Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Dieting on a Budget

A while back I did a post on “Food Waste” (http://mytwocaloriesworth.blogspot.ca/search/label/Food%20Waste) in which I discussed how much food is wasted by either buying too much, throwing out too much or not using what we buy to it’s fullest potential.  But what if you cannot afford to buy the types of foods you need to help you stick to your healthy eating plan?  There is a misconception that eating healthy costs more … not so!

During my adventures on the internet lately I came across an article about Leanne Brown, a food studies student at New York University.  When she moved to New York City from Canada she was astounded at the cost of living, particularly the cost of purchasing groceries.  She also noticed that many Americans on a tight budget were eating a lot of processed foods heavy in carbs.  Doing some research she discovered that 47 million people relied on food stamps – that’s a big chunk of the population.  When someone is on food stamps they do not have the same choice everyone else does.  

The first part of this blog is a shout out to Leanne Brown for unselfishly doing something to help.

This was a perfect opportunity to use her studies and expertise in food to do something to help these people find ways to cook filling, nourishing and flavorful meal.  She set out to write a cookbook full of recipes anyone could make on a budget of about $4 per day.  She emphasizes flexibility, and avoids prescribing strict meals and methods.  That means lots of options for substitutions, especially when it comes to the produce aisle, where prices can fluctuate based on season and availability.

Brown states, “Tons of organizations are doing amazing, useful work, but usually their recipes can sound sort of preachy, or else they’re very governmental”.  Brown thinks that these cookbooks exist to tell people the right way to live their lives – explaining what exactly they should eat and how exactly they should prepare their food.  This often turns people off to the recipes.  Brown’s cookbook, Good and Cheap, comes with pages labeled “Ideas”.  There is also a section expressly dealing with the creative us of leftovers.

With the help of a Kickstarter campaign and in the spirit of helping low income families her cookbook is available (for free) online at http://www.leannebrown.com/recipes/ or it can be purchased, by those who can afford to do so, with the proceeds going towards helping underprivileged families.  I am including a sample selection of some of the recipes at the end of this blog or you can go directly to the site and check out the book for yourself.  It is full of creative ideas and beautiful photos.  One fan of the books said, “Many authors have tried hard to come up with cheap meals, but they taste so bad.  Leanne is so gifted.  It’s just incredible.”

Again, very purposely, this was my way of expressing kudos to Leanne Brown, but it also got me thinking about those of us on, maybe, not quite so limited incomes who still want to eat healthy, and possible lose weight on a budget.  There are so many suggestions everywhere as to how to accomplish that … everything from 5 tips to 21 tips.  All of the sources are great and the information overlaps.  With sources from government websites through to Men’s Health citing the same “tips” there must be some validity to them.  I’ve taken the liberty of (somewhat organizing) and listing the most common “tips” here.

Before I get started on that – I wanted to know exactly how eating a budget will not only help my pocketbook, but also my waistline.  I found the most concise information through www.about.com

“Budget living is on everyone’s mind these days.  The good news is losing weight doesn’t have to mean spending more money.  In fact, as you make your waistline shrink, you can make your wallet fatter!  The typical North American spends hundreds of dollars eating out.  You can do both your budget and your waistline a big favor by eating at home more often.  By the time you eat out a few times in a week, you will have spent enough money to buy the ingredients for multiple meals.

What’s that got to do with losing weight?  When you prepare your own food, you are in complete control of preparation methods, added fats, extra calories, AND portion size.  Plus, you won’t try to “get your money’s worth” by eating a too-large portion or by making another trip to the buffet table … not to mention that YOU CANNOT be tempted by a dessert menu at home!

