Food: Fast, Cheap & Healthy

Even without a divorce on the horizon, almost everyone wants to eat better for less.

At first, maximizing your food budget can seem daunting; but, with practice, it becomes creative, fun, and empowering.
The following is a list of suggestions for eating balanced, nutrient dense foods without spending a fortune.

* Before you choose any food, ask yourself: “Is this going to contribute to my well-being?” Naturally, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will; but, sometimes, a piece of chocolate, a muffin, or some ice cream is more soothing. Food is supposed to be satisfying, not merely nutritious. Allow yourself the joy of eating everything you love in moderation, and you won’t binge on it because you feel denied.
As you see how eating a healthy, balanced diet improves your mood and energy level, you will make better choices when it comes to snacks and dessert. Maybe you’ll bake your own muffins, brownies, cakes, or cookies with whole grains, rather than buying a higher fat, lower fiber version that costs more. Whatever you pick, remember: taking the very best care of yourself shows self-respect. The healthiest diet won’t eradicate your grief, but it will support your healing.

* Eat what’s in season, it’s always cheaper. If the thought of eating what’s in season bores you to tears, then cook and freeze what’s available now to supplement your diet in a few months.

* Learn to love to cook. Watch You Tube videos for inspiration on ethnic dishes that are vegetable heavy. Borrow some cookbooks from the library with tantalizing photographs.
If you don’t know how to cook, take the time to learn. Learning to cook is like learning anything else: a real drag in the beginning but easier and easier with each passing day. Think of how hard it was to learn to read and how effortless it is for you now. Cooking is not half as difficult. Remember: you don’t need to be Julia Child, or Tom Colicchio, to turn out fantastic food. Start with simple things, like steaming vegetables, making pasta and rice, boiling eggs, etc. In no time you’ll be making omelets, stir fries, and banana bread. If you know someone who is great in the kitchen ask for a few lessons.

* Use meat, fish, and chicken as a condiment the way most of the world does. You’ll get the flavor without the extra expense.

* Experiment with all sorts of grains: quinoa is full of protein and has a great, nutty taste. Add it to other grains, soups, or casseroles for a nutritional boost.

* Make a big pot of soup once a week. Soup is a wonderful way to use up leftovers, and it’s very filling. Studies have shown that people who regularly eat soup weigh less.

* One of my favorite tricks is to cook a pot of pasta, rice, or other grain, and keep it in the fridge as a base for meals throughout the week.

* By using your slow cooker to make soups, stews, and even pudding cakes (!) you will save a lot of money. It’s extremely easy. (By the way, if you don’t own a slow cooker think seriously about buying one. Four or five quart sizes are the most useful and can be found at garage sales or inexpensively at your local big box store. They use very little energy and let you come home to a piping hot meal.)

* Cook beans from scratch, from their dried state. It’s simple: just soak them in water the night before and drain off the soaking water to make them easier to digest. Typically, they will take an hour to cook. If you’re in a hurry, you can make dried lentils from scratch in 20 minutes. Even if you don’t want to fuss with making beans from scratch, buying them pre-cooked in cans is still an incredible bargain. They’re full of iron, fiber, and protein.
Hummus, bean soups, burritos, salads, are all delicious ways to add beans to your diet.

* Learning to bake bread, if you have the time, is another great way to save money. I have made Indian flat breads, like chapatis, that require no yeast and almost no kneading. They were fabulous, like pitas. Irish soda bread, muffins, and quick breads are other easy ways to stretch your dollars. (That chapati recipe was from one of my favorite cookbooks: Lord Krishna’s Cuisine: The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking by Yamuna Devi and David Baird)

* Eggs are a great source of lean protein. Think of making hard-boiled eggs and adding them to salads, rice dishes (a common practice in Japan), or grated on top of pasta primavera (pasta with red sauce and seasonal vegetables). Omeletes and frittatas use up leftover vegetables, cooked sausage or chicken, grains, and cheese.

* When something you know you will use is on sale, buy as much as you can easily afford; but, remember: it’s no bargain if you don’t use it. I like going to Big Lots for organic items that typically cost three times as much elsewhere (tea, tomato sauce, and some cereals). I have even found dark chocolate there for a fraction of its retail price. If you feel funny about shopping at a big discount store like Big Lots, just remember: it takes no genius to buy retail.

* Fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive, so, in addition to buying in season, think ahead. When I see my local Aldi market (another great place to shop if you know what to buy) has Empire Sweet onions for $1.29 a bag, I saute all of them until caramelized in a little olive oil (another good product from Aldi) and freeze in small packages to add to other dishes later on. I do the same thing with chopped fresh parsley, so I have it all winter at summer prices.

* Another tip for vegetables and fruits is to use as much as you can. Don’t peel your fruits, as a fair amount of nutrition is in the peel. Use the stems of your Swiss Chard, they add a different texture. Save the tops of celery stalks for soups stocks, and use the beet greens as well as the actual beets. They’re just like spinach, and you’re getting two vegetables for the price of one. I know many recipes only call for the white part of a leek, but the green part is great sauteed in a little olive oil with salt and pepper. Add some grated Parmesan or a few toasted nuts, to make this an extra delicious side dish.

* You already watch for sales and use coupons. If you have a favorite brand, go online and see if they’re offering a coupon. Usually, they are. Between sales and coupons you can save a small fortune; but, again, don’t be tempted to buy junk food or things you won’t use. When something junky is calling to you, brainstorm all the other, healthier and more delicious foods you could buy with that same money. For example, you could make a caramelized apple pizza with cinnamon and sharp cheddar for the price of a bag of potato chips. Or, homemade pita chips (from those Chapatis) baked with a sprinkle of parmesan and herbs. Even a batch of oatmeal cookies would cost no more than those bagged snacks. And, let’s not forget about popcorn. Buying the kernels and popping them in a big pot, rather than the microwave, will save money.

