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Eating healthy on a budget: Eating healthy on a budget

June 12th, 2012     by Melissa Wilson     Comments

The healthiest I have ever been was in 2008 when an unpaid summer internship plummeted my grocery budget to a hefty $15 a week. I never resorted to ramen noodles; instead I based my meals entirely around vegetables. After my internship, I bumped my budget up to the student rate of $25 a week, and once I started working, it plumped slowly to about $40 a week. The increase didn’t mean I was eating better than I had as an intern. In fact, I realized I was eating worse.

So last summer I challenged myself live through August with only $100 for groceries, harkening back to my poor student days. I wanted to change not only my shopping and eating habits, but also the way I thought about food purchasing. Though I was (and am still) on a tight budget, I was more than aware that it’s a privilege to choose to spend $100 on groceries. Sticking to such a budget or less is a reality for many low-income families and those on social assistance. A strict budget forced me to be meticulous and intentional with my meal planning.

Of course, the deck was stacked in my favour. My downtown apartment is a stone’s throw from a dozen stores and markets, my pantry already had some staples in it, and in August, Product of Ontario produce was everywhere.

Such an experiment in the suburbs or in rural areas would be trickier but not impossible.

For suburbanites on a budget, the challenge is walkability. “Suburbs are built with cars in mind, so for people not able to afford cars, transportation is an issue,” says Sarah Anderson, Acting Director of the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto.

For those outside of major agricultural hubs, access to reasonably priced produce is a roadblock. Jennifer Hill, a registered dietician from Vancouver, recalls the high cost of healthy eating growing up in small town New Brunswick.

“You get all your groceries at big box stores, and when something like a green pepper costs $3.99 a pound, you can understand why people aren’t buying them,” Hill says. The cost of food skyrockets when it has to travel long distances to get to you.

If fresh is scarce, Hill recommends frozen instead, which can be more nutritious because produce is frozen within hours of being picked, thus stopping the enzymes that degrade nutrients over time. Avoid cans, though, as they’re packed with sodium and preservatives. A boon to buying frozen is that frozen foods often go on sale, whereas fresh produce typically doesn’t. Throw in a coupon, and you might even come out ahead of the farmers’ market set.

In addition to easy access to fresh food, I’m lucky enough not to suffer from any significant allergies or dietary restrictions, aside from just really hating mushrooms. For those managing such issues, a $100 budget can still be achieved, but requires a bit more planning around what you can and cannot eat.

At the end of August, I came in under my budget with 22 cents to spare. It was much easier to accomplish than I’d expected. Turns out it wasn’t so much about changing what I ate, but just about changing the way I thought about food. Here are five tips that helped:

1) Plan your meals and shopping trips: It sounds elementary and simple, but it’s the absolute most important step to keeping your grocery costs down. 2) Cook all your food at home: In the beginning, try to focus on meals that are fast and that yield large batches that can be frozen for leftovers. Try: Soup, casseroles, pasta and quiche. 3) If you can, cut meat from your diet: Try it for a month. Afterward, you’ll find that instead of basing your meals around meat, meat will simply become another ingredient for you to cook with, which will save you a lot in grocery costs. If you really require meat in your diet, try cheaper cuts, like stewing beef or bone-in chicken legs. 4) Cut processed food from your diet: It won’t be fun, but do it. It’s healthier in the long run. 5) Use coupons, but only for items you’re actually going to use: A dollar off a $5 box of sugary cereal isn’t going to do you a whole lot of good. It’s sugary, expensive and you probably wouldn’t have bought it otherwise.

Looking for more ways to make sense of your money? Check out the Shameless money issue on stands now!

Melissa Wilson is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has worked with OpenFile, the Toronto Star, This Magazine and Spacing, among others. She writes about cats, grammar and municipal politics on Twitter @mawilson.


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