Spend 10 minutes watching the news or scrolling through Facebook and you’ll quickly realize that there’s so much that’s out of your control. In 10 short minutes you’ll see evidence of greed, corruption, natural disasters, and disease. It can feel overwhelming for even the calmest of us. Although you can’t control the things in the new, there’s one thing you can control that’s even more powerful. When you choose to eat well, you’ll have the energy you need to deal with life’s daily stressors. In addition, eating well has been shown to boost immunity, lower blood pressure, improve mental health, and so much more.
I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard about the plethora of benefits you’ll enjoy when you eat well. A quick Google search returns 1.7 billion results. The information is clearly out there and free for the taking. Yet, according to the CDC, fewer than 10 percent of US adults and adolescents are consuming enough fruits and vegetables. So let’s take a look at why we struggle to eat well and simple ways to fix it.
Why we don’t eat well
I wish I could give you a simple concrete answer, but like everything in life, it’s not black and white. It’s extremely complicated and could be an entire post of its own.
There are areas of our US food system that are broken, in my opinion. And there are other areas that run great. But for the five percent of Americans who don’t have access to enough healthy food, none of that matters.
Another consideration is our environment and the people we spend time with. I touched on this in my last post about personal finance and it applies here as well. If the people we spend time with have unhealthy diets, we’re more likely to eat less healthfully too.
For those of us who do have access to good healthy food, many of us simply don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. If you’re like me, you ate a whole lot of ramen noodles, ice cream, and pizza rolls growing up. Don’t worry, I wised up in my teenage years and jumped on the Diet Coke, SnackWell’s, and SlimFast diet.
I knew nothing about nutrition and believed whatever the marketers were selling me. I’m not sure how I stumbled onto an interest in nutrition later in life, but I’m grateful I did. I’ll share some of what I’ve learned as well as some additional resources below.
Even if you had access to healthy food, knew what to cook, and had a healthy support network, who has the time?
There’s a woman I follow on Instagram who runs, bikes, and swims on almost a daily basis. In the meantime she prepares three meals a day, completely from scratch, for her husband and two daughters. In the time she has left after taking care of herself and her family, she fights fires and saves lives. Every time I scroll through Instagram, I wonder where she finds the time. I guess she must not have spent a quarter of her day scrolling on her phone as I did. 😉
The final big hurdle that keeps families from eating well is the perceived cost. You’ve all heard Whole Foods referred to as Whole Paycheck, haven’t you? I think it’s true that you can get more calories per dollar with processed junk food. But anyone who has ever binged on a whole bag of Doritos knows that those empty calories don’t leave you feeling satisfied. Choosing to spend those few dollars on beans, brown rice, and broccoli will leave you feeling healthier and more satisfied.
What does it mean to eat well?
This is another question I don’t have a black and white answer for. I think it depends on what your goals are. Are you trying to lose weight, manage your blood pressure, or eat in a way that’s compassionate toward animals? For our household, we’ve chosen to focus on longevity. Not only do I intend to live well into my hundreds, but I also plan to be healthy and active at that age too.
With that goal in mind, I did a lot of research on what that kind of eating looks like. Right now, we’re choosing to eat a whole food plant-forward diet. That doesn’t mean we don’t have occasional meat, cheese, ice cream, and beer. But I’d say that 80 percent of what we eat are plant-based whole foods. You can check out some of the books I’ve read on the topic below.
Reading a few books doesn’t make me an expert on nutrition so I encourage you to do your own research. And if you have the means to invest in yourself, consider hiring a health coach that can help you tailor a plan to meet your specific goals. If neither books nor coaching are an option for you right now, gift yourself 14 minutes to watch this TED Talk.
The return to eating at home
I initially published this post in June of 2016. As I’ve learned more about what it means to eat well, I’ve wanted to make some updates. And now we find ourselves stuck at home, preparing three meals a day for our entire family thanks to the covid-19 pandemic. So like my last post, I figured there’s no time like the present to hit refresh.
Eventually this thing will be over and we’ll be able to return to restaurants and eat more meals away from home. But as I mentioned in my previous post, you don’t have to. If you feel better and more connected as a family eating at home, you can choose to make this the new normal.
If you’re still not sold, watch this video to learn how eating at home could help you feel better.
