Closeup on money in piggy bank and purchases from grocery store on table

Nutrition on a Budget

By Shaila Wunderlich Monday, February 6, 2023

Close up of Umme Salma Vahanvaty, a light-brown-skinned woman with shoulder-length black hair, taken outdoors with mountains in the background.

Umme Salma Vahanvaty is a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’s MDA Care Center.

Food insecurity is a worldwide reality, and one that is expected to get worse. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), food prices are rising by more than 11%, and the World Food Programme (WFP) predicts food shortages to worsen in the year ahead. Few populations are more affected by food insecurity than those with health issues, including people living with neuromuscular diseases. “I have a lot more patients expressing new problems with food costs,” says Umme Salma Vahanvaty, a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’s MDA Care Center.

Here are six tips from Vahanvaty for maintaining a healthy, cost-conscious diet.

1. Frozen is fine.

Frozen fruits and vegetables provide all the fiber and vitamins at up to half the cost of fresh. “You could argue that frozen is actually more nutritional because it’s picked at its peak and frozen right away,” Vahanvaty says. “Buy it on sale, and store back-ups in the freezer for tossing into rice, soups, and omelets at the last minute.” Frozen foods keep for a long time.

People with neuromuscular diseases should follow the USDA guidelines on fruit and vegetables, consuming them with every meal or two to three times daily.

2. Portion properly.

Sticking to recommended portion sizes is a smart antidote to overspending — and overeating. To help people understand portion sizes, Vahanvaty likes to use visual aids, such as using the hand as a template, with the pointer finger, fist, and flat palm representing various portions.

3. Don’t skip subsidized offerings.

Many families and older adults in the neuromuscular disease community have access to local food pantries or other community food programs, plus kids might get free school lunches. “Food pantries are good for packaged foods that can sit on the shelf for a while,” Vahanvaty says.

For picky eaters, she has a strategy for cherry-picking the essential items on a tray. “If you’re going to eat only one or two things, choose the milk and the fruit,” she says. If there’s a side vegetable or salad, eating that and at least a small portion of the entrée would be even better. When all else fails, supplement with a nutritious snack, like yogurt or a peanut butter sandwich.

“Leftovers are another good way to stretch the meals you are cooking at home,” Vahanvaty says.

4. PB for protein.

Speaking of peanut butter, it’s a filling way to pack in nearly all protein needs — plus essential omega fats — in a cost-conscious, shelf-stable package. Beans, lentils, and nuts are other sources of protein that are more affordable and shelf-stable than fish and meat. “In a pinch, go for basic nuts like peanuts versus pricier walnuts and almonds,” Vahanvaty says.

5. Stay hydrated.

Clean water is accessible in most communities through water fountains and taps. Water is fundamental to the body’s most basic needs, and it prevents one of neuromuscular disease’s most common culprits: constipation. “Muscle weakness can affect the ability of the gut to adequately push things through the system,” Vahanvaty says. Being hydrated makes this easier.

Unfortunately, those living with neuromuscular disease often skimp on water at work or school to avoid excessive trips to the restroom or accidents. “For at least several hours, they are drinking only the bare minimum — or nothing at all.” She recommends being diligent about drinking while at home or somewhere with easy bathroom access.

6. Make a plan.

It’s a good idea to work with a dietician familiar with neuromuscular diseases. (Many MDA Care Center teams include dieticians.) They can help you establish a food budget, create meal plans and grocery lists, or connect to local resources that can assist in food access. “Planning your weekly meals is a big difference-maker,” Vahanvaty says. “It leads to a more efficient shopping list, which equals bigger savings.”



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Disclaimer: No content on this site should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.