Part II in a Four Part Series on Eating Healthy

Welcome back!  This is Part II in a four part series on eating healthy.  If you will remember, last week Dr. Ross wrote a blog on the benefits of eating a whole food plant based diet.  This week, we visit with A. B., and her quest for wellness.  As we join A.B. on her journey, we must ask ourselves, “what would we do?”  If you were suddenly disabled, be it from a car accident or illness, would you, could you, rally the way she has?  I think we can all agree A.B. is a strong woman, and a testament to that old saying, “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.  Feel free to leave her a message in the comments section below.

Be sure and join us again next week, when we will hear from a single mother of two, living below the poverty line.  You won’t want to miss that one.

Eating healthy on a budget and enriching your life

By A. B.

You never think it will happen to you.  Then, in the blink of an eye, your world changes.  All of your former assumptions on where you will live, how you will live, and future plans need to be adjusted. 

I was raised in an upper middle class home.  In some ways, considered privileged.  I never needed for anything.  I was an active person and skied, windsurfed, hiked and biked.  I enjoyed fine dining.  Teaching me how to cook was not on my mom’s list of priorities.  She (and my dad) raised me to be a business executive – instilling in me (and my siblings) a strong work ethic.  I began reading the Wall Street Journal at 16.  My dad also started giving me his company’s annual P&L statement and budget to review. 

The story of who I am, and my disability, is for another day. That said, for you to understand what I will share you need to know two things:  I was never in a position where budgeting for food would become a necessity, and I never learned to cook.  Starbucks latte and croissant my typical breakfast; lunch was either at a restaurant with clients or a horribly expensive sandwich at my desk; dinner again was at a restaurant, take away, or delivery.   At one time my monthly food budget exceeded $800.  And that was for a single person.

Needless to say, I fulfilled my parents’ goal of excelling in the business world and had the salary to support my dining habit.  The only time I would “budget” my food costs is when I would participate in an annual “Food Stamp Diet” where you eat for a week on a budget of four dollars per day for seven days.  It was always difficult, and like many others, I found myself sluggish mid-day and suffering from not meeting my dietary and nutritional requirements.

When I turned 50 I became disabled.  Because I had a successful career, my monthly Social Security Disability benefit is higher than the national average (currently just over $1,100 per month); and I was fortunate enough to have purchased a short and long-term disability insurance policy to assure my future financial security.  That said, I don’t have the monthly income I previously enjoyed, and cost cutting measures along with budgeting, became necessary. 

Budgeting is not only a necessity, but a way of life. 

Because of my disability I need to be mindful of what I eat to maintain optimum health.  I can’t afford not to eat healthy. But eating healthy doesn’t mean high costs.

In my old life, I would shop at Whole Foods.  Today is Walmart or WinCo.  I have learned to cook and live on a monthly food budget of $180 – approximately six dollars per day.  That’s less than a McDonald’s meal – which is full of fat and sodium.   I am going to share with you how I have come to achieve this.

First, establish a budget, know there is no room for deviation.  Track food spending down to the penny.  One of my tricks is ordering my groceries on-line from Walmart and then picking up the packages – this keeps me out of the store and away from “impulse buying.”  This service is offered free at various Walmart Super Center stores. 

Second, learn to cook.  With the internet and YouTube, it is no longer necessary to spend money on cook books.  Recipes and demos abound. 

Third, understand your relationship with food.  Most people don’t understand they have a relationship with food, but we all do.  I know few people who don’t think about what they are going to eat and if their choices come from a place of pleasure (a sugar addiction), luxury (an enjoyment of fine wine), or control (through an eating disorder).   But once you understand your relationship with food, you can begin to make choices that maintain health while living within a tight budget. 

Many people don’t believe I can buy healthy food and feed myself on six dollars per day.  And this includes three meals, snacks and often dessert.  How is this achieved?  By thinking strategically and planning. 

First: Meal plan – but not for a week – for a month.  It used to be difficult for me to even think about cooking as a single person, but now I find cooking easy as I cook in bulk and freeze.   

Second:  Don’t buy packaged foods as a means of cutting the food bill.  Packaged foods are not nutrient rich dense foods.  They are often filled with sodium, additives and preservatives which don’t lend towards meeting nutritional and dietary needs.  Many packaged foods most people enjoy are empty calories.  And avoid “junk” food – choosing and eating an apple is far less expensive than having chips and salsa. 

Third:  Understand serving sizes.  We have an epidemic in our nation of obesity.  Part of this has come through the notion of “super sizing” which includes the increase of plate sizes over the past 40 years.   I have a china set from decades ago – the size of the plates are much smaller than what is sold today.   Many people have a notion a portion of protein is eight to 12 ounces.  Four ounces is the USDA recommendation (think size of a deck of cards).  Following USDA recommendations for serving sizes is a simple way to maintain budget and assure you are not over-eating.

