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Does healthy have to be expensive?? Help!!

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Ok, I know understand why North Americans in general (both US and Canada) are the biggest people (read fattest) on the planet; being healthy is expensive!! I'm a single mom who works full time and has 2 active girls 5 & 6 yrs old. My budget is fully stretched to begin with, never mind trying to choose foods that are healthier. Getting meat, chicken, fish, etc is sooo expensive that sometimes I can only get one package, because the girls need stuff for their lunches. Fruit doesn't have much of a life around here as my monsters eat tons. We hardly go down any of the aisles where all the really pre packaged, great tasting, strait to my butt types of food are, but kids are also need to have variety. There's a peanut ban at the after school care place my kindergartener goes to. How many times can a kid eat tuna or balogna sandwiches! I need ideas for stretching the moolah far enough that it's healthy for me and my kids, and hopefully something they will actually eat!!! Any suggestions are truly appreciated.

One note: I am allergic to pork and shellfish, intolerant to dairy and yeasts, and I live in Canada, so some of the items may not be available here (I'll take the info anyways!)

Edited Jan 24 2008 21:05 by nycgirl
Reason: Moved from H&S to Foods forum
21 Replies (last)

trying to eat healthy on a budget is about as easy as passing up  pumpkin pie on thanksgiving.  a couple suggestions i have are:

1. costco - buy in bulk.  soymilk, oranges, hamburger patties, even fish are much cheaper this way.  use up some and freeze the rest.  i would suggest trying to buy fruit that's on sale, bec it does provide lots of vitamins.  veggies, as you prob already know, are often healthier when frozen than fresh anyway; so i'd look out for sales or big bulk packages of broccoli and carrots and whatnot.

2. as for active kids, you might think creatively about how to fit calories into small packages:  macaroni and beef w/soy cheese can be made w/fresh ingredients (not out of a box).  if you grill flank steak, you can slice it w/roasted peppers for sandwiches.  you can make stuff w/beans, like your own hummus or lentil burgers.  snacks can be quick+homemade too:  granola is easy and healthy if you mix oats and chocolate morsels and honey and raisins and sunflower seeds and corn flakes; you can bake and slice it.  good luck!

For sandwiches, if you can't use pb, do they like hummus? Hum, pita, and veggie wraps can be quite good.

I have no trouble buying healthy food without destroying my budget.  I'm on a fixed income so I have to be careful with my money.  The way I do it is to buy very little processed food. 

For instance, those hundreds of kinds of breakfast cereal you see are very expensive.  Most are close to $4 a box.  Instead, I buy plain rolled oats for a fraction of the price.  A frozen dinner is at least that, but for the same amount of money I can buy the ingredients and make 4 to 6 dinners the same size.

A bag of those fat free chips costs the same amount.  So I don't buy those, I buy plain popcorn and use an air popper for a nutritious, fat free, sodium free snack.  for the price of a bag of chips I can buy a 5 pound bag of apples or oranges in season. 

Be a perimeter shopper - shop all around the outside aisle of the supermarket and choose fresh produce, lean meats and fish, low fat dairy products and whole grain breads.  To into the aisles for things like brown rice and dry beans and lentils.  Cook them up from scratch for extra nutrition and no preservatives or chemicals added. 

Here are  prior threads that I tagged.  I think you find them enlightening

Cheap and Easy (food that is!) Part 2
Added 2007-03-28

Cheap and Easy (food, that is!) Part 1
list of staples
Added 2007-03-28

Discussion - Which is actually cheaper? Eating healthy or eating less healthy?
Added 2007-04-18

I am trying to work on this money issue too. My food intake is high and my food bill is huge. Anyhow I shop at trader joes which is cheaper. Also I have all the savings cards at the store and try to stock up when I see things on sales. Sometimes cereal is like half off.

Mac & Cheese for kids isn't too bad every now and then since they need the extra calories anyways.  Its cheap and many come with vitamins added now.

What I've been doing for lunch at work is getting some of the cheaper frozen meals.  I had issues with portion so they helped with that.  Michelina's brand has a "lean gourmet" line that has lower fat and sodium than some.  I can get these for $0.98US and they are really convenient.  Lots of variety and taste pretty good too.

