How to cook and eat healthy on a low budget

By: Callum Denault

Published on: November 21 2022

Photo: Ariel Núñez Guzmán (Pixabay)  

Food is something everyone should always have access to, although the sad reality is that it can often be too expensive for many to afford. 

Immigrants and refugees often struggle to find affordable housing, and in a 2011 survey, newcomers were found to have a 33 per cent chance of being poor. With this in mind, it would be understandable for many newcomers to have trouble buying enough healthy food, as important as a good diet is for overall health. 

Not all food sources are equal, and sometimes being full does not mean a person is getting enough nutrients to be healthy. As The Newcomer covered in a pervious article, nutritional deficiencies are common among newcomers in Canada. Vitamin D deficiency and iron deficiency are common around the globe, while newcomers are at risk of lacking several other important micronutrients as well.  

Having a history of food insecurity, such as going through periods of social or economic unrest, can put newcomers at risk of health issues. From dietary restrictions to the types of fruit, vegetables, and meat one eats—including cultural or religious restrictions—can put people at risk. Certain deficiencies can be solved through pills and other nutritional supplements. 

If you are looking for ways to save money while still eating full, nutritional meals, hopefully the advice below can help. 

Buying cheap ingredients  

The most inexpensive groceries you can buy tend to be dried goods, canned food, seasonal produce, pantry staples, and seasoning/flavouring. Dried foods are cheaper when sold in bulk and canned goods can be bought wholesale to save money as well. 

To avoid getting food-ruining pests such as pantry moths, it is a good idea to store recently-bought dried goods in your freezer for a week to kill any traces of insect eggs on them. Also make sure you store goods like flour in airtight containers, since moth larvae can easily chew through paper and plastic. Keep small groups of dry spices in the fridge and store large bags of pet food in another room away from your pantry.  

When produce such as fruits and vegetables are in season, that means it is the time of year these plants grow the easiest. Buying crops in season often means they are cheaper and fresher, as long as you avoid more exotic produce. 

If you struggle getting through fresh produce fast enough, frozen fruits and vegetables can be just as nutritious. Some frozen veggies are sold for as little as $1.50 a bag. Buying frozen produce or freezing fresh foods yourself is a good way to afford certain items even when they are out of season. 

          Photo: Tom Fisk (Pexels)  

Cooking dry beans and lentils from scratch 

When buying in bulk, dry beans can be a lot cheaper than buying them canned. Dry beans come with other mild nutritional and taste improvemens as well, although beans in any form are a very healthy foodstuff, rich in protein and fibre.  

Dry beans can be cooked in either a pot or a pressure cooker. The amount of time varies based on what type of bean you are cooking, with pressure cookers being faster.  

Your first step is to sort and wash the beans, and then put them in a bowl with water to soak. Some beans with thin skin, like black beans or lentils, can be cooked without soaking. However, soaking any type of bean helps make them softer and easier to cook. Either soak them overnight, or if you are short on time, about an hour before cooking.  

Add your beans to a pot or pressure cooker, and cook until they are tender. The beans should be soft enough to mash against the side of your pot using a fork, without getting mushy or losing their shape.  

How long you need to cook them for depends on the type of bean, and if you are using a stovetop pot or a pressure cooker. This article gives some approximate bean cooking times. 

Best stores to shop at 

In some cases, it may be better to shop at local and/or ethnic stores instead of the big chains. 

According to Saveur, journalistic research into New York City’s Chinatown found markets there sell grocerries for far cheaper prices than other grocery stores in the area. This is because New York City Chinatown stores built a network of local wholesalers and small farms that do not usually sell to big chain supermarkets. Since these Chinatown stores are buying from neighbourhood sources rather than importing their groceries across the city—as chain supermarkets do—they save on transportation and storage.  

Shops which forgo using extra technology and aesthetic choices tend to save enough money to offer cheaper prices. In Saveur’s example of Chinatown markets, stores offering the best deals tended to store goods on newspaper-lined plywood shelves, had prices written on cardboard, and did not always accept credit cards. When searching for the best deals, this kind of thrifty function over style may be a good sign to look for. 

Among some of the cheapest American chain supermarkets are Walmart, Food4Less, Costco, and buying off of Amazon. 

Is it worth getting a Costco membership? 

Normal Costco memberships cost $60 dollars per year, and $120 dollars if you get the Business Star Executive membership which comes with some extra perks, such as exclusive discounts and an annual 2 per cent cash back reward. 

The key draw of shopping at Costco is the ability to buy large amounts of food in bulk, according to The New York Times. If you have trouble storing large amounts of supplies, or cannot easily finish perishable goods before they rot, then a Costco membership might not be for you.  

It is also important to remember not everything at Costco is cheaper than at other stores, and certain items like toilet paper might actually be more expensive than it would be at another supermarket like Loblaws. Costco only accepts Mastercard cards, debit cards, or cash. For those who do not have one, it may not be worth switching to a debit or Mastercard for the sole purpose of shopping at Costco. 

Only people with a membership can buy anything at Costco, however this does not stop you from sharing a card with other people. Multiple people can shop at Costco together as long as at least one of them has a membership. Whoever has the membership has to pay for everything at checkout, even if their friends or relatives pay them back afterwards.  

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