Between work, school, soccer practice, dance recitals, cleaning, paying bills, and trying to maintain your sanity, it can be hard to find the time and money to eat healthy when you’re on a budget – don’t beat yourself up about it! Social media can be disheartening and fill our minds with the expectation that unless we are eating salads and green juice at the gym 24/7, we aren’t healthy enough. However, if you have kids and are still climbing that career ladder, not to mention dealing with a tight budget, you probably don’t have as much time or money to devote to food and exercise as the typical Instagram foodie or gym junkie.
We know how difficult and intimidating it can be to make healthy changes in your and your family’s life, so we have developed this comprehensive guide to help you make affordable, healthy changes one simple step at a time.
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How healthy you think you are now compared to how healthy you actually are may be light years apart. According to the European Food Information Council, lack of knowledge about healthy eating is not perceived by people to be a barrier to a healthy lifestyle, but it is! If you are reading this article, you are researching how to achieve a healthier lifestyle, and are already taking a positive step towards change: educating yourself. It’s important to arm yourself with knowledge to take action to change your family’s health for the better!
Whether you are excited to jumpstart a healthier lifestyle or dreading it entirely, the most important thing to keep in mind for permanent success is to make one or two small, simple changes at a time. How your family eats and how much you all exercise are habits that have been built up over a long period of time, and it’s going to take a while to adjust to new habits. If you change everything about your family’s diet and exercise routine all at once, you have a higher risk of burnout and reverting back to old habits. This will then make a healthier lifestyle seem like one giant insurmountable obstacle instead of a journey that starts with a single step.
You know your family best, so don’t feel obligated to strictly adhere to the advice in this guide. Pick any of the suggested changes that seem the most do-able for your family right now, and then build on them as time goes on. This is your journey to a healthier lifestyle, and only you know what works best for you and your family.
The two P’s for healthy eating: plan and prepare
Taking a little bit of time to plan ahead for meals and snacks will save a lot of time and money in the long run. One way to start doing this is to sit your family down for 10-30 minutes on a weekend evening and discuss what meals and snacks everyone wants to eat for the next week. With this information, you can compile a grocery list and stick to it! Planning meals and sticking to your grocery list are the top two tips from the Australian Government’s Department of Health for healthy eating. In the next section, we have provided guidelines for healthy foods, but if getting your whole family to sit down together is a difficult task, try this step with the meals that your family currently loves, even if they are unhealthy.
Once your family has moved on to healthier foods, start including one treat or dessert per person in your grocery store list. This will help everyone avoid impromptu trips out for junk food in the middle of the week – trips that seem to be cheap in the moment but end up being incredibly expensive when added up over time.
After a trip to the grocery store, set aside 2-3 hours and prep your meals with your family. These pop-in-the-microwave big batch meals will save you a trip to a fast food place or a restaurant, saving you time and money. You don’t have to cook every single meal ahead of time; pair them with rotating fresh foods that are in season! Refrigerate the meals you will eat within 2-3 days and freeze the rest for the end of the week. This way, your family won’t get bored of eating the same thing and you all can prepare some fresh meals in the middle of the week to mix things up.
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To the grocery store!
Before you head out to the supermarket, make sure you aren’t hungry. It may be one of the most cited tips for shopping on a budget but it bears repeating: if you shop while you are hungry, you are more likely to spend money on higher-calorie, lower-quality foods, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine. These foods are what the Australian Department of Health calls “discretionary foods,” meaning that they are high in calories but low in nutrients, and ultimately not very filling.
What to look for in the food that you buy:
- Foods that give you the most sustained energy for the least amount of calories
- Foods high in essential nutrients and fibre
- Foods in their whole, unprocessed form
What to avoid in the food that you buy:
- Foods high in saturated fat
- Foods high in salt
- Foods high in added and processed sugars
- Foods low in fibre
In order to stick to these guidelines, buy the majority of your groceries from the outer perimeter of the grocery store and stay away from the processed, pre-made, boxed foods that dominate the center aisles. Pre-made meals seem enticing and time-saving, but buying whole, unprocessed foods and making batch meals at home ends up being much more budget-friendly.
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, there are five healthy food groups to shop from in order to follow the above guidelines and get all of your essential nutrients: vegetables & legumes (beans), fruit, grains, lean protein, and lean dairy or dairy-alternative products. You can get the most bang for your buck by buying heartier fruits and veggies that have a much longer shelf life, such as apples and potatoes. Produce such as fruit, vegetables, and leafy greens are cheapest when they are in season. If you have kids, teach them what fruits and veggies correlate with the seasons and ask them what colours of the rainbow they want to eat each week!
Although legumes (beans) are grouped with vegetables because of how they grow, they are a great and affordable source of lean protein. Sources of protein tend to be the more expensive items in a grocery cart. According to the Australia Department of Health, you can save money and extend meals by choosing smaller amounts of lean meats and adding more legumes into your meals. For example, this recipe for Italian Sausage Lentil soup calls for double the amount of lentils over sausage, a ratio that could be adjusted further. You could also substitute regular sausage for turkey or chicken sausage for an option with less saturated fat. If you ever catch a good sale on lean meats, stock up if the budget allows for it and freeze it for meals later on in the month.
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One of the most important and often overlooked ways to improve health on a tight budget is to drink nothing but water. According to the Australian Department of Health, it’s recommended over sweetened drinks such as soda and juice because it contains no calories and costs nothing. Some people think juice is a way to sneak more fruit into your dietary intake but juice contains none of the original fruit’s nutrients because of heat pasteurisation; the vitamins in juice are added back in artificially. It also contains none of the fibre that fruit contains and sometimes contains hidden added sugar.
Establishing an exercise routine
Just like with healthy eating, your and your family’s current exercise routine (or lack thereof) has been established by daily habits. Incorporating more physical activities into your family’s routine should be a fun process, not a strict regimen. There are a variety of free or budget-friendly activities to get moving with your family.
The Better Health Channel explains that walking is a great way to increase your health – and it is easy and free! Walking has been associated with reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, stronger bones and improved balance, reduced body fat, and increased muscle strength and endurance, amongst other benefits. Walking with your family is also a great opportunity for bonding and getting some fresh air. Take advantage of any local free parks to change up location and length of walks.
If you have a yard, games such as tag and hide-and-seek can get your kids moving. If you don’t have a yard and don’t have much access to outside space that is safe for a family walk, the American College of Cardiology suggests some fun and simple exercise games when commercial breaks come on television. You can also move the furniture against the walls and have a dance party! Dancing is a wonderful way to let loose and get your heart rate up without feeling like you are exercising.
Some not-quite-free but affordable ideas for family exercise include basketball, hula hooping, and jump roping which all require a small investment in the necessary equipment. Gardening is another fun way to sneak in exercise and bonding time.
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Remember to have fun!
With all of this information, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. The most important thing to remember is that better health is a journey you and your family take together and it begins with one or two small changes. Change can be stressful, but it can also be an opportunity to bring your family closer together. Motivate each other and have fun with it!