January 23, 2020

How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

Show Notes

On this episode, Chuck Gaidica is joined by Susan Okonkowski, a registered dietitian at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. This week, they discuss how to eat healthy on a budget. Whether you’re a single person or a family unit, anyone can benefit from these cost-cutting tips.

“I’m not going to necessarily buy blueberries when they’re $5 or $6 for a tiny little container, because they’re out of season. But I can buy apples. I can buy a pineapple at $2 or $4 a bag… and those can last for a couple of days… Finding what produce is in season will also help that budget.” – Susan Okonkowski

In this episode of A Healthier Michigan Podcast, we explore:

  • How to be a smart consumer
  • The benefits of buying in bulk
  • Why seasonal foods cost less
  • The long and short-term effects of fast food
  • Affordable protein options
  • Making the most out of frozen fruits and vegetables


Chuck Gaidica:  This is A Healthier Michigan Podcast. Episode 46. Coming up, we discuss how to eat healthy on a budget.

Chuck Gaidica:  Welcome to a Healthier Michigan Podcast. It’s a podcast dedicated to navigating how we can all improve our health and well-being through small healthy habits we can start implementing today. I’m your host Chuck Gaidica. Every other week we’re going to sit down with a certified health expert from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and get into topics that cover nutrition and fitness, wellness and well-being, so much more.

Chuck Gaidica:  In this episode again, we’re discussing ways we can eat healthy but do it on a budget, because sometimes when you want to do that, you can bet the whole farm on something and all of a sudden you’ve got no money left for some other good stuff.

Chuck Gaidica:  With me today, registered dietitian for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Susan Okonkowski. Good to have you back.

Susan Okonkowski: Thanks. Great to see you, Chuck.

Chuck Gaidica:  Good to see you to. Registered dietitian. You’re probably learning, doing, and working off more calories at home with your two kids, right?

Susan Okonkowski: Yes, they keep me going.

Chuck Gaidica:  It’s got to be a great season because that’s not too far in the rear view mirror for your last one, right? How old is your guy?

Susan Okonkowski: No, he’s 15 months old.

Chuck Gaidica:  Oh my gosh.

Susan Okonkowski: Busy. Very active.

Chuck Gaidica:  Yeah, that’s great. So as a dietitian, this has got to be one of the topics that comes up. Where do I spend my money? What am I going to do to try to operate on a budget? Because oftentimes the stuff that we’re looking at that’s the most impactful, the most healthy, can either be expensive, it’s perishable, you can load up on all the veggies you want, if you don’t eat them all in two days, well there you go. What advice do you give people about how to begin this idea of reigning in on a budget but still eating healthy?

Susan Okonkowski: Couple of different points. It can be very difficult, but removing some of these obstacles I would say in the thinking process for how you can shop healthy is the key factor. Being a wise consumer, number one, and planning, number two.

Susan Okonkowski: We talk about how those things fit together. But being a wise consumer, I always think about shopping for sales and if you plan your meals for the week while you’re also shopping for sales, you can incorporate different healthy items into your weekly menu, which will help you stay on that budget.

Chuck Gaidica:  I think that’s a really good point because you can buy, for instance, Susan comes home from one of the big box stores and of course when you go to buy peppers, it’s, I don’t know, eight or 10 in a package. I can only eat so many peppers and hummus to go rip through those. But if I now use those peppers in my instant pot and I’m making a chicken based soup, vegetable soup, all of a sudden I’ve got leftover vegetables here. I’ve got carrots here that I use for something else. And all of a sudden I’m extending this out to two or three more meals because somehow it… I want to take credit that I planned this brilliantly. Not really. It just came to me late in the game. But to your point, we did shop wisely and we were able to use that stuff.

Susan Okonkowski: Exactly. That’s a very key factor actually, is taking one ingredient, whether it’s a vegetable, whether it’s a lean protein, that can be a little bit more of a costly item for you during the week and planning that particular item to be in a couple of meals throughout the week.

Susan Okonkowski: Peppers, they’re a great example because they’re healthy, they’re nutritious. You can cut some up for snacks, you can use some for stuffed peppers for one meal.

Chuck Gaidica:  Stir fry.

