Eating Well on a Budget

poor eating

No, I am not quite Bill Dauterive levels of sad, yet…

Eating well is the cornerstone of a healthy life. There is no guarantee, life is not fair, but it will not make things worse like eating poorly does. Life is hard enough. Why make it worse?

I should note that I am not a nutritionist or a doctor. I am also not an insane health nut either. I try to be moderate in all things, but I am nowhere near perfect. I should have a below-average diet. Judging from the horrifying things that I see people buy, it is way above average. I am just sharing what I have learned after spending many years in poverty and hope it is useful.

With a serious economic downturn almost inevitable now, this is an important thing to learn. This is not a quarantine-only thing. It is useful anytime. If you are home more, now is a great time to get into the habit of actually cooking real food and not just opening boxes and cans and heating them up.

I hear “I am too poor to eat well” a lot.

I used to think that way, and it is false. I had some health scares - which weren’t even real - that forced me to focus on what I eat and how much. Sure, there are things I could never afford, but so what? Does that mean I have to stick with processed foods that really don’t taste very good and will lead to a terrible death?

The basic rule here is to buy food that is processed in healthy ways or not processed at all.


Always make a shopping list and stick to it. The list should be based on a menu of some sort, even if it is just something general and not specific recipes.

Never go grocery shopping hungry. Nothing will throw you off faster than that.

Read labels and know what you are eating.

Eating healthy on a budget is an exercise in trade-offs, and learning which ones are the best for you takes time.

The cheapest foods are rarely good quality, and the most expensive are rarely the best. Do some research on brands. This takes a bit of time and trial and error to balance quality with price.

If you are in the habit of fast food, or cheap boxed meals you cook on the stove or frozen meals, it might take a while to get used to actually cooking.

It is well worth it to break that habit.

There is an endless supply of healthy recipes online and cooking tips. Many of these sites have basic cooking and shopping tutorials to help you get started.

The elements of food

Good cooking starts here.

This includes healthy oils like olive, avocado, sesame, macadamia, and peanut, and others. Cold-pressed oils are much better than other methods of processing.

I avoid canola, mainly because it is usually processed poorly. It might be controversial, but I avoid coconut oil. It is a healthy fat but is high in saturated fats. I seem to have inherited high cholesterol, and it is difficult to keep “bad” cholesterol low even with medication.

Any oil that lists ‘partially hydrogenated’ should be avoided.

Butter, not margarine. It is more expensive but so much better for you, and anything you make with it will taste better.

Spices, of course, are a must. Which ones depend on what kind of foods you like. I tend to stock Italian, Mexican, Chinese, and Thai spices, along with some low sodium spice blends. I do not add much salt to anything I make, but I keep sea salt around for eggs and baking recipes. It is also good for removing the nasty taste of canned tomatoes.

I also have some harder-to-find spice blends like ras el hanout for Moroccan foods.

I use both fresh and dried. Stocking up is quite expensive, but the good news is that the dry spices last a good while. I buy them on a rotation, so I don’t run out of everything simultaneously. Buy a few each trip to the store until you have a good variety of spices.

Grow spices if you can. It is nice to have fresh spices on hand and is a cheap way to do it. They are easy to grow.

Canned items like tomatoes, evaporated and condensed milk, and powdered milk are good to keep around.

Even if you do not bake bread or cakes, good quality flour is a must for cooking roux, for instance. Oat, quinoa, chickpea flours are useful for various things, but they are expensive. Good quality sugars, you can bake on the cheap, but it will not be healthy.

For baking, keep yeast, baking powder, and soda, and a steady supply of eggs.

I use eggs a lot as standalone, either fried or pressure cooked or boiled if you don’t have a pressure cooker.

If you buy cheese, buy the best quality you can. American cheese is simply garbage, but generic versions are even worse than that. This is the cheese that typically comes sliced. Worse than that is Velveeta.

Jasmine and brown rice, dry beans and peas, quinoa, hemp hearts, rolled oats, and buckwheat can be stored for a fair amount of time. Steel-cut oats do not last as long.

I would count canned tomatoes in various forms as an element of food. If you can grow it, that is much better than even fresh tomatoes in the store. Any tomato-based sauce is a million times better with fresh tomatoes but is a little more work.

Canning foods is a useful skill that I am starting to learn.

Some of the above are a little pricey but buying them in bulk or in large packages will save money.

Bulk Foods

Buying foods in bulk bins is usually cheaper.

