Budgeting — There are two basic approaches to food budgeting. First, you can move toward getting more for your nutrition dollar. Also, you can just spend more to get more nutritious foods. Balancing these two approaches will likely depend on how much money you are able to spend on food and how much you are willing to spend relative to other budget priorities in your life.
Knowing how much you spend on food is the beginning of budgeting for better food and nutrition. Pay attention to how much you spend per week or month. Save all of your food receipts for a while, and then review them. Note how much you spend for items that you regularly purchase. This will help greatly when comparison shopping. Make sure to include money spent eating away from home and “ordering in”. This is often a big chunk of your total food dollar. Paying attention to away-from-home food spending might reveal areas where you can shift your food dollar toward less expensive at-home prepared foods, if needed. If your budget is tight, you may want to put an allotted amount of cash in an envelope, to keep it separate, and spend no more than that (maybe even save some up for bulk purchases when you find a good buy).
Eating at Home vs. Away
Home — eating at home offers the advantage of having easier access to healthier and less expensive ingredients, a kitchen in which to prepare and cook food, and better food storage. Also, at home you have more control over the environment in which you eat, helping to minimize temptations to stray from healthier foods and eating habits.
Away from Home — eating away from home includes full meals, single ready-to-eat items, takeaway foods, and beverages purchased at restaurants, drive-thru fast food outlets, freshly-prepared food sections at grocery stores, institutional foodservice settings, convenience stores, or eaten at social gatherings. Eating out frequently offers fewer nutritious food choices and a greater number of less nutritious foods. Eating out is more likely to be viewed as a distinct time for indulging oneself. Eating out often offers higher calorie foods, larger servings, and less control over portion sizes. Sellers of prepared foods typically overemphasize taste, to the detriment of nutrition.
For many people, shifting eating toward home is a wise choice nutritionally. This includes preparing foods at home to be eaten away from home. Eating in setting where others are preparing your food can also be nutritious, with some planning. See tips on eating out.
Making a Shopping List — Plan your meals and healthy snacks ahead of time and make a list of ingredients that you will need. Check what inventory you already have, particularly perishable items. Getting into the habit of shopping from a list can help minimize impulse buys.
When to Shop — Eat before you grocery shop. That is, don’t shop when you are hungry. This can help minimize nutritionally short-sighted impulse buys. You may want to shop at times when the store is not too busy. Being rushed can lead to impulse buys, and waiting in the checkout line may be the worst nutritional vantage point in the store! If you are buying frozen or refrigerated foods, you may want to either grocery at the end of other errands or drop off your groceries before going on additional errands that could last long enough to threaten to spoil your food.
Where to Shop — The typical bite of food in the U.S. travels an average of 1500 miles to get to your mouth. Buying locally grown foods saves energy and supports healthy and sustainable communities. You can buy foods directly from producers at farmers’ markets, pick-your-own farms, on-site farm stands and stores, buying “shares” of produce for pick-up or delivery, and gleaning programs. Some grocery stores will mark foods as locally produced. You can search for locally grown food outlets here: http://www.localharvest.org/search.jsp
By knowing which foods you purchase regularly and where the best values are typically found, you can plan your shopping and errands to reduce the time and energy used, as well as scouting out specials and best deals worth stocking up on.
Growing Your Own Food — A healthy and inexpensive alternative to buying food is growing it yourself. If you have a yard, you can plant a plot of vegetables and herbs. If you have a deck or patio, you can plant foods in a planter or pot. You can also grow foods inside, using natural light or a light garden. Small plots/containers are ideal for growing fresh herbs. Sprouting seeds, grains, or beans, is any easy way to grow fresh and nutritious foods year-round inside. Perhaps you can participate in a community garden, or even team up with a neighbor or two to tend a garden and share the produce.
