A Saver's Guide to Eating and Living Well

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We've all been there. You're in the 10-items-or-less checkout line at the grocery store. The clerk rings up your purchases and announces the total. As you load your meager foodstuffs into the car, you must grapple with grim reality. You've just spent $16 for a box of cereal, three protein bars and a bag of carrots.

But this disturbing scene need not be repeated. Contrary to what many people believe, you don't have to break the bank to buy healthy, nutritious food. You just need to plan ahead a bit, become a savvy consumer and understand some basics about nutrition.

Of course, the food we eat is not the only factor that contributes to our health and wellness. Our sleeping habits and stress level also affect how we feel, both physically and mentally. This guide shows you how to save money while eating well and living fully. It also includes some special tips for three groups of people who often find it hard to find the time to eat well and get enough sleep: College students, parents and children.

The Recipe for Healthy Living

Have you ever noticed yourself making less than desirable food choices the day after a poor night's sleep?

Stress Introduction

Wellness

According to The National Wellness Institute, wellness is the "conscious, self directed and evolving process of achieving full potential." With all the microdecisions that come with saving money to eat and live well, it's important to keep this bigger-picture intention in mind.

1

Stress

Stress plays a huge role in our overall wellbeing and often affects our appetite and behaviors around food, according to a Harvard Medical School publication. We all confront stressful circumstances on a day to day basis, whether at work, at school or at home. Perhaps you occasionally skip meals or neglect getting eight hours' sleep. Yet all of these micro-decisions place stress on the body, causing cravings for fat, sugar and salt as well as overeating. Some stress is a natural and healthy, but too much can compromise our health. One in four Americans report their stress level being at least an eight out of 10 or higher, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association.

2

Sleep

Sleep plays a critical role in managing stress, mood and energy levels, which all affect our ability to make healthy choices throughout the day. Sleep also affects our cognitive function, motor skills and immune health. Without adequate sleep we are essentially depriving ourselves of the opportunity to feel and perform our very best. Many studies have connected sleep deprivation with increased appetite and junk food cravings. In a neurological study conducted by UC Berkeley Professor Matthew Brown, for instance, research showed that high calorie foods became more appealing after a poor night's sleep, and the brain's ability to make appropriate food choices was compromised.

3

Sustenance

The final key player in maintaining our health is sustenance, a.k.a. food and water. The food we eat contains macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which enable the body to produce energy and generate cells, among other things. Not only is a well-balanced diet essential to maintaining a healthy weight, but it will also improve energy levels, strengthen the immune system and improve mental well-being and concentration.

  • Stress
    Stress plays a huge role in our overall wellbeing and often affects our appetite and behaviors around food, according to a Harvard Medical School publication. We all confront stressful circumstances on a day to day basis, whether at work, at school or at home. Perhaps you occasionally skip meals or neglect getting eight hours' sleep. Yet all of these micro-decisions place stress on the body, causing cravings for fat, sugar and salt as well as overeating. Some stress is a natural and healthy, but too much can compromise our health. One in four Americans report their stress level being at least an eight out of 10 or higher, according to a survey by the American Psychological Association.
  • Sleep
    Sleep plays a critical role in managing stress, mood and energy levels, which all affect our ability to make healthy choices throughout the day. Sleep also affects our cognitive function, motor skills and immune health. Without adequate sleep we are essentially depriving ourselves of the opportunity to feel and perform our very best. Many studies have connected sleep deprivation with increased appetite and junk food cravings. In a neurological study conducted by UC Berkeley Professor Matthew Brown, for instance, research showed that high calorie foods became more appealing after a poor night's sleep, and the brain's ability to make appropriate food choices was compromised.
  • Sustenance
    The final key player in maintaining our health is sustenance, a.k.a. food and water. The food we eat contains macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), which enable the body to produce energy and generate cells, among other things. Not only is a well-balanced diet essential to maintaining a healthy weight, but it will also improve energy levels, strengthen the immune system and improve mental well-being and concentration.

"How do you define healthy eating? If you think you have to drink an $8 green juice every day then yes, healthy eating will be expensive. On the other hand, if you focus on eating decent number of fruits and vegetables and a variety of other foods that come from whole sources (rice, beans, oats, quinoa etc.) then healthy eating on a budget is absolutely possible." - Leanne Brown

How to Live Healthy as a College Student

The term "healthy" isn't always associated with the image of college life. That said, there are many convenient ways to implement healthy habits into your busy schedule without foregoing the fun college experience.