Is it possible to eat well on a budget?
For many years my husband, Jer, and I taught life skills classes to people struggling with homelessness and poverty. One of our favorite topics to teach was Health and Wellness because it’s easy to make massive improvements to our health with tiny changes. For example, taking a short 20-minute walk every day could help the average person lose 10 pounds over the course of the year. That’s just 20 minutes a day. Think of what could be possible if you did a little more and stretched it out over five years.
One of the biggest objections we heard while teaching those classes was that eating healthy is expensive. So I came up with a fun little exercise. I went to a bunch of grocery stores and picked up sales flyers. I broke the group into teams, gave them a 40 dollar budget, and had them plan out a week’s worth of groceries from the flyers. Then I had them do it again but with only healthy food this time. Guess which time their 40 dollar budget got them the most food?
Let’s find out with some current advertisements and food prices.
Here’s what you can get with $40 to buy healthy food.
- 1 lb. of strawberries $1.19
- 1 seedless watermelon $3.99
- 4 ears of sweet corn $1.69
- 1 bunch of broccoli $2.49
- 1 lb. organic spring mix $4.19
- 1 seedless cucumber $1.29
- 2 lbs. carrots $1.39
- 1 head of cabbage $1.99
- 1 lb. asparagus $2.49
- 2 lbs. of sweet potatoes $1.98
- 5 lbs. organic potatoes $3.99
- 10 oz. container of hummus $3
- 2 lbs. dry black beans $1.98
- 2 lbs. of brown rice $1.39
- 1 lb. organic polenta $3.99
- 3 cans organic garbanzo beans $2.97
Now let’s see how much we can get with $40 worth of junk food.
- 19 oz. package of bratwurst $4.99
- 6 count brat buns $2.50
- Yellow mustard .99
- Ketchup .99
- Bag of Lays potato chips $2.50
- 22 oz. can of baked beans $1.79
- Frozen pizza $8.99
- 2 Hungry Man frozen dinners $5
- 9.6 oz. bag of M&Ms $3
- 1.5 qt. vanilla ice cream $3.99
- 12 pack of Coca Cola $4.99
Which of these two grocery hauls would you rather bring home?
Here are more tips to eat well on a budget.
1 – Eat seasonally
I put together the example above in late May. As you can see, things like strawberries, watermelon, sweet corn, and asparagus are very affordable. This isn’t the case in the middle of January so my list looks different at that time of year. Not only will eating seasonally save you money, it typically provides higher quality food as well.
2 – Grow your own
If you have the space, borrow a tiller and dig up a plot to plant your own garden. It’s a lot easier than it looks and is incredibly rewarding.
3 – Buy direct from the grower
A great way to do this is by shopping at farmers’ markets. Not only is it more affordable, but the food is also always tastier than what you get in the big box stores.
4 – Cut back on animal products
As I mentioned, I’m revising this post amid the covid-19 pandemic. Across the country, meat packing plants have been shut down and stores have had their shelves cleared by anxious consumers. And now industry experts are projecting a price increase of at least 20 percent over last year.
If you don’t want to completely cut animal products from your diet, look into purchasing meat and eggs directly from local farmers.
5 – Buy in bulk
Check out the bulk section of your grocery store. I can usually get dry goods like popcorn, polenta, and lentils for up to half off their packaged counterparts. I always visit both sections and compare the price per pound to be sure.
You can find similar deals at warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. But make sure you’ll actually eat 12 pounds of brown rice before you go and fill your pantry. Saving money on food doesn’t matter if you end up tossing half of it.
6 – Plan your menu and shop based on weekly advertisements
This is how I typically plan our weekly menu and shopping trip. If mushrooms are 69 cents a pack, our menu for the week might start with a veggie shepherd’s pie, followed by mushroom wild rice soup, and wrapped up with Jer’s famous mushroom mole tacos.
7 – Shop private label stores like Aldi and Trader Joes
It just so happen to love both of these stores. Aldi has great consistent prices on produce. And Trader Joes is one of the best places for organics. Check them out and see what you can find.
8 – Don’t be afraid of frozen foods
You can find great deals on fruits and veggies in the freezer aisle. Not only are they just as healthy, but often less expensive and they taste better. Peas, corn, kale, berries, and edamame are always on our radar.