Reducing Food Waste — about a third of food in the U.S. is wasted. Be particularly careful with perishable foods. Don’t buy any more than you need. Make sure that your refrigerator temperature is cool enough (but not freezing foods). Freeze extras. Use leftovers. Serve small amounts, so food is not left on your plate. Keep track of your stock and rotate pantry and refrigerated items so you use first in, first out. Store dry goods in cool places in air-tight containers. Compost foods that are waste. For more info on reducing food waste: http://greatist.com/health/how-to-ways-reduce-food-waste.
Buying Seasonal — buying produce in season is the best bet for nutrition, taste and price. This is especially important if you are trying to buy local.
Seasonal produce list: http://whole9life.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/whole9-seasonal-produce-2012.pdf
Seasonal food guide for your state: http://www.eatwellguide.org/i.php?id=seasonalfoodguides
Reading Labels — Many processed foods require nutrition labeling. So, first, Many foods that don’t have a label, like fresh vegetables and fruits, are excellent choices! For foods with labels:
Serving Size — the serving size listed on nutrition labels is often listed very different than the serving size you would use — often listed artificially small to mask the amount of calories or sodium in a product as used. Make sure to convert the nutrition label information to your actual serving size.
Ingredients — ingredients are listed in order by weight. In the quest for eating whole and wholesome foods, buying foods with few ingredients is a good basic guideline.
Food Additives – The most commonly listed “food additives” that impact your health are added salt (sodium), sugars, and fats:
Salt (Sodium): most of the sodium that we get in our diets is from commercially processed foods. The nutrition label uses 2400 mg of sodium per day as a recommended limit; 1500 mg per day would be a healthier limit.
Sugars: sugars are often listed several times on ingredient lists, which can mislead how prominent sugar is as an ingredient. Other common names for added sugars include: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, and cane juice concentrate. Be warned, sugars are often added to foods that you might not expect. Fortunately, the sugar content must be listed on the label in grams. One gram of sugar (and any carbohydrate) is 4 calories. So, you can calculate the number of sugar calories and the proportion of total calories that are sugar (by dividing sugar calories into total calories).
Fats: added fats and oils typically add little nutritional value, particularly considering the number of calories they add (9 calories per gram). Avoid any product which has trans fats, which come from partially hydrogenated oils.
Unlabeled GMO Ingredients – currently, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not required to be labeled as such. However, there are several strategies to avoid GMO foods. The most common GMO crops are corn, soybeans, canola, cottonseed, and sugar beets. You can avoid foods with these GMO crop ingredients, including corn, canola and cottonseed oils, and sugar that is not listed as pure cane sugar. You can buy certified organic foods (which cannot intentionally include GMO ingredients) or non-GMO Project Verified foods. Dairy cows are commonly injected with GM bovine growth hormone, so you can look for dairy products (e.g., milk, cheese, yogurt) labeled “No rBGH or rBST,” or “artificial hormone-free.”
Don’t be misled by information on packaging other than the nutrition label and ingredient list. For instance, look for whole grains, like whole wheat and oats, high in the ingredient list, especially since color and words on packaging like “wheat” or “multi-grain” can be misleading. Use the nutrition label and ingredient list to evaluate nutrition claims like “less”, “light”, “low”, “reduced”, “free”, “more”, “high.” Food marketing is typically geared toward high-profit, highly-processed foods, and generally is not a reliable source for nutrition information. A good general rule for just eating for life is: if it’s advertised, don’t buy it.
Lean Protein — protein foods are often fatty, and animal products have predominantly saturated fats. To assess how lean a protein source is, you can compare the ratio of protein to fat. A lean protein source has at least twice as much protein as fat. A fatty protein source will have as much (or more) fat as protein.
Product Dates — except for infant formula, “use by” and “sell by” dates are not required by federal law. Manufacturers usually set there own guidelines for these, and they are generally conservative. Generally, if food is properly stored, eating foods somewhat past these dates is fine.
Comparing Prices — There are two basic strategies in comparing food prices:
Lowest Price Shopping — when comparing the same or similar food, price shopping is simply a matter of figuring out which is the lowest cost by weight or by serving used. By knowing what a good price point is for your regularly eaten foods, you can identify the least expensive options. If needed, keep a price list of commonly purchased foods and/or bring a calculator when you shop. Of course, checking for sales is a mainstay for saving food dollars; but avoid being lured into making less-than-nutritious food choices simply by price.
