Ensuring your family has a well balanced, nutritious diet can be difficult. Achieving it on a budget can be a nightmare! However, with a bit a planning, a few tips and tricks, and a willingness to try some new things, you can improve the health of your family and your bank balance.
The first tip is to make sure you have a reasonable handle on what a 'healthy' diet really entails. Of course there are varying degrees of dedication to a 'healthy diet' and much contention about what this really means; vegetarian, vegan, organic, raw food diets, all-smoothie diets??! You need to decide what is important to you and your family, which may include any number of health, environmental, cultural, or ethical considerations.
With these personal preferences in mind, look to The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (below), to guide the contributions each food group should make to your diet across the day.
Now I am not saying you should only buy frozen produce, just highlighting that buying enough fruit and vegetables to meet the recommendations is possible even on a very tight budget. Buying frozen fruit and vegetables is just one way you can start to fit a healthy diet in the budget. Nutritionally they are equal to fresh produce, some would even argue better! When buying fresh produce, choose whats in season. These will be the cheapest and more likely to be grown locally (not overseas). For fresh produce that doesn't have a very long shelf life, like bananas, avoid buying more than will be consumed in a few days, this will help to reduce waste. If you do end up with over ripe bananas, or an excess of other fresh fruit and vegetables (berries, spinach and tomatoes come to mind), they can be frozen and used in cooking later. Buying preserved (canned) fruits and vegetables is another option, however always buy fruit in natural juice and choose 'no added' salt vegetables.
When making sure your families daily recommended intakes are being met it is not just fruit and vegetables we need to think about. Portion sizes and recommended intakes for meat are often exceeded, which can increase the cost of your shopping and add saturated fats to your diet (many meats, particularly red and processed meats are high in saturated fats). As a very crude guide, meat portions should be similar to palm size. Consider the palm size of each of your family members when portioning their meat, remembering that children have very small hands. For exact measures and number of recommended serves of all food groups refer to the Eat for Health website.
You can also consider using alternatives, such as lentils, dried and split peas, beans, or chickpeas in place of meat or make your meat go further by adding them to your dish, i.e add lentils to mince. Movements like Meat free Monday and Meatless Mondays Australia, advocate for meat free days to not only help your health but also the environment. If you are not familiar using these meat alternatives these sites have some great recipes to get you started (or you could just opt for simple 'no added salt' baked beans on toast! - this would also contribute to your daily vegetable intake, it's win, win!).
Stocking up on items when they are on sale also works for products like canned tuna/salmon (in spring water/ no added salt), which can help you meet the recommended three serves of fish per week. Wholegrain breads, wraps, muffins and rolls, reduced fat/low fat milk, cheese and yoghurt, as well as lean cuts of meats all can be frozen too.
Simple switches from regular products to 'no added salt,' reduced fat or low fat, wholegrain varieties of breads, or 'no added sugar,' doesn't cost any extra, but can make a significant impact on your long term health. Other simple switches can also help save money, like using UHT or powdered milk in cooking and saving your fresh milk for drinking and cereal.
Planning a weekly menu and using a shopping list can save you both time and money. Plan the meals you will have for the week, plan left overs for lunches, and build a shopping list accordingly so you have all the ingredients and enough serves of fruit and vegetables for the week. This will help avoid going back to the supermarket to 'top-up.' Topping-up can cost you more, especially if temped by impulse buying, which is certainly not good for your health. Knowing your budget and sticking to it is also important.
Put your smart phone to work! Use the calculator on your phone to make sure you are on track with your budget while shopping. There are also heaps of apps that let you select recipes and build shopping lists, find inseason produce, and select the healthiest product. Check out 'My app-solute favourites' post which reviews my favourite (free!) nutrition and fitness apps. Remember to consider unit pricing when choosing products, this allows you to compare products more accurately and get the best value. While talking about value for money, keep in mind that manufactures pay for product placement on supermarket shelves. That is, certain manufactures pay to have their products at eye level to encourage you to reach for their product. Be aware of this and remember to check the lower shelves too.
Avoid the center aisle - as a rule of thumb, shopping the perimeter aisles of the supermarket exposes you to fresh produce and avoids the processed stuff, which is not good for your health or the budget! Avoiding processed foods that you are accustom to snacking on may be difficult initially but by finding healthier, cheaper alternatives you'll save some money and improve your health. For example, swap chips and salty snacks for popcorn kernels which you can air pop in the microwave and flavor with herbs or spices such as cinnamon or chili.
Make your own. Jar and bottle sauces are a pet hate of mine, they are loaded with salt and are well over priced (in my opinion). It is so simply to use tin tomatoes and a few herbs to make your pasta sauces, plus you can hide loads of veggies in it. Look on The Kids Menu recipe page for a simple tomato based pasta sauce recipe and a quick and easy milk based sauce that can be used for pasta or lasagne, or as a cheese sauce to put over steamed vegetables.
Baking your own lunchbox snacks, like fruit muffins or savory vegetable pancakes (tuna and corn is a favourite in our house), is far cheaper and healthier than buying pre-packaged snacks. Most of these snacks can be made in bulk and frozen. Keep a variety in the freezer and pack something different each day (it will defrost in the lunchbox). Getting the kids involved in cooking is not only a fun activity but also encourages them to try a variety of food. In my house we spend Sunday afternoon baking and making things for the coming weeks lunchboxes.
Leftovers are also great for lunchboxes for school and work. Using leftovers reduces waste, which again saves money. By serving less on your plate at meal time (or swapping to a smaller plate), or portioning out leftovers before serving plates, means you eat less and have lunches ready for the next day.
Shopping around for lower prices, produce and products on sale, or buying in bulk or from wholesalers, might be an also be an option to reduce the cost of your shopping, although this is not always convenient. Look in your local area for farmers markets or co-ops. These give you access to fresh local produce which can often be cheaper and supports local business. There are some great business initiatives around like FROG, which use there buying power to supply local and organic produce and products at affordable prices.
Once you start talking organic however, it is important to be realistic. Although you might consider buying organic to be the healthiest option, if it is not in the budget, the benefit of eating fruit and vegetables still outweighs the risk of pesticides.
Finally, the good old fashion veggie patch might be for you. Harvesting your own fruit and vegetables is very rewarding however, a successful veggie garden can start to get expensive if you are really dedicated to assuring the quality of your produce. Do your research and find out what grows best in your area. Alternatively, a small herb garden can grow almost anywhere, even in doors, and has almost no expense to set up. Growing herbs are great as purchasing then fresh can be expensive and they can be used to add flavour to homemade sauces and meals without the salt.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.