5 Steps To Eating Healthy On A Budget : Life Kit Dietitian Shana Spence joins Life Kit to share her tips to making nutritious meals without spending more than necessary.
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Don't Be Fooled By Buzzwords: Here's How To Eat Healthy On A Budget

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Don't Be Fooled By Buzzwords: Here's How To Eat Healthy On A Budget

Don't Be Fooled By Buzzwords: Here's How To Eat Healthy On A Budget

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RUTH TAM, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Ruth Tam.

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TAM: Walking down the grocery aisle, you'll see lots of labels jumping out at you about how healthy they are.

SHANA SPENCE: Natural. Organic. Non-GMO. Low sugar.

TAM: That's Shana Spence. She calls herself an eat-anything dietician.

SPENCE: That doesn't mean anti-health. It just means that there are ways where you can enjoy food and not be scared to eat foods that you like. And you can still be, quote-unquote, "healthy."

TAM: You really don't have to look for those buzzwords in the aisle to get the nutrition that you want, you know? Like, vegetables come in many other forms besides a cold-pressed juice.

SPENCE: You know, organic is fine if that's what you want to buy, if that's what, you know, how you choose to spend your money. But for someone who can't afford that, for someone who is struggling, that's not necessary.

TAM: So on this episode, how to mind your budget while still eating the foods that nourish you. Shana will give us tips for planning, grocery shopping and stocking your freezer.

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TAM: When people imagine going to the store and picking up healthy foods or drinks, what do you think they're drawn to? Specifically, when it comes to, like, buzzwords, branding, packaging, what do people think of as healthy food?

SPENCE: Anything that says natural, I notice. Also, organic, non-GMO, low sugar, low fat - things like that people are definitely drawn to. And that's all well and good. Listen; I still say all food's fit, so whatever you want. But at the same time, I don't want people to think that they have to spend a ton of money to be healthy.

A lot of times, especially - I notice with large families, they tend to feel a little bit of shame because they can't afford the organic stuff or the non-GMO things. And they think that they're doing a bad job providing for their family. And that's not necessarily the case. You can still eat healthy without the buzzwords, like you said, and especially things like low sugar or, you know, fat free. I always tell people, you have to remember, whenever something is being taken out of a product, they're replacing it with something else. So it's either artificial sugars, a lot of fillers. So it's just - it's really important just to be mindful of that.

TAM: What foundational truth should we walk into a grocery store with? If we're not going to rely on marketing, like, what basic tenets of nutrition should we be buying food with?

SPENCE: I always say definitely buy foods that you will eat, that you enjoy because, again, it's your palates, it's your taste buds. So that's always important. But definitely find foods that are going to nourish you, that are going to fill you up. I'm a big fan of, like, canned beans, you know, even canned vegetables. I know a lot of times people don't think that's healthy, but it definitely is. You know, a lot of times, people kind of assume that fresh is best. And that's not necessarily the case. Some cases, the frozen vegetables and fruits actually last longer, same thing with the canned. You know, it comes down to taste preference. But it's just about how you cook with them, how you work with them.

TAM: Can you tell me why you think that some people think canned foods aren't great? Are you talking about, like, canned ingredients, like canned beans...

SPENCE: Yeah.

TAM: ...Or, like, canned meals, like a Chef Boyardee situation?

SPENCE: Whenever something is canned, you do have to preserve it and it's usually with salt - right? - it's usually with sodium. And the only thing that you have to do, though, is when you open the can, you just rinse out (laughter) what's inside. So you know, if you want to - I don't have time usually to soak beans. But, you know, if you want to, that's totally fine. But what I usually do is I just open a can of beans. And I rinse off the beans, you know, because it is usually preserved with salt. Same thing with the canned vegetables. You just rinse it off. And it doesn't make it any less healthy.

TAM: Right. If you're feeling like, oh, man, I need to start eating healthier - like, I don't know about you. But, like, I always overcompensate and get all these things. And then I run the risk of wasting stuff. So frozen and canned stuff kind of helps me, like, be more realistic and integrate healthier ingredients, like, as I'm able to cook them as opposed to, like, stocking up my fridge with a ton of, like, fancy farmer's market produce and, like...