It requires a little more work to ensure that it is good quality and hasn’t been sitting out forever. I typically buy dry beans, quinoa, rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, and spices from bins. They also have flour that can be good. They have other things to avoid like candy, really good-tasting pancake mixes - I love pancakes too much. Spending a bit of time looking and taking notes can result in some healthy and interesting finds.

Be careful though, they have things that look healthy - like textured vegetable protein(TVP) that just might have been processed with ammonia - that are not.

This requires that you buy quality containers that can be closed tightly, which adds expense but is a one-time cost.

Vegetables and fruit

Fresh over canned as much as possible. Of course, having a good supply of canned vegetables is always prudent, especially now but nothing is better than fresh.

When buying fresh, just try to get what you like and as large of a variety as possible.

Avoid iceberg lettuce. It is nothing but water and a little fiber. Darker lettuce such as red/green/romaine/butter/arugula/etc is much better. Butter lettuce is typically sold with roots intact and is a little pricey but can also be found in cheaper mixes. Spinach is a good choice as well.

Supposedly celery has negative calories when all is said and done but has little value. I use bok choy as a replacement. I can handle things like kale as long as it is not cooked or in juice form.

Regarding organic vs. not, I tend to stick with the dirty dozen rule and only buy organics that are not on that list if it is a good price. I generally can’t tell the difference in taste.

Here is a short list of vegetables that I always have on hand: romaine, arugula, cucumbers, tomatoes, radish, bok choy, turnips, sweet peas, various hot peppers, chayote squash. I usually have others, but those are my staples.

I typically avoid potatoes, but when I buy them, it is usually red and sweet potatoes.

Buying something you don’t like will not encourage healthy eating and will waste money. I hate broccoli with all of my heart. It is a vile, noxious weed. Even if it guaranteed an extra 10 healthy years, I would avoid it because they would mean eating that horrible thing for 10 extra years. Yuck!

Avoid the cheapest canned vegetables on the shelf. They are low-quality and usually loaded with salt.

Salad dressings are tough.

So many are loaded with sugar and worse: high fructose corn syrup. I sometimes make my own. Olive and sesame oil, balsamic, cider, and rice vinegar are great to start with. Tomatoes and various spices and lots of other possibilities. It is kind of a pain, but it is one thing I want to learn how to can for long-term storage.

Watch out for sugar and other bad stuff in dressings, like preservatives. Cheap, as always, is bad. My personal favorites are red pepper vinaigrette, almost anything with sesame oil, and Russian. Ranch dressings are popular but are mostly awful. I buy a habanero ranch dressing found in the refrigerated section that rocks.

If I just chop up vegetables without lettuce, I usually forgo dressings altogether. I am not sure why I have to add it with a more traditional salad. It is just empty calories, and the best I can do is not make it too unhealthy.

For fruit, I love mandarins, pomegranate, pineapple, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, and watermelon. I have at least one of those depending on price and what is in season. Medjool dates are expensive and really good, but rarely good in bulk containers. My favorite is Rainer cherries but are usually very expensive and only available for about a month each year but are the best cherries that I know of.

I love frozen berries for my smoothies. Be cautious as some frozen fruit has added sugar, especially those made specifically for smoothies.

Healthy meats and fish

Good quality lean meats are what to shop for. Sure, that porterhouse tastes great, but it is so expensive and fatty.

I tend to stick with chicken and fish. The best quality chicken - and turkey - you can afford and the same for fish. I like pacific cod, catfish, sole, mahi-mahi, and once in a while, I splurge on halibut. Halibut is my favorite by far but is usually extremely pricey and tends to have high mercury levels. Salmon is decent, but white ocean fish are my favorites.

Other fish are okay, as is shellfish. I like clams and occasionally scallops, but those are quite expensive.

Large predator fish tend to have a lot of mercury, things like shark and swordfish. Halibut and mahi-mahi are large predators also.

I avoid farmed fish except for catfish and even then try to avoid it by catching my own. Farmed fish is generally cheaper but has little Omega-3’s and is loaded with antibiotics. They are typically not as strong as wild fish, and therefore very mushy. Staying still in a pool is not conducive to developing into a healthy fish, and it shows. There are trout farms that supposedly keep them in water with a good current, but the difference is still huge.

I don’t buy beef often, but when I do, it is either eye of round, which has little fat, or flank steak broiled after sitting in various types of marinades. Never buy less than USDA choice grade. Prime grade is harder to find and generally expensive.

I am not a big fan of pork but will occasionally buy pork chops. Pork is cheap, but also fatty and not all that healthy. Processed pork is unhealthy. I love spicy sausage patties but avoid them.

