The availability of time and money play a massive role in dictating how most people eat. The reality is that many of us may lack the time and financial resources to make the food choices we wish we could. I am writing today’s to address this very issue. I strongly believe that most Canadian’s would do both themselves and their loved ones a great service by making moderate improvements to their diet. I also fully appreciate how difficult it can be to make these adjustments in the context of the real world.
My goal today will be to provide you with practical, usable and comprehensive nutrition guidance that you can seamlessley incorporate into your daily life. The article will explore the different approaches you can take to ensure you eat well in spite of tight limits to your time and financial resources. I will cover a range of important topics and provide you with my best suggestions across each.
Andy’s Guide to Eating Well with Limited Time and Money
Please keep in mind that in each of these sections I am selecting options that I feel best balance healthfullness, preparation time and cost.
1) Breakfast: When the going gets tough, breakfast gets going. I encounter this situation time and time again and it is a shame because breakfast is an excellent opportunity for individuals to boost their fruit and fibre intake, two areas in which many Canadians are lacking. Aside from the additional nutrients, eating breakfast also offers a number of cognitive benefits and the satiety it provides may help control your appetitite and intake later in the day.
My premier choice for a very healthy, very quick and affordable breakfast:
A piece of fruit with a handful of sunflower seeds: Probably my favourite breakfast suggestion due to its richness in nutrients, ease of transport and its ability to be consumed anywhere easily ( transit/classroom/office). Almonds, walnuts and pecans are all excellent but more expensives choices, so I recommend using sunflower seeds which contain similar nutrients for a fraction of the cost. Bananas, pears, plums, oranges and certain apple varieties are the most inexpensive and convenient fruit options available.
Alternatives: Cereal with milk, oatmeal, toast with peanut butter/eggs.
Be sure to choose a cereal/toast with at least 3-4 grams of fibre per serving.
Whichever of these combinations you choose, I highly recommend you add a fruit to the meal and use breakfast as an opportunity to get your first fruit of the day in. Your day may throw you curve balls which could effect your intake so make breakfast count because it is under your control.
2) Fruit: When it comes to fruits and vegetables, many Canadian’s do not eat enough. This is a significant concern for me because, in most circumstances and for most people, fruits and vegetables are essentially the healthiest foods one can eat. In order to reach the Canadian Food Guide recommendations for fruits & vegetables, most of us will have to eat between 4-5 servings of fruit a day, perhaps a bit less if we are very diligent witih our vegetable intake.
As mentioned in the breakfast section, my top fruit recommendations include bananas, pears, plums , oranges and less expensive varieties of apples. These fruits can often be purchased in bulk (cheaper), are nutritious, highly mobile and quick and easy to eat.
Whether you currently don’t eat fruit at all, or you don’t eat enough of it, if you can make a commitment to eating one extra fruit daily, you will likely be doing yourself a great service. If you are someone who is out of the house most of the day, throw 3-4 fruits in your bag, it will take you 30 seconds and the reward will be well worth the effort.
The easiest way to get to 4-5 fruits a day?
1) Have a fruit at breakfast
2) Have a fruit as a lunch “dessert”
3) Have a fruit for an afternoon snack or as part of an afternoon snack
4) Have a fruit as a dinner “dessert”
5) Have a fruit as an evening snack or as part of an evening snack
This may seem painfully straightforward, but it gets the job done.
Alternatives: Having a cup of fruit juice, making fruit smoothies and using frozen fruit are all viable alternatives. In my opinion, each of these options have limitations from a nutrition, time and money perspective. Watermelon and honeydew are also among the least expensive fruits you can purchase ( $/serving), but would require a much greater preparation time than those I have already discussed.
3) Vegetables: I reiterate now the important fact that many Canadians do not consume enough fruits and vegetables. Even more so than fruit, vegetable intake is extraordinarily important for your health. If you are someone who does not currently value their vegetable intake, I implore you to reconsider. Vegetable consumption is the cornerstone of a healthy diet and is associated with an improvement in so many indicators of short term (everyday digestive health) and long-term (prevention of chronic disease) health and wellbeing.
I recoqnize and appreciate the fact that vegetables can be tricky for most people to incorporate into their diet. They are among the most expensive and potentially difficult/time consuming foods to prepare ( if you don’t know how), but they are worth it.
Let’s take a look at how you can incorporate vegetables into your daily life with the least possible strain to your time and money:
Choose Seasonal Vegetables: Purchasing vegetables in-season is the fundamental cost saving technique one can utilize to save money. Familiarize yourself with the vegetables that are available year-round as they will generally be more reliable in terms of cost. Below I provide a brief seasonal guide based on availability in the province of Ontario.
All-year availability: Lettuce, cucumber, celery, cabbage, onions, radish and carrots are generally available year-round. These vegetables are among the most affordable and easiest to prepare and should be purchased regularly if you are on a tight budget. Most of these items can be enjoyed raw or can be lightly baked or fried. Creating a salad with these foods may be the quickest , easiest and most portable option and can be done at dinner time (or in the evening for the next day) where slightly more time may be available to devote to food preparation.