SPENCE: Right. Right.

TAM: ...Having some of it go to waste because I can't get (laughter) rid of it.

SPENCE: Exactly (laughter). Yeah. And there's nothing wrong. Like, I just want to make it clear, there's nothing wrong with fresh produce, you know, if that's what you want, for sure. But like you said, definitely, food waste is a big factor here because a lot of times I myself also forget what's in my fridge, what I purchased. So it just makes it easier if something is frozen because it's always going to be there and it lasts longer. So that's the only thing. It's not that fresh isn't good (laughter).

TAM: A lot of times I am going into the grocery store with the objective of wanting to eat healthier. But then I get kind of paralyzed when I'm in the aisles. And I can't really translate my desire to eat healthier into, like, actual recipes or solid, you know, repeatable habits. How can I give myself an actionable plan for both eating healthier and kind of maintaining my budget?

SPENCE: Personally, whenever I'm meeting with a client and we're kind of going over, like, how they eat, their eating patterns, one thing I always recommend - I never say that I'm going to take out anything, right? So I never tell them, OK, you can't have this. I'm an all-foods-fit person. So what I do is I actually think of ways to add in more fibrous foods, more vitamins, more nutrients. So let's say you're a really big pasta person. That's fine.

So what you can do is make your pasta. But what vegetables can you add in - right? - to kind of bulk it up, to add more fiber? And those vegetables that you can add in, again, can be frozen, can be canned. I remember I was working with this one client. And she loved ramen noodles. And she was so scared that I was going to take that away from her, tell her not to eat it. And I said, no, that's totally fine. But why don't you add some protein in there to make it more filling?

So adding in either beans, adding in chicken, tofu, whatever, you still have your noodles - and also adding in, maybe, some peppers, maybe some carrots, things like that. So you're still eating the food, but you're kind of what I call bulking it up with nutrients.

TAM: Right, think of what you can add instead of what you can subtract. Growing up, my parents, you know, they were - they taught me to be super budget-conscious. And when we would go grocery shopping, my mom would - she would calculate the entire grocery bill in her head every time she added something to the cart. And I need to get better at this, personally.

SPENCE: (Laughter).

TAM: Do you have tips for keeping track of your grocery tab as you're walking through the aisles?

SPENCE: Personally, I'm a big fan of making a list. I think that's so helpful because I - just going off of my personal experience, I either buy things that I already have in my apartment or I forget things. And also, once you start writing things down, and especially the foods that you're kind of rebuying constantly, you already have a sense of how much something is. So even if you don't know the exact price, you've purchased it enough where you can kind of do a general tally in your head. I think that making a list are just super important because, again, you kind of either overestimate what you need or what you have or you forget something. And also, you can kind of see, like, what your tally is going to be at the supermarket.

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TAM: Thank you so much for your time and your advice. I've benefited from this just personally.

SPENCE: Oh, good (laughter).

TAM: So let's recap. You can still eat healthy without buying foods with labels like organic, non-GMO or all natural. Buy foods you will actually eat and that will fill you up. People assume fresh is best. But frozen and canned foods are healthy, too. Since they last longer, they can be easier on your wallet. When you're shopping, make a list. That way, you won't buy things you already have, and you won't forget anything. Once you start seeing repeat items, you'll get a better sense of how much they cost and how to factor them into your budget long-term.

Instead of eliminating your favorite foods, supplement them with nutritional ingredients. If you're buying instant ramen, for example, add a protein like chicken, beans or tofu. And finally, customize your meal plan and your spending to your needs, not someone else's because, I don't know who needs to hear this, but if you can't afford certain foods, that's OK. You can still eat healthy.

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TAM: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have one on how to stop stress spending and another on decoding food labels, plus tons of other episodes on parenting, personal finance and health. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. This episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Clare Lombardo is our digital editor. Meghan Keane is our managing producer. And Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Ruth Tam. Thanks for listening.

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