* It’s a question of re-training yourself to think before you buy, to see cooking as an adventure and creative outlet, and to commit to spending more time (possibly on the weekend) preparing food for the week ahead. We all know how the best plans in the world bite the dust when you’re starving and nothing is ready. That’s when fast food is especially enticing, so keep those frozen, pre-cooked, and canned foods ready to make something appetizing in a hurry.

*Learn to throw a meal together quickly. In warm weather a big salad with some lean protein (like garbanzos, tofu, and hard-boiled eggs), homemade dressing (see the recipe below), and a piece of whole grain bread with peanut butter or cheese is just wonderful. If it’s cold, you can make a pot of soup with canned tomato puree, beans, chopped vegetables, and spices. Top with some grated Parmesan or nutritional yeast and you’re all set.

* If you can go grocery shopping without the children, please do. It’s very hard not to succumb to requests from little ones who look as if their life depends on you buying that Snickers bar. If not, take them to an aisle of healthy food, like fruits, and let them pick something.

* Don’t waste food. You can accomplish this two ways: plan well and use things up before they go bad. In a pinch, you can freeze most foods to use later. If it’s a vegetable, cook it a bit first, ditto with some fruits, like apples. Berries can be frozen on a cookie sheet and put in freezer bags. Soups and red sauce freeze fabulously.

* There is a lot of talk about organics, and they have become commonplace; however, buying organics can double your grocery bill. You just have to know your prices and what is more or less contaminated by pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics.
A good rule of thumb is to buy all organic dairy products. These may be pricier, but if you have cut back on processed foods, meats, and take-out, you’re still saving a bundle.
Some bigger chains offer house brands of organics. Aldi, for example, has half gallons of organic soy milk that are exponentially lower than national brands.
Generally speaking, when it comes to fruits and vegetables, you can go non-organic for most thick-skinned varieties.

The highest pesticide residues are found in:
1. peaches
2. apples
3. celery
4. peppers
5. nectarines
6. strawberries
7. cherries
8. kale/collard greens
9. grapes (imported)
10. blueberries
11. spinach
12. potatoes

The lowest pesticide residues, are in onions, avocado, corn, pineapple, mango, peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, and honeydew melon.

By avoiding these 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables (or buying organic versions), you can reduce your pesticide exposure by up to 90%. If you check online you can see which fruits and vegetables are on each list every season; apparently, the list can change.

* Fish is an excellent source of healthy fats and protein. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Again, Aldi markets has a wide selection of wild caught frozen fish at reasonable prices. If that’s out of your budget, buy a big can of salmon. Take the bones out (it’s easy as they are all attached to the spine) or mash them up for extra calcium, and add to corn chowder, or a casserole with cooked pasta (or cooked rice) and vegetables. You can use a can of creamed corn thinned with a little milk and spiced with herbs or hot sauce as a sauce. Salmon also makes a great salad, just treat it as you would tuna. I use plain yogurt, relish, chopped celery, prepared mustard, and spices. That same can of salmon can be great in fried rice, a stir fry, or burrito.

*If you love dessert, learn to bake. Oatmeal cookies, sweet breads, cobblers are all easy, fast, and far cheaper than anything from a bakery. The “Divorce Cake” recipe on this site costs a little more money, because of the chocolate, but makes many portions (it’s very rich), and rivals the fanciest bakery dessert for a fraction of the price.

*When it comes to one simple tip to save money, making your own salad dressing takes three minutes, or less, keeps in the fridge for weeks, and is good on grains, pasta, vegetables, potatoes, as well as the usual suspects.

Here’s a very basic vinaigrette recipe:

In a jar with a close-fitting lid put:

1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup vinegar, any kind will do (If you use Balsamic you can add more for a lower fat version.)
1 heaping teaspoon of any prepared mustard
freshly ground pepper
pinch of sugar or 1/2 tsp. honey
dash of salt
any herbs you have, like marjoram, dill, or oregano
a little fresh garlic or garlic powder, optional

Tighten the lid and shake, preferably over the sink, just in case. The mustard aids in emulsifying the vinegar and oil.
(If you prefer a creamy dressing, add a few tablespoons of plain yogurt or mayo.)
A sprinkle of grated Parmesan adds more flavor and protein.


* Avoid buying and drinking soda. Not only is it expensive and offers no nutritional value, the carbonation leaches calcium from your bones.

* Eat fruit rather than drinking juice. It’s healthier, has more fiber, and fills you up with less sugar.

* Eat oatmeal rather than packaged cereal. A few walnuts adds extra omega 3 fatty acids and makes it more filling.

* Make baked stuffed potatoes for dinner. Simply top with whatever you like: pizza-style, Mexican, chili, etc.

* Experiment with tofu and tempeh. There are tons of recipes online to make it delicious and appealing. Most are very easy.

* Use your eyes to choose as many different colored fruits and vegetables as possible. Each one offers different nutrients and health benefits. Aim for a rainbow everyday.

* Entice children to eat healthier by showing them how much you enjoy fresh, unprocessed foods. Let them help in the kitchen when you have the time. Have fun, make your pancakes in Mickey Mouse shapes (one big circle and two little ones for ears), call broccoli “broccoli trees,” and put a smiley face on their oatmeal with some raisins. Take them to a local farmer’s market and let them help you choose some fruits and vegetables. The younger they are when they learn to eat well, the more entrenched those habits will be.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.