When my husband was in his first year of graduate school, I was pregnant with our first child and working freelance jobs until I could find full-time work to keep us afloat. Turns out nobody wanted to hire a pregnant woman who would need maternity leave in just a few months.
My husband and I had saved more than $30,000 to pay for school expenses, but that money evaporated quickly in tuition costs, health care, and insurance expenses — plus a cross-country move to one of the most expensive cities on the map. We sat down to do some hard math on our budget. If we wanted to make it through the year, we could only spend one dollar per person per meal. So we withdrew the cash at the beginning of the month. And when we were out of cash, we were out of food. We promised ourselves we wouldn’t get ensnared with credit card debt.
It was tough to avoid packing on the pounds from carb-heavy meals — because that’s what you get for less than a dollar a meal.
Every breakfast was oatmeal, and almost every dinner was soup.
The hardest part was avoiding weight gain. We got cheese only rarely, and we almost never ate meat, but it was still tough to avoid packing on the pounds from the carb-heavy meals that were rich in pastas, potatoes, and rice — because that’s what you get for less than a dollar a meal. Frozen vegetables were easy to come by, but we also went through them quickly. Fresh produce was almost nonexistent. When we tried to find produce at the local farmer’s markets, we balked at prices that were almost double those at the local grocery.
So many families are in a similar situation. The most recent economic downturn has thrown 46 million people into poverty — the greatest number in more than 50 years, according to the Mayo Clinic. One in five households among certain demographics are food insecure. That includes hardworking families who often carry more than one job to make ends meet.
But while poverty in other countries may look closer to starvation, impoverished families in America are more likely to struggle with obesity.
So how do you keep to a budget while cultivating a healthy food culture for your family?
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Meal planning should begin with a two-thirds proportion of vegetables, said Toby Amidor, a New York-based nutrition expert and author of “The Greek Yogurt Kitchen.” Calorie-dense foods like rice and beans might curb hunger for longer periods of time, but they should be consumed in smaller amounts.
“They’re absolutely dense, but they’re also filled with nutrition. I would rather have someone have a proper portion of brown rice and black beans together — that can actually make it a complementary protein. It has all the amino acids just as meat does. But it should be on the side, about a cup, and that’s it.”
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And while fresh produce is nice, there’s nothing wrong with frozen or canned produce. Amidor said rinsing the produce in the can will get rid of up to 40 percent of the extra sodium.
Christina Major, a holistic nutritionist based in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, recommends families strapped for cash and time make stir fry a weekly staple. Throw in a little oil and some frozen broccoli, peas, carrots — add some soy sauce or teriyaki for flavor — and you have a healthy meal. You can also add brown rice, tofu, or meat, if the budget allows. Major says she used this meal frequently to put her husband through nursing school when cash was tight.
She also said farmer’s markets can be a good option for fresh produce. Be sure to locate the real farmers at the market. “Are these people local farmers? Are they bringing their produce in and selling it themselves? Or are these resellers that are making a profit off the vegetables?” she asks. Resellers mark up their prices close to 50 percent more than the actual farmers.
She recommends purchasing large quantities of vegetables in season and freezing them for the winter months to save money.
Low-income families often resort to fast food for the sake of convenience. “They’re working numerous jobs, have multiple kids, don’t have the time to cook, or they’re just truly exhausted,” Amidor said. “I don’t even know how these people survive on two or three hours of sleep.”
In these cases, she recommends the families learn to identify healthier options. Panera has a controlled-calorie menu. Chipotle has lower-calorie options. Even McDonald’s has a fruit and walnuts option that comes with low-fat vanilla yogurt.
More community programs are cropping up that help families struggling to find healthy options. The Preventive Food Pantry at Boston Medical Center was the first of its kind, but hospitals across the country are initiating similar programs. These food pantries service about 7,000 people each month, providing them with leafy greens, summer squash, plump tomatoes — and anything else in season. Families can also get a supply of meat and milk. There isn’t a lot of red tape to wade through, either. Beneficiaries of the program only had to answer two simple questions during an appointment with their physician to confirm whether they struggle with food insecurity — no paperwork.
In the end, my husband and I were lucky because we both knew how to cook. We baked all our own bread and even resorted to making our own cheese. Being strapped for cash forced us to get creative about our diet. We also got by on the hope that our financial situation would improve once we got through school. Not all families are so lucky.