With chicken, the main differences are free-range or not or fed well or not. The cheaper chicken in stores is produced by truly vile companies. When one has little money, it is hard to avoid them.

If you can find it at a good price, other meats such as duck, goose, and buffalo are great.

For ground meats, I tend to stick with chicken or turkey. They are typically cheaper than beef. Both are excellent substitutes for ground beef which I buy once in a while, but I tend to buy ground meats with no more than 3% fat and never more than 6% fat.

Sugar is death

A cardiologist told me that the worst thing for your heart health is sugar. Of course, that includes simple carbs found in white bread, most types of noodles, and processed things that I hesitate to call food. Examples are many breakfast cereal types, cheesy noodle mixes, hamburger helper, etc. They also have too much unhealthy fat and way too much salt. There are types of these that are less worse, but it takes a bit of comparison shopping.

He said sugar causes an inflammation response which promotes blockages in arteries. Too much sugar also brings a laundry list of serious health problems like obesity and diabetes.

This is terrible news for me because, like most people, sugar lights up my brain. Moderation in all things but especially sugar.

Healthy carbs

This leads to carbs, an essential nutrient. Avoid simple carbs and use only healthy complex carbs. This is difficult for me as I am addicted to white bread. I try to avoid it as much as possible.

Avoid or at least reduce soda. Drink sodas with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. They are both bad, but one is much worse.

Learn how to read nutrition labels. Make sure very little of the carb content are simple sugars. The more fiber and the less sugar listed, the better it will be.

Diets: fad, and otherwise

I am not an expert on diets, and I have never actually tried a formalized diet. I use the basics: to lose weight, make sure that calories in < calories out. It is not that easy, as simple carbs and other sugars can be stored directly as fat.

Keto and other low-carb diets seem tempting, but I really like carbs, sadly even simple carbs. When I don’t eat enough carbs, I can feel it, and it is difficult to be active that day.

The biggest issue I have noticed with these diets is that they get misinterpreted. People will gorge on extremely unhealthy food like bacon.

Losing weight and having to get stents or bypasses instead isn’t a great tradeoff.

From what I have seen, the keto diet works well when applied intelligently.

A brother-in-law went on this diet and shed more than a fair amount of weight. He went through some program that would deliver the food for him to prepare.

It was a very expensive program, but it helped keep him in line. That is not possible for the target audience of this essay, but it shows it can work and can be done on your own and have it work well. It would take a fair amount of self-control which is the most important skill to learn to keep weight off.

Do some research, and now is a great time to get outside and exercise.

Counting calories is a drag, I have started to do that and bought a kitchen scale to help out. The goal for this is to stop counting calories in a month or two. Once I get a feel for how many calories I need, I will stop.

What I am doing is on lazy days eat 1000-1400 calories. On days that I am more active, I might eat up to 2000, but never more than that, even on cheat days.

I would like to lose a minimum of 10 pounds (4.5kg) and up to 25 pounds (11.3kg) which would be my weight when I got out of the Army.

My physical injuries make it impossible to be as strong as I was then, and I am a lot older, but I think that would be an okay weight range. That would put my weight between 155 and 170(70.3-77.1kg), and my height is exactly 5’ 8 3/4”(1.75m).

I have no illusions that I could gain a lot of muscle, but if I get toned and have a mostly flat stomach that would be great. I would be very happy if I stay inside that range and be in reasonable shape for the rest of my life.

Once I get to the weight I like, I have to start over and figure out how much to eat to maintain that weight. After losing all that weight a few years ago due to metabolic issues caused by psych meds, I have done an okay job maintaining it. I do yoyo a bit too often even though the weight gain is not significant. I define significant weight gain to be that I have to move up in clothing size. Clothes start getting tight, and I cut back on calories, cheat days and increase exercise.

The big question I ask myself is: why do I bother? I do not have an answer for that. It is an easy thing to answer for others but not for me.

Moderation in all things and balance along with exercise seems to be the most reasonable thing to do.

How much is too much?

A problem in the US is that people eat way too much. I took Irina to a Thai restaurant, and she noted how excessive the portions were. She pointed out how eating out would be cheaper and healthier if they made it more reasonable. She is not wrong, as always. The plate had 2-3 meals on it, and many people will eat that in one sitting.

She also noted that dinner should not be the largest meal of the day. Lunch should be. She is right again. Admittedly, it is difficult to do that. I tend to make enough for 3 meals, so I will cook it at dinner time and eat it then and the next two lunches.