Now, on to the mish-mash of tips I gathered …


  1. Buy store brands.  This may require a little trial and error; the quality of store brand products varies greatly.  The best picks for store brand products are canned goods, frozen fruits and veggies and pastas.
  2. Try a food for the first time?  Invest as little as possible by buying the smallest size instead of those tempting warehouse packages – they are not a better value if they sit in the pantry uneaten.
  3. Never buy multiples of a new product until you’ve tried it.
  4. Stick to the perimeter at the grocery store.  The middle aisles contain the packaged and processed foods, which tend to be higher in sodium and have a tendency to be more expensive due to the costs associated with the packaging.  That leaves the produce, fresh meat, dairy and frozen foods sections, which offer great low-cost and healthy alternatives.
  5. Focus on the unit price.  Don’t just look at the sticker price when you are weighing your options at the store.  The unit price (usually found on the shelf label below the product) tells you how much that box of cereal costs per ounce, so you can compare it to another brand of a different weight.
  6. Skip “healthy” convenience food altogether.  As we all know weight loss has much to do with portion control, but those helpful (?) little 100-calorie snack packs are nothing but a big budget suck.  Instead, keep a measuring cup handy and scoop out perfect portions of whatever you want to munch on and make your own l00-calorie snacks in reusable containers.  Stop paying for the packaging.  If you watch for sales on your favorite smart snacks you save even more.
  7. Consider canned or frozen.  With today’s processing methods canned and frozen foods are just as nutritious and can be more budget friendly.
  8. Shop alone.  Kids, husbands, wives, boyfriends and girlfriends may make your shopping trip more exciting or fun but unless they are on a weight loss journey themselves they probably do not care what is on or off your list.  They have not interest.
  9. Shop the grocery flyers for loss-leaders and for what’s in season.  The bonus being that what is on sale is usually what’s local and in season at least in terms of produce.
  10. For staples and dried goods, but in bulk whenever possible.  One way to make sure bulk purchases last as long as possible is to make sure you store them properly.  Buying bulk for items you will definitely use saves $$ on the per unit pricing.
  11. Buy food for its nutrient density.  When you read labels carefully you begin to realize that junk food is really junk.  If you are eating to maintain your health, you want as many nutrients as you can get and junk food will not cut it.  Inexpensive “superfoods”, packed with nutrients are essential when you are trying to save at the check out.  Eggs and leafy greens are good examples.
  12. Clip coupons.  The best way to save money on groceries?  Coupons!  So many company websites have coupons for their products and even more are available on sites such as www.save.ca (in Canada … sorry I am not familiar with the US sites … but only fair, US has wonderful things like double coupon days).
  13. Sign up for a customer rewards card.  Most stores only allow card-holding customers to participate in store sales, but you can also receive rewards points that go towards future purchases.  When I signed up for rewards cards at my local pharmacy (Shoppers) I was pleasantly surprised that they started emailing and snail-mailing me coupons, special savings day notices and extra points opportunities.
  14. Eat first.  Never go shopping when you are hungry!!!
  15. Don’t forget your list.  Don’t waste time wandering around the store deciding what you are going to eat for the upcoming week.  That just leads to binge buying.  Take an inventory of what you have in the fridge and pantry then sit down with a pen, notepad, and the grocery store sales flyers.  Go through and make a list of the foods you want that are on sale, noting their sale price.  Then make a meal plan of dishes for the following week based on what you can get on sale.  Leftovers can be used for the next day’s lunches.  If you have given up on making grocery lists because (like me) you always seem to leave them on the kitchen counter … these days … there is NO excuse.  There are so many mobile apps available that allow you to have your list at your fingertips.  These are great not only for at the grocery store, but you can add things as you run out.  That way you never forget anything and it saves another trip back to the store … which could lead to further temptation.