My Day:   

I start my morning with a cup of hot lemon water.  This is one of the most healthy beverages you can enjoy.  My breakfast is a smoothie – this includes ½ cup frozen blue berries (or canned pumpkin), ½ banana, one cup almond milk and ½ cup water, two tablespoons flax seed, and scoop of protein powder.  Total Cost:  96 cents.  With this breakfast I have met the USDA requirements for fresh fruit and calcium.  (NOTE:  Many people think Almond Milk is expensive – in reality I buy it by the gallon, and it is only marginally more than dairy – and it has a much longer shelf life in my refrigerator.)

Throughout the day I drink water.  Tap water.  I have an 18 cup Britta water dispenser in my refrigerator.  Every night I fill the dispenser.  In a past life I would drink “Vitamin Water” or other bottled waters – these are expensive and not great for the environment when you consider plastics in landfills or cost of recycling.  Now I have multiple reusable water bottles with one by my side at all times.  (You can purchase BPA-free bottles at the Dollar Store – they aren’t fancy, but they work.)

As a nation we don’t drink enough water.  Often, what we choose to drink is unhealthy, filled with either unnecessary calories, or sugar free diet sodas that are toxic to our internal organs and proving worse for those with diabetes than sugared soft drinks.   

The added benefit of drinking water throughout the day is I don’t “feel” hungry.  And, as studies have shown, drinking eight to 16 ounces of water 30 minutes prior to a meal will reduce the amount we eat. 

Don’t underestimate the glorious miracle of eggs.  Often for lunch I will enjoy a two egg omelet filled with fresh veggies (tomato, onion and mushroom) with a sprinkling of cheddar cheese.  A single egg is less than a dime.  My lunch omelet is approximately $1.25.   One of my favorite deserts is a pear or apple custard.  Three pears, four eggs, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/4 cup flour, some almond milk, butter and vanilla and I have a desert that is less than 50 cents per serving. 

Because of genetics, I am predisposed to diabetes.  With this knowledge, I monitor my carbs.  I no longer eat potatoes or rice.  I love quinoa.  It is more expensive than rice, but when I make it, I add diced tomato, celery stalks, onion and garbanzo beans.  When done, I have 12 servings that averages less than 50 cents per portion.  It is nutrient rich, low carb and high in protein.  This can be a side for a meal, or I can enjoy it as a snack. 

Other than eggs, my protein choices are chicken (boneless skinless thighs, which are juicer and less expensive than breasts), pork (loin is my preference), fish (salmon or catfish), and a splurge once a week on steak.   When purchasing my meats, I look for “manager specials” that are marked down because they are close to their “sell by date.”  When I buy chicken and pork, I freeze until ready to cook.  Fish and steak are transferred to single serving packages for freezing

My week consists of one vegetarian day, with chicken, pork, or fish dinners throughout the week, with a one day steak splurge.   I have learned to make amazing Thai Curry Chicken, Jamaican Jerk Chicken, Lemon Chicken, and Apple and Onion or a Dijon Mustard Pork Loin.  All of these I bake in large quantities, then freeze.   By watching Gorden Ramsay on line, I’ve learned to perfect cooking of a medium rare steak.  I oven poach salmon, and make blackened catfish.  My dinners cost approximately three dollars for the protein, quinoa side, and veggie – either broccoli or mashed cauliflower.   Many of the vegetables I buy are frozen – there are no additives or preservatives in the frozen vegetables I purchase.  Buying frozen for me is cheaper as it eliminates waste. 

When I buy in bulk, I don’t mean Costco.  I purchase foods that are in season which can easily be stored in my freezer or pantry.  In the fall, I buy 20 cans of canned pumpkin for my smoothies when the item goes on sale.  One canned pumpkin can make four smoothies.   Avocados can also be purchased in bulk and frozen (learned this from the internet).   Currently asparagus is in season – buying fresh and freezing it now is better than buying pre-packaged frozen asparagus. 

Snacking throughout the day is important.  It maintains blood sugar levels while also preventing growing hunger between meals that ultimately result in over-eating.  Snacks are typically Harvest Snap Peas (reduced sodium) or traditional hummus with celery sticks.  To maintain my daily food budget, I portion my servings.  I don’t eat from the Harvest Snap Pea bag, but portion the serving into a small bowl to enjoy while I watch a movie. 

My life today is far different than that of five years ago.  Out of financial necessity, I downsized my home and cut back expenses accordingly.  Obviously, a large cutback was my food budget.  That said, taking on the challenge of reducing my food costs with a positive attitude, by strategically planning my menu and purchases, learning to cook, understanding my relationship with food, matched with a desire to be creative, I am actually richer in many ways, enjoying a better diet of nutritious foods.

