Shopping and Eating Healthy(er) on a Budget

There is a Middle Ground

Back in the day when I was married, sometimes I did the food shopping because it was convenient to stop on my way home from work. Then, I bought all kinds of prepackaged foods and frozen entrees for a family of six. Over that same time, my weight also went up thirty pounds. It's only been the past few years since I've learned to buy healthier food, and I realized that the problem wasn't the quantity I was eating, rather the types of food were indeed the problem.  I'm now in charge of everything I eat, and on one income, I have to be smart. The experience shopping gave me a head start over many divorced men who end up eating out and buying take out or fast food. First, it's prohibitively expensive to spend $10-25/day for convenience, let alone the extra salt and fat involved. Secondly, it's likely to cause them health problems in the future. 

Nobody's Perfect 

Don't get me wrong, I love to go out and eat, and I'm far from a health nut.   I am seeing the benefits of healthier eating, and tend to keep that in mind as I shop and cook. I don't ever diet or use that word, as it implies something temporary, a plan with an end. Lifelong nutrition has to be a long-term goal, not a fad. Just pay attention to what you eat. Years ago, a long time close friend said to me, "when you are about to eat something, ask yourself, is this getting me closer or further away from my goals?" He was right, and I was in denial. It took me years to really convince myself that I was my own worst enemy. Often I hear those words and it does give me pause. Sometimes I can say screw it and eat whatever I want, knowing that indulging once in a while is not a bad trend, just a blip on the radar for me. my weight fluctuates about 5-10 lbs in a year now, going up in the winter and down as I get outside more. I weigh myself about once a week and don't flip out over short-term gains. 

The Bad Stuff

I started looking at what my bad food habits were and salty chips took first place. I'm not a sweets guy, but salt is my downfall. Do I still eat potato chips? Absolutely, but not half a bag at one sitting and never any flavored or processed perfectly identical canned chips. I always opt for the lighter salt versions when possible. If I find myself falling back into a bad chip habit, I just stop buying them for a while. 

It's Not Just the Money 

I'm always looking for the best deals but that doesn't mean I buy crappy food just because it's cheap. While I certainly enjoy dining out or bringing home takeout, those meals have to be few and far between. Besides, as I learn and gain better preparation and cooking skills, some of the recent meals I've made I feel are as good or better than restaurant quality. I'm not knocking a great meal out, and I used to scarf down an entire fisherman's platter (when I weighed 40 pounds more), but right now, I have to focus on what's best for me and my budget and stay on track to keep off the excess weight.

 Don't Shop Their Way

When shopping, I don't shop the way most people do. I have my running shopping list but my basic rule is to buy items only when they go on sale if possible, and they do that in almost predictable bimonthly cycles. My commute allows me flexibility in-store choice, so I can hit the sales each week at multiple locations. Here in Southeastern Massachusetts, my choices are plentiful, with around a dozen local and national chains in our area including Big Y, Stop & Shop, Walmart, Shaw's, Trucchi's,  Hannaford's, Market Basket,  Target, Roche Brothers, Aldi, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. I generally shop the first four mentioned, mostly for variety and price, with Big Y my recent favorite. Many people have their favorites like Walmart or Market Basket, touting their "low prices", but when you dig deeper, the everyday prices on some items are more than that average price elsewhere. 

Fresh peppers

That's why I shop the sales. I don't clip coupons as I find that the vast majority of coupons are for junk food and frozen concoctions full of sodium and fat. I do download the app for any store where I shop because that's where some of the loyalty pays off. Big Y for example, has insider deals with 20 to sometimes 40% off as an unadvertised deal. My favorite deal is the buy one, get two free on my favorite coffee beans, Eight O'Clock. Stop & Shop has similar deals, but not as good as Big Y in my experience. 

Bring on the Meat

Because I'm a meat-eater, I always check out the meat section in almost every store I visit. I tend to shop the perimeter of the store, first buying my breakfast fruit and making my way around.  Another thing I do is use all my available freezer space. This strategy is twofold,  I am not afraid to buy last day meat products that can easily be frozen until I'm ready to use them. I also tend to cook several days' worth of meat and sides on the Sunday before my work week, so I can easily assemble quality meals that aren't junk food. Because refrigerated meat has a pretty firm expiration date, it's important to be aware of just how long the "deal" has been in your fridge. I recently forgot about a $4.00 roaster chicken and it was nasty by the time I got to it the next week, hence the freezer method. Lesson learned. 

Keeping Your Cool

Kobe burgers

For a freezer example, over this past weekend, I grilled a total of four Kobe burgers,  a ribeye and two top sirloin steaks along with a couple of large russet potatoes on the grill. The dog and I ate the ribeye (he eats like a king) and half of one of the sirloins along with a half potato for lunch one day and had one burger each day. I took the two remaining burgers and froze them already cooked for quick lunches. Does the quality suffer after freezing cooked meat? Perhaps, but I haven't noticed. Generally, I leave my cooked foods in the fridge for a day, but the next day, if I don't plan to eat it, into the freezer it goes. Another thing to remember is once your meat thaws out, you need to make it disappear in a day, two tops. 