I also buy the pre-frozen chicken breasts.  They are cheaper than fresh and they last forever so you can bulk up on sale.  Most are very well trimmed, just watch for additives in some. Plusthey are easier to cut while still partially frozen.  Just run under warm water for a few second, cut and cook.  Time saving.

Whole grain pasta has come down in price by me at least.  Good fiber content.

Frozen veggie bags.  Pour as much as needed out and steam over boiling water.  Takes around 5 min.  Just boil a few inches of water in a pot and use a colander to set the veggies in and cover the top with the lid.  Thats what I do since I don't have a steamer.

Rice is also really cheap.  The brown rice tastes much better to me and also has more vitamins, but both are good.

Can you eat eggs?  Boiled eggs are good to grab and go, or scrambled eggs on weekends. 

I'm trying to save for a down payment on a house, so I've tried to cut way back.  Hope this helps! 

this is argued about all over this web site, i find eating healthy, mostly veg not expensive compared to what i think i would be eating if i wanted meat and unhealthy foods,  but the kicker is you have to prepare you stuff from scratch if you want it all with out all the high sodium, sugar and such
also i dont eat organic, not agienst, would be cool if i could but thats when you get super expensive its the difrence between 1 apple for a dollar or 4,  i choose the four and say,  oh well,
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I find the bulk packages of frozen fruit to work out cheaper than fresh sometimes. good for cold snacks- pull out  one time the peaches and whip up a smoothie. the strawberries the next.  or just food processor it for a helping of "sherbet" to go with a plain cookie or use less frozen for a topping sauce for ice cream or cake. My husband loves cold stuff like ice cream, Popsicles, since been diagnosed a diabetic he has found a bowl of the frozen fruit to be a substitute for Ice cream and finger foods like potato chips. weird,  but it is an excellent healthy alternative now he is a diabetic, so who am I to knock it. 

 I'm not certain exactly how good it is or if it is that much cheaper, but I noticed lately Sobey's had some dry powdered stuff labeled soya milk in their health food section. Maybe you can post a question about it if it seems to be priced right for you.  I do find some of the "Milk substitutes" to be undrinkable even if I tell my self it is not milk, it is a different drink. Others though I do like and will stock up on them to use as milk if the sale price is right. I love vanilla milkshakes and some of the vanilla drinks are rich enough to be a satisfactory substitute for a milkshake craving. ( tell you the truth I'm losing my sweet tooth and find the fast food shakes nowdays seem too sweet). Right now I'm wondering if adding some soluble fiber like guar gum or psyllium husk will make those vanilla drinks thicker(richer mouth feel of cream)

I wish I could buy a bag of apples or oranges for the same price as a bag of chips.  Bags of apples start at $6 and go up, and the only ones in the bags are bruised and icky.  I can get a large bag of Doritos every day of the week for $3 and on sale at 2 / $5.  Eating fresh and healthy is much more expensive unless you can grow your own or live where it is grown.   Then there is the whole how many days in a row can you only eat apples.  The produce is so so expensive up here it makes it very hard to buy.  Canned is junk and frozen tastes like cardboard oh what to do.  I know that some people insist that it can be done and I believe them, but I dont know how they do it.
Original Post by akmom67:

I wish I could buy a bag of apples or oranges for the same price as a bag of chips.  Bags of apples start at $6 and go up, and the only ones in the bags are bruised and icky.  I can get a large bag of Doritos every day of the week for $3 and on sale at 2 / $5.  Eating fresh and healthy is much more expensive unless you can grow your own or live where it is grown.   Then there is the whole how many days in a row can you only eat apples.  The produce is so so expensive up here it makes it very hard to buy.  Canned is junk and frozen tastes like cardboard oh what to do.  I know that some people insist that it can be done and I believe them, but I dont know how they do it.

