10 Budget-Friendly Tips for Eating Healthy With Diabetes

  • by Mauricio Duran
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Managing diabetes, like many other chronic conditions, can be a costly, lifelong commitment. As a registered dietitian at Montefiore Health System in Bronx, New York, I teach people living with diabetes about the long-term impact of their food choices and help them discover how to save money while following a diabetic-friendly diet.

Before we jump into my budget-friendly tips, let's debunk a common myth: to stay healthy, people with diabetes must eat differently than non-diabetics.


This myth originated prior to the discovery of insulin in 1922 – nearly one century ago – when the only successful treatment for diabetes was extreme elimination diets. Thanks to advances in medicine and our understanding of this condition, people living with diabetes no longer have to endure such radical diets. Today, the American Diabetes Association recommends that a person living with diabetes follow the same eating pattern as anyone looking to eat healthy.


What does this mean for living well with diabetes while on a budget? Diabetes patients don't need to look for and buy specially labeled, "diabetic" foods that are generally more expensive and offer no additional benefits; they just need to follow the same tips as anyone not living with this condition.

Here are some of my favorite tips that anyone can use to follow a healthy meal plan while on a budget:


1. Plan your meals in advance. 
Plan ahead and use what's already in your home to help you save money by reducing waste. In Montefiore's diabetes self-management education class, we use the "plate method" to teach meal planning: Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (such as spinach or broccoli), a quarter of your plate with lean protein (like grilled chicken) and the last quarter with a starch (such as rice or potatoes). For dessert, opt for a small piece of fruit or a serving of low-fat dairy. Once you've visualized your plate, check your fridge and pantry for items that you can use for the week. Next, create a shopping list – and stick to it.


2. Shop the perimeter. 
Most of the items on your list should be located in the perimeter of the supermarket. Save time and money and avoid temptation by not entering the center of the supermarket, except when absolutely necessary.


3. Shop for what's on sale. 
Check weekly circulars and/or supermarket websites for sales. Plan your meals around items that have the biggest sales, such as fresh produce and protein. Often, the best sales can be found on seasonal fresh produce. Check what's in season by you, and explore new options. For packaged products, consider buying the store brand, which offers great quality at a lower price point.


4. Buy in bulk. 
Products that come individually packed, such as yogurt, fruit, nuts and oatmeal, are often are more expensive because of the extra time and materials needed for packaging. Essentially, you're paying for convenience. Buy items in bulk and create your own individual servings. You can also freeze some items to extend the life of the product – this is a great option for fresh produce and breads; instead of letting your bananas, berries, or breads go bad, freeze them to sustain freshness.


5. Measure for portion control. 
Meat is often the most expensive item on your shopping list, and most Americans consume more protein than needed. Remember that a recommended serving size of meat is 5 to 6 ounces per day. You can save big each week by eating the recommended 2 to 3 ounces of meat per meal, which is about the size of a deck of cards. If you're trying to lose weight, a simple tip I give my patients is to follow the plate method with a smaller plate. Don't forget to use measuring cups and spoons as often as possible – it's important to train your eyes to what a proper portion looks like so that when you're dining out, you can accurately identify an appropriate serving size.


6. Incorporate "Meatless Mondays." 
Prepare meatless meals once a week to cut down on your weekly food bill. You can still get your recommended protein when you're eating meatless, too. Great sources of protein include tofu, legumes (like beans and lentils), peas, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Try planning meals around these more affordable, and nutrient-packed, protein options.


7. Cook a double batch. 
Save time and money by cooking a surplus of one recipe and eating it a couple times per week. This helps cut down planning, prep and cook times, and it ensures there's always a healthy meal waiting in your fridge. Bonus: Most meals can be frozen once they're cooked and saved for a quick dinner down the line.


8. Consider the frozen food aisle. 
Frozen fruits and vegetables can sometimes contain more nutrients than fresh produce, making them a cost-effective option. When these items are on sale, buy in bulk and freeze them at home for when fresh produce isn't such a great deal. Finally, many of these frozen produce items are pre-cleaned and pre-cut, saving you time in the kitchen.


9. Subscribe to websites and blogs. 
There are dozens of free resources online for individuals who want to eat healthier while on a strict budget. The ADA offers a free e-newsletter called "Recipes for Healthy Living" that provides recipes, one-day meal plans and cooking videos. Websites like CookingLight.com provide healthy versions of favorite recipes and the nutritional content of the recipe so you can be assured you're not overconsuming a nutrient without having to do all the calculations yourself.


10. Use technology. 
All of these money-saving tips take time and effort. After you've mastered the basics, save time by using technology to your benefit. There are many free apps that help streamline your weekly meal-planning tasks. Apps like "Shopping List Ease" allow you to create a grocery list, share it with friends and family, and track previous purchases so you know what items you already have. The "Fooducate" app rates your food choices and encourages you to select healthier options. Check your smartphone's app store to see which app fits your needs. All apps have a description and a rating to help you know which to choose. Try looking up your favorite supermarket, too. My supermarket app contains weekly ads, coupons, recipes and rewards.


These are only a few tips you can try to save time and money on your next trip to the supermarket. If you need more help on eating healthy on a budget, I encourage you to meet with a registered dietitian in your area. He or she can assess whether your current diet is meeting all of your nutritional needs and refer you to additional resources.

Mauricio Duran , MS, RDN,
 recently joined the Clinical Diabetes Center at Montefiore Health system, where he teaches group diabetes self-management education courses and conducts one-on-one consultations. He received his registered dietitian credentials and his Master’s Degree from Long Island University, and he currently specializes in diabetes medical nutrition therapy.
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