Shop Smarter 

Next, I check out what I call the "bread dump". Bread, rolls, bagels and more have a store shelf life, just like any fresh item.  When new fresh bread comes in, anything older than the threshold gets placed in the bread dump for clearance. My favorite dump deal is 6 "everything" bagels for under a dollar and high-quality burger rolls, like Ciabatta rolls and artisan bread for way less than half price. 

Home made chicken soup

When it comes to everyday items I'm always looking for the best value, not necessarily the lowest price. For example, when condiments are on sale, if I know I use two jars a year, I buy two and store one. My reasoning is simple: I always have one in stock, so I rarely have to panic buy any specific item at full price. Another thing I've given up on is brand loyalty. Although I haven't been there yet, Aldi's models that if they only offer the best generic items that are guaranteed to rival the big names, customers win by saving money and that keeps them coming back. I've never had any real complaints about private label brands so until I do, I'm saving. Again, store brands often get discounted deeply depending on the season.

Decisions, Decisions

So whenever I come home with my food bounty, I need to make smart, quick decisions about my upcoming menu choices. I can't just toss everything to the refrigerator and plan on eating it all week until it rots so for example,  I usually split a large family pack of store ground hamburger (93% lean was recently on sale for $1.95/lb so I bought two) into one-pound packages to freeze. These smash nicely into quart-size bags (buy those in bulk when possible for more savings) and stack flat to maximize freezer space. I use mainly frozen vegetables as well for convenience as the quality rivals fresh. 

Less is more

Remember, if you're in charge of your body, and you should be, there is no downside to having a long term goal of at least staying the course. Take sodium for example. Because I know exactly how much salt I add to my recipes, I don't buy many pre-salted foods like butter. The difference between salted and unsalted butter is simple: about 90 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. Government guidelines recommend that people consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day -- about one teaspoon of salt. So if you start reading labels, you may find out that you're getting way too much sodium each day already. Many older adults have ended up with all kinds of health problems due to poor eating habits. I may be lucky, but I'm not counting gon genes to get me to 100.

Sugar was another staple I looked at in my daily diet. I love my coffee, but I haven't been able to get used to drinking It black. I used to use those prepackaged "creamers". Actually, "Non-dairy creamer" is an oxymoron. How can it be called anything close to cream if it has no dairy? Vegetable oils, usually palm kernel or coconut oil - give "creamers" that creamy look, feel, and flavor but don't be fooled, some of them are the very definition of a chemical shit storm. If you really can't live without the hazelnut of vanilla flavoring, consider making your own. The life you save may indeed be your own. Now I've cut myself down to a level teaspoon of minimally processed granular sugar and a splash of whole milk. You may notice in my writings, that I shy away from any and all sugar substitutes and what I call fake fats (low-fat or non-fat)  Do some basic nutrition research, then look at your cart and see what you've been buying that can be substituted for a better option. One exception I go by is if a product is made with low-fat milk as opposed to fat substitutes, I may opt for that. String cheese and sour cream come to mind. 
Made with skim milk

Save it For Later

Sometimes fresh food isn't seasonally available (think corn on the cob) but often they can be blanched and stored for months in a deep freezer. While I definitely need a new chest freezer, my old upright in the basement refuses to die, although the energy it wastes isn't helping the budget. It's on my list. I also grow my own sauce tomatoes and save and store a ton of them in the deep freezer.  There is no excuse for not at least trying. Freezers also save time. Cooking in bulk and freezing meals means that any day of the week I can reach into my freezer for fish, chicken, pork or beef. They say variety is the spice of life. 

Get out the Virtual Cookbooks

When you buy ingredients rather than meals, you have choices and options you wouldn't otherwise have. You can't suck out the fat and salt from Mama Deluca's lasagne, but you can make your own absolutely delicious version for less money and it will be much more nutritious. I'll post my lasagna and cannelloni recipes soon, I promise. I even got kudos from my culinary parents for my sauce, so I know I'm on the right track.  

Here's another example: I saw a store made meatloaf but it was $9.00 for about three servings. The sodium levels were unbelievable so I Googled meatloaf recipes right from the store. In under five minutes, I had everything I needed to make my own and it came out great without the extra salt. For less money, I made a better quality meal and got twice as many servings.

  It's  all in Your Head

Making changes doesn't mean suffering, in fact, my choices and variety are almost endless and I don't have to spend a ton to get higher quality food. Incorporating better ingredients, a learning experience and making it fun isn't a bad thing. Starting with small changes, anything is possible. Just don't call it a diet.  ;)