Susan Okonkowski: Stir fry for another meal. So now all of a sudden you may have spent $10 on those peppers, but they’re covering you for snacks and two or three meals throughout the week.

Chuck Gaidica:  I’ve heard a number, I think I’ve seen it too, is there an average number per day people would spend to eat a healthy meal?

Susan Okonkowski: Sometimes they say, $3 to $5 per meal. But it really depends upon what you’re adding to that meal. Because obviously your cost comes from, especially organic produce, organic lean protein type of meats. But whether you’re vegetarian or not, you can also add in some other… If you are a vegetarian, oftentimes it’s a little less costly if you’re having your protein sources come from soy based products, legumes, plant based sources versus those meats, or even fresh seafood. You buy the wild caught salmon, wild caught fish, they can tend to run a little bit more costly. Watch for those items to come on sale.

Susan Okonkowski: You can even free some of those if someone is not a vegetarian, buy that organic chicken that’s on sale on Monday, use it for a couple of meals that week and then freeze some of it for two weeks later.

Chuck Gaidica:  So is it your view that we should look to invest in organic produce and grass fed meats? Is that a good place to put our money or is there one or the other? Because I’ve had a friend of mine who’s a doctor who said to me, “I’d rather see you spend money on grass fed meats and organic chicken and just get regular vegetables. Just go ahead. It’s not that impactful.” And I thought, well, okay, everybody’s going to have their own idea, but where is this settled for you personally as you look at this?

Susan Okonkowski: Yeah, from my perspective personally, that’s actually where I also say any animal-based products, whether that be a dairy product, whether it may be a chicken or beef, invest in those organic sources that are grass fed versus the vegetables. Because vegetables, you can really wash, you can scrub, a lot of vegetables and fruits too have a skin to the outside of them. Bananas for example. That’s something that you know, whether you buy organic or not, probably not as critical to your health as it is to buy that organic-

Chuck Gaidica:  Or peeling the apple for your kids. That takes that off.

Susan Okonkowski: But the organic meat for sure, I would definitely focus on spending a little bit more in that space if you are not a vegetarian.

Chuck Gaidica:  When you throw that number of $3 to $5 per meal, immediately it pops into my head, the sign at the fast food places that I’m going past. While I’m now seeing impossible burgers and things that you think may be better, and we’ve talked about that on this podcast already, three to five bucks puts me right in the happy place of finding some kind of meal, maybe with a drink, maybe with fries. So I understand completely why, not just me that I’m tempted, but why a large part of America is tempted to say, well three to five bucks, if that’s all I’ve got to spend, I can really get a lot of food.

Susan Okonkowski: Right. And it’s easy. That’s the thing. It is easy to drive through that fast food place. But the problem is doing that time and time again is going to eventually whittle away at your own health. Years down the road, those fast food stops once a week, twice a week, are going to start to impact your health. Now we’re talking, maybe it’s blood pressure, maybe it’s cholesterol.

Susan Okonkowski: Now you start to incur those what we call chronic condition type of costs in your pocket book later on down the road in health care costs. You’re going to the doctor more frequently. Maybe there’s medications that you have to take now.

Susan Okonkowski: Could that have been avoided by eating a little bit more healthy? Getting those exercise in? I know we’re not focused on exercise, but that’s always a part of it. But not getting that fast food? Absolutely. Because you’re really fueling your body with those healthy nutrients all along.

Susan Okonkowski: So, it’s a balance of it’s easy, but at the same point in time, you may incur more costs later on in your life because those healthy choices weren’t made upfront.

Chuck Gaidica:  And later may not be that much later, because you know this, to get a cheap cut of meat to taste better, even if it’s ground, that probably means there are a lot of additives, probably a lot of sodium, a lot of salt. They’re going to lather it up with ketchup and mayonnaise and whatever. Then you’ve got pickle slices.

Chuck Gaidica:  I’m not saying you can’t do it, obviously we all do it. We get a burger when we’re on the run and it tastes great. But to do it all the time because it fits in the budget… You may have to spend a few extra bucks or maybe expand a little extra energy creating your meals and then putting them in some Tupperware deal to take to work. But in the long run, good idea.