  1. Cook from scratch.  It goes without saying that this takes considerably more time, but if you haven’t got the money you’ve got to make up for it by putting in some work.
  2. Try and avoid little frozen dinners that you see labeled “healthy” and “lean”.  They are not very healthy for you … think lots of artery-hardening sodium to start with.  Plus – they are very expensive for what you get.  They may seem convenient but cooking from scratch is the way to go.  You know exactly what is being put into your recipes, and you can just freeze the leftovers to have your “own” frozen dinners. 
  3. Eat a vegetable with every meal.  Vegetables are cheap and keep you full.  Having a vegetable with every meal is good for your health and also your pocketbook.  Try to cover at least half your plate with vegetables and have a small salad before every meal.  It’s a small trick to get your body into eating fewer calories while still feeling satisfyingly full.
  4. Get acquainted with proper portion sizes.  Studies show that almost everyone – heavy people and thin ones, nutrition experts and every day dieters underestimate how much they are eating.  Get started by using a kitchen scale or measuring cups to measure proper servings.  Do this religiously.  After a while you may think you can eyeball the portions, but I know from personal experience, those “guesstimates” get larger as time progresses.  Try making recipes that offer built-in portion control, like mini-meatloaf in muffin tins or casseroles that are easy to divide evenly.
  5. Waste not, want not.  Food waste is one of the biggest hits to a food budget.  Make good use of leftovers and then throw in a few extra fruits and veggies.  Investing in time up front can save you money in the long run.
  6. Don’t just buy in bulk, cook in bulk too.  Buy and cook a whole chicken and throw a portion of it together one night with steamed veggies then throw the leftover chicken on top of a salad with light dressing the next day of another quick and healthy meal.
  7. Ditch the beef.  Going meatless one night a week is a surefire way to knock off pounds and save money.  Skip the butcher and look for hearty and healthy meat substitutes like beans and mushrooms.  A can of chickpeas might cost a dollar, whereas deli meat is much more expensive. 
  8. Bulk up with beans.  Beans are a cost effective, low-fat, and nutritious way of adding additional protein and fiber to your meals.  This will help you feel fuller longer to prevent overeating and snacking.  A hint I hadn’t thought of … buying dried beans that you rehyrdrate yourself is a great way to save at the grocery store too.  You will also knock all the added sodium that comes with canned beans.
  9. Squeeze all the nutrients you can out of the food you have.  That apple that looks less than perfect might go uneaten, and then into to trash.  But – its still food, even if it does not look pretty.  Cut off the bruise, dice it up and throw it into a salad.  Make broth from bones … they are full of minerals such as calcium, phosphorous and magnesium.  The broth can be used as a soup base or frozen in ice cube trays and used to flavour rice and other dishes.  Save your vegetable peels and trimming.  (We all wash our veggies well anyway.) Wash the outside of your eggs before using them because the egg shells are full of calcium and other minerals, and the membrane has nutrients such as glucosamine, hyaluronic acid, chondroitin and collagen … all beneficial to skin and joints.  Put the broth, veggie trimmings and egg shells into the crock pot to simmer all day and you get a nutrient dense soup base out of things that would have normally gone to waste.
  10. Brew your own coffee.  Brewing coffee at home can save not just a few cents per day, but dollars. (She says as she sips on her Tim Horton’s coffee).  If you are too tired in the morning to make your own coffee put it on the night before so you just have to push the button when you stumble into the kitchen in the morning.


  1. Keep your trainer with you at all times.  Not everyone can afford to see a personal trainer and nutritionist, but most of us have Smartphones that allow you to have access to a 24/7 virtual fitness coach.  I cannot even count the number of workout videos available on Youtube!  The creators of “Eat This, Not That” also have an app that lets you compare what you’re craving to what you should be eating instead.
  2. Use group deals to score a cheap workout.  My daughter did this with Groupon and has been going to various “boot camps” for over a year for very little money.  Especially in the first few weeks of the New Year (not as far off as you might like the think), gyms will be rolling out all sorts of special offers on daily deal sites.  Plus, if you are contemplating spending the money to join a gym, this gives you a way of trying out various facilities or classes without the commitment of a membership.
  3. Rethink your commute.  You do not have to buy expensive equipment to get exercise … you can just use your body.  You could try biking or walking to work, if you live within a few miles.  If that’s not an option, skip the elevator and take the stairs instead.
  4. Make your home your wellness center.  If you have a spare room designate it as your “wellness room”.  If not throw a yoga mat on the floor for a designated space.  Then stock up on inexpensive DVD’s, rotate exercise DVD’s with friends or check them out for free at your local library.
  5. Walk more.  The perfect time to start walking more is when you start a diet or health change.  If you live close enough to walk to stores or to do errands walk instead of driving (think of the money you will saving on gas).  Start by walking 10 minutes at a time and work your way up to the hour-long trek through the neighbourhood!


  1. Buddy up.  One of the most powerful resources you have for helping you lose weight, and keep it off, is your social network. Find a buddy who is also trying to lose weight and agree to help each other stay motivated.  Studies find that when friends participated in a group weight-loss program together they lost more weight – and were more successful in keeping it off – than people who did the same program on their own.
  2. Treat yourself.  Rewards and incentives are always good to help you achieve your weight loss goals and they are most definitely motivating.  These rewards and treats do not have to break the bank AND THEY DO NOT NEED TO INVOLVE FOOD EITHER!  Sure a weekend at a spa would be wonderful, but I know I cannot afford that … so how about a new bottle of nail polish and an evening or afternoon spent giving yourself a mani/pedi? 
  3. And finally – Eat Less!  Seems obvious doesn’t it?  Of course eating less leads to weight loss – and
    cost savings but only if you cut down on the right things.  Start by cutting your portions of pricey meat and poultry to the recommended 3 to 4 ounce serving.  Or swap out meat and poultry for cheaper vegetarian proteins like beans, lentil, tofu and eggs for some of your meals. 
    If you are eating out … eat half of a main course and save the other half for lunch tomorrow – an easy way to whittle your waistline while stretching your budget.  Some restaurants will even package half of your entrée before they bring the plate to the table, so you will not be tempted to finish it off after all.
  4. Journal!  Journal!  Journal!  Write down everything you eat.  Do it manually or do it on line at a site like www.myfitnesspal.com.  Just make sure you HONESTLY record every food item you put into your mouth.
  5. There is NO SUCH THING as the elusive MAGIC PILL so don’t waste any of your hard earned money on any of them despite what Dr. Oz, Oprah or Good Morning America have to say about them.  They are always to be taken ½ hour before meals with a large glass of water.  Drink only the large glass of water before you meal and I promise you, you will get the same results!

