When Melanie Fournier found out she was pregnant she thought that gave her license to eat whatever she wanted.
She lived off pizza and frozen dinners, choosing meals that were cheap and wouldn’t take much effort to prepare after long days of working the phones at a call centre near her apartment in the Ottawa suburb of Vanier.
By the time she gave birth to a baby girl — who arrived two months premature — Fournier had gained 75 pounds.
That’s forty pounds beyond the healthy pregnancy weight gain guidelines for a person her size.
“I thought the whole rule of you’re eating for two,” she says. “So I always ate a lot. “
Poor nutrition during pregnancy increases the baby’s chance of having a low birth weight, which means a greater risk of developing numerous health problems and disabilities.
Many moms-to-be want to be healthy for their babies, but are limited by low income.
DIETS AND DOLLARS
Whole grains are healthier than refined grains. Brown rice is more nutritious than white. Fresh vegetables are better for you than canned. But healthy foods are often more expensive — or at least seem to be more expensive — than frozen meals and grab-and-go deals.
It’s not just diet — small costs add up.
Cathryn Fortier, project director for Buns in the Oven, says there are many hidden pregnancy costs that people don’t think about.
“We just sort of take them for granted as things we afford automatically,” Fortier says.
For example, she points to the cost of vitamins and medication not covered by insurance and bus fare when long-distance walking becomes difficult. Fortier has seen women who skip medical appointments because they don’t have money for transportation.
A few days ago, one of the pregnant women in Fortier’s program fainted. The only thing she had eaten that day was a small amount of fruit.
Morning sickness wasn’t the problem. The woman just didn’t have enough money to buy groceries.
Making the womb a safe and healthy space for baby is difficult on a low income, but not impossible.
Dr. Kristi Adamo, a health and obesity researcher at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, says there areways work with the budget you’ve got.
“With some creativity and appropriate knowledge, you can eat healthy on a low income,” she says.
Adamo recommends frozen fruits and vegetables, which have the same nutritional value as fresh produce but last longer and are cheaper.
She says it’s simply not true that fast-food or prepared meals are cheaper than cooking at home, but knowing how to plan and prepare meals is a must.
TIGHT BUDGET HEALTH
Melanie Fournier joined Buns in the Oven for her second pregnancy and learned all the things she didn’t know when she was pregnant with her first child.
Buns in the Oven, which is run by the Young/Single Parent Support Network of Ottawa, teaches pregnant women how to budget, plan and prepare nutritious meals.
“They show you what you can do as alternatives to make it as healthy as possible on such a low budget,” Fournier says. While she speaks, her youngest, 10-month-old Zoe, is sitting in a high chair with half a peeled banana clenched in her tiny fist.
Since Buns in the Oven, Fournier has started buying fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread and milk.
She says knowing how to budget and make meal plans before going to the grocery story is key, so food doesn’t go to waste and you don’t buy more than you need.
Fornier is a stay-at-home mom, so the family income has dropped since her first pregnancy. Her partner delivers furniture and electronics for department stores. They live off his salary, plus a monthly child tax credit.
Their grocery budget is $400 a month. Fornier has to stretch that to feed the family of four, plus a friend who is currently living with them in their apartment.
The Ottawa Public Health nutritious food basket survey estimates that a healthy diet for a family of four costs $736 per month. That’s based on a family of two 35-year-old adults who have a 14-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl.
Since they don’t have a car, Fournier has to walk to the grocery store a few times a week, using a baby stroller to carry food home.
Despite the tight budget, she has strategies that help the family make it work.
Fornier has a recipe book full of nutritious and low-budget meals from Buns in the Oven that includes everything from Greek wraps to whole grain pancakes to broccoli salad.
She switches things up with vegetarian meals, which tend to be cheaper and healthier. She buys meat in large packages and freezes it. Fornier says casseroles are a staple, because they’re cheap, easy and can last for a few meals.
Every now and then when the budget is running low, she says she has to make tough choices in the grocery store.
“It’s a fine line between am I going for what my budget is, or am I going with what’s healthier?”
If she has to cut costs, she makes less-healthy choices for herself — like skipping fruit with breakfast or eating white bread instead of brown — and makes sure the girls still eat well.