Susan Okonkowski: Exactly. And it doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s just having a little few extra minutes of planning. That really to me is the key factor because if you do that planning, you can now create a couple of different meals maybe at salads and instead of having some meat added into those salads, you add quinoa. Quinoa is a great example. It’s not a high cost food. Maybe you add a few black beans into your salad. Those are very economical.

Chuck Gaidica:  Black beans are a buck a can. I eat black beans a lot. It’s a good protein source. Fiber. I’m a little crazy. I’m a little nerdy. I wash them off to even get the low sodium beans cleaner. But that’s a cheap source of protein.

Susan Okonkowski: Very cheap and it’s healthy. Combining those things together, you could make a couple of meals, a couple of lunches at a very low cost, even cheaper than those fast food places.

Chuck Gaidica:  You’re a busy mom, and you’re working, you’re a working mom. What have you learned, or taught yourself, over the course of time? Because when you say planning in a busy world, I know there could be people listening right now and it’s like I don’t have time. I don’t want to listen. I am so busy. How do you encourage us to find the time to be that planner and still be busy?

Susan Okonkowski: I think the biggest key factor is we all have things that we enjoy doing, whether it’s watching a little TV, looking at social media, you have that tiny bit of downtime in your day, whether it’s early in the morning or it’s later at night. Or maybe you take a break during your work day for 10 or 15 minutes, scroll through some recipes. Because what I found helpful is my husband and I actually sit down two or three times a week after the kids go to bed and we plan out our meals for the next couple of days. We say, “Do you want fish? Do you want some sort of meat?”

Susan Okonkowski: We have an app that we share, and we look up our recipes. I actually catalog recipes throughout the year that are my favorites. So it’s easy to pull up. It doesn’t take me more than 10 or 15 minutes.

Susan Okonkowski: I just import all of the ingredients I need into my shopping list. And so the next time I go, because we go to the store two or three times a week. The next time I’m at the store, everything’s in there for me. So it really does only take 15 minutes, a couple of times a week. I ensure that we are eating healthy meals or I do a lot of prepping. I’ll prep vegetables, I’ll prep different fruits.

Susan Okonkowski: And also buying them in season is another thing. When you’re thinking about that budget is always something I look at. I’m not going to necessarily buy blueberries when they’re, $5, $6 for a tiny little container because they’re out of season. But I can buy apples, I can buy a pineapple at $2, or $4 a bag for apples and those can last for a couple of days. I guess another key factor though is, finding what produce is in season will also help that budget.

Chuck Gaidica:  When you’re going out shopping, you’re mindful enough where you’re looking at, I’m sure, the sides of cans and all kinds of ingredients, right? Are you seeing any tricks that are being employed to make us think, not only are we buying healthier products, but that we’re spending more on a product that may not really be organic or something anyway? know there are laws protecting us as consumers, but are you finding specific examples where maybe they’re trying to upsell us to some other point that’s really not much different?

Susan Okonkowski: I think the biggest case where you see that consumerism trick is in these specialty products where they say, it’s gluten free. This is healthy because it’s gluten free. Or it’s reduced fat. Or it’s reduced sugar. But they’ve added some other ingredients, which aren’t necessarily that healthy anyways, into the product.

Susan Okonkowski: I think if you really are buying fresh foods, you’re at the store pretty frequently. A lot of times those foods don’t really come with labels. So if you’re avoiding those, what I tend to call the inner part of the store, and it’s the cereals and some of the macaroni and cheese, I think about as a common one for kids. If you’re avoiding those products, oftentimes that probably isn’t going to be as much of an issue because you’re buying those fresher type of ingredient.

Chuck Gaidica:  When you’re going to a store, are you picking stores that are not the typical household names? If I think of eating healthier, and I know it’s probably a personal bias, I think I’ve got to go to a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods. Is that necessarily the case anymore? Kroger and Meijer seem to be doing a great job of it.

Susan Okonkowski: They are. Any of the stores out there in the listening area or any in your area that you’re in, doesn’t have to necessarily be a specialty market or a specialty store. That’s also where you can watch your cost. Because oftentimes those smaller specialty stores, albeit they have some really wonderful products that are truly specialty products that you can’t get anywhere else, but things like, let’s just say lettuce, those can commonly be bought for a cheaper price at some of your bigger chain type of stores and still be just as healthy and nutritious as those items that might be at the specialty market.

