Thursday, August 6, 2015

Eating Healthy Meals On A Budget

       I hear three common concerns from readers when it comes to eating healthy foods. The first concern is that there isn't enough time in the day to cook healthy meals. The second concern involves not knowing how to cook in a healthy manner. The third is that healthy foods are too expensive to be eaten on a consistent basis, so many feel that they are forced to eat cheap and/or fast food. Next week I'll cover how to easily cook healthy meals, and how to do it in under fifteen minutes. I am living proof that this method works, even if someone is like me and is an idiot in the kitchen. It is unbelievably simple to do and most dishes can be made using this technique. 

       First, however, I must go over the idea that eating healthy meals is too expensive, because if someone believes they can't afford it, they will never even try it. One of the first things I realized when researching how to eat healthy foods was the way in which food costs are measured. Typically, when someone is analyzing food costs, they measure the price of the calories, not the price of the nutrients. When I was researching healthy foods I kept coming across the phrase "empty calories". What I found was that the authors were speaking of foods that were high in calories but nearly devoid of any real nutritional value. Cheap junk foods score horribly on the scale of vitamins and minerals per calorie. One of the most important factors I found was that when the price to nutrient levels of foods are compared, healthy foods are far less expensive. Check out this short clip from Dr. Gregger:
       So, the cost of healthy foods is drastically less, from a nutrition to calorie standpoint. What was even more profound for me was when I figured in the overall cost of "cheap" foods. With whole foods, rich in fruits and vegetables, often comes healthy weight, healthy blood pressure, healthy cholesterol levels and, the most important to me, reduced symptoms from mental illnesses (see Healthy Eating With Mental Illnesses Part 1 & 2). 

       With cheap food and fast food often comes obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression and anxiety. The Mental Health Foundation of the UK recently published a study that reports: 
Those who ate the most whole foods had a 26% lower risk of future depression than those who ate the least whole foods. By contrast people with a diet high in processed food had a 58% higher risk of depression than those who ate very few processed foods. Dr. Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of The Mental Health Foundation, said: This study adds to an existing body of solid research that shows the strong links between what we eat and our mental health. We are particularly concerned about those who cannot access produce easily or live in areas where there are a high number of fast food restaurants and takeaways. 

       I remind myself of facts like those often, especially when I am under time constraints or if I'm experiencing symptoms and don't feel like preparing a meal (more on how to easily get around those impediments next week in Planning and Preparing Healthy Meals). It is at times like those, when it seems like it would be easier to get fast food or to munch on prepackaged junk, that I must be on guard. 

       Because processed and fast foods are what is marketed, we have been conditioned to believe that they are inexpensive. Nothing could be further from the truth. The ingredients are cheap, but they are not inexpensive. It is not hard to compare the cost of eating foods at home and eating out. For example, look at the prices of the "cheap" and healthier meals in the following infographics from The New York Times. Please understand that I am aware that readers will fall all along the health-food spectrum, from vegan to paleo. While what is the healthiest may be debatable, what is the unhealthiest is not. I have yet to find a vegan or paleo nutritionist who endorses eating refined grains, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, refined sugars, fried foods, foods with high levels of sodium or any highly processed food, of any kind. So, the principle here remains the same, no matter what the exact replacement meal would be.
       Now, when I took fast food off the table, I was faced with the task of finding enough affordable, healthy foods to keep my family and me happy. It is easy to see in those infographics that the meat is by far the most expensive part of the meal. If times are tight, that is one easy way to cut down drastically on grocery bills, cut down on meat consumption. In the last infographic simply taking out the bacon and the milk (and replacing it with water) would still leave a tasty, highly nutritious, meal for $5.92. 