This is what I'm getting at tottally.  I figure there MUST be a conspiracy among food producers that force poeple to have options that aren't as good as they shoulc.  That bag of Dorrito's isn't as good for us, but just as filling, if not more so.  I was thinking that it was my imagination, or that I was the only one who noticed!  What I'm about to say is going to come out wrong, but the healthy are the wealthy, just like where education and medical help is going -but that'a a totally different thread!  I always wonder if my kids get sick of having apples ALL THE TIME.  I don't like to send fruit that had too high of a glycemic index because my eldest is sensitive to sugars.  My youngest will eat baby carrots all day at home, but send her some to eat at school, ha!  They always come home.  Even if I send dip.  The dip will be gone though (nut job she is!)  Anyways, thank you for making that point!  I FULLY AGREE.

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Original Post by akmom67:

I wish I could buy a bag of apples or oranges for the same price as a bag of chips.  Bags of apples start at $6 and go up, and the only ones in the bags are bruised and icky.  I can get a large bag of Doritos every day of the week for $3 and on sale at 2 / $5.  Eating fresh and healthy is much more expensive unless you can grow your own or live where it is grown.   Then there is the whole how many days in a row can you only eat apples.  The produce is so so expensive up here it makes it very hard to buy.  Canned is junk and frozen tastes like cardboard oh what to do.  I know that some people insist that it can be done and I believe them, but I dont know how they do it.

 In all fairness, you live in Alaska, which automatically makes everything more expensive. Naturally, perishable items, which can't be grown anywhere near where you live are going to cost more than it costs people who live in the Continental U.S.

There is a conspiracy (of sorts) and it's not your imagination. It all started with the food agricultural bill, which subsidizes corn, wheat, and soy crops. The subsidies make these crops so incredibly cheap, we have a surplus, so it is very inexpensive (thus profitable), for example, for manufactuers to turn corn into corn oil and sugar, and to feed corn to cows to produce big macs. Meanwhile there are no such subsidies on fruits and veggies, so comparatively they are much more expensive. I see you're in Alaska, which makes it even worse.

But don't despair. I think you will have to get used to eating frozen veggies and fruits. I agree frozen veggies taste like cardboard to me too (actually it's the texture that I can't stand). But frozen fruits are really good... often better than fresh, in my experience! You can pack frozen berries into a lunch and by lunchtime they will be defrosted. What could be easier?

Otherwise, my kids really like Bento Boxes. You don't need to invest in a fancy bento box to leverage this idea. We started making Bento lunches early on, when the kids were the same age as yours are now. I just bought DD13 a Bento box set for xmas... she's having a blast with it. It has a series of containers and you put rice or pasta or other grain in the biggest one, protein in the smaller one, and veggies or fruit in the third one. She has never eaten sandwiches in all her years.... she "deconstructs" ala Bento style.

We always have rice or some other grain in our rice cooker for ready meals. The kids start with that. It keeps warm in the thermos but even if you don't have a thermos, room temp is fine.

Then they select from a range of protein options. You only need about a 3 oz serving, which is quite small. Protein might be tuna, a hardboiled egg, bits of leftover meat from dinner, nuts, beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus, cheese, or yogurt.

Then they select a fruit and or veggie. (often they'll take both). This can be leftover cooked veggie from the night before, or frozen fruit that defrosts, or a banana or apple or orange or avocado slices or whatever fresh we have on hand.

What we like about the bento approach is that it encourages you not only to practice portion control (for example DD13's bento box, when fully packed, equals out to 500 calories; younger children require less and their bento box will have a smaller capacity), but also it encourages you to use up leftovers so they don't go to waste. There's also less reliance on items with packaging like those yogurt cups or other single-serving foods marketed for school lunches.

One other idea: when the kids were younger, I'd often make a batch of muffins on Sunday. Yes, I'd use those prepackaged muffin mixes when they went on sale they can be very inexpensive; but then I'd "doctor" them up to make them healthier. Adding in overripe banana and nuts and wheat germ, etc. Muffins are great for school lunches. You can freeze them and then take one out in the morning - it'll defrost by lunch.

And my DD15, who LOVES hot lunches, has a special thermos that keeps things hot. In addition to dinner leftovers, she will often take home-made soup in her thermos.