Stress

Exercise moderately

Getting some exercise between classes and studying is a great way to stay focused and energetic during your college years. If you're just starting out, begin by setting a realistic and attainable goal such as 15 to 30 minutes of walking a day.

Meditate

Meditation has been called "mental hygiene" for its practical impact on managing stress. Start your practice at 5 minutes a day, and it will be there for you when you need it later in life.

Be Kind to Yourself

College life is demanding, and you can't be perfectly healthy all the time. Stressing about your health will only make matters worse. Give yourself a pat on the back for the healthy choices you do make, however small, and keep on going!

Helpful Resources

Buddhify Meditation App
Over 80 guided meditations and a solo timer for the independently-minded. Available for iOS and Android.
($4.99 on Itunes)

Fitness Blender
Full-length workout videos and health information, on the house.
(Free)

Mental Health America's Stress Screener
An anonymous, free screener to measure your stress level.
(Free)

Sleep

Don't Bring your Worries to Bed

Keep a journal next to your bed and spend a few minutes writing out your thoughts each night before you go to sleep.

Create a Comfortable Sleeping Environment

Keep your homework at your desk and avoid being on your laptop in bed, especially within a half hour of falling asleep. If you're living in a dorm an eye mask and earplugs will definitely come in handy for drowning out noise and light.

Avoid Caffeine in the Afternoon

Perhaps a tall order, but consuming caffeine late in the day can greatly hinder your quality of sleep. If you must have a pick me up, reach for green tea instead.

Sustenance

Focus on What You Should Eat, Not What You Shouldn't

Let's face it, pizza at 2am hits the spot, but maybe you don't feel too great about it the next morning. Rather than quitting cold turkey, fill up on fresh, whole foods throughout the day and then see if you still want that late night pizza.

Make Sure to Eat Enough Throughout the Day

It's tempting to skip meals while rushing between classes, but food is absolutely essential for maintaining your focus, energy levels and immune function during school.

Avoid Dieting

Don't put the extra stress of a diet mentality on yourself when you're already swamped with schoolwork.

Top Ten Hacks to Eat Strategically on a Meal Plan

1

Find the Salad (or two) That Actually Works for You

and stick with it. Check out this article from My Fitness Pal for some simple salad building strategies.

2

Make Your Own Salad Dressing

The simplest salad dressing can be the most delicious, and the healthiest. Sprinkle some olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper over your next salad, or experiment with other ingredients like mustard and fresh herbs if you're feeling creative.

3

Don't Stock Your Dorm Room with Junk Food

If you're trying to eat healthy, there's just no way you could will yourself to avoid those chips and cookies when the snack monster hits at 10pm.

4

But Do Keep Food in Your Dorm Room

Peanut butter is easy to store and delicious for dipping apple slices or carrot sticks. Whole grain crackers, nuts, oatmeal packets and hummus are also great options.

5

Start at the Salad Bar

Fill half plate with veggies: That way, you are balancing out any less healthy options you decide to go with next.

6

Have Dining Hall Go-To's

...For when the hot entree is not on point. Scope out the healthy staples, like turkey slices or cottage cheese. There's nothing wrong with repetition in your diet, as long as you switch it up from time to time.

7

Come with Tupperware

Aluminum foil or plastic sandwich bags work, too. If your meal plan allows, pack raw veggies like carrots and cucumber slices from the salad bar, along with other durable foods like bananas, apples, nuts, peanut butter and whole grain cereal.

8

Find a Friend

Chances are someone in your circle of friends is also trying to eat healthier. Try going to meals together and swapping tips and inspiration.

9

Fill Up on Whole Foods

It doesn't have to be complicated. If a majority of your diet consists of real, whole foods, chances are you won't be having hunger pangs that can inspire inopportune food binges.

10

Establish a Routine

Try to prioritize your meals and go to the dining hall as often as possible. At first it might be difficult, but eventually your healthy habits will become second nature to you.

Tips for Off-Campus Students

Choose Real Food Snacks over Packaged Ones

Protein bars may seem like a convenient option, but they are often processed and packed with hidden sugars. Opt to throw an apple and nuts in your bag for a less expensive and more nutritionally dense snack option.

Invest in a Reusable Water Bottle

Without the option to choose water in the dining hall at every meal, you'll have to provide your own alternative. Carry around a reusable water bottle that you can refill at a water fountain between classes. Add lemon, lime or other fruit before you leave the house to add flavor.

A Day in the Life

You've resolved to eat healthier and live better. Maybe you've even written a few of these tips down. But let's run through a typical day's timeline: strategize how you can implement these suggestions every step of the way.

