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How to eat well on a budget

Maggie Beer has spent decades bringing us delicious food from her very own kitchen. Her latest endeavour, the Maggie Beer Foundation is tackling the issue of nutrition in aged care homes. She’s kindly taken the time to tell us more about the Foundation and also share some tips for eating well on a limited budget.

What was the drive to start the Maggie Beer Foundation?
The welfare of those in aged care homes has been an ongoing concern of mine for a long time so in 2014 I established my own foundation; Maggie Beer Foundation, to create an appetite for life, regardless of age or health restrictions. I’m so happy to finally have found the time and people to support my passion. In fellowship with my board of industry leaders, professors and health advisors, I’ve made it my personal mission to link the latest research of nutrition’s impact on brain health and general wellbeing, with my personal knowledge of what good food can do for everyone’s state of mind.

Have you been surprised at the standard of food provided in aged care – either good or bad?
After winning Senior Australian of the Year, I was invited to a CEO’s conference in aged care and was amazed to find that NO healthy eating guidelines for older Australians exist for nutrition in residential aged care. Doesn’t that seem crazy to think the current Australian Health Eating Guidelines are appropriate to impose on the elderly population? Their needs are very specialised and absolutely vital but in many places they are not considered. So yes, I have been shocked by the standard of food, but equally by the fact that no standards exist, which is what should spearhead the meal choices in the first place.

Has there been a moment that stands out as being confirmation that the Foundation is making a difference?
We have had a steady stream of success based on the goals we set out as our overall plan when we began. There are the big picture achievements such as our education programs, helping to create a network for all those wanting to make a change, benchmarking best practice with recognition for those doing great work, and our Wellbeing Gardens Program, but there are a lot of seemingly everyday changes that I have noticed that have had an equally positive impact; things such as making meals times more social, starting gardens to grow fresh vegetables and herbs on site, allowing more autonomy of choice for residents when deciding on their meals. With the staff, we do hands on cooking demonstrations to share new recipe ideas and ways of incorporating simple things like fresh stock, real butter and fresh rather than frozen veggies. We also work to trouble shoot the inevitable challenges both the kitchen staff and management are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. It’s an overall achievement, and one of combined efforts, that has made me especially keen to continue to bring an awareness to aged care cooking and nutrition in the greater food world.


For older Australians not in aged care, but living on a limited budget, what would be the five tips you would give?

  1. Fresh vegetables not only offer better flavour but are also most economic when purchased in their natural growing season.
  2. Making food from scratch is always the best option both from a nutritional point of view and also economically. 
  3. Learn to make your own stock with left over veggies and bones. A good stock is the basis for full flavoured meals and when made fresh need never contain harmful flavour enhancers or fillers.
  4. Gardens are so important, not just to make the connection to what might end up on the table and plate, but also to encourage a sense of joy. And there is nothing more economical than homegrown food!
  5. Grains and pulses not only offer excellent nutritional attributes but there really isn’t much that can contest their value for money. So much food can be created from a cup or two of rice, polenta, dried beans, cracked wheat or lentils, and all are wonderful flavour carriers too.


And for older Australians living alone, who may have lost the will to cook, are there some basic tips for making quick meals?
Consider purchasing a slow cooker. That way you can make food from scratch with very little effort.  For example, make baked beans from scratch, or the sauce for spaghetti bolognaise, in advance. Any leftovers can be frozen for future meals. Slow cookers are wonderful – they just requires a little bit of planning ahead.

Is it cost-effective for individuals to grow their own fruit and vegetables? Or are community gardens a better option?
I think there are many things that individuals can grow and gain excellent value from, but the biggest ‘problem’ with growing your own food is that everything can be ready at the same time, and then you have the need to preserve or cook for the freezer. If that isn’t possible, then I suggest growing things like fresh herbs that can be picked at will, rather than harvested all at once. Vegetables such as kale, spinach, potatoes and broccolini can also be picked when needed rather than having to utilise the whole plant on the one occasion. For produce such as cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, etc. though, a joint effort would make far more sense, so for those vegetables I would definitely recommend a community garden if that is an option for people. And wonderful to share the company beyond just growing food too.

What are the less-expensive cuts of meat that those living on a limited budget should familiarise themselves with?
Anything that requires slow cooking is generally more economical, so think of stews and braises, or even soups; chuck steak, beef shin, skirt steak, pork neck, and of course my favourite, offal.

Have we lost the art of making a meal stretch in the same way our mothers used to? Do we simply throw too much food away?
I would imagine there is a great deal of truth to this because of time restraints more so than any conscious intent to waste. When busy lives take over the kitchen, and that happens to all of us, we can often prioritise what is most convenient above all else. ‘Stretching’ meals often involves utilising the kinds of foods that take more time to cook, but I’ve always thought that if you put the time in to cooking something for yourself and your family, you appreciate it so much more, and are far less likely to throw any leftovers away or waste any of your hard-earned efforts.

Everyone’s dietary needs differ, however, are there two or three items that we should be eating on daily or weekly basis?
I eat a lot of ‘good fats’ daily which include extra virgin olive oil, nuts and avocado.

Extra virgin coconut oil is another one and there is research out there which suggests coconut oil in the diets of people living with Alzheimer’s has positive influence on depression and memory.

Finally, if you only had $10 to spend on a family meal for four, what would you cook?
A beautiful frittata, filled with kale and feta and fresh herbs, served alongside a salad of roasted beetroot in Vino Cotto and extra virgin olive oil.




Find out more about the programs that the Maggie Beer Foundation supports.

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