Chuck Gaidica:  We’ve talked about stocking up on sale products. That’s a good idea. Of course, if you go to one of the big boxes, Sam’s Club or Costco, you’re getting 20 cans of something at a time. So as long as you have the room for this, it’s not a bad place to shop. But oftentimes, even for, I would guess for a family of four, right, you have two kids?

Susan Okonkowski: Yeah.

Chuck Gaidica:  You could get swamped by the size of packaging if you’re trying to buy everything from these places.

Susan Okonkowski: Oh yeah. That’s why I try to go to… You have certain items too and I think most families do where you know what you’re going to buy in bulk and you know what you need to buy every couple of days.

Chuck Gaidica:  Do you have a personal idea about frozen fruits and vegetables, good or bad versus otherwise? I’ll give you an example. You mentioned blueberry. I love blueberries. I don’t eat them all the time, but I’ll throw them in my oatmeal almost daily if I have oatmeal. When they’re in season I take bags and I freeze them myself, but I still run out. So now I’ve purchased the frozen bag. I’m eating them. They’re in the hot oatmeal, they cool the oatmeal and it’s doing its thing. Is there a downside to me using frozen blueberries that appear to me to be cheaper this time of the year?

Susan Okonkowski: Absolutely not. That is perfectly acceptable and oftentimes, especially with fruit and vegetables, they are almost just as nutritious if they were flash frozen as they are when they are fresh. So go out and get those frozen fruits and vegetables. What I will say is be very careful of the canned fruits and vegetables because oftentimes that’s where they’ll sneak a lot of extra sodium and extra sugar in.

Chuck Gaidica:  You can taste it. Over time I’ve tried to take the salt out of my palette, so literally I’m reducing sodium. It is an amazing thing after a while. You can just, I don’t mean grabbing a chip, of course that’s going to be salty. It’s amazing to open a can of green beans, or corn ,or even the black beans and taste them, and when you’ve desensitized your palette and you’ve taken salt out of your diet, you can tell immediately what they’re sneaking in. It’s pretty wild.

Susan Okonkowski: Absolutely. Without even looking at the label.

Chuck Gaidica:  If you’re shopping for produce in season, we get that. There are substitutes too, though. We can be looking for vegetables they’re coming in from all over the world. Are you and your family open-minded and do you encourage people to experiment? I look at radishes and I know my grandpa used to like them, but I still look at them and I go, I don’t know, they look evil. I don’t know if I could eat it on purpose. A little slice in a salad. But do you push yourself to experiment on new things?

Susan Okonkowski: Absolutely. I think part of it is I push myself and my husband to push our kids to get that palette built up and to try all kinds of different things. Even as adults we should be trying new things. I do think it’s good for us to push our boundaries to try. Grab that spaghetti squash that you see on the end of the counter at the end cap at the store and experiment with it.

Chuck Gaidica:  If you’re the kind of guy I am, which is the taste tester along the way, it is fun to experiment because you do even this Instapot thing I mentioned, I was walking through one of the regular aisles of produce thinking what else could I throw in the Instapot just to make this soup more interesting. So there was some fresh Rosemary. Sounds good to me with a little chicken, chicken broth, and soup base, I’m using low sodium stuff it perfect. It gave me a chance to kind of step out of the boundary, and when I was done with it I had a giant Instapot. I made it gluten free because of our son. But it was perfect.

Chuck Gaidica:  Let’s talk about one other thing, because I know you mentioned soy protein, black beans. What are you finding is the best way for us to consider substituting other proteins for some of the things that may be apparently too expensive? You’re not going to get steak every night, but there are other things we should be thinking about when it comes to a protein source.

Susan Okonkowski: Absolutely. It’s like you think about, I always say there’s complete proteins and there’s incomplete proteins. Those complete proteins are those animal type sources and soy. Soy is another one that is a complete protein. But if you are pairing the incomplete proteins, you think about things like peanut butter, almond butter, legumes, all of your different black beans, chickpeas, rice. Pairing rice and beans together years ago it’s a cultural thing, but at the same point in time, pairing those two items together actually makes that food be more of a complete protein source and a very economical one at that too. Pairing things like rice and beans.

Susan Okonkowski: Another one is whole grain bread with peanut butter or almond butter. Pairing those two sources together will actually give you a complete protein like it would if you were eating steak or if you were eating eggs.