1

8:15 a.m.

Rise and shine! Class starts at 9am. On second thought, I think I'll hit snooze a few more times.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE

Trick yourself by setting the alarm a little earlier - enough that you can still press snooze, but with enough time that you can shower and begin the day mindfully.

2

8:30 a.m.

Shower, dress and prep for classes in just enough time to run out the door. "No time for breakfast today."

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Have a healthy breakfast ready to go, like overnight oats or even a piece of fruit, and bring a water bottle.

3

10:50 a.m.

Done with class and I'm starving! I'll just grab a bagel with cream cheese to eat on the way to the library. But first, a large coffee with cream and sugar.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Carry stevia or agave with you as a sugar substitute and try adding milk rather than cream. Ask if almond or coconut milk are available if you're feeling even more ambitious.

4

12:50 p.m.

Time to go to class...I'm gonna need an energy drink to get me through this one.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Eating more balanced meals throughout the day improves blood sugar levels and wards off that afternoon crash. Carrying no-mess snacks like almonds and whole-grain cereals and crackers is a great way to keep energy levels up.

5

7:00 p.m.

Meet up with friends after two more classes. "I'm STARVING. Let's get pizza!"

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Eating healthy doesn't mean missing out. If you go to pizza, ask friends if they want to share a salad, too, or order a side salad for yourself. Drink water before the meal comes, so when the pizza arrives you have one slice or maybe two as opposed to three or four.

6

11:00 p.m.

I still have a couple hours of work on this ten page paper I have due tomorrow. I think I'll get a soda and Cheetos from the vending machine as a reward.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Hit the hay and set your alarm early to finish the work. Catch up on sleep the following evening.

7

1:45 a.m.

Bedtime. Fall asleep after looking at social media for an hour.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Avoid looking at your computer or phone as the last thing you see before going to sleep. Fall asleep easier by reading a book or turning off the lights and mellowing out to Spotify.

Healthy Lifestyle Tips for Families

Balancing home and work life is undoubtedly a challenge, even more so if you have children. Perhaps you have limited time alone with your partner, and hardly ever get a moment to yourself. While prioritizing yourself and your family's health may seem like an added chore, you may find that it actually makes life easier and more enjoyable.

Stress

Exercise

It's no secret that exercise effectively helps us manage our stress, in addition to improving mood and focus. The hard part is finding the time. Start by carving as little as 10 minutes out of your day, and work your way up to 30. There's no need to leave each and every workout drenched in sweat, just simply get your body moving.

Make time for yourself and for your relationships

Set a goal to spend time alone each week, and then again for a special activity with your partner or a close friend. Put it in your calendar if you need to.

Meditate

A great deal of research has shown that meditation actually helps to lower our stress to healthy and manageable levels, all the while improving other aspects of our mental health. Meditation can be done anywhere at any time, and there are plenty of resources, including websites, classes and phone apps to help you do it. A really accessible means of finding guided meditations is through YouTube.

Helpful Resources:

Stop, Breathe & Think App
App users can check in with their physical and mental state and choose a meditation that serves them in the moment. Available for iOS and Android.
(Free)

Fitness Blender
Full-length workout videos and health information, on the house.
(Free)

Melt: Massage for Couples
Video courses, an E-book and 2-hour workshop are all available to teach couples how to treat one another with relaxing massage techniques.
(Prices Vary, Free-$171)

Sleep

Adults are said to need around seven to eight hours of sleep per night in order to maintain a healthy body and mind. If you find that you have not been getting adequate sleep it might be time to adjust your routine. Here are some tips to help you improve your quality of sleep.

Dim the Lights and Limit Screen Time Before Bed.

Research has demonstrated that the artificial light from your computer, tablet or smartphone may lower your melatonin levels, a hormone that plays a role in how well we sleep. Also, the last thing you need to see before you close your eyes is another urgent work email, bill reminder or picture of your ex.

Create a Bedtime Ritual.

This can include anything from a hot bath to a cup of hot herbal tea. Choose one to three relaxing activities to repeat each night in order to tell your body it's time for bed.

Limit Caffeine from Coffee, Tea and Sodas in the Afternoon.

If you feel you absolutely can't live without that afternoon pick me up, try consuming half of your usual caffeinated beverage of choice and pair it with a nutritious snack.

Sustenance

Healthy eating has nothing to do with deprivation and expensive Whole Foods visits. It's about preparation, savvy shopping and enjoying delicious home cooked food.