Best Nutrition Buy Shopping — getting the most nutrition for your dollar is different than spending the least amount. Here you need to make a judgment about the nutritional value of a food per dollar (see Buying on a Budget below). For instance, buying white bread may be cheaper than whole wheat bread, but it may be a much poorer nutrition buy.
When calculating any food buys, factor in potential waste, particularly with perishable foods or bulk purchases. If it spoils or you don’t eat it, it is money wasted, as well as food wasted.
Buying on a Budget — there are two basic components of food costs: first, the cost of the ingredients, and second, the cost of someone else processing/preparing those ingredients. So, the two basic strategies for getting the most nutrition for your food dollar are: first, identifying basic foodstuffs that offer the most nutrition for the dollar, and second, “paying yourself” (rather than someone else) to process/prepare food from basic ingredients.
Identify the basic foodstuffs that offer the most nutrition for the dollar — typically these are, by food type:
- Protein-rich foods – dried beans/lentils, peanut butter, skim milk, eggs, canned tuna (packed in water);
- Vegetables – carrots, cabbage, greens, canned tomato products, onions, sweet potatoes, broccoli, celery, frozen vegetables on sale;
- Fruits – bananas, apples, canned fruits on sale, orange juice from concentrate, raisins;
- Whole-grains/Starches — oats, popcorn, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta/flour/bread, and potatoes;
- Spices — black pepper, cayenne (hot) pepper, cinnamon, oregano;
- Other — tea (very high in antioxidants)
“Pay yourself” to process/prepare food from basic ingredients:
The simplest way to save money by preparing your own food is to minimize eating out or “ordering in.”
Next, look for highly processed “empty calories” which add little nutritional value to your diet. The most common items are sugary beverages — such as sodas and sports drinks — and snack foods — such as chips and sweetened baked goods. Work to minimize these foods and find substitutes that offer better nutrition buys.
Finally, take a look at all of the prepared or processed foods that you eat. Ask yourself: can I prepare some or all of this at home? It may be as simple as re-filling water bottles (or drinking out of a glass!), soaking dried beans rather than buying them canned; making oatmeal or granola rather than buying boxed cereals; using frozen juice concentrates rather than in a ready-to-drink carton; or, making large batches of food when you have time and freeze convenient portions for later use. You may want to invest in home food processing equipment that will save you time, such as a crock pot, bread-maker, blender/food processor, or rice cooker. Can or freeze large batches of vegetables and fruits when available less expensively. Making your own yogurt is also an easy cost saver. Preparing your own foods is also a great way to gain control over added salt, sugars and fats, which are often high in commercially processed foods.
Pantry Essentials — A well stocked pantry provides readily-available, less perishable ingredients to make healthy eating easier.
Proper Storage — all foods can deteriorate over time, resulting in less nutritious, less palatable food, even uneatable, wasted food. Foods need to be protected from the chemical degradation caused by heat and oxygen, both of which are facilitated by moisture. Also, stored foods need to be protected from pests such as rodents and grain moths. Store dried goods in a dry, cool place to maximize shelf-life. Place stored dry goods in air-tight containers such as zip-lock bags. Storing foods in a cool basement, particularly if you have no air conditioning in warm weather, can extend quality and shelf-life of stored foods. If you buy in bulk, storing food for more than a few months, freezing may be an option. This is particularly true for foods with significant fat/oil content such as seeds and wheat germ (cooking oils should not be frozen). Use a stock system rotation — first in, first out — so foods do not become too old.
