A Mom Who Balances Taste, Convenience, and Heart Health Concerns

Welcome to Grocery Diaries, a new series that illustrates just how varied and personalized “healthy eating” really is. So many factors impact the choices we make at the grocery store, including access and affordability, health conditions, our individual cultural backgrounds, even what simply makes us (and our taste buds) happy. So we asked people across the country to share their grocery lists with us, and then called up a few of them to ask for more details. Why do they buy what they buy? How much do they spend? Who are they shopping for? What health conditions or nutritional concerns are they thinking about when they choose, for instance, almond milk over cow’s milk, or particular flavors or spices or treats? In this Grocery Diaries installment, we hear from a mother of two who has a family history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Name: Erica Howard

Age: 34

Occupation: Research administrator at a medical center

Location: Dallas

Race/Gender: Black woman

Health conditions/dietary restrictions to consider: Erica and her husband, Anthony, both have a family history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Grocery shopping frequency: Shops for four people three to four times a month

Cooking for a family that includes two young kids involves balancing taste, convenience, and nutrition—which is not an easy task, says Erica Howard. She relies on tried-and-true meals her family enjoys, such as spaghetti, to please her husband and sons (Austin is four, and Eason is almost one). “It makes life easier because if I cook something they eat, then I don’t have to fight with [the kids],” she tells SELF.

As a busy working parent, Erica prefers to serve big-batch meals that are easy to prepare and reheat throughout the week. “I don’t have much time to do a full-blown feast,” she says. “I want something quick and simple, so I can spend more time with the kids instead of prepping their food.”

To make this goal even easier, Erica supplements home-cooked food with prepared frozen meals during the workweek. “I have to fit in my own lunch and feed the kids in an hour, so we’re short on time,” she says.

Erica regularly ate red meat growing up but switched to poultry and fish during college. At the time, she played basketball and felt that a diet lower in saturated fat best supported her active lifestyle. While she doesn’t currently play sports, Erica’s still active and exercises to bodyweight and kickboxing fitness videos several times a week. She’s also still mindful of saturated-fat intake, but for a different reason: Erica and her husband both have a family history of high cholesterol and high blood pressure, and eating less saturated fat is a key way to try to prevent developing these conditions.

Cholesterol, a form of fat, isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, our bodies need it to form cells and make vital hormones, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But there are two types of cholesterol, which is where things get tricky. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is also known as “bad cholesterol” because if your levels of it are high enough, it can accumulate on the walls of your arteries and eventually form blockages. This can make it difficult for blood to travel through your body, which may lead to potentially dangerous medical problems, including high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is known as “good cholesterol” because it helps remove excess cholesterol from the body, the Cleveland Clinic explains. 

High blood pressure, on the other hand, occurs when blood moves through the arteries with an abnormally strong force, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Your blood pressure is determined by the amount of blood your heart pumps and how resistant your arteries are to the blood flow, the Mayo Clinic explains. There are numerous reasons why your arteries might become resistant to that blood flow, including smoking and cholesterol buildup, according to the Mayo Clinic. Over time, your organs may not function properly without a healthy blood supply, potentially leading to serious medical conditions like a heart attack or stroke. Limiting saturated fat is one way to try to avoid high blood pressure, the NHLBI explains. 

Erica has access to a variety of grocery stores she can turn to while keeping in mind her family’s preferences and health goals. Here are 10 items she picks up in a typical grocery trip.

1. Honeysuckle White 85% Lean, 15% Fat Ground Turkey: $3.99

Erica chooses ground turkey because it’s low in fat and very versatile. She uses this to make hamburgers, chili, spaghetti sauce, and a family recipe that she calls “dirty rice.” The dish includes cream of mushroom, celery, and chicken soups, along with bell peppers, onions, and celery. “It’s a recipe that I got from one of my aunts,” she explains. “It’s one of the first dishes I learned how to make, and it’s become a staple in my household.” Erica isn’t worried about the fat in the creamy soups since she uses leaner meat as a trade-off of sorts.