Susan Okonkowski: Taking those things, and they are economical. You can buy a big jar of almond butter, big jar of peanut butter, a loaf of whole grain bread. Substitute that in a couple of meals here and there for lunches or snacks and your cost goes down.

Chuck Gaidica:  I don’t know as a kid what I was missing out on until I grew up and I started having apples and peanut butter. I thought I died and went to heaven. Now it’s one of my go tos. If I’m looking for a fast breakfast, got to go. It’s a wonderful combination.

Susan Okonkowski: Absolutely. Oatmeal too. We were talking about this this morning that you had oatmeal for breakfast. That’s another one. Oats are an excellent source of all kinds of nutrients. Pairing oatmeal with things like almond butter and peanut butter, throwing a little fruit in there. You have an excellent breakfast at a very, very low cost and you can even make them in jars. You could do overnight oats in your Instapot, or overnight oats in the slow cooker, and you could make little jars ahead of time so that if your grand kids are there, they get up, they can have their little jar of oats. Everyone’s got something in the fridge that they can quickly grab on the go.

Chuck Gaidica:  As you’re looking forward and planning, I’m reflecting back to even growing up as a kid, my grandmother and my mom making too much cream of wheat, or too much oatmeal, and using those leftovers, of course it’s a budget minded thing, but using even the cream of wheat, it was never wasted. There was always leftover. She would make it like a hamburger patty and we would have cream of wheat the next day heated up in a skillet.

Chuck Gaidica:  Now you don’t hear about it much anymore, but I’m not sure in today’s world, we think too much about leftovers the way we used to. We used to repurpose. If you get a rotisserie chicken now I can tell you I can make a great soup with that chicken bone and what’s left of that chicken. It’s just the way I was raised. I’m always trying to think of, well how can I repurpose something?

Susan Okonkowski: That will help you to stay healthy on that budget. We do the same thing where we get chicken breasts and I will stew the bone in chicken breasts for a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, make a soup with it, take some of that for salads, chop it up and have it in salads for the week. There’s all kinds of things that we can do.

Susan Okonkowski: The other nice thing about reusing a certain ingredient for multiple meals is we’re reducing environmental waste on top of helping our budget.

Chuck Gaidica:  If we go back over this list again, just to reiterate where we’ve been in this conversation. Proteins and vegetables can at times be the biggest cost drivers, right?

Susan Okonkowski: Absolutely.

Chuck Gaidica:  If you want to parse out meats, foods that we should be considering that we should be getting, what would be that quick list again of things we really should be considering in our weekly diet that we should not be skipping.

Susan Okonkowski: Organic and grass-fed meats, wild caught fish, and then thinking about getting those for a couple of meals and then substituting legumes, quinoa, and those other types of plant-based proteins in the other meals.

Chuck Gaidica:  And then this idea of combinations, right? So that you’re putting together what you’re calling a… What did you call it, a whole protein?

Susan Okonkowski: A complete.

Chuck Gaidica:  Complete and not complete.

Susan Okonkowski: Yeah, you’ve got complete and complementary and those complementary bring those two incomplete proteins together to make a complete.

Chuck Gaidica:  You’re a good experimental house to I guess peek in on. It would be fun to see a dietitian’s home and peek in. Are you using broccoli? Spinach? How are you getting your little kids to get hooked on not a sweet vegetable fruit kind of thing. Are you pushing the envelope? Are you saying this is good for you? What’s working for you?

Susan Okonkowski: Yeah, I do. I actually do push the envelope and at sometimes my kids are like, “This is gross.” Had a prime example last night, I roasted, carrots and potatoes and my daughter was like, “I don’t want this potato.” Because it didn’t look like a French fry. It was a purple potato. And I said, “Just give it a try.” I said, “You could even put a little dab of ketchup on there.”

Susan Okonkowski: So, she goes, “Oh, okay.” And then she tried it and she’s, “This great.” So I add always a vegetable into every single meal. Sometimes kids are not going to eat everything that is on their plate and that’s okay as long as they try. The biggest thing to me is getting them to try. I always add either orange, green, or red into every single meal.

