By Marcia Sikorski, RD, LDN, CDE
There is a misconception that healthy eating is expensive. In many cases, basic healthy foods are not only less expensive but often more nutritious than the more expensive processed foods. With a little planning and wise food shopping, you can get the nutrients you need while staying within your budget.
A “good deal” is a waste of money if you do not eat the food before it spoils. Think about how long foods will last before they go bad and buy only what you can eat before the next grocery shopping trip or buy foods that have a long shelf life or can be frozen. If you have freezer and/or cupboard space, buy foods in bulk when they are on sale. Take advantage of store discount cards and coupons that can save you money only on food items you use. A coupon or bulk purchase on food items you don’t regularly use may result in waste so is not a good deal.
Look at the unit prices of foods and compare. Generic/store brands tend to be less expensive than name brands and most often of similar nutrient value and flavor. Convenience foods are usually higher in price. Foods with added sauces or season packs generally cost more and often contain less healthy ingredients.
Whole grains can add nutritional value and be used as less expensive fillers in mixed dishes. This means you need less of the higher priced ingredients. Bulk bins often contain basic whole grain options that are less expensive. This might include grains like brown rice, whole grain pasta, barley, and bulgur.
When it comes to breakfast grains, store brand whole grain cereals are less expensive than name brands. The inexpensive “old-fashioned oats” (rolled oats) can be used to make oatmeal or added to baked goods/pancakes for boosting nutrients and fiber. Individual packets of oatmeal are usually more expensive and higher in sodium and/ or sugar.
Look for whole grain bread products that are on sale or “day-old” breads sold at bakery outlets. These can be frozen and portions taken out on an as-needed basis. If you can, make your own bread/rolls/muffins.
The most expensive items on your grocery list are probably animal-based proteins. Consider having a number of meatless meals each week that include some form of beans, lentils, or peanut butter. These foods are very nutritious and will provide protein as well. Beans are an excellent source of fiber. The least expensive are the dried ones, but the cooked canned beans are a lot easier to use and are still a good bargain. Rinsing the canned beans in cold water removes much of the sodium and makes them less gassy. They can be added to soups, stews, chili, salads, or grain dishes in place of more expensive proteins.
When you do buy animal-based proteins, here are a few hints for keeping down the cost. Buy family packs, as these tend to be lower in price per pound, then portion into plastic bags and freeze. In general, limit cooked meat/poultry portions to about 3 ounces (the size of a deck of cards) per person.
Purchase cheaper cuts of meat. For beef, it often needs tenderizing; moist forms of cooking (like in a stew or soup), or slicing very thinly works well. Tenderizing such as marinating in some form of acid — like oil with vinegar (any flavor) or lemon juice. Note that turkey tends to be cheaper than chicken. Canned tuna, salmon, or chicken tend to be less expensive as well. Be sure to drain and rinse the canned items to help remove the sodium.
Eggs and dairy products are less expensive sources of high quality proteins. These can be used in place of meat or added to a dish to extend how much protein it contains. In many cases the lower fat forms are not more costly and might be a wiser choice nutritionally.
Fresh fruit and vegetables vary greatly in price. Some can be quite expensive, while others are relatively inexpensive. Vegetables like carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole butternut and other winter squash, and onions tend to be inexpensive throughout the year. When it comes to fresh fruit, banana prices are also fairly constant. To help keep costs down, try to buy produce that is in season. Examples might be — apples and pears in the fall, citrus in the winter, strawberries in the spring, blueberries and corn in the summer, and so on. Sometimes buying by the bag (like for apples and oranges) can be cheaper than buying them individually but remember do not buy in volume unless you can eat or use before they spoil.
Watch for farmers markets or produce stands. Often the prices are lower than at the larger stores. You may also find that they lower prices of perishable produce at the end of the day. If growing your own produce is an option, this can be a less costly way of securing fresh fruits and vegetables. If not, many people with vegetable gardens find they have been over-zealous in their spring planting and have an abundance to share in the fall.
Do not hesitate to buy frozen fruit and vegetables as they tend to be cheaper than fresh. Since they are flash frozen close to where they are grown, they contain nutrients similar to fresh. These can also save time as they are already cut into bite-sized pieces. Frozen fruit can be used on cereal, in a smoothie, a topping for pancakes, or waffles, or as part of a healthy dessert. Frozen veggies can be steamed or added to soups, stews, chili, and casseroles.
Remember that any food wasted is also a waste of money. Only buy what you can use or store. Eat only what you need nutritionally. Eat what you buy — use all leftovers. If you are not able to use them within a few days, pop them into the freezer. Many leftovers can be added to a stir-fry, soup, stew, or other mixed dish add nutrition and to prevent waste.
Marcia Sikorski, RD, LDN, CDE