Nutritious home cooking can be easy & inexpensive
March 22, 2023
Northeast Colorado has a significant population of people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. These conditions reduce quality of life and life expectancy and increase health care costs. Our eating habits contribute to all of these things. Recently, we’ve all seen the rise in prices for all types of commodities, but unlike a new TV, you can’t really avoid buying food. During the latest Northeast Colorado Health Department Community Health Assessment, the single most-reported reason for not eating healthy food was cost.
Cooking your own food at home is always less expensive and healthier than eating out. Even if you love burgers and fries, you can still make healthier versions at home for less cost. Following are some ideas for how you can increase the nutritional value and variety of your diet but remain economical in cost and labor.
Start your shopping trip with a meal plan and a list. Make the list at home to determine what you already have so you buy only the ingredients you need. Money saving options include purchasing generic brands and watching for sales. Additionally, you can buy in bulk, or use coupons. Even with a coupon, a name brand item may still be more expensive than the store version. Ordering online is another way to stay away from the tempting snacks and stick to the list.
Buy whole foods, or the least-processed foods. Processed foods can contain extra sugar that cause rapid swings in energy and blood sugar, contributing to bad health and bad mood. With foods such as crackers and breakfast cereal look for whole grains and low sodium and sugar. When buying cheese, a low-fat block is less expensive than pre-sliced or shredded.
Canned and frozen foods are just as healthy as fresh food. They last longer, usually cost less, can be obtained out of season and are ready whenever you need to make a meal as quickly and easily as fast food. Read the labels! Look for simple ingredients like vegetables, canned fish and chicken and peanut butter with no added salt, sugar, or oil, fruit packed in water and frozen foods with no added cream or sauce. These products will also save time and energy when it’s too late or you are too overwhelmed to cook something from scratch. Beans of all types bought dry in bulk are the least expensive way to buy these proteins, but also require more extensive preparation.
Substitute with similar, lower cost ingredients — for example, less expensive cuts of meat can be delicious when slow-cooked making a stew or casserole. Add whole grains or beans to extend meat dishes. Experiment with alternative proteins like firm tofu which can be marinated in bar-b-que sauce and grilled. Beans such as lentils, split peas and white beans also provide protein and fiber that are filling and heart healthy.
Not all carbs are bad! Healthy carbs are filling, digested slowly, and provide long lasting energy. Good carbs include whole grains like oatmeal, brown rice, barley and quinoa, which can be bought in bulk and a small amount makes a lot of servings. Avoid processed carbs like white rice and white flour which have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients. You can also cut down on total carbs by replacing a slice of bread on a sandwich with a large leaf of lettuce. Noodles made from vegetables such as zucchini, carrot or squash can be found ready-made frozen and pasta made from alternative flours like chickpea or lentil will help maintain good blood sugar levels, cholesterol and a trim waistline.
Cooking doesn’t have to be complicated either. If you are living without a full kitchen or want to save money on energy costs, basic appliances can include a crock-pot, hot plate, toaster oven and small microwave. Soups, stews and casseroles can be made in the slow-cooker and leftovers portioned into containers for lunches when the urge to go through a fast-food drive- through is high. Potatoes and frozen vegetables can be microwaved, which is faster and uses less energy than a conventional oven. With a skillet on a hot plate, leftovers can be turned into a frittata or shepherd’s pie. Meats, fish and vegetables can be broiled or roasted in a toaster oven.
We are constantly being told to drink more water instead of sugary juices and soda. But if your tap water tastes bad or is unsafe, small bottles of water are expensive and create a lot of waste. There are refillable multi-gallon jugs designed to fit in the fridge or on the counter. Flavor your water with fresh or frozen fruit, summer vegetables or flavor drops or packets. Carry a water bottle to avoid buying bottled water on the go, maybe even treat yourself to a tumbler with a fun design or customize a bottle with stickers to encourage drinking from it more often.
If you or someone you know is struggling to afford enough healthy food, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides a monthly dollar amount based on number of people in the household and income level. There are also programs for children through schools and seniors from local agencies on aging or community centers. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children provides breastfeeding support, nutrition counseling and food packages to eligible families and is administered through the Northeast Colorado Health Department. The MyPlate program through the USDA has education, personal goals support and recipes at their website http://www.myplate.gov.