Happily, most restaurants list calories. Sadly, they don’t list anything else, but it is a good start. Be careful about what you order and how much you eat.

A lot of restaurants, especially chain restaurants with tacky pictures all over the place, are pretty disgusting. It is easy to go over 2000 calories in one sitting, not including alcohol. They put fat inside fat and then coat it in simple carbs. Then they drown it in the deep fryer using unhealthy oil and then pour more fat on top of the cooked mess. Then they put more fat and simple carbs on the side. That is beyond unhealthy, especially if you are one of the many that eat like that daily.

Not only is it unhealthy, but it is also overpriced. For the price of one heart-attack-inducing meal in a restaurant, I can eat healthily for 3-5 days.

Dirty Cheater!!!

Healthy foods don’t have to be choked down. You just have to experiment. It is much easier to stick with something that you enjoy, obviously.

That said, cheating now and again is okay. How much depends on how well you otherwise eat and how often you exercise. I try to only have one cheat meal a month, but I usually end up with two or three since I lack self-control.

Even on cheat days, I stay under 2000 calories and don’t really go too crazy. Something like a burger and fries, or a slice of pizza or two.

I tend to completely omit dessert. Maybe 3 or 4 times a year. Saves money and calories.

Despite my freaking out about restaurants, going out on your cheat day is fun and enjoyable, especially if you are lucky enough to have friends.

Even when cheating, try to keep calorie intake under control.

Avoid like the plague

Sugar and simple carbs. Boxed ramen noodles, hamburger helper, and other such things. Not only are these things high in simple carbs, but they also have no nutritional value.

Unhealthy saturated fats, this includes things like bacon.

It is not really hamburgers at fast food places that are a major cause of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes epidemics in the US. It is fries and soda. Keep burgers relatively low calorie and keep bacon and whatnot off of it, and it is a perfectly good cheat meal. Just avoid fast food burgers, gross.

Combine with exercises

A healthy diet combined with exercise is the only proven way to lose weight and keep weight off.

Whatever you can do is great. Even a 10-minute brisk walk is helpful. You really don’t need to spend hours a day exercising to stay healthy as long as you eat healthily, but get up and move.


I can’t really tell if these actually work.

For the most part, there is nothing that they have done that I could tell any difference. I do take vitamins A, B complex, C, D, E, and K along with various metals: magnesium, copper, etc. It is a hedge against not spending time making sure everything is in my food while I get the calories down.

I buy the vitamins individually since multivitamins tend to be low quality.

As for other supplements, I take COQ10 because I am on statins because of a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, and statins affect the natural production of COQ10. I also take nattokinase as a mild blood thinner to help avoid stroke since that is another thing I am genetically at risk for.

Hemp oil, because it doesn’t turn rancid like fish oil and has a perfect ratio of Omega-3’s, unlike most fish oil.

There are supplements for all sorts of things but are mostly untested, and many brands do not even have the ingredients they are supposed to have. Even when they do, they are often low quality and mixed in with lots of other things. Your best bet is to ask a doctor who is knowledgeable about them and what brands are good.

Make no mistake, supplements are drugs. They have their own side-effect profiles and affect people in different ways, and can interact in dangerous ways with all sorts of things. Because they are untested and often lack quality control, dosages vary wildly.

They are basically unregulated, and buying cheap ones is no different than buying snake oil. Even a high-quality supplement might not do anything it claims to do. Government regulation is not always a bad thing.

Low-quality supplements can be expensive. Make sure you do a lot of research, or you can find yourself throwing a lot of money away.

Make a plan

It doesn’t have to be super detailed, but a make general plan to start the habit. I have a shortlist of things for breakfast: eggs, protein shake, a smoothie with protein and vitamin powder, and oatmeal. The latter is only on days I am planning a very long bike ride. Lunch is leftover dinner, eggs, oatmeal, quinoa or buckwheat, and always a salad. I have a salad cut-up that lasts a few days that I include with lunch and dinner.

Dinner is often still too heavy but is typically meat - chicken or fish with a salad. Sometimes quinoa or something like that, but I try to keep carbs for lunch. Cheat days are when I make something much more involved. If my granddaughter is around, perhaps something Mexican with homemade tortillas, Thai or Chinese, or a nice soup like clam chowder.

I recently bought authentic Thai and Chinese recipe books. Obesity isn’t as common in those places, so I might try Thai every day for a month or so and see how that goes.

The goal should be to make eating a healthy habit where no conscious thought needs to go into calories or nutritional value, it becomes automatic.

Sadly, it takes time.