9 – Stick to your list and budget
This can be easier said than done. Set yourself up for success by preparing a list before you go. Also make sure you’re not shopping on an empty stomach. And while you’re shopping, keep a tally of what you’re spending so you don’t have a big surprise when it’s time to check out.
10 – Cook from scratch
Depending on where you are right now, this could feel overwhelming. While we cook nearly all of our food from scratch today, it wasn’t always this way. We started small and built up over time.
Rather than feeling overwhelmed, just pick one change you know you can stick to. Once that’s a habit, add another. Not only will cooking from scratch save you a lot of cash, but you’ll feel a lot better too.
Find the time
The time it takes to prepare healthy meals is also a big concern for many families. There are a lot of great ways to spend less time in the kitchen. But have you considered how much time it takes to eat out and grab take out?
Before the covid-19 lockdown, the average American ate out about five times per week. This could be anything from cruising through the drive-through or sitting down for a nice meal in a fancy restaurant. To get an idea of how much time the average person might spend eating out, we’ll make the assumption that three of these meals are fast-casual or take out, and the other two are nice dinners out. The actual time spent will vary per person depending on where you live and what you have access to. But for our purposes today, I’ll use myself as an example.
To get your fast-casual takeout meals, you’ll have to drive to and from the restaurant, wait in line, order, and wait for your food. If I were to go to my closest takeout restaurant right now, that would take approximately 30 minutes if I drove, longer if I walked.
When Jer and I go out for dinner, the whole process takes about two and a half hours. That includes driving to and from the restaurant, waiting to be seated, mulling over the menu, ordering, eating, and paying. So if we ate two weekly meals in a restaurant and three nights of takeout, we would spend about six and a half hours on the process.
For health and financial reason, we’ve been eating almost all our meals at home for years. We spend more time on prep work and big meals on the weekend. But on weekdays, I try not to spend more than one hour in the kitchen. So that’s five hours on weekdays and let’s say four hours on the weekends. That’s only two and a half more hours more than if we ate five of those meals outside our home.
The most important thing you can do to make eating at home a reality is to have a plan. I plan one big meal per day based on what I have, what’s on sale, and in season. Based on that plan, I prepare a shopping list and buy what we need. Then there’s never a question about what’s for dinner or whether we have what we need on hand. It saves a lot of time, money, stress, and prevents a lot of arguments from happening.
Here are more great tips to save time in the kitchen.
1 – Use your slow cooker
Since I initially published this post, this amazing new gadget called the Instant Pot has come out. I don’t personally own one, but I hear amazing things from people who do.
Whether you’re using an Instant Pot or a good old fashioned slow cooker, the internet is full of awesome whole food recipes that can be prepared in a jiffy and slow cook while you’re at work. I have lots of ideas on my Pinterest board you can find here.
2 – Batch cook and freeze
I did this a lot when I had a “real” job. I would prepare huge stockpots of soups, stews, and chili, and freeze the leftovers so that we always had real food on hand. I also like to do this when I make casserole type dishes like moussaka, lasagna, and veggie shepherd’s pie. It’s a huge time saver.
3 – Prep on the weekends
Spend a few hours making sure everything you need is ready to go before the week begins. When Jer’s in a season of bringing lunch to work, we’ll often prep for the entire week on Sunday evening.
4 – Take it easy
Learn a handful of quick meals for busy evenings. Salads make awesome quick meals, as do sheet pan dinners and stuffed sweet potatoes.
5 – Try something new
Whenever I’m feeling bored and uninspired, I head to the internet for new ideas. Here are a few of my favorite websites for healthy, budget-friendly meals.
And there are many more ideas on my Pinterest board.
How to start
I prefer to write comprehensive posts that provide all the information you need to get started. Depending on where you are on your own journey to eat well, this could feel a bit overwhelming. So I want to remind you to start small.
The things I’m sharing with you are a culmination of at least a decade of learning and trial and error. We didn’t make big changes all at once, but rather little changes day by day. We continue to do so today. As we learn better we do better.
Pick one thing you’d like to change and start doing it today. If you make a mistake, that’s cool. Just try again tomorrow. Screwing up from time to time is better than never starting.
Here’s to a healthier new you!