Summer/Fall: The majority of other commonly consumed vegetables are generally available in the May-October range. This includes highly nutritious household favourites such asparagus, peppers, brussel sprouts, bok choy, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower. The price of these particular items will be more variable and likely higher, especially in the winter months. Take adavantage of these items when they are cheaper in season, particularly heads of cauliflower which are usually the least expensive option among those listed.
Do not fear cooking these vegetables. Foods like asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower can turn out great simply baked for 5-10 minutes at 350 F. I recommend choosing baking (or steaming) most often over frying or boiling.
My personal suggestion: Leafy baby greens such as kale, chard and spinach are often considered among the most nutritious and convenient vegetables available. Depending on your budget, purchasing these greens in larger quantities ( ie: large boxes/bags) and portioning them out into sealable/portable bags for the week may be an excellent strategy to provide yourself a highly mobile vegetable option. This will allow you the opportunity to bring leafy greens with you wherever you go, or have them readily available to eat for dinner. To save time, I also recommend trying certain palatable vegetables raw. For example, sweet bell peppers are excellent raw and require minimal preparation time.
I highly recommend diversfying your vegetable intake as much as your time and budget allows. Although all vegetables are generally rich in nutrients and fibre, different coloured vegetables contain unique nutrients. If you do happen to eat out on occasion, use it as an opportunity to consume vegetables you may not usually have at home due to cost or time constraints.
4) Meat & Alternatives (Proteins/Fats): Items from this food group will vary widely in price based on a number of factors. In order to help you to appreciate the relative cost of each, I conducted a basic pricing analysis to show you how much a Canadian Food Guide serving of each would cost. The price per serving analysis is based on the cheapest options available at a local Toronto grocer and is meant for purely comparative purposes.
Canned Legumes (beans/lentils)*: ~ $ 0.25 per food guide serving ( 1/4 cup cooked).
Peanut Butter: ~$0.25 per food guide serving ( 2 tbsp/ 30 mL).
Eggs: ~$0.50 per food guide serving ( 2 eggs).
Tofu**: ~$0.75 per food guide serving ( 150 grams).
Poultry/Beef: Price will varies widely based on cut, choosing ground beef/poultry may be your best bet but may still be more costly than the options presented above.
Fish: Widely variable based on variety, see next section for clarification.
Processed meats: Although they seem appealing as inexpensive and easy to prepare options, I highly recommend you minimize your consumption of processed animal products such as sausages, hot dogs, bacon, ham, salami, cured/salted meats. They are high in sodium and contain compounds that may increase your risk of chronic disease. From the perspective of nutrition and long-term health, they are among some of the least healthy animal products on the market.
* Canned legumes are already cooked and only require a rinsing before eating.
**Tofu is a food item that I have recently started incorporating into my own diet. It took me a very long time to finally try it, but I am glad I did. I highly recommend you take my word for it and do the same. Although it may appear unfamiliar to some, tofu’s taste and texture will surprise you. Tofu is a great source of protein , easy to prepare and relatively inexpensive. It is generally sold in a “brick” form and has the ability to be prepared in a variety ways dependent on your time constraints. You can throw tofu in the oven, with oil and whatever spices you have available for 20 minutes at 375 F and it will be ready to go. If you want to learn more about tofu, take a look at my article on why you should try tofu.
5) Fish: I feel as though fish deserve their own section because they contain many nutrients of special public health interest such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D and mercury. Health Canada recommends we eat at least 150 grams of fish a week, but fish can also be very expensive and high in mercury ( not a good thing) .The question is then, how we can maximize the benefits of fish consumption ( omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D) while minimizing the bad ( cost, mercury levels). Keep in mind that all fish are good sources of protein.
Unless otherwise noted, the fish discussed below do not contain mercury at a level of significant concern.
Tilapia is a lean white fish that can be fried, grilled or simply & quickly baked for ~10 minutes at 375 F. A keen observer will have noticed that tilapia is often the cheapest whole fresh fish variety available in most grocery stores. While it is true that tilapia is a relatively inexpensive protein source, it contains only a fraction of the omega-3 and vitamin D content of fatty fish alternatives such as salmon. Enjoy tilapia as an inexpensive protein source, but not necessarily for its vitamin D or omega-3 content.
Canned Sardines are a great choice for fulfilling our criteria of concern. They are inexpensive, very quick to prepare and contain more omega-3’s than tilapia, although just about the same amount of vitamin D.
Canned Salmon may be slightly more expensive than sardines but contains a much greater amount of vitamin D and a similar amount of omega-3 fatty acids. My top choice for budget and time-saving purposes, while also remaining sane, would be alternating your fish selection between canned salmon, canned sardines and tilapia. Canned mackerel is another fatty fish alternative if you happen to not enjoy sardines or slamon.