Soup is very budget friendly. Try keeping a container in your fridge and toss into it leftovers and odds and ends, then make a "clean out the fridge" soup at the end of the week. For example tonight I am planning on making just such a soup... to get us through one more night before hitting the grocery store. It's going to be sort of an Italian wedding soup... leftover meatballs, leftover pasta, a can of diced tomatoes, leftover bits of kale I need to use up, some carrots, celery, etc.

Meat is expensive: try viewing it as a garnish, not the main attraction. It'll stretch a lot farther. 3 oz per person is plenty. Stretch it out with rice or quinoa or pasta or some other grain, or make it into a soup.

Dried beans are your friend! They are incredibly cheap and filling. As are lentils.

EDIT: I thought of two more suggestions to add...

You mentioned bags of apples with bruises and icky parts. What I do is buy them, but then make apple crisp out of the apples. You could also make apple sauce. But when money is tight, this is a good way to make the best use of fruit that's past its prime. Kids love apple crisp, and it's very good cold! Try making it with very little sugar (you don't really need that much) and using rolled oats. Leave the skins on to retain the fiber.

We learned this trick from our Japanese friends: try making rice balls for school lunches. The kids love these! And so fun to make! Just take cooked rice, add into it bits of cooked egg or other protein (fish, chicken, meat, anything you like), wet your hands a  bit, and roll the rice up into a ball. Then (optionally) roll the ball in fish sprinkles. If you don't care for the taste of fish sprinkles, you don't need to do this. (I prefer rolling in a bit of salt and pepper.)  Then wrap the ball in a sheet of Nori. Wrap the whole thing in tin foil to keep it warm until lunchtime.

You can get creative with this recipe - no reason you couldn't do a sweet version instead of a savory one, for example. Whatever appeals!
Asian produce markets...or even a produce market run by asians. Lots of fresh food variety, and cheap prices! Why? Basically, many asian people shop on a daily basis, so they sell fruit closer to its expiration date because they will use it right away. IT's perfectly good, just won't keep quite as long. You'll have to shop a little moften, butthe savings are worth it. I just get a bunch of stuff, cook right away, and freeze it or turn it into soup. You can save a bundle!

It's funny readying some of these posts because people overlook so much else that goes into the cost of food.


I've never seen a Costco, or a Trader Joe's in my life.  Whole Foods is waaay too far to drive to.  Haven't seen a Sam's Club in years.  In my neighborhood we have 2 grocery stores:  Dave's (a local chain) and a Save-a-lot.  Save-a-lot is mostly prepackaged foods with the absolutely worst looking produce I have ever seen in my life.  Dave's isn't much better and their cuts of meat absolutely suck.  I have to drive out to a Giant Eagles in the suburbs to get decent groceries.


Lots of folks (especially poor, working class folks, not to mention people with families, or single parents) don't have a lot of time to be preparing meals from scratch every single day.  Especially when we have some of the hardest jobs out there and all you want to do is relax when you get home because you're still pissed off at your power-tripping bosses.


There's also the fact that lots of folks just don't know how to cook.  It isn't something that's stressed in school, especially if you're male.  I still don't really know how to cook rice & bean dishes.  I can't figure out the spices and need to get some cookbooks (more expenses).


Not to mention the cost of the cooking supplies, pots, pans, etc.  When I started trying to eat healthier I had to go and buy several items just to be able to cook some of the recipies.  More expenses for poor folks.


Add to this the fact that in our society everything is presented for middle-class and up folks.  Want to get healthy?  Join a gym! (expense)  Want to eat right?  Buy these strange foods that you don't even know how to cook!  (more expenses)  Poor, working class folks are only represented as eating crappy foods, so that's all many of us know.


For society as a whole to start to become more healthy it's going to have to take a dramatic shift.  Show people of all walks of life eating healthy in the media (tv, movies, magazines).  Get rid of food commercials!  Teach all children proper nutrition and teach them cooking skills - not as a side note but stress the importance of it.  Drop the farm subsidies on corn and soy.  Stop importing food from other countries (and let those folks be able to feed themselves!)  Have each state have a place for farming instead of shipping most food across the country.  Replan how cities are designed so that they are walking and biking friendly (and quite moving further and further out into the suburbs and exurbs!)