Vital Ingredients — the classic food that packs the best combination of easy storage, nutrition and cost, is dried beans/peas/lentils. The other main staple of a well-stocked pantry is whole grains, such as: whole wheat pasta/flour, brown rice, oatmeal, and popcorn. Nuts and seeds (including nut and seed butters like peanut butter and tahini) offer convenient, tasty, and nutritious sources of fats and protein. Dried fruits (like raisins) can serve as convenient, tasty snacks, and as a sweetener with other foods. Canned foods may not be a first option, but a pantry without canned (or jarred) tomatoes/sauce/paste would be a missed opportunity. Don’t overlook coffee, tea, and spices which are enjoyed daily by billions and represent important sources of antioxidants/phytonutrients. Some less perishable “fresh” foods that you should consider stocking regularly are onions, garlic, and potatoes.
Refrigerator — keeping stored foods at a low temperature is key to slowing microbial, enzymatic and chemical degradation. Your refrigerator should be kept between 34 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If you don’t have a thermometer, trying adjusting the temperature as cool as possible without freezing lettuce or leafy vegetables. The door is not the coolest place in the refrigerator, so if you have trouble with milk or other foods spoiling when placed in the door, store elsewhere in the refrigerator. Use airtight containers to prevent drying out, mold growth, and picking up odors from other foods. Do not pack things so tightly as to prevent air circulation and cooling. Do not store foods in opened cans, to prevent leaching of metals and potentially BPA.
Freezer — Freezing greatly slows food degradation. Nonetheless, frozen foods do not last forever. Proper packing is important to prevent “freezer burn,” where air allows food to dry out and causes white, dried-out patches. This may not affect nutritional quality greatly, but it may make food unpalatable. Store foods to allow proper air circulation and cooling. Labeling and dating containers can help you rotate stock so it doesn’t go bad, and know what goodies you have available.
For more information on food storage and a food storage chart, see: http://www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/epublic/live/ec446/build/ec446.pdf
Food Safety — Most people have had a foodborne illness before. Bacterial contamination is common, particularly from flesh foods, eggs, and leafy, commercially field-grown vegetables. However, there are simple, effective precautions available to prevent foodborne illness:
Clean — wash your hands with soap before and after preparing food. Wash your cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with soapy water after preparing each food item and before you go on to preparing the next food. Rinse raw vegetables under running water.
Avoid Cross-Contamination — Do not use sponges for cleaning; they trap and grow bacteria. If you use cloth towels, wash them frequently. Separate raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods during preparation by using different cutting boards and plates/containers.
Cook to Proper Temperatures — Cook food thoroughly, particularly flesh-foods and previously heated leftovers. This kills microbes. Use a meat thermometer if necessary.
Chilling — microbes thrive in warm, wet environments — like your warm food while it is cooling! If your hot food was properly cooked, then the microbes in the food are dead; but, there are microbes nearly everywhere, such as on surfaces of storage containers and in the air. Now, these bacteria are likely harmless, unless they multiply quickly in a warm, wet environment. So, chill your leftovers promptly in clean, covered containers.
If using frozen foods, particularly flesh foods, thaw in the refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave, to avoid prolonged times at warmer temperatures suitable to microbial growth.
Cooking Methods — cooking is one of the most common forms of food processing for humans. Cooking can increase palatability and nutrient availability. Cooking can reduce or destroy nutrients and create harmful by-products. Including fresh, raw vegetables and fruits is an important part of a healthy diet.
Heat — heat is the primary way that cooking affects foods. Heat helps break down the indigestible cell walls of plants, so that the acids, digestive enzymes and the lining of the gut can access the nutrients within the cells. In this regard, heat serves a similar role as chewing (or mashing/blending/chopping outside the mouth) and stomach acid to break down food into smaller, digestible components. High heat can destroy some vitamins.
Fat — oils and fats in cooking are used for two primary purposes: 1) to raise the temperature of cooking, and 2) to add palatability. The high temperature of cooking high fat foods, or frying, speeds the cooking process and produces new chemical reactions. High temperature fats, particularly in combination with high protein foods, produce a wide range of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other carcinogenic and oxidizing compounds (many of which are delicious!). More simply put, these are partially-combusted compounds more resembling chemistry gone awry than biologically harmonious sustenance. The browning reactions common in many cooked foods, such as baked goods, are of much less concern. Avoiding excess fat is a good general nutrition recommendation on its own, so limit fats in cooking, particularly high temperature cooking like frying or broiling.
