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7 Best Meals on a Budget
Food insecurity – not having access to safe, healthy food because of financial limitations – is a growing problem in Canada. A recent report entitled “Household Food Insecurity in Canada” revealed that 1.6 million Canadians, nearly one in eight families, were experiencing food insecurity in 2011.
Even more disturbing was the impact on children, with more than 1.1 million living in a home where financial constraints made access to healthy food a constant struggle. This equates to one in six Canadian children facing food insecurity. The long-term impact of poor nutrition in childhood sets the stage for obesity and chronic disease later in life.
While the root of the problem must be addressed at the policy level, there are programs available that can provide temporary assistance or you can volunteer with. In the meantime, here are some strategies to help stretch food budgets that don’t compromise on taste or variety. These meals provide for one week of healthy, delicious dinners for less than $100.
Recipe 1: Autumn Roots and Roast Chicken
This is always a warming fall meal and fills the whole home with a rich welcoming aroma of roasting chicken, savoury and vegetables. For more nutrition add root vegetables such as beets, yellow or red potatoes, sweet potatoes or yams, carrots, parsnips and turnips. Use the beet greens – they are an excellent source of vitamin A, an antioxidant that helps strengthen the immune system and protects your eyes. Add the greens to the root vegetables during the last 15 minutes of roasting to wilt them. Try 10 Steps to the Perfect Roast Chicken.
Time-saving and money saving tip: Roast a large batch of root vegetables. The next day, puree with milk or homemade chicken stock for a delicious soup. Or, make into a pot pie or stew.
Why I love it the next day: A whole roasting chicken is the most economical way to buy chicken – and it can be used in endless meal ideas! Add chicken to quesadillas, pasta or rice dishes, curries, sandwiches, wraps, salads and soups for a source of protein that will keep you feeling full longer. Use the carcass to make delicious soup stock without the sodium, preservatives and high cost of store-bought versions.
Recipe 2: A Thick and Spicy Lentil Soup
This soup is well-balanced nutritionally, with lentils for protein and fibre, potatoes and rice for carbohydrate and plenty of nutrient-rich vegetables (Try recipe Yellow Lentil Soup with Vegetables (Toor Dal). Try substituting brown basmati rice for extra fibre, which will keep you satisfied and promotes healthy digestion. If you don’t like brown rice, choose white basmati or parboiled. They’re lower on the glycemic index than other types of white rice.
Recipe 3: Spicy Chicken Fajitas
This is a quick, easy and spicy way to use up left-overs from the roast chicken. Use whole grain wraps for this recipe and for lunches with remaining chicken. What to add for a balanced meal: Sauté onions and green bell peppers (or other favourite vegetable) in grapeseed oil. Heat up some frozen corn, chop cilantro (if desired), and use canned tomatoes and jalapenos to make your own salsa. Avocado slices add a healthy dose of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Stretch your chicken further by mixing with black beans or pinto beans for added protein and fibre.
Recipe 4: Beef Round Roast with Smash
This classic pairs well with mashed potatoes, but why not try “smashed” potatoes? You’ll get extra benefits from eating the skin of your potatoes, like double the fibre and extra potassium, a nutrient that lowers blood pressure. Roast your potatoes and after cooling, smash with a fork and drizzle with olive oil and herbs. Tired of potatoes? You can serve with roasted winter squash or frozen corn as your starch choice. Serve with a side salad or steamed spinach to balance the heaviness of the meat. Frozen spinach is less expensive than fresh and just as nutritious.
Worried about saturated fat in red meat? Eye of round, top round and bottom round roasts are all considered to be “extra lean” cuts of beef. Choose the cut with less visible fat (marbling) and trim any visible fat before cooking.
Why I love it the next day: Like chicken, leftover beef can be a great protein source to add to salads, soups or over rice. Use slices in an Asian stirfry, pot pie, stew or chili.
Recipe 5: Wholesome Ratatouille
This recipe features brightly-coloured vegetables such as eggplant, butternut squash and green peas. Choose a variety of colours when possible to get the widest array of antioxidants. For example, the purple eggplant is rich in anthocyanins, squash is packed with beta-carotene and green peas are high in carotenoids. Serve with chickpeas for added protein (Try Indian Ratatouille with 5 Spices (Panch Phoran Tarkari).
Why I love it the next day: The flavours of this hearty stew will become even more developed after a day in the fridge. Make smaller portions more filling by servings with wholegrain bread, such as roti or pita for dipping.
Recipe 6: Spagetti Squash Pesto
The nuts in this recipe offer heart-healthy fats and vegetarian protein while spaghetti squash reduces the calories of this meal for those watching their waistlines. For larger appetites, this pesto also goes nicely with brown rice pasta or other whole grain pasta. For extra calcium and vitamin D, especially for children, teens and older adults, serve with a glass of low fat milk or fortified milk alternative (Try recipe Grain-Free Pesto Pasta).
Why I love it the next day: Leftover pasta is extra delicious the next day – and the same is true of spaghetti squash pasta. Buy extra nuts and reserve some for snacks, to add to morning oatmeal or as salad toppings at lunch.
Recipe 7: Red Lentil and Rice Patties
This recipe is a great way to use leftover lentils and rice to make a new meal. Go green with a warm Brussels sprouts or broccoli slaw, or give tabouli a try. Traditional tabouli contains very little cracked wheat and is mostly parsley. Just add onions, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice for a delicious and nutritious side dish (Try Red Lentil & Red Rice Patties with Aïoli).
Why I love it the next day: these patties have a similar texture to falafels, and work well in a wholegrain pita with cabbage, tabouli and tahini, or as a falafel plate served with rice or potatoes and side salad.
Quick Tips for Stretching the Food Budget
• Plan your meals for the week before you get groceries. Using a program like Eatracker can help you map out a healthy week. Visit: www.eatracker.ca
• Look for sales in grocery flyers. Some grocery stores offer price-matching deals so you don’t have to go to multiple stores. Just bring the flyer and they’ll match the competitors’ price.
• Don’t shop hungry. You’ll be tempted to buy less healthy food that was not in your budget.
• Choose vegetarian meals more often. Dried beans, peas, grains, natural peanut butter, frozen vegetables and fruit and some seasonal produce is far less expensive than meat, fish or poultry.
• Shop the sales – bulk up on staple items like olive oil, lentils, canned light tuna or salmon and other pantry items.
• The freezer is your friend! Buy poultry, fish and lean meat when they go on sale and freeze for later use. It’s also a great idea to cook large batches of meals so you can freeze individual portions. This is way more economical than microwave dinners, and doesn’t contain the added sodium and other preservatives.
• Bring meals and snacks when you’re going out to avoid spending money on restaurants and the vending machine.
Where to Get Help & Volunteer
• Food Banks Canada – find a food bank tool: www.foodbankscanada.ca
• Community Food Centres Canada — offers access to emergency food plus education and skill-building programs on how to grow and cook healthy food: www.cfccanada.ca
• Daily Bread Food Bank hotline: (416) 203-0050
• FoodLink – refers callers to food programs including food banks, low cost meals, community gardens, community kitchens and programs for seniors. Hotline: (416) 392-6655
To Help Fight Hunger
• Meal Exchange – information on hunger and advocacy for food security in Canada: www.mealexchange.com
• Canada Without Poverty – raising awareness about poverty and information on what you can do to help: www.cwp-csp.ca
Christy Brissette, MSc, RD researches innovative programs, cooking classes and online nutrition education. Visit: www.ChristyBrissette.com