Much is said about affordable healthcare.  We each have a responsibility to maintain good health – it is key in disease prevention.  Before I became disabled, I wasn’t thinking about the food I was eating.  My cholesterol and blood sugars were out of control and I would gain weight.  Since becoming disabled, I’ve lost weight and my blood work has never been better.  Who would have thought learning to budget three meals per day with snacks for less than six dollars would have such added benefits? 

I hope through sharing my experiences, you too will be able to make the best of the funds you have available to assure you are providing yourself with nutritious foods, and maintain optimum health.    


The following is feedback from Dr. Charles Ross. Dr. Ross wrote the previous weeks blog, and is our Guest DO Blogger for the month of September:
Congratulations on budgeting your food costs and improving your health. I love your suggestions on meal planning and learning to cook. Now I would like to give you a few suggestions as to how to reduce your food expenditures and improve your health even more. Many people believe that it costs more to eat healthy but that is a myth in our culture.
Let’s discuss the healthiest food options available to us. If we follow the science, we will find that the healthiest options include mainly foods that are plant based. The Blue Zones are 95% whole food plant based and they live into their 90’s ad 100’s by 10 times as many people as those cultures that have animal based diets. I suspect that the Kaiser Foundation looked at this science when they chose to recommend a plant based diet be promoted by their physicians in 2013. And in July 2017 the AMA came out with a resolution (cosponsored by the American College of Cardiology) calling on all hospitals to provide plant based meals and remove processed meats from menus. “Resolved, That our American Medical Association hereby call on US hospitals to improve the health of patients, staff, and visitors by (1) providing a variety of healthful food, including plant-based meals and meals that are low in fat, sodium, and added sugars, (2) eliminating processed meats from menus, and (3) providing and promoting healthful beverages.”
Numerous scientific studies show that healthful, plant-based meals can prevent and even reverse heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. The World Health Organization warns that processed meats, are “carcinogenic to humans” and there is no safe amount. “Hospitals that provide and promote fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans are likely to reduce readmissions, speed recovery times, and measurably improve the long-term health of visitors, patients, and staff,” says James Loomis, M.D., M.B.A., medical director of the Barnard Medical Center. The more whole food plant based (the more fiber and less fat) one’s diet the healthier the person. Eating more plant based means eating less animal foods (high in saturated fats and low in fiber). For every 10 grams of natural food fiber you add to your diet you will reduce your risk of colon cancer by 10%, your risk of breast cancer by 8%, your risk of heart attack by 10%. So I suggest based upon the science that you consider improving your overall health by eliminating most all animal products from your diet.
Let’s now address the food cost issue. Beans, lentils, rice, potatoes, corn, squash, oats, barley, bulgar, quinoa, and soy are all very much less expensive food choices than any meat, dairy or egg products. Organic veggies and fruits are at times expensive options (especially out of season). But for those on limited budget just forget about the organic option if it is too expensive. Instead just eat the fruits and veggies that are in season or frozen (usually just as healthy an option as fresh). The benefits of incorporating 5 servings of veggies and 4 servings of fruit will far out way any disadvantage of not eating organic. Most everyone in my classes who have transitioned from the standard American diet to whole food plant based has told me that their food bill is less.
Follow the science and you will save money and find health that you have not had before.
Best of health to you all,
Charlie Ross DO
Lifestyle Medicine

1 Comment

  1. Post-MVA diet restrictions are often the case because of mobility issues. However, in some cases, the opposite is seen — lack of eating. Sure, it’s great for the food budget, but hell on the body. Muscle wasting leads to pain syndromes. Nutritional deficiencies multiplies more problems. In my case, I couldn’t eat enough food to prevent anemia, muscle wasting, even vitamin C deficiencies, etc. In people who survive closed head injuries, it is so important to ask them about changes not just in diet but in likes and dislikes. Food diaries are a must.
    We also live in a society that lives off of fast food. I couldn’t believe watching my first public service commercial urging people to eat a home-cooked meal once a week. HUH???? Since when did this happen? I agree about home cooking. Though it is difficult to cook for just one or two people (with different food likes and dislikes), I like cooking one large piece of protein and then parcel it out throughout the week in different dishes, even different preparations at the same meal depending on who’s eating. Having lived in Alaska, I can do more than 300 things with a salmon filet, and a decent-sized geoduck can make me five gallons of clam chowder. Freezing full meals is another great means. But I do advise my patients to get rid of their microwaves as I have seen weight gain issues with people who have only made the single change of using that to heat meals despite very close caloric similarities. I recommend reading a piece of research done in Switzerland back in 1993 about the loss of nutrition in just warming up mother’s milk in the microwave (the translation is now available in English). Even the USDA stated that microwaving broccoli destroys 96% of its nutritional value. It’s not often that the Feds will admit to information like this. I guess it’s keep it old school from now on. It’s not a bad thing anyway.

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