Published Feb. 17, 2011
ASK AN EXPERT
AMY HABECK, NUTRITION EXPERT
How can people on low incomes eat healthy?
Eating right shouldn’t
threaten even the tightest of budgets, according to Amy
Habeck, registered dietitian and volunteer with HCS
But she said it does require an investment of another resource:
“If you can take two hours on a Sunday afternoon and make two meals
for the week, that’s great. Or you can take 15 or 20
minutes (at night) to put some things together and have
it ready for the next day,” Habeck said.
Making space in one’s schedule to prepare home-cooked meals will
help squeeze out the reliance on fast food or
microwavable dishes that are high in fat and sodium, she
“When you’re starving, thinking about ‘What am I going to make for
dinner?’, the fastest thing is what you’re going to do.
If you’ve thought that through ahead of time, that will
help,” Habeck said.
With obesity and its related health issues getting more attention
in recent years, Habeck senses an openness to change. In
under-resourced neighborhoods, however, cheap processed
food is often more accessible than fresh produce.
“Think about if you had to do your grocery shopping at 7-11. This
is the position that a lot of people are in,” she said.
In most of the world, the diet of the poor consists of low-fat
staples such as dried beans and rice. Habeck said all
would be well-served to incorporate these simple
“Everyone, regardless of budget, should be trying to include dried
beans and peas into their diets, just because of the
effect it has on heart disease,” she said.
She instructs clients with a slow cooker to make a week’s worth of
three-bean chili or soup and freeze some for later.
One of her most effective approaches is making meals using items
available at the HCS food pantry.
“Using the exact resources that they have, I will prepare something
and have it there for sampling. When you show them that
it can be easy and tasty, they’re willing to give it a
try,” she said. “I do try to provide them with the first
step they can take. I try to give them simple,
executable things that they can do.”
She tries to help people understand that over the long-term,
processed foods are not only unhealthy, they’re
“If that’s your every day, every meal, that’s expensive. And when
you buy all of that, you can’t afford fresh fruits and
vegetables,” she said. “Instead of buying a box of
macaroni and cheese, buy whole wheat pasta and add some
vegetables. I think that clients are always surprised
that it can be inexpensive.”
Canned fruit and vegetables are great in the off-season as long as
they’re low in sodium and canned in their own juice.
“You can get the same nutrition from those products, and they’re
much less expensive than fresh,” Habeck said.
She encouraged food pantry benefactors to donate with health in
mind, including items such as brown rice, whole wheat
pasta or cannellini beans in their generous gifts.
Turning meal-planning into a family activity pays dividends, as
Habeck has learned firsthand enlisting her kids to pick
“I took the recipes to the grocery store and we bought everything
together. They were so excited,” she said. “Cooking is a
great math activity for kids. Getting your family
involved takes some of the burden off of you and gives
your kids the ownership.”
— by Ken
Making a Difference is a yearlong
The Hinsdalean and HCS Family Services, which works to
empower families and change lives.