Living on a budget doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice good health. In fact, the less you have to spend on groceries, the fewer prepared foods and fatty proteins you’ll be able to buy. Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines for Americans, you’ll be able to make a weekly eating plan that keeps you healthy, active and out of the poor house.
Despite the hysteria diet companies promote about the evils of carbs, the USDA, Mayo Clinic, Harvard School of Public Health and other reputable health organizations recommend that you get most of your daily calories from whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Eating lots of starchy vegetables with salt, butter, sour cream and cheese isn’t a great idea, but choosing the right kind of carbs will help you stretch your budget and provide good health. Choose a variety of red, green, yellow and orange vegetables, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Frozen vegetables and fruits may be your best bargain and provide a good supply of nutrients, even compared to fresh, according to the National Institutes of Health. Choose whole grain cereals, breads and pastas, sweet potatoes and brown rice over white carbs. Add nuts and seeds.
The more expensive the cut of beef, the more fat, so choose lean cuts such as flank and skirt steak if you want tasty beef dishes. Breast meat is the healthiest cut of turkey and chicken. To stretch your budget, put chunks of meat in stir frys, soups and stews, rather than giving everyone an individual piece. Salmon is a rich source of protein and heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acid, but might be too expensive, depending on where you live. Canned tuna is another healthy choice for heart-healthy seafood. Dairy products are good sources of protein, but often contain high amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol. Look for low-fat versions you can afford. Eggs are a rich source of inexpensive protein, but one egg contains more than 70 percent of your daily recommended allowance for cholesterol.
Not all fats are bad for you. Look at nutrition labels and stay away from foods that contain saturated and trans fats, opting for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Peanut butter is calorie-dense, but is a good choice for protein and healthy fats. Olive oil is another good source of healthy fat.
For a week’s worth of food for a family of two adults and two children, purchase approximately 60 to 70 cups of vegetables, 40 to 50 cups of fruit, approximately 180 to 200 ounces of whole grains, 140 to 150 ounces of lean protein and 70 to 80 cups of dairy.
Don’t skip breakfast, or you’ll go almost 18 hours without eating each day. Budget for seven breakfasts that include items such as plain oatmeal with a pat of butter and cinnamon, whole wheat toast, fresh fruit, low-fat yogurt or egg white omelets. Buy generic whole grain cereals fortified with vitamins and minerals. Make your own fruit juice in your blender or a fruit squeezer.
Rely on vegetable soups you make yourself and salads as lunch staples. Buy low-sodium vegetable stock, a variety of your favorite vegetables, and black beans to make your own soups with a food processor or blender. Add crunch to salads with low-cost nuts and seeds and fat-free dressings. Serve with a half a sandwich with just a bit of low-fat lunchmeat and plenty of lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Use honey mustard instead of mayonnaise. Make inexpensive pizza with whole grain English muffins, generic tomato sauce and a few diced vegetables.
Buy chicken breast in bulk bags, ground turkey breast and lean cuts of beef. Buy a bottle of soy sauce to add flavor to stir frys, or add a bit of orange juice or honey. For dinner, serve pasta with a meatless marinara sauce or add tuna instead of hamburger. Offer bean burritos with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, low-fat sour cream or cheese and Spanish rice. Make sliders using ground turkey and serve with baked sweet potato fries. Dip chicken breast strips in egg white and crushed corn flakes and bake healthy chicken fingers.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010
- Mayo Clinic: Food Pyramid: An Option for Better Eating
- Harvard School of Public Health: Healthy Eating Plate and Healthy Eating Pyramid
- MedLine Plus: Foods - Fresh vs. Frozen or Canned
- American Heart Association: Common Misconceptions About Cholesterol
- ChooseMyPlate.gov: Food Choices
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.