By Kelsey Casselbury 2015-01-05 20:51:26
$1.50 a day. That’s approximately how much more it costs to choose a healthy diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts, rather than one rife with processed foods, fatty meats and refined grains, according to Harvard School of Public Health. While $1.50 doesn’t seem like much, it adds up to $10.50 a week, $46.50 a month, $550 a year— and, to many, that’s not chump change by any means, particularly when it’s on top of an already-stretched-to-the-max family budget. Experts can (and do) go on (and on) about how the higher food costs associated with many food products with a higher nutrition profile is worth the investment, as you’ll save on health care bills in the long term by eating right, right now. They tout that, by making minor budgetary adjustments—say, cutting your cable package and skipping that morning latte or super-sized soda—it’s easy to come up with the cash for fresh local produce or higher-priced grains and lower-fat cuts of meat. There’s certainly a measure of truth to those statements; however, in an era where grocery prices all across the board seem to be trudging up an endless steep hill while wages aren’t following suit, finding the extra cash even for the right reasons is not always that cut-and-dry. It might not be easy, but eating healthfully on a budget isn’t impossible. To help, School Nutrition has compiled some of the most useful tips for grocery shopping when money’s tight that are available from a wide variety of expert sources, ranging from the USDA, consumer advocates, working moms, recent college grads and more. And, while all suggestions have their merits, in this particular article, you won’t find a single word about unsubscribing from Netflix, cutting coupons or eliminating your morning cup of coffee to achieve your goal. Fail to Plan… If you take away just one lesson, it should be the importance of planning your meals before you head to the supermarket, not while you are strolling the aisles. Not only does this help your health—because, let’s face it, when was the last time you impulse-purchased kale?—but it also cuts down on the total at the register. Here’s how to make the most of your menu planning in six easy steps: 1. Shop your pantry. Do you know what’s wound up being pushed to the back of the shelf or deep in the freezer over time? Make a list of any items that must be used before going bad. 2. Get ahold of the grocery store’s weekly circular, whether it’s the paper copy, on the store’s website or via a smartphone application. 3. Note sales on your favorite items, and plan to buy at least one extra package of the best deal to start a stockpile—that way, you’ll have more options next time you shop your pantry, fridge and freezer. 4. Create a chart that allots spaces for one week of breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. List each member of your family. Start by indicating meals that you know will be eaten away from home, such as a work lunch, dinners with friends, a sports team banquet and so on. 5. Plan the rest of the meals around the supermarket sales and what’s already in your pantry. For example, if chicken breasts are $1.99 a pound, consider prepping chicken noodle soup, chicken enchiladas (with whole-grain tortillas and lowfat cheese, of course) and chicken stir-fry throughout the week. Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s certainly not a solid budgeting tactic. 6. Eat perishables first. Fresh vegetables and meats will go bad more quickly than frozen and canned items and pasta. Therefore, plan that grilled chicken salad for early in the week and the pasta with chickpeas and frozen spinach for near the end. Cook Once, Eat Twice Your weekly meal plan doesn’t have to feature a new dish every meal. In fact, you could save plenty of money simply by factoring in your leftovers as a meal—maybe at lunch, or perhaps at dinner again—the next day. Keep in mind that “leftovers” doesn’t necessarily mean the exact same dish. A roasted chicken can turn into chicken salad the next day; a bit of leftover steak and rice whips into fried rice with an egg and some peas. Be creative rather than eating the same meal throughout week. Fill up the Freezer If you’re not the type to enjoy leftovers right away, portion the meal into single-servings, wrap them up tightly and stick them in the freezer. Next time you run out of time to prepare your lunch, pull out a serving—it will save you from going out and spending money. You can even double the recipe and freeze on purpose. Lasagna, stews, enchiladas, burritos and a variety of casseroles all freeze well. Be warned, however, that anything made with potatoes, fruits and vegetables with a high water content (such as celery or watermelon) and most dairy products won’t retain the original texture once it’s been thawed. The Biggest Bang for Your Buck Let’s talk superfoods. These items are the richest in nutrients, making them ideal additions to your diet. Unfortunately, however, some of them—quinoa, for example, and wild salmon—don’t exactly fit into a tight budget. Make