There is no reason weight loss and health cannot be achieved on a limited budget.  Just go back to the basics … skip the fancy gym, the expensive Zumba classes, the magic pills, the pre-packaged foods and at least a few of those dinners out.  You won’t just stay within your budget – you might actually save a little money to invest in those new clothes you are going to need!

Now, on to some of those Leanne Brown recipes I promised at the beginning …


"* With only 6 ounces of cheese, 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of flour in the whole recipe I think this can still be a contender for a “light” alternative to Mac & Cheese.

This is a classic side dish in Great Britain: creamy, cheesy sauce over cauliflower, baked in the oven until the edges get crunchy and bubbly. It’s like a healthier and more flavorful version of macaroni and cheese. Alternatively, try this with broccoli or cooked winter squash—everyone will love it."

1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
2 tsp salt
1 tbsp butter
3 cloves garlic,
finely chopped
½ tsp chili flakes
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1½ cups milk
6 oz sharp cheddar, grated
 salt and pepper


1 tbsp Dijon mustard
4 scallions, finely chopped
1 lemon, zested
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp thyme

Set the oven to 400 °F.
Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add the salt and the cauliflower, then leave it for 4 minutes.
Meanwhile, butter a baking dish large enough to comfortably accommodate all the cauliflower. Drain the water from the cauliflower and pour it into the baking dish.
To make the sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan on medium heat. Add the garlic, chili flakes, and bay leaf, then cook for about 1 minute.
Add the flour and stir quickly. You want the roux to get just a little brown; this will
probably take another minute.
Slowly add the milk to the pot, stirring all the while to incorporate the roux.
Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring every now and then to make sure the sauce doesn’t get scorched on the bottom. Once it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and stir in the
Drop in any additions at this point. Taste the sauce and add salt and pepper as needed. You should have a creamy, smooth, savory sauce.
Pour the sauce over the cauliflower. Place the dish in the oven for 40 minutes, or until the top is brown and bubbly. You can also add some breadcrumbs to the top
of the dish before baking if you like extra crunch.
Enjoy with a green salad or add some salsa.


"These are kind of like having veggie french fries. The cornmeal makes them super crunchy, and they’re great with a dipping sauce. This breading process can be done with almost any vegetable; some of my favorites include zucchini wedges, bell peppers, and cooked winter squash. It’s sort of like fried green tomatoes or okra, but this baked version skips the expense and mess of the oil, yet keeps the crunch."

½  lb green beans, stems cut off
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 eggs
¼ cup milk
1 cup cornmeal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp garlic powder

 bell pepper sticks
 winter squash
 cauliflower florets
 broccoli florets
 carrot sticks

Heat the oven to 450 degrees F.

Set up your breading station!
On one plate, spread out the flour.
Crack both eggs into a bowl, add the milk, and mix lightly with
a fork.
On another plate, spread the cornmeal, salt, black pepper,
paprika, and garlic powder.
Mix the plate with your fingers.
Spread a small amount of oil or butter across a baking sheet.
A few at a time, take the green beans and dredge them in the
flour. Next, transfer the flour-covered beans to the egg mixture.
Cover the beans lightly with egg mixture, being careful to
shake off any excess egg. Then transfer to the cornmeal mixture
and coat them evenly.
Carefully spread the crusted green beans onto the baking sheet.
Repeat until you’ve done them all. If you run out of any of the
three mixtures, just mix up a bit more.  Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until golden and crispy.
Enjoy hot with your favorite dipping sauce!