When poor nutrition and weight are only looked at as individual problems rather then also as a consequence of how screwed up our society, economic system, and political system is then we are doomed to failure.


/end rant

Class_matters, I don't know if you were referring to my post or not, but everything I mentioned is very very simple to cook, and quick too.

I'm not a fancy cook at all. I do rely on a few key appliances, and it is true they cost money,  they are indispensable time-savers and if you could pick one up on ebay or at a garage sale, I encourage you to do so. But you don't even need the fancy appliances. A pot with a lid and a stove top works too. 

A Rice cooker is worthwhile if you can afford it. You can make not just rice, but any grain in it. There's no recipe. You just add the grain, add the water (or broth, if you want to get fussy - but water is perfectly fine), and turn it on. Yes you can do the same with a pot with a lid on the stovetop. Really. You can!!

If you look at impoverished countries and what they eat, you'll see that they base their diet on rice or other grain. So this is a good strategy. And it's very simple. If you can boil water, if you have a pot with a lid, and a stovetop, you can do it.

Crockpot is nice to have, but again, not essential. Again, you can slow cook anything on the stove. It is true crockpots actually save on electricity, and you can find them for the same price as a pot with a lid. Just toss in a few ingredients, and turn it on. It really is that simple. You can make dried beans in the crockpot - just soak overnight. Drain. Add water or broth (again, needn't even be broth - water works just fine). Then slow cook for 8 hours. That's it. There's nothing fancy about it. Sure you can add in some spices if you want, or a ham hock for flavor, but you don't have to do that.

I'm sorry, I just don't buy this "I can't cook or don't have time to cook" excuse. Can you boil water? That's all you need to know.

You do have my sympathies about not having much choice in grocery stores though. Eck, I hate sad-looking produce too! I would recommend you check the freezer... you'll probably find your best bets there.

classmatters hits on the head for me.  I am the 'working poor, single mom'.  When the kids get home, all I want to do is relax, there's no way I'm making anything from scratch (bless your hearts who do).  I barely have time to do my laundry and clean my own house, never mind bake.  Fireflyeyes, I'd love to go to an asian market but there's hardly an asian where I live, never mind a market.  I live in the Okanagan region of BC, Canada.  High mountain desert terrain.  HOT in the summer.  Cold in the winter.  In the summer, no problem getting fresh fruits etc from the farmers market, but the rest of the year, I can't afford to shop at Whole foods, and do agree that Save-on, Safeway, and IGA (what I have to choose from) don't have exactly what I would call decent of affordable fruit and veggies. 

jenmcc -what's that box thingy you're talking about?  I've never heard of it, but it sounds like a great way to get my mondsters more involved.  They know what protein etc all is, one just doesn't care (5). 

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I'm pretty poor too. I have a cast iron grill pan ($20), a nonstick pan for eggs ($5), and a pot with a lid ($5). That's really all the equipment that's needed besides a stovetop.

I really don't know how to cook. My food is seriously lacking in creativity; everything I make is just designed to be cheap. I have a few spice blends I use, but that's pretty much it. I make bulk batches of rice, chicken, and steak when I have spare time. 1 hour's worth of work more or less feeds me for a day or two, sometimes 3, if I really make a lot of food at one time. Veggies can be heated in 5-10 minutes, so I just heat them as needed.


mykidsarecrazy - just google "Bento Box Lunch" or "Bento Box Diet" or "Bento Box Art" and you'll find tons of information. It's kind of a phenonom, especially in Japan, but becoming one elsewhere as well. Don't let some of the sites intimidate you though - you don't need to get so creative and you don't need to use weird Japanese ingredients either. You don't even need to invest in a Bento box- you can use tupperware instead. Just keep it simple, a carb, a protein, a veg and you're set.

When the kids were younger we lived next door to a Japanese family - our kids practically grew up together - and they introduced us to the concept (and also the idea of always having rice in the cooker and making rice balls). They would give the kids bento boxes all the time for gifts, I never knew that's what they were, until fairly recently. Tiny colorful plastic boxes with cartoon characters and a set of chopsticks. Makes lunchtime fun!!