Canned light tuna* is a common Canadian favourite. It is also a reasonable and affordable choice but it lacks the vitamin D and omega-3 content of salmon and sardines. My suggestion for any heavy tuna eaters reading this is to try to incroporate more salmon and sardines.
* Due to mercury concerns, women who are or could become pregnant or are breastfeeding should limit their consumption of canned tuna to 300 grams weekly, as per Health Canada.
6) Grains/Starches: For the sake of this article, we are looking for a few important features from our grains and starches: affordability, ready availability in bulk, ease of preparation and fibre content. The products that are readily available and best meet this criteria include: whole wheat pasta/bread/pitas, brown rice and potatoes. If you are serious about eating well while also saving time and money, you should be purchasing these items in the largest available quantities and cooking them in bulk to provide you meals for multple days at a time. Try to choose higher fibre options as much as possible as there is a reasonable chance you may not currently consume enough dietary fibre on a daily basis.
7) Dairy: Dairy is an important source of protein, calcium and vitamin D for our population. Beyond that, I won’t go into too much detail regarding dairy aside from saying that the best way to save both time and money is to purchase items such as milk and yogurt in the largest available quantities. This will be the least expensive option and result in fewer trips to the grocery store. Choose lower fat dairy varieties most often and choose cheese less frequently if you are concerned about your caloric intake and/or managing your weight.
8) Dinner: Dinner is a very important opportunity for many of us to take full control over what we eat. In my opinion, a balanced and healthy dinner generally consists of four components:
i. 1-2 different types/colours of vegetables
ii. A whole grain or starchy vegetable
iii. A protein source
iv. A piece of fruit
I have already covered the most cost effective ways to address each of those components in this report. You should strive for this balance as often as practically possible. Plan ahead, purchase and prepare foods in bulk and use the guidance from previous sections of this article to help save time and money on the individual components of your dinner.
9) Lunch: Lunch offers a variety of unique challenges, primarily because it is the one meal of the day that majority of people will consistently eat away from home. This puts most of us in a situation where we will either bring something with us or purchase our food out.
A great option to save time and money will be to regularly use dinner leftovers at lunch. If you would rather have more variety in your diet, try some of the following easy to prepare, inexpensive and healthy alternatives:
i. Whole wheat bread with peanut butter
ii. Beans & Greens salad ( you choose the beans, you choose the greens)
iii. Whole wheat pita stuffed with canned fish and vegetables of your choosing.
iv. Salad ( using seasonally available greenss) with canned fish.
As per my examples, your lunch should ideally contain at least 2-3 different food groups from Canada’s Food Guide. Try to bring a fruit or vegetable to eat with lunch whenever possible and remember that dishes containing meat/dairy/poultry should be refridgerated.
If finances are one of your primary concerns, it may be safe to assume that purchasing lunch out is not a regular habit. If you do eat out, try to choose a meal that contains at least two of: whole grains, vegetables and protein while also bringing a fruit from home. A Subway sandwich is an example of a food that can fulfil these requirements. Pizza, hot dogs and hamburgers and heavily fried foods represent less ideal choices.
10) Eating Out: The scope of today’s article is to provide you with strategies to help you to eat healthier while also saving your time and money. Eating out, with the exception of fast-food saving you time, is not generally associated with any of those things. I do appreciate that eating out will inevitably be a factor in most people’s lives and so fortunately I have already created some comprehensive content on making healthy choices at some of Canada’s most popular fast-food and sit down restaurants as well as at Starbucks.
11) Snacking: Snacking is an important aspect in most peoples lives and can be an excellent opportunity for nourishment on a busy day. For the sake of this article, we are looking at snacks that are nutritious, quick and easy to eat and prepare while also being relatively inexpensive. If you can include more than one food group in your snack, that would be ideal.
Here are my top six picks:
– High fibre cereal/oatmeal or a high fibre granola bar ( Aim for 3-4 grams of fibre)
– Vegetables and hummus ( celery and carrots are among the least expensive veggies)
– Popcorn ( buy the largest available size to save money- excellent home snack idea)
– Greek Yogurt ( plain varieties will have the lowest total calories)
– Whole wheat crackers and peanut butter
– Sunflower seeds and a piece of fruit ( same idea as breakfast – nuts also work here)
I write these blogs for the singular purpose of trying to assist you to be the healthiest person you can be. I hope that in some small way I have been succesful in doing so with today’s posting. I fully appreciate that, in the context of busy lives and financial limitations, healthy eating may not be a top priority. Even so, I am optimistic that many of you will take some direction from the information I have provided today to help you make the most of whatever resources you have. Eating well is not the most important thing in the world, but it can have a massive impact on the lives of both yourself and those you care about. As always, I wish you the best in your food and nutrition endeavours.
Until next time, Eat Up!
Andy De Santis RD MPH