2. Healthy Choice Café Steamers Four-Cheese Ravioli & Chicken Marinara: $2.99

This ravioli contains spinach, and Erica originally started purchasing it because it’s an easy lunch for her four-year-old son, Austin, who loves ravioli but doesn’t like vegetables. As it turns out, Eason, who is nearly one, is not picky and eats the ravioli cut up in small little pieces, Erica explains. So the kids get to enjoy their pasta with a little serving of greens. Eventually, Erica and her husband started eating these meals because they’re convenient on busy workdays. “This is something that we all fight over,” she says. 

Erica also turns to a produce subscription box in an attempt to boost the family’s vegetable intake. “I started using Imperfect Foods and it kind of forces us to get more veggies,” she says. 

3. Avocados: $1.29

Erica saves time at the grocery store by purchasing items that her entire family eats. She adds avocado to salads, makes guacamole for her husband, or serves it sliced to her kids. “They serve a purpose for everyone in the household,” she says.

4. V8 Lower Sugar Healthy Greens Juice: $3.79

As we mentioned, Austin doesn’t like vegetables, so Erica looks for ways to make them more palatable. She gives Austin some of this juice several times a week to sneak in some extra nutrients. “He knows it’s green—he just doesn’t realize it has vegetables,” she says. Erica and Anthony also drink a glass whenever they want to sneak more produce into their diets.

5. Lemons: $1.29

“Lemons are from my childhood,” says Erica, whose dad made a warm version of lemonade when she was sick. As an adult, Erica began making the drink (her family calls it lemon tea) when she was homesick. Erica’s dad died several years ago, and she now drinks this lemon tea before bed to remember him. “My husband gives me an hour from 8 to 9 p.m. where I get to decompress, and that’s when I have my tea,” she says. Erica is comforted by the memory of her dad’s love when she drinks this and also enjoys the bright lemon flavor. Try it for yourself: Juice one lemon into a cup. Then boil water and lemon rinds together for about 10 minutes. Add the boiled liquid to the lemon juice, then add your choice of honey or sugar.

a cup of coffee on a table

© Chelsea Kyle. Food Stying by Drew Aichele. Prop Styling by Campbell Pearson.

6. Raspberry Noosa Yoghurt: $1.67

“I literally eat this stuff standing in my pantry closet so I don’t have to share it with my son,” says Erica. “My four-year-old will eat the whole container if he sees me with it.” So what makes this yogurt so incredible? “It’s the perfect thickness, and the fruit makes it sweet. There are bits of whole fruit in there—not just fruit gel. I love it,” says Erica.

7. Long grain rice: $4.22

Rice is a household staple for two reasons: It’s hearty and inexpensive. These are important attributes because Erica saves money and keeps her family satisfied. “I’ve always liked rice because you can make it taste like anything,” she says. She serves rice as a side dish or eats it for breakfast with butter and sugar, which she explains is common in the South. “It completely changes the flavor,” she says. Plus, she likes that rice holds up well throughout the week. “Having leftovers decreases my stress level by like 10 times,” Erica explains.

8. StarKist Chunk Light Tuna in Water: $1.39

Since Erica only has an hour to eat lunch and feed her kids, simple meals are very important on weekdays. Austin likes tuna salad, so Erica frequently makes it for the family lunches. She mixes the tuna with sandwich spread (which is similar to mayonnaise but includes relish), hard-boiled eggs, and onions, and then adds extra relish.

9. Ritz Crackers Roasted Vegetable: $2.99

This is another Austin-approved item that the whole family eats. Erica generally pairs the crackers with tuna salad or makes a homemade version of Lunchables using ham and cheese. And while the crackers aren’t a source of vegetables, this is one more way that Erica introduces Austin to vegetable flavors.

10. Apples: $1.59

Erica buys apples because they’re convenient and the kids can eat them without making a mess. This is particularly helpful when Erica runs errands with the kids. She’s also found that apples keep Eason happy while he’s teething. “He likes rubbing his gums against the apple,” she says.

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