low cost way to add nutritional benefit, with minimal effort… especially during the holiday season.
Add some spice. Classic holiday spices such as cloves and cinnamon are affordable options that can be purchased in the bulk section in small amounts. Cloves are nutrient dense containing omega 3 fatty acids, magnesium, and Vitamins C and K… all in one spice. These properties make it a great natural anti-inflammatory agent. Cinnamon has a long history of medicinal purposes and, just in time for the holidays, it is known for its ability to control blood sugar. It is high in manganese, calcium and fiber.
Select winter fruit or vegetables where possible. Carrots, onions and celery are lower in cost, especially during the cold months, and can add extra fiber, vitamins and minerals to a meal. Produce is the least expensive and best tasting when it’s in season, and through the year grocers will feature ripe vegetables and fruits as weekly bargains.
Embrace potatoes, steering clear of fries and chips. One mashed, baked or boiled potato offers 50% of daily Vitamin C requirements. They’re also a great go-to for potassium, and are very low in fat. Potatoes are filling, and are in-season and affordable year-round.
Small changes. Large savings can be had with a small amount of intentional planning.
Buy in bulk for flexibility to buy just what is needed, rather than large containers, of a wide variety of foods . Most grocery stores have a bulk food section, and buying by per-pound pricing is less expensive than the same foods that are pre-packaged or boxed. Beans, lentils, couscous, rice, nuts, spices, granola and bran flakes are all examples of foods that can be found in bulk.
Grow food at home. This requires some effort upfront but is very cost-effective. Foods that are easy to grow at home include fresh herbs, which are nutrient rich and support immune health. Shrubs such as sage, rosemary, oregano and bay leaf require minimal maintenance and grow for several years. Parsley and dill re-seed themselves and reappear each year if given a patch. Arugula, kale, Swiss chard, rhubarb and potatoes are exceedingly easy to garden, and all provide pretty foliage in any yard or garden spot.
Be choosy with organic. Although organic does provide some assurances, it comes at a cost. Knowing when to prioritize organic foods and when to opt for conventional produce can lead to significant cost savings. As a general rule, choose organic foods when there is no skin such as tomatoes or cucumbers. Farmers markets are also an ideal place to find bargains by frequenting them towards the end of the day or looking for seconds bins.
THE HOLIDAY MENU: THE NUTRITIOUS & LOW-COST VERSION
Classic holiday foods often gain a poor reputation as being high in calories, sugar and saturated fats. In reality, many bring significant nutrient benefits. Preparing seasonal favorites in a healthful manner and being mindful of portions are positive steps towards healthy eating. Below is a sample menu for a sumptuous, low-cost, nutritious holiday meal.
Roasted Turkey. This high protein food contains folic acid, zinc and potassium. It is a thrifty choice because the leftovers can be repurposed into a soup or casserole. The carcass can be turned into a stock and frozen for future meals.
Brussels sprouts. These crucifers are packed with vitamin C and phytonutrients. They retain their mild flavor when tossed with a little olive oil, salt, and baked in a hot oven.
Stuffing with nuts and fruit. Purchase nuts and sage from the bulk section for this holiday classic. Day old bread is ideal for stuffing. Celery and onions are inexpensive additions as are fruits such as apple or pear, which contribute moisture.
Sweet potato pie with spelt flour crust. Rich and nutty spelt flour is another bulk food dry good and provides fiber and phytonutrients. Sweet potatoes that have been roasted for pie filling add a rich depth of flavor, Vitamin A and fiber.
Practicing these tips even a few times a week can result in large savings, and experimenting with buying new types of healthful foods and a recipe or two can increase the meal repertoire in a very satisfying way.
Steph Fairweather & Lisa Holman, Master of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics Candidate 2014, Bastyr University