5 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Tight Budget

Growing up I was poor. I'm 28 now and I recognize my childhood taught me a lot about what is necessary and what isn't.
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100 percent homemade healthy, affordable, and microwave-friendly meals.

Growing up I was poor. I'm 28 now and I recognize my childhood taught me a lot about what is necessary and what isn't. I was a pariah in school -- always the "new kid." Luckily, the bad crowd didn't want the unattractive, awkward Chinese girl who didn't know TLC stopped being cool two years ago.

My parents were always busy; both of them were usually away from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. That's what poverty is -- adults struggle every day to make ends meet. My parents sacrificed a lot of things, including spending time with me, but a good diet was not one of those things.

So when people say to me "Poor people can't eat healthy because they don't have the time or money to cook. Fast food is the only option," I say "BULLSHIT!" Is it more difficult? Sure it is, everything is more difficult when you're poor. Is it completely doable? Yes, it absolutely is because my mom did it.

My mom wasn't a nutritionist, she thought pizza was healthy and there was a solid month where I ate Costco pre-made frozen cheeseburgers for dinner. However, she did a great job pre-making a ton of stuff so I could microwave it when she wasn't around. Along with the Costco cheeseburger, I ate around a cup of cooked leafy greens.

I've never been overweight, I performed well academically (athletically was another story), and I love vegetables because it was delicious food not "healthy food." The foundation of microwaveable meals pre-made with love by my mom gave me a great start despite being poor.

Here are five ways to cook and eat delicious and healthy food when you're poor and overwhelmed.

1. Cook food that is microwave-friendly or can be easily assembled later on.

Avoid making things that won't taste good when reheated or the next day (crispy food, salads, and food with bread). For the vegetarian banh mi pictured above, you can pre-make most of the stuff and just fry an egg and assemble when you're ready to eat. Every meal pictured can be microwaved later on or quickly assembled so you get a delicious, hot meal fast! This doesn't mean you're limited to only soups and stews, you can see the variety of microwave-friendly foods I like to make!

2. Buy whatever vegetables are on sale and find out what grocery stores have cheap fresh produce.

It's nice to buy organic, local produce. It's also expensive and tough to find. What's more important to you and your family: Being full on inexpensive, healthy foods; being hungry on expensive, organic foods; or being full on inexpensive, unhealthy foods? My parents chose full, inexpensive, and healthy.

We need to stop equating healthy food to organic food because all it does is put healthy eating out of reach for many people. You can buy kale for $0.99/lb. at Kroger for most of the year or you can pay $2.99/lb. at Whole Foods or your local farmers market.

Also, take a bit of time to figure out which store is cheaper and has fresher veggies, don't make assumptions. We have a Compare Foods in Durham and surprisingly, their produce is pricier and less fresh than Kroger! Spending a couple of hours one day to compare different grocery stores in your area will result in big savings immediately.

3. Go to Asian grocery stores for cheap spices and produce.

Whenever I go to a Western grocery store I am shocked at the high price and limited variety of leafy green vegetables, rice, and spices. Along the lines of #2 about spending a bit of time to find cheap grocery stores, I'll save you some time by letting you in on a secret: Large Asian (Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian) supermarkets usually have a huge selection of produce, brown rice, and spices at unbeatable prices.

Smaller mom and pop shops may not have as many good deals on produce, but spices and rice should still be much cheaper! I buy 10lb bags of jasmine brown rice at my local Chinese supermarket and save 50 percent compared to if I bought small bags of it at a Western supermarket. I also buy most of my spices from Chinese or Indian stores and use them over a long time.

4. Buy cheap proteins (eggs, cheaper cuts of pork and chicken, etc.). Eat more vegetables than meat.

A lot of people say that eating meat and animal protein isn't important and you can get all your nutrients from tofu versions. I think it lacks variety, is often more expensive, and isn't very healthy as a lot of the tofu substitutes are heavily processed.

Eggs are a super cheap protein and iron source for growing kids and hardworking adults. My mom scoured the grocery stores for the cheap cuts of meat and made them delicious. But don't make meat the bulk of the meal!

The rule of thumb for my family is: The amount of vegetables you eat should be more than the amount of meat. Guaranteed if you eat a pound of vegetables first, you won't have room for a pound of steak! Easy rule of thumb to build the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.

5. Buy canned goods, frozen fruit, and boxed dry goods -- watch out for sodium! Look for sales and buy in bulk!

I use canned beans and tomatoes all the time, buy frozen blueberries for an easy, healthy dessert, and buy bulk brown rice, couscous, and quinoa when on sale. You don't have to worry about food going bad or weekly shopping like you do with fresh produce.

Be careful about sodium when buying canned items. Look for canned goods that are NOT pre-spiced and find the lowest sodium level. I buy canned tomatoes that have no salt or spices added and I rinse all my canned beans before cooking to wash away the salt. Stick to frozen fruit to avoid syrupy canned fruit. Don't bother with the small Dole bags meant for smoothies, they're overpriced. I buy the large 1kg, resealable bags and mix and match as desired.

Susan writes regularly at spusan.com

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