As a nutrition expert, one of the things I appreciate most is quality groceries for my family. As a military spouse, I’ve experienced a variety of grocery options including living 100 miles from the Arctic Circle. In our time in Interior Alaska, we lived 40 minutes from the closest grocery store, other than our local commissary. When I combine my expertise as a Registered Dietitian with my tenure as a military spouse, here are the easiest ways I’ve found to shop for healthy groceries on base-even in the most remote of locations.
Let’s start with produce-of course fresh, quality produce is a luxury we’d like to always have access to. However, the reality of military life has taught us not to count on luxuries. So here’s what you need to know-frozen produce is flash frozen at peak freshness and is adequate to meet your nutritional needs, reliable in quality, and often more affordable than fresh. Canned fruits and vegetables are often canned with added salt or sugar, but that is easily reduced with a quick rinse in water before eating. Though frozen and canned produce will often not yield a crisp texture like fresh fruits and vegetables, they can provide quality nutrition that’s easily accessible on any budget.
Grains are another shelf stable source of nutrition. Whether your diet is gluten free, low carb, or diabetic, opting for whole grains is an easy way to find vitamins and nutrients no matter where you’re stationed. Look specifically for the words “whole grain” in the packaging like whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread, and brown rice. No need for fancy grains like quinoa or chickpea pasta-these items are usually much more expensive and don’t provide a difference in nutrient quality that is worth the difference in price.
Protein sources can be tricky depending on where you’re located. Pay attention to cuts of meat and the price difference. For example, chicken thighs are often cheaper than chicken breasts and contain slightly higher fat and Iron levels making them a nutritionally comparable, budget friendly substitute for most recipes. In my experience, beef has consistently been the highest priced meat of anywhere we’ve been stationed. More affordable meats have been poultry and pork, sometimes seafood-thank you for that, Alaska. One of my favorite complete proteins is the egg. At around $2 per dozen, they’re not only one of the most versatile protein sources, but also the cheapest. Also consider plant proteins like beans, nuts, seeds, and soy/ tofu. Opting for a meat free meal, that includes a variety of plant proteins is a great way to increase nutrition quality without a significant increase in cost.
Next, be mindful of food marketing buzzwords. Yes, food companies use buzzwords to confuse consumers and sell their products-the same as every other company does. Popular buzzwords lately are “non-GMO, organic, natural, no added sugar, gluten-free, antibiotic free, free range, cage free,” the list goes on. Do your research about what these terms mean, how to read the nutrition labels instead of just the marketing terms, and how to decide for your family’s health and budget what the right choice is to meet your needs.
Lastly, always pay attention to what your commissary carries. If something is marked down, in season, or is a rarity for your area, be prepared to scoop it up while you can! If you are regularly finding it difficult to purchase the food your family needs, contact your local food pantry, WIC office, or installation support services to learn about what aid your family may qualify for. The newest reports show that 1 in 5 military families struggle with adequate resources to feed themselves, so it’s important to know what options are available to you, as well as how to shop healthy on a dime at your local commissary, which is always tax-free.
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