Water — most foods contain water, or require water for proper cooking. Water boils at a much lower temperature than fats, so it does not bring the complications discussed above. However, many nutrients are water-soluble and can be extracted from the food. Of course, this is only a problem if the water used to cook the food is discarded (not eaten). This is the main nutritional limitation of boiling. One effective way to limit these nutrient losses is to use leftover water as broth or stock in making another food — this can save nutrients and add flavor! Using a minimum amount of water in boiling (or steaming/microwaving) is another strategy to help mitigate nutrient losses through leftover cooking water.
Ingredient Substitutes — the main ingredients in any recipe or meal should be nutritious. Using whole grains, beans, and lots of vegetables is a great place to start. If you eat meat, use lean cuts and limit processed meats; consider meatless meals. Limit added fats and choose healthier oils (e.g., olive, peanut, and sesame oils). You can substitute yogurt or blended cottage cheese for some or all of cream, cream cheese, sour cream. Using sharp or strong-flavored cheeses can offer more taste for less cheese (and milk fat). If using canned or processed foods (with added salt) as ingredients, make sure to count this toward the total salt in the recipe. In baking, you can substitute applesauce for half of the butter, margarine, or oil. In baked goods and desserts, you can often reduce sugar by 1/4 to 1/3, substitute fruit purees for some or all of sugar (reducing liquid ingredients accordingly), and use vanilla, cinnamon, cardamom, and/or almond extract to boost sweetness (do not remove all sugar in yeast breads as sugar provides food for the yeast).
Using Spices for Health — spices are delicious and an important source of antioxidants/phytonutrients, even in the small quantities typically used. Some of the more common powerhouses are oregano, cinnamon and turmeric, but virtually any spice is a positive addition to your diet. Other common favorites are black pepper and hot peppers. Garlic and onions are a sure way to spice up your meal and improve your health. Fresh is best, but dried spices store fairly well. If you grind your own spices, you can preserve more of their taste and nutrition benefits. Also, one major advantage of using plenty of spices is that it allows you to rely less on salt and reduce your sodium intake.
Unlocking Food Combinations — Foods eaten, digested, and metabolized together have an affect on each other. Most of these affects are positive, even synergistic. As a general rule, eating a variety of foods, particularly within a single sitting, promotes optimal health (provided it’s not a huge meal). As a simple example, there are both water-soluble and fat-soluble nutrients; if you eat a fat-free meal, you will only poorly digest the fat-soluble nutrients. To maintain health, your body employs thousands of coordinated chemical reactions, requiring basic substrates (raw materials), and enzymes/co-factors (of which most vitamins and minerals are). Your body works best if it gets all of the stuff it needs, or can use for optimal health, in tandem, so they can work together. Now, absorbed nutrients hang around your body for hours, even days; and some nutrients are stored for weeks, months or even years; so, you don’t need to worry about getting all of your nutrients in every single meal. Nonetheless, a robust variety of foods within a meal or day offers your body the best combination of ingredients for optimal health.
Recipes — There are endless combinations of foods. Some recipes are careful combinations of ingredients to produce a very specific result, such as soufflés, and must be carefully followed. Most recipes can be used as inspiration, starting points, open to modification based on availability and preference of ingredients. First, by meal, list the foods/recipes that you eat regularly. Look for ways to improve the nutrition of these meals by ingredient substitution, addition, or spices. This may be as simple as adding salad, more vegetables or fruits. Then, look to new recipes and foods/ingredients. Searching the web for main ingredient combinations, like “curried cauliflower” or “cashew chicken” can result in plenty of recipe variations to choose from and serve as inspiration. Variety is a key to both nutrition and palatability. If you find a recipe that you like, use it more often. If you find a recipe that you don’t care for, just move on and try something else. Eventually, you will have a robust repertoire of recipes and cooking tricks to blend nutrition and palatability.