       The real trick for me was to find healthy foods that can be easily prepared and that can be bought inexpensively. If it is difficult to prepare I have found that my resolve will wane quickly, and we will be eating junk food again. Of course, this takes a little effort, but it is well worth it. I found all the best recipes online, for the least expensive foods I could think of, and I started cataloging them. What a lifesaver that has been. I couldn't believe the things that I could get for my money, if I shopped wisely. There are so many reasonably priced foods that are healthy. For example, below is a list of a few of the things that can be purchased, in my area, for less than $1 per pound! 
Apples, Bananas, Barley, Beans, Bok Choy, Broccoli (frozen), Bulgur wheat, Cabbage, Carrots, Celery, Chickpeas (garbanzo beans), Cornmeal (Polenta), Cucumbers, Daikon, Radishes, Eggs, Green beans (frozen), Spinach, Kale, Mustard Greens, Collard Greens, Grapes (on sale), Grapefruit, Lentils, Mangoes, Oatmeal, Onions, Oranges, Whole Grain Pastas, Potatoes, Popcorn, Pumpkin (canned), Brown Rice, Rutabagas, Split peas, Squash (acorn, spaghetti, and zucchini), Sweet potatoes, Corn (frozen), Tomatoes (canned), Turnips, Yogurt (I realize that there are readers all over the world and that prices may vary greatly, but the point is that after I had done my research I was able to find many healthy foods at inexpensive prices)
       It is important to note that the true cost cannot always be accurately calculated by the pound. There are two major factors to consider when buying healthy foods, price per serving and how satiating the food actually is. The first may seem counterintuitive at first, but many times the more expensive cuts of meat turn out to be the least expensive, when the cost per serving is calculated. For example, a whole chicken yields roughly 2 servings per pound, while you can count on 4 servings from one pound of boneless chicken breasts. In my area whole chickens cost around 25% less, but I'm getting half the servings, so the actual cost per serving for the more expensive chicken breasts turns out to be significantly less. 

       The second thing to take into consideration is how satiating the food is. For instance, even when grapes are on sale for less than $1 per pound, they are still relatively expensive. Because of their high water and sugar content, grapes don't keep a person as full for nearly as long as something that is packed with fiber, protein or healthy fats. Fiber, protein, and fats take much longer for the body to process than water and sugars, so they keep a person full much longer.
       A great example is two slices of 100% whole grain bread with two tablespoons of almond butter or a healthy brand of peanut butter. At the stores I frequent, the cost for those slices of bread and almond/peanut butter comes out to sixty cents. It takes nearly a pound of grapes, by the time I take the vines out, to make a filling meal, which means that it costs nearly twice as much as the bread with the almond/peanut butter (and thats when the grapes are on sale). Also, because the bread is 100% whole grain, which means that it is full of fiber, and because the almond/peanut butter is full of protein and healthy fats, it keeps me full far longer than the grapes. The meal is nearly half as expensive and keeps me full twice as long. That is an excellent example of how I get the biggest bang for my money. Now, I'm not saying that grapes are bad or that I never eat them, because that is not true. I simply had to realize that they were great for a dessert, but not to try and make a meal out of.
       One more example of a healthy, inexpensive meal for four, before I delve into this next week, is a box of 100% whole grain (wheat, quinoa, spelt, etc.) pasta and homemade tomato sauce (tomato sauces can be made in about ten minutes and in large batches to be frozen and used later). Add chilled grapes or orange slices for dessert, and the meal costs around $3.75, for a family of four. The entire time involved in making it is well under fifteen minutes, and that time is spent waiting for water to boil and sauce to reheat. 

       Of course, the more vegetables and fruits that a person can add into their diet the better, but if the month hasn't run out before the end of the money, there are fantastic alternatives to processed meats on white bread with potato chips. That is the point. 

       Where I live brown rice, beans, 100% whole grain bread and pasta, many vegetables and some fruits are extremely inexpensive, healthy, options. Again, I realize that in different parts of the world there are different selections, preferences, and prices. The concept I'm demonstrating here is that with a little research into what healthy foods are available in an area for a reasonable price, and with a little planning, eating healthy meals on a budget becomes a cinch. 

       Being able to quickly plan out the week's meals and then being able to prepare a dinner in under fifteen minutes, if I need to, is the key to my consistency. That is what next week's post will cover. 
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As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource, and is staffed by wonderful people. 
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