I remember waking up and realizing that I had no money for food. I remember cursing my lously money management over the last month, but it made no difference. No money was no money. And my emptry pantry remained empty.
Being broke when it’s not by choice can be seriously stressful, and I think the “what will I eat?” question has got to top the list of cortisol-boosters.
This is true generally, as human beings who need to eat regularly to survive. It’s even more true in a culture where a missed meal is about as common as an honest politician.
So when a friend of Katia’s gave us a couple Russian Rubles to go shopping, I was hugely grateful as well as relieved. Yet it’s not like the stress just disappeared. We still had to figure out how to use such a modest sum to meet our food needs for as long as possible.
If you are currently broke or are dangerously close, then you’re probably feeling the heat when it comes to doing grocery shopping. How can we continue taking the best care possible of our nutritional needs (and possibly those of our family) when money is tight?
Of course, it would be great if there was an easy way to get our hands on some more money – but this is rarely the case for people in a financial crisis.
The most important thing we can do is maximize the use of what we have – however little it may be. In a position that can easily feel hopeless, having the confidence that we can really utilize the heck out of whatever is available can give us a small bit of comfort and confidence in our ability to get through this tough period.
There are some generic and obvious tips such as clipping coupons and looking for sales, but I want to take a look at something else: What foods should we be looking at in the first place. A sale on caviar isn’t going to do somebody in a financial crisis any good – so we’ve got to start with the basics: food choice.
Our goals are threefold: Get as much nutrition as possible, feel comfortably full, and enjoy our food. I’m never one to join the “repress for success” camp, and demanding of ourselves a diet of bland, boring food is not a sustainable way to stick to a tight budget.
So first we’re going to look at what to buy, and then on how to make it tasty, all while spending just a couple bucks per day (usually under $4!).
It’s in vogue to be on some special diet and give ourselves a food label such as “I’m vegetarian”, or “I’m paleo” or “I’m doing Atkins.”
Right now, it’s time to drop the labels. While we’re in a tough financial situation, all food is food, and all nutrition sources are valid. We’re looking for the things that pack a nutritional (and flavor) punch and not what conforms to some external dogma about what is “right” to eat. This, I would hope, will be your relationship with food forever more, one without judgment. For now we’re going to be happy waiting for there to be a bit more cheddar in your wallet before deciding if it’s right to put on your plate, capisce?
Let’s start with what NOT to buy:
1) Drinks: In terms of dollars-per-nutrient, one of the worst choices we can make. Drinks tend to be sugar-loaded water with occasional splashes of fruit juice. Even if you’re thinking about going for a 100% fruit juice or milk, your dollars will be better utilized on food, which will make you feel more full and will provide more nutrients to your body.
2) Bread products: We’re used to making bread products a nutritional staple, but they are nutrition-poor and don’t do much for satiety either. Bread, as far as our bodies are concerned, is mostly cheap sugar. Breads are often cheap, yes, but there are many affordable options that do way more for both satiety and nutrition. Stay away!
3) Store-bought Sauces/extras: I know, I know, condiments are tasty. They also do very little so far as satiety is concerned. Nutritional content also tends to be low if we’re talking salad dressings, BBQ sauces, and the like. Instead, we can make our own sauces from fruits and veggies that are less expensive, more filling, more nutritious, and honestly – tastier!
If you really must break the bank on flavorings, go for spices: cinnamon, tumeric, paprika, etc. These, at the very least, tend to have some nice nutritional benefits.
4) Anything that’s not home-cooked: Restaurants, even/especially fast food – are out. Lots of fast food is cheap, it’s true. But if you want to have the strength to get through a financially difficult time, punishing your body with high-calorie, low-nutrient, salty, sugary, fatty food is not the way to do it. Any of the options below will be superior both for your dollars and your health.
Of course, this section is not meant as gospel as prices will vary from location to location. Use your own best judgment and comparison shop, and swap things in or out as logic seems to dictate.
1) Potatoes: Surprisingly high in nutritional content and containing a newly discovered carbohydrate called “resistant starch” that is a slow burning fuel for the body, potatoes crush bread products across the board. Plus there are lots of ways to cook them both alone and in dishes, so hopefully you can find a variety that suits your palate.
2) Lentils: Beans and peas to the rescue! Lots of protein in these little fellows, and a great way to feel full. I actually rather like beans and peas straight up, with no added flavors or ingredients, but they go great in a salad too. Or with potatoes. In any case, they’re cheap, quick to prepare, and will keep you on your feet.
3) Eggs: Often the cheapest source of animal protein available and a potentially important way to round out our diet. They go with pretty much anything too. I like to add some turmeric if it’s available. During a financial crisis, these are one of the best things you could possibly buy.
4) Seasonal/local produce: Whatever fruit and vegetables can be had at the lowest prices tend to be those produced locally and in season, so those are our best options and will make up a large portion of our nutrient cross-section – as well as flavor/fun cross-section. Put in some effort here, because these really are the only good options available when it comes to affordable, healthy, and flavorful.
Onions, tomatoes, apples, broccoli, leafy greens, squash etc.
5) Rice: It doesn’t have to be boring! By adding fresh veggies, nuts, and/or eggs to rice, you can turn this bland sounding option into a flavor party. Rotate between brown, white, red and wild rices for added variety.
6) Peanut butter: Nuts are a good source of protein and healthy fats, and peanut butter is one of the cheapest options available. Maybe because peanuts are technically legumes, not nuts. No matter, stock up.
I don’t consider myself particularly skilled in the kitchen, but I know one of the most important aspects of eating well is having some good recipes to use. The above list may not seem very inspiring, until we realize that with some creativity we can make some really tasty things for cheap. Like mixing scrambled eggs, cooked in butter, with tomato sauce – and adding salt and pepper. Or oatmeal – plus lime! Simple and delicious.
Things can get better – and the best way to start is maximizing what we already have. And by getting proper nutrition, we’re putting ourselves in a position to improve the other areas of our lives.