Snacks — snacks can serve as a useful tool to carry you over to a regular meal. Planning for nutritious snacks can supplement your mealtime nutrition, avoid less nutritious options, and help prevent getting too hungry. If you choose to snack, have ready-to-eat fruit, vegetables, or other healthy snacks available.
Portion Control — Do not allow yourself to get starving before you eat. If you are over-hungry, eat a little bit 10-20 minutes before eating your meal. Eat moderately-sized, regular meals (including breakfast!), each with some protein and a little fat. Keep less healthy snack foods out of sight (or gone completely). Avoid distractions like driving or TV (see mindful eating below). Use a smaller plate or bowl. The mental cues of a “fuller” plate help align your hunger (physical) with your appetite (mental). Similarly, use taller glasses. Chew slowly and thoroughly, enjoying your food. Eat until you are only 80% full. This gives a chance for your stomach to catch up with your appetite. Practice leaving some food on your plate (you can save it for leftovers if you don’t want to waste). When storing leftovers, store in moderately-sized portions.
Mindfulness/Slow Eating — Most people live very busy lives and have many in-grained habits and practices that make it difficult to pay full and proper attention to our food. Nonetheless, with practice, you can train yourself to better enjoy and better control your eating. First, minimize the distractions in your environment, so you can focus on the tastes, smells, textures, temperatures, and colors of your food. Don’t eat while driving. Turn off the TV. If silence is too much for you (or people around you), try a few minutes of silence at a time, or listen to some soothing music. Sit at a table. Put your food on a plate (rather than eating from a bag or box). Saying a prayer of thanks or meditating on gratitude for having your food may help create a positive perspective. Take your first bite with your eyes closed. Most of your mental activity is associated with vision. Closing your eyes frees up more mental energy and focus for your eating experiences. Dimming the lights can help as well. Chew your food SLOWLY for 20 bites, savoring the sensations. Try tasting every ingredient in your food. Put your fork/spoon down between every bite. Feeding yourself with your non-dominant hand is a good way to force yourself to pay attention to what you are doing. You may want to eat everything with chopsticks for a week to kick off your mindful eating practices. Sip your drink between bites and throughout your meal. If you are eating with others, share your eating experiences with each other — better yet if they are up for mindful eating as well! You can extend and expand your mindful eating habits to cooking for a more complete mealtime experience. If your quest is for the total food experience, incorporate the planting, growing, harvesting, buying food experiences as well. How you eat can be as rewarding to your quality of life as what you eat!
Eating Out — eating out can be a challenge when trying to make health food choices. If faced with limited options, consider bringing food from home for your meal, or as a snack to supplement a smaller meal eaten out. Think ahead when considering meal options at different restaurants; look for places with a wide range of menu items, and check online menus if available for menu and nutrition information. Control portion sizes by ordering half portions, appetizer-sized portions, or share an item with a friend; stopping eating when you are full; taking extra food home; and avoiding “all-you-can-eat” options. Avoid eating mindlessly, that is, nibbling while waiting or eating after your full. You can combat mindless eating by not skipping meals or snacks so that you are over-hungry, by drinking water instead, by asking for a take home container when ordering, and by moving tempting foods away or placing a napkin over unwanted food. To limit your exposure to unhealthy cooking and serving methods you can ask to have your choice prepared differently — such as baked/steamed/broiled instead of fried — ask for sauces on the side and use sparingly, and ask for substitutions such as salad vs. fries, low-fat vs. regular salad dressing, or milk vs. cream. Tomato-based sauces are a much better choice than cream-based sauces. Order entrees with lots of vegetables. Ask for whole wheat bread or other whole grains.
Celebrating with Food — Food is one of the most common and powerful ways in which humans celebrate and share their lives together. Life is much more than nutrition. Food is one of the great pleasures in life! Health is for life. Life is for enjoying! While becoming enlightened about food and nutrition may “ruin” some poor eating habits for you, eating entails many more values than simple biological needs. If meeting your “lower” biological needs interferes with your “higher” need to celebrate life and community, then you may want to consider lightening up on nutrition at bit. Of course, the two are not incompatible, so seek a balance.