The average American scores low on the Healthy Eating Index. That means we all have some work to do. People on a tight budget or who do not have easy access to a grocery store might not know how to eat healthy. They might have limited choices.
The good news is that healthy and affordable options are easier than ever to find. In 2018, a dollar-store chain announced it would add fresh produce to many of its stores. Even some gas station mini-marts have healthy options. You can get apples, bananas, yogurt, nuts and string cheese.
But the real key to changing your diet is awareness. The following steps can help every family make the kind of choices that make a big difference for overall health. Do you want to maintain a healthy weight? Do you want to teach your children healthy habits? These steps can help.
Here are nine ideas to help you make budget-friendly, healthier choices for your family.
Be a label reader. The most important thing you can do is read food labels. Check your prepackaged or prepared food. Look for more than total calories. Food labels include vital data about how much sugar, sodium and unhealthy fats are added. Also note the serving sizes on labels. One container often includes more than one serving.
Don’t drink your calories. Sweetened drinks such as soda, sports drinks and juices contain a lot of added sugar. They make up almost half of the added sugar in a typical person’s diet. Drink water or sparkling water instead. If you drink more water, you might crave sweet drinks less because you are no longer thirsty.
Rethink frozen. Fresh fruits and vegetables are ideal but not always practical. A very close second? Frozen. Nutritionally, there is almost no difference. Frozen peas, corn, spinach or broccoli last for months, not days. So does frozen fruit, like blueberries. Plus, compared to canned, frozen vegetables don’t have added sodium. And frozen fruit isn’t bathed in a sugary syrup.
Stock up on staples. Dried beans, peas, lentils, brown rice, whole-grain pastas and oats are the basis of many healthy dishes. These items are good for large-batch cooking that feeds an entire family for more than just one meal. Root vegetables, like carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes and butternut squash, can also last months when stored in a cool, dry place.
Avoid white. White bread, white rice, white pasta and white flour all have one thing in common. They don’t provide the best nutrition. When given the choice, always choose the whole-grain (i.e., brown, unrefined) option.
Welcome the almighty egg. As far as protein goes, there’s little as versatile, affordable and readily available as an egg. You can even find hard-boiled eggs in some gas station mini-marts.
Think traditional. Rice and beans are at the heart of so many different cuisines for a reason. Together, they make a whole protein. Is it Mexican frijoles refrito and rice? Southern-style red beans and rice? Lentils and basmati? These traditional meals were developed over generations to stretch affordable, healthy staples while filling bellies.
DIY. Make your own tomato sauce with a can of tomatoes, a few tablespoons of butter, an onion and a bit of salt. Make your own salad dressing with oil, vinegar, mustard and seasonings. Make your own hummus or bean dip. Not only will you save money, you’ll naturally cut down on unhealthy fats, sodium and sugar.
Shift how you cook. Cooking is better than not cooking. But how you cook matters, too. Generally speaking, bake, roast or grill instead of frying. Season simply — salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon — rather than with a creamy sauce.
While eating healthier can seem like a lot of work at first, it’s really all about small steps. Try adopting these changes one or two at a time. Soon it will get easier and easier. Your health and the health of your family is worth it.