This is the time of year when the entire country is covered in not only a dark cloud of exceedingly cold weather, but a dark cloud of a little something called nutritional guilt: Everyone seems to be on a diet, and even the slightest splurge (a few pieces of chocolate in the afternoon, anyone?) makes you feel like you’ve failed as a human being living in the year 2014. The word “resolution” is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, and yet it often seems like too overwhelming (and, frankly, un-fun) a promise to make yourself.
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way. Eating healthy without breaking the bank might sound like it involves eating nothing but celery and lettuce for weeks on end, but in reality, it can be both easy and fun. We talked to Chef Megan Bradley, an expert nutritionist who works with Cooking Matters—a nonprofit that helps underprivileged families shop for and cook healthy meals on a budget—who filled us in on tips to make it happen without boring yourself to death. “I’m not expecting that everybody has time to cook a five-course meal every day,” she said. “But how do we make better choices?”
Read on to see Bradley’s top five tips for eating healthier, saving money, and enjoying yourself along the way!
1. When cooking, ask “Can I add vegetables to this?”
“Let say you’re making cheese and chicken quesadillas. If you add shredded zucchinis, carrots, onions, and peppers, you can probably take the same amount of cheese and meat and make [several more] quesadillas than you would with just chicken and cheese,” Bradley says. “When we’re serving pasta, we often don’t think to add veggies; it can be something as simple as making boxed mac ‘n cheese and adding some frozen peas to it.”Be smart about how you buy and use your produce.
2. Instead of buying soda, mix seltzer with a little juice.
“When looking for juices, you always want it to say 100% juice,” Bradley reminds us. “And remember portion size. We don’t need to be drinking a 16-oz. glass. You can mix seltzer water and juice, then you have a sweet, sparkling drink that’s a good substitute for soda.”
3. Don’t be afraid to buy fresh produce.
“A lot of people talk about the perishability of fresh produce. If you see that it’s starting to go bad, you can still find ways to use it: use it in a stir fry. I like to freeze things because I like to stretch my food dollars in that way.” Bradley also suggests using frozen produce. “It can keep freshness and they’re much more economical; the big thing is to look for is the word sweetened or seasoned. That means they’ve added sugar or salt. For health, you want to be adding produce but not sugar or salt.”
4. When you buy canned goods, reach for the low-sodium and low-sugar varieties.
“When getting canned fruits, look for 100% juice, which is usually about half the sugar,” Megan says.”Look for ‘no salt added’ when buying canned beans and corn. With canned fruit, it’s about the same price no matter what. With canned veggies and beans, I have noticed that the ‘no salt added’ option is a little bit more expensive sometimes. If it’s out of your budget, you can also rinse your canned veggies and fruit, which will reduce the sodium content by 40%.”
5. Eat smaller portions of protein, or use protein replacements.
“We eat really big portions of meat, and it’s expensive,” Bradley observes. “Protein can come from animal and plant-based sources, and traditionally the animal-based sources are more expensive. Be thoughtful about mixing your animal and your plant-based proteins. For example, turkey meat can be really expensive; but you can make it stretch by adding in vegetables and beans. By adding in beans, you stretched the meat, but you also added nutrition and you lowered the cost of the meal overall. You can also add rice or other low-cost staples. You stretch your food dollar and also make your family healthier at the same time.”