IT CAN BE HARD to find time to make healthy meals, plus—with the convenience of fast food restaurants—why bother? It’s way easier to enter the drive-through at the local burger joint than it is to scramble together ingredients at home and make a healthier version.
But these decisions come at a cost, financial and otherwise. Most fast foods are loaded with sodium and calories, while lacking the nutrients you need for optimum health. This can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure and a host of other complications caused by nutrient deficiencies. Want to eat more healthily? Here are seven pointers:
1. Planning is crucial. If you don’t plan, a large number of items will find their way into your shopping cart that you don’t need and may never use. All of us have bought something with full intention of using it, but then it hogs kitchen shelf space, collects dust and expires. Do that enough, and the opportunity cost becomes real.
Start by writing down your meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner for each day of the week. Create meal and snack ideas with nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Try swapping the empty carbs for healthier options, like almond flour crackers and chickpea pasta.
2. Choose recipes that can be made ahead of time, perhaps cooking on Sunday for the rest of the week. That way, you don’t have to think about it during the week, and instead you can simply grab it and go. Once you have finalized your meals, you can then make your grocery list based on what you need, after taking inventory of what you already have. This list is the key to buying everything you need—and preventing you from wasting dollars on things you don’t.
3. Obtain most of your foods from the outside sections of the grocery store. This is where you’ll commonly find meats, vegetables, fruits, yogurts, nuts and seeds. To be sure, there will be foods you’ll need from the middle sections, like olive oil, beans, frozen vegetables, spices and oatmeal.
But these middle sections are also the danger zone: You’ll eventually find yourself in an aisle where there are processed cookies, cakes, candy, chips and more, all calling your name. Let’s be honest: After a long hard day at work, you’re more likely to want sugar-rush cookies than a well-balanced meal. This is perfectly understandable—but it’s crucial that you stick with your plan.
4. Consider the grocery pickup option available at Wal-Mart and other large grocers. This service means you’ll never enter the store and be confronted with unhealthy choices that could derail your nutrition plans and wreck your budget. It also saves time, which may be your most precious resource.
5. Buy organic, free range and grass-fed foods when possible, because you eat what your foods eat. Yes, these foods can be expensive—but you can save money by buying selectively. A great resource is the “dirty dozen and clean 15” list, which details the foods most commonly sprayed with pesticides, as well as those that are safe.
6. Pick your stores carefully. Trader Joe’s has some of the best prices I’ve seen for produce, nuts, seeds, healthier lunch meats, almond flour, oatmeal and nut butters. Sprouts also has great items on sale from week to week, plus an app that offers a host of coupons. You can find a wide variety of healthy options, including organic meats, almond flour, olive oil and more, at Costco. The prices are great, but the packages are larger. You’ll need to do the math to see if the cost of membership makes sense for you. Another way to save on organic or grass-fed meats is by checking out the clearance section at the grocery store. When they’re available, stock up on good quality meats and store them in the freezer.
7. Go online. Some healthy brands, such as Bob’s Red Mill and Siggi’s Dairy, may send coupons via email when you subscribe to their website. There may also be items that can be ordered for a better price through online providers, such as Thrive Market. Still, use caution with online shopping: Many websites will find a way to tell you what you should buy, rather than leaving you to search for what you need.
Micah Dawson is a senior in the exercise science program at Towson University. She helps patients referred by physicians with their fitness goals. Micah enjoys playing classical piano, as well as baking healthy treats to photograph for her Instagram page. Micah is the daughter of HumbleDollar contributor Phil Dawson, who also recently wrote about health and money.