In These Tough Times, Learn To Eat Healthier For Less

food budget for healthy diet nutrition


Welcome to the big fat recession. If you’ve lost your job or seen income slip, you’re dealing with very difficult economic conditions. If you’re still employed, lucky you – just don’t relax. Changes can come quickly.

Even the most powerful, best compensated among us have learned that we can’t control all of life’s variables. Bad things happen to hardworking, good people. What many of us thought to be secure has turned out to be as shaky as credit default swaps.

For perspective, the loss of income or assets might be similar to the sense of losing one’s hair. The day it hits you that your follicles are disappearing is a day that changes your whole sense of self.

Which is not to say change is bad. Quite the opposite, actually. To make it through lean times, we all have to be as good as we can be – in our work, our management of money, and certainly our health and appearance. Hair or no hair, the employer considering you versus your competitors is looking for the smartest and most energetic candidate. A business in survival mode needs the strongest team.

Recessions are an opportunity to develop new habits and outlooks

Author Patrick Wanis, a PhD in health psychology, writes about the negative effects of stress, specifically in how it releases cortisol from the adrenal glands. In the short term (think about being chased by a tiger or a mugger), cortisol is beneficial. But extended stress elevates cortisol levels such that muscle tissue is damaged, blood pressure is elevated and the immune system is weakened. States of physical happiness – affection, exercise, the pleasures of good food and fun friends – help reduce stress and cortisol.

“For perspective, the loss of income or assets might be similar to the sense of losing one’s hair. The day it hits you that your follicles are disappearing is a day that changes your whole sense of self.”

I’ve corresponded with a number of career and life coaches on this topic. Everyone one of them provides similar advice with regard to managing the circumstances around you: it’s less about what happens to you, and more how you react to what happens. Every single one also agrees that physical health is key, and that this recession is an opportunity to develop new, healthier habits.

But where it comes to food, aren’t the healthier items usually more expensive? Only if you think “healthier” is when a product package makes a claim such as “organic” or “low-carb.” For the most part, the healthier foods are relatively unprocessed, i.e., they look like a farm product, less milled and baked and not put in boxes (with some exceptions, such as whole grain pastas).

But it goes beyond specific foods – it’s about how you organize your life

1. How you eat is where you eat. With a few exceptions, restaurant and takeout meals are more expensive and contain (on average) 55 percent more calories than those made at home, according to “Restaurant Confidential“ (Jacobsen, Hurley; Workman Publishing 2002).

“Despite rising grocery prices, in-home meals still provide a better value to consumers,” said Arnie Schwartz, a marketing researcher for NPD Group to Progressive Grocer magazine in 2008. “One estimate shows that an in-home meal costs about a third of a meal purchased away from home.” The study also found that consumers are eating more at home for health reasons.

If you plan your meals in advance, even to the point of packing a lunch (peanut butter and jam on whole grain bread is healthy), you come out way ahead.

2. You eat and drink is what is in front of you. At home, there are obvious ways to make headway: carbonated beverages are bad nutrition and a bad buy. Most packaged breakfast cereals are loaded with sugar, and are easily replaced with bulk-purchase oatmeal. Desserts? Don’t bother bringing any home. Instead stock up on fruits and vegetables. A friend and her husband subscribed to a vegetable coop one summer, receiving a case of local produce every week. She lost 12 pounds without trying – water and fiber-dense produce fills you up with fewer calories overall.

3. Eat consciously, slow, savor and switch: Extend the pleasure of anything you eat. This means sitting down to chew thoughtfully, enjoying every morsel. And if you seem to like something too much, going back for second and third portions, switch eating to something else. It’s a method to avoid bingeing.

4. Work with the gold star recession buster healthy foods. Stock up on these foods, all healthy in their own right and a good buy (prices vary by location, of course):

  • Cooked black beans (protein, fiber, B vitamins): 7 cents per serving
  • Eggs (protein, iron, B12, choline): 9 cents per serving
  • Chicken breasts, boneless skinless (protein, iron): 50 cents per serving
  • Broccoli (antioxidant rich, fiber): 33 cents per serving, frozen is generally cheaper
  • Cabbage (antioxidant rich, fiber): 8 cents per serving, less if in a soup
  • Medium white onion (allicin, fiber): 12 cents per serving
  • Whole grain pasta (B vitamins, minerals, fiber): $1.33 per serving, with wide variations

5. Make-ahead this salad for quick meals. Nothing is a better diversion from expensive, less healthy convenience foods than having something healthier on hand when you’re hungry. Make this over the weekend and you’re set at least through Wednesday.

  • Recession Busting Cabbage Pasta Salad
  • Cooked pasta 2 cups
  • Chopped cabbage 5 cups
  • Chopped green onions, 1/2 – 1 cup
  • Tomato sauce, 1 cup
  • Mashed beans (garbanzo, black, red), 1 cup
  • Oil, vinegar and lemon juice, to taste
  • Mustard, 3 Tablespoons

While cooking pasta, chop cabbage and stir-fry with oil, vinegar, lemon and mustard, just till softened a bit. Combine with cooked whole grain pasta and green onions, mix and serve. And then, enjoy.