10 Hacks to Shop Strategically

Get ready for your own personal supermarket sweep: here are our top suggestions to save your wallet and your waistline.

1

Eat Beforehand

Don't shop on an empty stomach! We want to avoid impulse purchases for the sake of our health and our wallet.

2

Make a List

...And check it twice. Before you go to the store, check online for what's in season and what's on sale. If you're feeling ambitious, download GroceryPal and/or do some research online to compare prices. Strike nutrition-free calories from your shopping list (think: soda). Americans spend $71 billion a year on soda, with the average American drinking about 44 gallons yearly. Eliminating a can of soda a day - and reducing your risk of obesity and accompanying diseases - could save you about $219 every year.

3

Plan your Actual Meals for the Week

The first of the USDA's 3 P's" (plan, purchase and prepare), planning is critical. Remember that two-thirds of your meal plates are supposed to be covered with fruits and vegetables. And guess what: A family of four can reach the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables by spending a mere $8.75 a day, according to the USDA. Click on the link above for a sample shopping list.

4

Visualize the Endzone

Imagine your grocery store and try to mentally organize by aisle. Leanne Brown says, "My general rule of thumb is the age-old shop the perimeter of the grocery store. This is where the whole foods are. Start in the produce section, and compare your selections to the frozen and canned options. Then make your way to the meat, fish, cheese and dairy sections. Finally, wander down the aisle that has bags of beans and grains."

5

Look Up and Down (Literally) for the Store Brand

Retailers pay for prime, eye-level shelf space so the deals are usually not right in your line of vision.

6

Check In with Your Cart

Mid-way through your shopping, assess your cart to see what unnecessary pricey or unhealthy items snuck in there. You're more likely to put them back before arriving at checkout. And read the labels on packaged food to look for hidden sugar. The more than 60 kinds of sugar in packaged ingredients include: barley malt, agave nectar, cane juice, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltodextrin, maltol, muscovado, palm sugar, refiner's syrup, saccharose, sweet sorghum, turbinado sugar, and treacle. If a package food lists some sort of sugar among the first three ingredients, it's more of a dessert than a healthy food.

7

Pick from the Back of the Case for Dairy

Cases are stacked from the back, so grab the one with the furthest expiration date.

8

Shop Seasonally

Out-of-season fruit can cost you up to three times more "Not only are fruits and veggies very inexpensive when they're in season, says Leanne Brown, but they are also delicious and satisfying, which makes you feel like you're getting more value from them."

9

Go for Ingredients with More than One Use

"Pancake mix," says Leanne, "can only make pancakes. Buy the ingredients to make pancakes, however, and you can make bread, muffins, crepes - you can eat something different every day. The same goes for beans, grains or even a loaf of bread. It's like a blank canvas." Stock your pantry with inexpensive but hearty foods such as dried and canned beans, rice, quinoa, canned tomatoes, tuna and salmon, lentils, whole-grain pasta and nut butters. Added to vegetables, these ingredients can form the basis of a quick meal.

10

Check the Bulk Bins

Look especially for rice, oats, and other grains which, Leanne points out, are inexpensive and very versatile.

Top Ten Hacks to Eating Right at Home

1

Drink Water Throughout the Day and Before Meals.

If you don't like the flavor, try adding fresh lemon, lime or orange slices.

2

Choose a Time and a Place to Plan out Your Meals.

Going to the grocery store prepared will make a world of difference and weekly shopping will ensure that your fruits and vegetables are always fresh and delicious.

3

Opt to Bake, Grill, Roast or Poach your Food Instead of Frying.

Stir-frying is also an incredibly convenient, versatile and healthy option.

4

Cook in Bulk to Have Leftovers.

Throw those leftovers in the freezer. This will not only save you time later on, but will also help you eat healthy food on those nights when you just don't feel like cooking.

5

Use Smaller Plates for Portion Control.

Research has repeatedly shown that smaller plates lead us to eat smaller portions, but who wants to throw out what they already known? Instead, use regular plates for serving.

6

Eat Breakfast.

Your mother may have been right when she said it was the most important meal of the day.

7

Pack Your Snacks the Night Before.

Never leave the house unprepared. Carry around healthy snacks like fruit, nuts, seeds, whole grain crackers and veggie sticks in order to avoid spending money on expensive processed foods that are bad for your health.

8

Develop a Routine.

Everything is difficult at first. Be patient and trust that you will find your groove.

"Give yourself a chance to like healthy foods, and eventually you will. Just as long as you are eating a little more of what you want that's a win." - Leanne Brown

9

Find a Trudging Buddy.