your own list of superfoods by stocking up on items that pack a nutritional wallop without emptying your wallet. Do the Math When it comes to smart shopping, it’s not about the final cost of items but rather the unit price. Typically, the label will tell you the price per ounce or pound of a particular item; choose the one that has a lower unit price, even if the total amount is a little higher, because then you are getting better value for your dollar. If you can’t find the unit price on the label, use a calculator to divide the price of the item by the total number of ounces or pounds to determine its unit price. A Green Thumb During the summer, planting your own vegetable garden means you don’t have to purchase a variety of produce—which can be a real budget-saver. But even if you don’t have the space (or inclination) to grow a full garden, an indoor herb garden can save you the cost of pricey spices, as well as add terrific flavor to your recipes. For beginners, the best and easiest herbs to grow indoors are rosemary, thyme, sage, chives, mint and basil. Proper Portioning Out-of-control portion sizes are a significant contributor to our obesity epidemic today. And it’s no surprise that many of us have a literally inflated sense of appropriate serving sizes to maintain a healthy weight. Consider that a standard chicken breast available at the supermarket often weighs in at 6 to 8 ounces—but you should only eat 3 ounces! It will do wonders for your health and your budget to get realistic about portions. After all, if you eat half the portion you bought of that chicken breast or beef steak at dinner, you still have 3 more ounces you can cook up the next day. Consider investing in a food scale and some measuring cups and even using your hand in order to learn what constitutes a proper portion by measuring everything for a week. Shop Around In any given week, different grocery stores typically feature different “loss leaders”—that is, the item(s) that they sell at a major discount in order to draw more customers into the store. Therefore, if you live in an urban or suburban area with multiple grocery stores in a small radius, it’s often worthwhile to pop into each and take advantage of the various sales. The strategy can backfire if you’re in a rural area with many miles between each shop—you’ll spend more in gas getting to each place than you save! However, the principle of “shopping around” works within a store, as well. If you want spices, for example, you typically head to the baking aisle, right? Check out the international aisle instead, where you often can find much cheaper prices of the same products. Learning to make better use of spices is a great way to boost the health quotient of your meals, too, as they add flavor to your meals without adding sodium, fat or calories. Substitute Without Fear It’s no secret that, generally speaking, vegetables, grains and legumes cost less than any form of animal protein. Therefore, when making casseroles, it’s easy to use half of the meat that is called for in the recipe and double the veggies or grains. In soups and stews, you can stretch the meal by adding beans or pasta. You can also substitute cheaper meats in recipes; for example, if a meal calls for ground turkey, ground chicken works just as well and it’s nearly always cheaper. Ground pork and ground beef often work interchangeably, so they can be swapped when one is on sale. Of course, when it comes to your health, don’t always assume that poultry is the leaner option—always check that you’re buying lean turkey breast, as the regular variety is comparable in fat to ground beef. Need More Help? The World Wide Web is full of tips and resources about eating right when money’s tight. Check out some of these websites that can help you cut your grocery budget without sacrificing your health: Amazon Subscribe and Save www.amazon.com/subscribeandsave If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, use the website’s Subscribe and Save service to save 15% on eligible grocery items delivered straight to your door. Budget Bytes www.budgetbytes.com Discover exciting recipes designed to save you the maximum amount of money. As the blog’s motto says, “My stomach is full, and my wallet is, too.” $5 Dinners www.5dollardinners.com The name says it all—this blogger mom offers up dinners that can be made for just $5. Plan to Eat www.plantoeat.com If you consistently fail to plan your meals, invest in a resource that helps you complete this task. Plan to Eat allows you to easily import recipes from across the web, assign them to a day/meal and creates a mobile-friendly shopping list that can be printed or used in the store with your cell phone. It requires a monthly fee, but offers a credit card-free 30-day trial. What’s Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl http://recipefinder.nal.usda.gov Discover more than 600 low-cost, nutritious recipes in both English and Spanish. Kelsey Casselbury is the managing editor of School Nutrition. Photography by istock/jiunlimited.com.
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