The bento box set I just bought for my DD for xmas is a Mrs Bento - you can google it on Amazon. It's more "grownup" than the ones designed for children, because now that she's 13, that's what she prefers. I recommend it for yourself, if you want to pack your own lunch. I will warn you that it seems shockingly small when you first see it... but when packed the way it's supposed to be packed, measure out to 500 calories - perfect for a 1500 calorie diet. Makes you go... "ohhhh... that's why Americans are so fat!"

Here is what I made for dinner tonight, it was quite easy and took very little skill or time: a soup. I started with some olive and garlic and chopped onion and sauteed that until the onion went limp. Then I tossed in a can of tomatoes, a quarter bag of frozen  meatballs, frozen okra, frozen corn. Added water, brought to a boil, reduced to a simmer for a half hour... then I added bits of leftover fresh kale and some leftover cooked elbow macoroni and cooked until the kale wilted.... wallah... a very filling soup with plenty of leftovers for tomorrow...and all made with leftover bits of this and that. Probably enough leftovers for the next day too! I made a huge pot of it. Actually maybe will freeze half of it for later.

Soup is very hard to screw up, and I find very young children like it. We had a 2 year old over here tonight and he ate it all up. I like using frozen vegs for soup - tastes better and sooo easy, no chopping necessary!! I did use fresh onion but you could use frozen pearl onions instead. And I used fresh kale, just took a few hacks with a knife...

For lunch tomorrow DD13 is taking the rest of the cooked macoroni, and picking out a few meatballs. She'll probably add some frozen strawberries to the third compartment of her Bento box (as my picky eater, she's not too keen on the okra and kale). DD15 will take the soup as it is, in a thermos. It will need to be heated up in the morning before packing in the thermos, and yes, that takes time... but it's not too bad. Especially since they're old enough to pack their own lunches now!! Get them started early on that. ;-)

I was also a poor working mom for several years, when my kids were younger (the age yours are now). So I do know what you are going through. But it can be done, and no, you don't need to spend hours cooking from scratch. Just a bit of planning, and a dedication to not letting anything go to waste!!! Often that's a huge factor, when we buy foods but then don't use them all up. Even now (now that I don't have to scrimp and save), I make a game of it, to see how long I can go between grocery shopping trips, by creating foods out of leftover stuff in fridge, pantry and freezer. The longest I've gone so far is a month - truth is I could've gone maybe two months! And I don't even have a very big pantry.
Dm84- you sound like me. I'm a very simple, non-fussy cook. I also batch cook a lot, like you do. I probably spend two nights a week cooking - and the rest of the time, just reheating or recombining and reheating what I've already cooked.  

Maybe about twice a month I'll feel inspired on a Sunday to try my hand at something fancy and complicated (and usually screw it up, hee hee). The vast majority of time, I prefer fast, simple, and no-fuss. Nobody would ever accuse me of being a gourmet!!

My one downfall is fresh herbs... I much prefer them to dried spices. Fresh herbs at the grocery store can be way too expensive though. So this is more of a summer-time indulgence (although lately I have been using rosemary because it's so hardy it can last forever in the fridge, and a little goes a long way). I'm lucky that my DH has a major green thumb, so he grows fresh herbs for me in the summer. Then I use them by the fist-full - in everything.

A fist ful of fresh herbs added at the last minute makes any dish- no matter how simple - taste like you spent hours and have a degree from a top chef school!

Cheap and uncreative can taste really good.
Eating vegetarian is great for keeping the budget. Why not have a couple veggie nights a week?

I've been a single mom for the last 7 years. Despite many people's recommendations, I would advise against Costco and buying in bulk. I never saved money that way-- in fact, I spent a ton more and wasted a lot of food.

Invest in a crockpot if you don't have one. It's so easy to toss some meat in there along with pack of your favorite frozen veggies and come home to a good and easy dinner.

Check out some budget cookbooks. One of my favorite easy Food Channel cooks is Sandra Lee-- she's a little corny but she's got some really great and easy ideas. Her show is called semi-homemade. She uses a lot of pre-packaged ingredients and I've found her recipes easy to follow and the products easy to find. Also check out Rachel Ray-- she does those 30 minute meals.  


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