Eat Well on Very Little Money

How to eat well on $600? With the high cost of rent these days, it’s tough to provide balanced, healthy diets. And what about families where one or both parents work and they still find themselves below the poverty line…

By Delphine Caubet

Despite these situations, with time and effort it’s possible to improve your diet without breaking your budget. Here are a few little tricks to inject some health-conscious variety onto your plates…

Collective Kitchens

Collective kitchens have a reputation for being “for poor people.” But you don’t need to be poor to enjoy cooking in community. Within groups of 3 to 6 people you plan your menus, chart out courses, and cook. According to Brigitte Laquerre, administrator at the Regroupement des cuisines collectives du Québec, each portion should end up costing between $1 and $2.  The more people you have, the greater your purchasing power.

For those hesitant because of a specific diet (vegetarian, allergies…) know that the groups should be formed according to your needs. So cook with people with your own sensibilities. On top of bringing home a greater quantity of meals, these groups let you socialize. And you’ll learn all about cooking and nutrition.  

According to the requirements of each group, nutritionists or other intervenors can offer their opinion from time to time. And for novices who have no idea how to use an oven or a pan, it’s a great opportunity to learn.

Collective kitchens require a time commitment to meet, cook and eat with others, but in the end it’s time saved from all the bother of preparing meals alone during the rest of the week. And if you work, that’s no excuse: you usually get time off at the end of the day and on weekends.

Plan Ahead

This isn’t exactly a revelation, but planning out your meals in advance helps you not only spend less at the grocery store, but will also save time. No more looking at your fridge, its door wide open, imagining a multitude of possible combinations. Your menu is already set. All that is left for you to do is to apply it.

Suzanne Lepage is a dietician at the Dispensaire diététique de Montréal. Her job is to follow up with pregnant women so that they take care of their health, and that of their bundle of joy to come.

Séraphine, one of her clients, cooks about 3 times a week, but in bulk quantities. “And that’s an excellent initiative,” says Lepage. In the coming months, Séraphine will return to her studies, and that’s the best way to reconcile work and family.

The Spice of Life

“Most women eat well given their income,” Lepage explains. “But the problem is that there isn’t much variety in their diet. You have to learn to make different meals with the same elements.”

Fruits and vegetables in season are unbeatable on the price side. At harvest’s end, many are bargains. It’s always practical to buy in large quantities and freeze. Ideally, you want to produce different meals with the same basic ingredients.  You can vary your spices, alternate between soup and an appetizer…

But above all, don’t waste. You can use vegetable peelings to make a vegetable bouillon. Dry bread can become breadcrumbs… And be it at the store or in your cupboard, don’t be afraid to ignore expiry dates (except for meat and fish). If jams are cheaper because they’re a day or two from their expiry date, don’t panic. A few days here or there won’t make any difference.  

Think Local

Every region has its own programs. There may be food banks, mobile markets to fill the gap in food deserts, fruit shops that specialize in surpluses…

In the Outaouais, there’s an anti-waste squad, l’Escouade anti-gaspillage. The initiative is simple: collect fruits and vegetables unsold by markets or farmers, and redistribute them. In 2014 alone, they gave away seven tons of food!

Nathalie McSween, coordinator of the Escouade anti-gaspillage, says: “It was a bet. We bet that farmers would be ready to give away their surplus if volunteers went to collect it. And that’s what happened! The squad was a success. The project was renewed for two years.”

L’Escouade anti-gaspillage redistributed what it had collected to other foo-security organizations. And that’s just one example among many. Ugly vegetables (unsellable by grocers because they’re too little, deformed…) have garnered attention, and several organizations devote themselves to collecting and redistributing them.


Each week, mailboxes are bombarded with promotions. Some of them are interesting, but others leave something to be desired… “You have to be equipped to compare prices,” Lepage explains.  

In a perfect world we’d all be math whizzes, able to compare prices instantly. Better to take a calculator and do the math.

Food security isn’t just about diversifying your diet. It’s a matter of health. In 2012, 13.8% of all Canadians lived below the poverty line. That means 1.1 million youths under age 17.

An unbalanced diet leads to difficulties concentrating in the short term. Over the long term it can lead to anemia, diabetes, obesity and heart problems.

According to the Dispensaire diététique de Montréal, the minimum daily cost for a healthy diet is $8.30 per person per day. And that was a few years ago – Covid 19 has definitely driven that number up…

Decoding Labels

Nutritional tables can be incomprehensible. A lot of numbers and abbreviations… Here are some keys for decoding them.

Compare foods by weight and not by unit. For example, 4 crackers 20g each or 4 crackers 80g each aren’t equivalent.

Compare daily recommended values. Less than 5% means not a lot, and over 15% means a lot. It’s up to you whether you wish to decrease your daily intake of sodium, or increase your iron intake.

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