Secrets of a healthy diet for any budget

Posted: Thursday, March 11, 2010

Living in Juneau, we all face the difficulty of making healthy food choices due to the high cost of living. For those living on food stamps- which today is called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - eating healthy on a tight budget may be a challenge, but it is far from impossible. Many individuals and families who receive this assistance continue to make the most of their resources, saving money by eating healthy.

Having been on food stamps myself several years ago, I realize that saving money on healthy food begins at home. Coupons from the newspaper and Internet provide savings that add up, and weekly e-mails from Juneau grocery stores offer updates on the latest specials. It is helpful to plan meals in advance, and keeping a piece of paper on the fridge makes it easy to create an ongoing grocery list ready for the next trip to the store.

Once at the grocery store, the shopping list and coupons create a treasure map to savings by reducing impulse purchases. Shop first on the edges of the store for produce, meat and dairy to ensure that the cart is filled with the essentials before venturing into the center aisles that stock processed convenience foods. These foods are often more expensive and contain unhealthy amounts of fats, salts and added sugars.

Jackie Wagner, a local VISTA volunteer who supplements her small stipend with food stamps, offers another money-saving tip. She says, "You can stock up on meat and staples like rice so that you just have to get fresh produce each week."

Buying fresh vegetables and fruits during sales and when they are in season makes these nutrient-rich foods more affordable. These perishables can then be made to last longer using various food preservation techniques such as freezing, canning and drying.

Once back at home, the most effective strategy for eating healthy on a budget is to cook as much as possible. Cecelia Friberg-Rodriguez is a single mother in Juneau who feeds herself and her young son with the help of food stamps. To make the most of her food dollars, she says, "Spend $6 or $7 on ingredients, put them into the crock pot, and you can have enough food to last a week." Thanks to a variety of appliances such as the crock pot, rice cooker and microwave, cooking has never been easier.

In Juneau, we are fortunate to have a wide variety of foods available at the grocery stores, but we are also blessed to be surrounded by a rich bounty of wild foods from the land and sea. By educating ourselves on proper harvesting techniques that respect local ecosystems and subsistence regulations, we can supplement our food budget with these highly nutritious foods.

The best way to start eating healthy for less is to try new things and make realistic, gradual changes. Wagner recommends, "Find a few low cost recipes of things you like to eat. Get to know how to make a few things really well so that you can always turn to those instead of prepackaged foods." Visit your local library for cookbooks or search for new recipes on the internet. More information on food preservation and food budgeting can be found at the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, Juneau District Office and on the Web site at www.uaf.edu/ces.

It is important to be aware of what we get when we spend our money on food. Are we paying for packaging and brand-name marketing, or are we making each dollar count by purchasing the most nutrient-rich foods? The goal is to get the most nutritional value per dollar spent on the food that we eat, and then find ways to suit them to our individual tastes and lifestyles. Michael Gainer, another VISTA volunteer, sums it all up. "Food is expensive," he says, "but whatever you spend on good food in the short-run will be far less than what you will spend on healthcare in the long-run." The lessons learned from our neighbors who receive food stamps demonstrate that when health is a priority, eating healthy becomes possible for anyone and any budget.

• Jennifer Nu is a freelance writer living in Juneau.



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