3 Ways To Eat Healthy When You're Poor
Growing up poor can make you creative when options are non-existent.
I don’t remember eating healthy being a principle I was raised with by my single-parent, working-class mother. She was mainly concerned that I had something, anything, to eat while she was on break between jobs. That usually meant a Kid Cuisine while she took a shower or quick nap, before she threw me in the tub for a bath while she got ready for work. There were many times when she would pick me up after school and take me through a drive through, just so she could get in a quick nap an extra fifteen minutes before heading to another job.
My mom did cook for me but it was a lot of working class meals and sides: potatoes, meatloaf, lasagna, pasta, and entrees that could be frozen and reheated. The entirety of my mom’s side of the family has a sweet tooth, so I had cookies, brownies, and other less than nutritious sweets to munch on as well
She taught me how to cook as I got older, then I started babysitting for church ladies who would provide meals, until I reached legal working age and got a job at a restaurant for more discounted-to-free meals. I was quite active in high school which meant eating out constantly,, grabbing a bite to eat between social activities or events, sports and work. My hometown had an insane amount of restaurants, from family-owned, to corporate, and everything in between, so eating out was what everyone did: any and all youth groups went out for pizza or burgers or to one of the many buffets.
Constantly dining out is a bad habit that I picked up early in life and a very hard one to break. Besides the nutritional consequences, It’s also expensive; even if I were to eat off of Denny’s $2 menu every day, that’s $14/week, $56/month, $672 a year. That is the bare minimum of eating out; most of the time it’s more than that. For the working class, this is not a sustainable lifestyle and can lead to both negative health and financial consequences.
About a year ago, a new forum was created on Reddit, subtitled r/povertyfinance, after many Redditors complained that another sub titled r/personalfinance seemed to only helped people belonging to a certain (higher) economic class. Poverty finance has grown tremendously, providing helpful information about credit unions (good!) and food banks (great!) as well as alerting Redditors to coupons, promotions, guidance on building up credit, or just some support for those needing encouragement. The Redditors in this sub often post about issues, concerns, and triumphs that are more common for the working class folk (for examples, someone posted they had just hit the $1000 mark in their savings account, another person worked for a power company and gave out energy saving tips, another person posted their $2500 ER bill after going in for an inhaler because they were having an asthma attack.)
On r/povertyfinance and another Reddit sub, r/eatcheapandhealthy, food is (rightfully) a big deal and both sites encourage users to visit a food bank or pantry and not to be ashamed if they have no other choice (it’s there for exactly that reason.) Drastically changing eating habits is already a difficult task and practically a non-existent option for a lot of the working class. Eating healthy as an adult was something I always wanted to do, but working two (bartending) jobs and being active and always on the move made it impossible. Sure I could have a nice sandwich with some soup, but that would burn off 30 minutes into my shift. It would be easier to grab something, albeit greasy and fattening, but would keep me full through my shift. As I said previously however, ordering out adds up quickly and is not a sustainable option. So here are some ideas that may help:
1. Invest in This One Tool:
If you can afford it, get the magic that is an InstantPot. It’s a slow cooker, a pressure cooker, a cake maker, yogurt maker, it can sauté/searing, has a steamer and the best part is that it keeps meals warm for 10 hours. This has changed my life and it did help the transition into healthy eating, as a lot of recipes call for (the same) fresh ingredients, so I didn’t feel like I was wasting my money by buying produce that I wouldn’t use in the foreseeable future.
2. Use This Easy Meal-Prep Guide:
Speaking of wasting money on food, it’s difficult to know what to buy when you’re not used to cooking at home. I would buy produce, only cook a little at a time because I only knew how to prepare it a certain way, and then the rest would go to waste. Or, I would eat a ton of fresh produce and then get sick of it after a few days, not eat the rest and throw it out. Fortunately, an online user put together a “zero-effort, zero-cooking time, super healthy meals for those of us at rock bottom.” It’s a bit long, so please follow the link, but essentially it’s a starter pack of cheap yet healthy eating that is catered to the user’s taste. However, it’s a great launch pad for me because I didn’t know what I was doing:
Instead of the wraps, I got some pita pockets so I could stuff them with goodies and I had most of everything else, but I passed on the mint. The meats and dairy is pretty straight forward but I try as I might, I have never been a huge yogurt person, so I opted for rice pudding.
The salad portion might take some adjustments, as I grew up in a land of meat and potatoes and really don’t recall ever eating salad until I moved to California. Because I don’t crave salads and don’t eat lettuce on anything but burgers, so I instead opt for a small, pre-made salad packages so I don’t waste food. Also, making your own salad dressing is quite simple and an easy way to save money on food prep, instead of buying $8 bottles of pre-made dressing you can whip up with just a few ingredients. Another resource i love is the Tried and Trueblog, which has a ton of easy, cheap recipes that you can create or use as inspiration.)
3. Make Your Basics Sexy
Another way that I’ve learned how to incorporate vegetables into my diet without it being like torture is getting chicken or tuna salad and throwing that on top of a salad mix, because it taste like an actual meal, and not just a salad. This not only makes my meals more filling, but also helps me to keep up my my energy at work.
Ramen can be so incredibly delicious when doctored up and is another great option for those on the go. For a quick meal, I cook ramen add eggs, bell peppers, onions and eat over rice (a giant bag of rice will last forever.) There’s so many ways to eat this super cheap food and it’s great for those who want to experiment with taste but not waste money.
In terms of treats, I have a major sweet tooth and eating berries will not cut it for me. The only fruit that quenches that sweet thirst is a pomegranate. When those aren’t in season, I stick with rice pudding with some cinnamon on top or I’ll buy cookies. That’s another thing I do not deny myself: cravings.
I’m doing pretty well with making healthier choices but I do get a craving for burgers, cookies, pizza, etc., because I am only human, I just try not to indulge. If I want cookies, I go into the kitchen without my phone or distractions and eat 3-4 cookies and be done. If I want a burger, I’ll eat a burger. It’s ok to indulge once in a while, if you’re consistently making smarter eating choices. The key is to not overdo it, or on the other hand, to deprive yourself to the point where you want to binge. No food should be the enemy, it’s just a matter of enjoying treats in moderation.
Change can be hard, especially when it’s our diet and tastes, but in the long-run, it’s so much better for our bodies and wallets. Start by adding one or two new healthy items into your current diet each week to help with the transition and look towards the two Reddit sites for extra support. The online communities there are super encouraging And can make all the difference for those looking to make this kind of lifestyle change. Change is hard and you’re not alone in this struggle towards health and wellbeing. We’re in this together!