"Roasted veggies are always delicious, but there’s something magical that happens to cauliflower in the oven. It gets so crispy and nutty, and that flavor is brought out even more with the spices here. I’m happy to just eat a bowl of this for dinner, maybe with an egg on top."

1 head cauliflower, cut into small pieces
2 cloves garlic, unpeeled
1 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp smoked paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper
 salt and pepper

Turn the oven to 400 °F.

In a medium-sized roasting pan, arrange the cauliflower pieces and the unpeeled cloves of garlic.
Pour the butter over the cauliflower and then sprinkle the spices over top.
Use your hands to thoroughly coat the cauliflower with
butter and spices.
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on how crispy you like the florets. Squeeze the
roasted garlic throughout and trash the skins.


"This is one of my favorite ways to use roasted cauliflower other than eating it straight. It’s a delicious change from the usual vegetable taco offerings. Just look at all those crunchy bits!"

roasted cauliflower (above)
6 tortillas ½ cup cheese, grated
½ cup salsa or sauce of choice

Warm up the tortillas in the microwave for 20 to 30 seconds, or put them in a warm
oven covered with a towel while you prepare everything else.
Place two to three tortillas on each plate and fill with a generous serving of cauliflower.
Sprinkle the grated cheese over top and drizzle with salsa or
sauce of your choice.



"When a reader named Quinn suggested a recipe that used both lentils and meat, I started thinking about how veggie burgers and beef burgers each have their own strengths. Why not combine the two ideas to create a burger with meaty flavor but the lean protein and low cost of lentils? And so I offer you the half-veggie burger. May it rest a little lighter in your belly."

3 cups lentils or beans, cooked
1 cup bell pepper or other vegetable, finely chopped
1 lb ground beef or other ground meat
1 egg (optional)
 salt and pepper
8 buns

You can use almost any vegetable to make these burger patties, except lettuce and other greens. If you pick a hard vegetable like potato, squash, or eggplant, you’ll need to cook it first.
Roughly mash the lentils. Make sure the vegetables are either small to begin with (like corn or peas) or finely chopped so that they cook evenly. This recipes includes bell pepper.
Mix the lentils, veggies, and meat with your hands in a large bowl.
If you’re going to barbecue, add an egg to keep them from crumbling.
Season with salt and pepper.
Form into 8 patties.
Grill the patties either on the barbecue or a pan on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Sear until dark brown on one side, then flip ’em and do the same on the other side.
If you want cheeseburgers, lay cheese on the patties after flipping them once.
Serve on toasted buns with your favorite condiments and fresh vegetables.

Burgers are a great place to be adventurous!

If you won’t eat all the burgers at once, wrap the raw patties in plastic. Refrigerate for a few days or freeze for up to 2 weeks.


* Leanne’s note – I’ve included this recipe just because I thought it looked so very pretty and could imagine it on the dinner table.  Although rice, like many other grains, is not always considered to be a “light”, grains are an important part of any sensible and healthy eating plan.

These treatments work for grains other than rice as well—everything from quinoa
to barley to farro. Vegetables are a great way to liven up the usual rice and beans.

1 cup rice
2 cups water

1 cup canned tomatoes, puréed
1 cup canned winter squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato, puréed
1 cup frozen spinach, beet greens, chard, or fresh parsley

To make normal rice, pour 2 cups of water into a pot with 1 cup of uncooked
rice and two pinches of salt. That’ll be enough for two generous portions, or
three or four smaller servings. With the lid off, bring to a low boil over medium
heat, then turn the heat down to low and put the lid on slightly askew, so that
the steam can escape.
Cook for about 20 minutes, until the water is all gone.

RED RICE: Stir the tomatoes with 1½ cups of water, then pour it into a pot with
1 cup of uncooked rice and two pinches of salt. Cook as above.

ORANGE RICE: Stir the squash, pumpkin, or sweet potato with 1½ cups of water,
then pour it into a pot with 1 cup of uncooked rice and two pinches of salt.
(You can also use frozen, boiled, or sautéed squash.) Cook as above.

GREEN RICE: Chop up the spinach as much as you like. The more finely chopped,
the more it will disperse into the rice. Cook normal rice, as above, for about
15 minutes, until most of the water is gone but not quite all. Mix the spinach
into the rice. Cook with the lid off for the last 5 minutes. Adding the spinach at
the end keeps it lush and bright, rather than the sad color of overcooked spinach.

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