Having a support system makes a world of difference. It could be your roommate, spouse or partner, or even an online forum.

10

Take the Thumbscrews Off.

A healthy lifestyle is all about enjoying delicious food and should not feel the least bit restrictive. You don't have to give up everything you love, just enjoy the less healthy foods in moderation.

"It's so important to celebrate the little things. We are motivated by results that are enjoyable - that's true in life and with food. Sometimes cooking a delicious meal is the only good thing we do in a day. It makes us happier and better able to take on stressful things like school, work, chasing our kids around or whatever." - Leanne Brown

tip icon
TIPS FOR PARENTS

Make time for your meal and snack preparation

Find 10-15 minutes a day to throw some things together for the following day. If you're a morning person, give yourself that extra 20 minutes to have breakfast before the whole house is awake, or at least prepare something to take with you.

A Day in the Life

Figuring out how to balance parenting, working and wellness is overwhelming just to think about, so that's why we broke it down—how to make healthy choices one moment at a time.

1

6:25-6:45 a.m.

Make coffee and look at work email or social media. "I know I should eat breakfast...But now I don't have time. Have to wake the kids up for school."

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Pull off a low-maintenance breakfast in these 20 minutes, even if it's just drinking water and eating whole grain cereal alongside the coffee: to encourage mindfulness and discourage stress, try journaling or listening to a podcast rather than cracking the computer open right away.

2

9:00 a.m.

Arrive at work. Have another cup of coffee and a breakfast bar. Work straight through the morning.

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Have a healthy snack to keep blood sugar levels stable.

3

12:30 p.m.

Lunch time - Grab a premade sandwich and chips at the market next door. "Craving something sweet, but I'm trying to be good so I will just have another cup of coffee instead."

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Pass on the extra caffeine. Have something sweet, but make that something a healthy option, like honey greek yogurt.

4

3:00 p.m.

Crashing. So tired, and would kill for a sweet treat. "My coworker brought in donuts and I know I shouldn't, but I just have to have one. Besides, it'll be rude if I don't!"

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
A little part of you knows that you're just rationalizing. This is a normal sugar craving, just like smokers have for nicotine. Acknowledge the craving and pivot in your thinking: "Nothing is off-limits, but I can make the conscious choice not to go there today." Go for a short walk if your schedule permits to clear your mind.

5

6:30 p.m.

"I didn't have time to stop at the store after work and the kids are hungry, so I guess it's pasta again. I'll eat a plate really quickly before I start on the dishes."

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Healthy dinners can be quick, too. Reference a list you've made the weekend before or potential dinner ideas so you don't have to think about it too much or stop at the store.

6

10:00 p.m.

In bed, watching favorite show. "I should go to sleep, but maybe just one more episode."

HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
Substitute the second episode with some other form of self-care.

Helpful Resources:

Pinterest
This social network is useful for gaining inspiration in many areas, including nutrition. Just search the terms you are interested in a.k.a. "healthy meals for 7 days" and peruse the boards.
(Free)

Daily Strength Healthy Eating Support Group
This online forum offers open discussion of and mutual support around eating right. (Free)

USDA's MyPlate
This Department of Agriculture website offers interactive tools that allow you to build meals using the five food groups. This site is packed with helpful nutritional guidance.
(Free)

GroceryPal App
This app helps you find deals at discount stores and supermarkets in your area. Available for iOS 8.0 or later.
(Free)

Deals to Meals
Provides a comparison between deals at major grocery stores and an accompanying meal planner.
($4.95/month)

Expert Q&A

  1. What is the value (if any) to calorie counting?
  2. What exercise recommendations would you have for someone who has a lot of obligations like kids, work, etc.?
  3. What are your recommendations for people concerned about slow metabolism - are there ways to jumpstart or speed up metabolism?
  4. What are some of your simplest recipes that don't require a lot of prep or kitchen space?
  5. Can I still eat dessert?
Robyn Coale
Robyn Coale

Founder

Jinan Banna
Jinan Banna

Founder of Jinan Banna LLC and Associate Professor of Nutrition at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

About the Author


expert-profile

The MoneyGeek editorial team has decades of combined experience in writing and publishing information about how people should manage money and credit. Our editors have worked with numerous publications including The Washington Post, The Daily Business Review, HealthDay, and Time, Inc., and have won numerous journalism awards. Our talented team of contributing writers includes mortgage experts, veteran financial reporters, and award-winning journalists. Learn more about the MoneyGeek team.