Chuck Gaidica:  Interesting. And you’re not lathering it up with a lot of butter or anything else. You’re just giving it to them so that their palettes are adjusted to the healthfulness of it.

Susan Okonkowski: Yep. Or a little bit of herbs, spice, whatever it is that we’re cooking with that evening. I find herbs can really make something flavorful. Even dried herbs. You don’t have to use the fresh ones either, which will again help with that budget conscious mind because dried herbs are really not that expensive and they last for a long time.

Chuck Gaidica:  When you say dry herbs, you’re talking about the full package or you mean Mrs. Dash kind of stuff.

Susan Okonkowski: Full package typically. You can definitely use other things like Mrs. Dash but it just depends upon what you’re cooking, what the dish is, what you want those flavors to come out to be and mixing different things. We found over the years mixing a little Sriracha with a little honey and then just a tiny bit of herbs into a stir fry makes a great sauce and doesn’t have all the salt added in.

Chuck Gaidica:  I did have a question and it came to me a little late in the game, but I want to double back to it. When you go out as busy as you are, and you’re on the road a lot, what do you do for fast food? Are you packing a lunch every day, if we check your car?

Susan Okonkowski: I do. I have to admit I don’t think I’ve gone through a fast food drive through in probably a decade.

Chuck Gaidica:  So there’s nothing that you would find on the menu? Even the Wendy’s potato with no butter? What would you do if you’re forced to get something?

Susan Okonkowski: If I was forced, I would actually choose a salad.

Chuck Gaidica:  Would you?

Susan Okonkowski: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Or a really lean hamburger, a lean chicken breast, and ask for it without a bun. Just making those healthful choices when you are going through the drive through. Because some people have to. You don’t always get that opportunity to plan ahead and to pack. So when you do, it’s just looking at that menu and quickly evaluating.

Susan Okonkowski: So many fast food places, I’m actually impressed with now, I’ve heard add calories, they add right next to the menu items. So you have that visual cue of, what am I getting?

Chuck Gaidica:  I have a trick that I’ve started employing at places like a Qdoba or a Chipotle. I walk in and I came to realize that even though I’m a salad go to guy, you get way more vegetables if you ask for it in a wrap and you don’t eat the wrap. I’m getting the grilled veggies, the fresh veggies, no sauce, no cheese. I may get some guac. I may get a little bit of lettuce. And I get all black beans. It’s all veggie. By the time they’re done, this thing is the size of a building. They can hardly roll it, and when I get home, I really don’t eat the wrap. But I’ve gotten so much stuff that if I have to spend seven bucks or whatever it is because I’m running so fast that day. It’s the trick that I’ve employed to try to stay as close to fresh as I can.

Chuck Gaidica:  I know I’ve seen them grilling it right there. I know it’s there. And I’m able to employ leaning toward veggie. I’m not a vegetarian, but it seems work for me. So there are little tricks of the trade. It’s not the cheapest, most budget conscious way to go, but it is a good way to tackle that idea if you’re on the go.

Susan Okonkowski: Yeah, it definitely is.

Chuck Gaidica:  Anything you want to wrap up with here in terms of budget consciousness? Any other last tips for us as we venture into our new year?

Susan Okonkowski: I think the biggest ones are just to be a wise consumer and plan ahead. Those are the best two tips I could ever give when you think about being healthy on a budget.

Chuck Gaidica:  I think that applies across all the segments of food. Everything from proteins to dairy, to veggies and fruits. It really does. It makes so much sense and sometimes we forget all about it. It’s good to see you, Susan.

Susan Okonkowski: Great to see you. Thanks for having me today, Chuck.

Chuck Gaidica:  Very welcome. Susan Okonkowski who’s here. She’s a registered dietitian with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. If you want to hear more of our podcast, you can always get previous episodes and of course you can lock in and go forward from here as well.

Chuck Gaidica:  Check us out online, ahealthiermichigan.org/podcast. You can leave us a review or rating on Apple podcast or Stitcher, and you can always get new episodes on your smartphone or tablet. Take us with you, especially as you’re still what? We’re still into the early part of the new year here where maybe your New Year’s resolution, if you believe in such things, part of its exercise, take us on the go with you as you’re venturing out. New episodes are available all the time. Be sure to subscribe to us on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. I’m Chuck Gaidica. Have a great day.