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9 Ways to Eat Healthily (and Cheaply)By Joe Wilkes
By now, most of us know what we should be eating—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish, among other foods. But anyone heading off to the supermarket with a shopping list of the best recommendations for a healthy diet is in for a bit of sticker shock. Over a 2-year period, a recent University of Washington study tracked the costs of "nutrient-dense" foods (foods high in vitamins and minerals and low in calories) and "energy-dense" foods (foods high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals—aka junk).* The nutrient-dense foods rose in cost by almost 20 percent while the cost of junk food declined. The study found that getting your average day's worth of 2,000 calories from the junk side cost $3.52, while getting your 2,000 calories' worth from nutrient-dense cuisine would cost $36.32. Since the average American spends about $7.00 a day on food, you can see where the rise in obesity might come from.
Other studies have shown similar findings. While the percentage of Americans' incomes spent on food has decreased dramatically over the last few years, the obesity rate has risen even more dramatically, as has the incidence of type 2 diabetes, an obesity-related disease. And the obesity rate has grown the most in the most impoverished sectors of society, further emphasizing the connection between the rising costs of nutrient-dense foods, the declining cost of junk food, and the rise in obesity rates. If you've checked out what a nice piece of Chilean sea bass with a side of asparagus costs compared to the latest offering from your local fast food joint's dollar menu, it's easy to be tempted by the dark side—especially if your budget is shrinking more than your waistline.
It is possible, however, to eat healthily and still have some money left over. Even on the tightest budget, you can do a little legwork and research to make the most nutritious choices for you and your family. And even if you're fortunate enough to have the cash to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as my grandfather would say, "There's no point putting your paycheck through your stomach." (And he lived to be almost 100 . . . but that was before the advent of dollar menus.) Here are nine tips for getting the most nutritional bang for your buck.
- 'Tis the season. Eating seasonally is the best way to get the most delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. When harvest time comes around for your favorite fruit or veggie, the market is usually glutted, and following the time-honored supply-and-demand curve, the prices of those fruits and veggies plummet. And not only is it cheap to eat fruits and veggies that are in season, it's the best time to get the most flavor for your money. Most fresh fruits and veggies sold in the off-season are either shipped from faraway lands or produced in greenhouse factories and don't have nearly the rich flavors produced by Mother Nature. It's a good time to stock up, eat what you can, and freeze or can the rest for a rainy day. If you're fortunate enough to live in a community with a decent farmers' market, it pays to get to know the men and women who are selling the produce. They can let you know when the best time to buy the best stuff is and give you a preview of what's coming up harvest-wise so you can plan your menu accordingly.
- The big freeze. Speaking of freezing and canning, these are great ways to save money and still have your nutritional needs met. Not only are frozen and canned foods way cheaper than fresh foods, in many cases, they're more nutritious. Fruits and vegetables are usually preserved within hours of harvest, when they have their maximum vitamins and minerals. Fresh fruits and vegetables can take days, or even weeks, to make the journey from the field to your table. Add to that any time spent lingering on supermarket shelves and in your fridge's crisper drawer, and suddenly fresh doesn't seem so fresh anymore. And in many recipes, frozen or canned might even be better than fresh. A pint of fresh off-season blueberries can cost more than $5.00 while a one-pound bag of frozen blueberries can cost less than $3.00. And the frozen berries will be a lot better in your morning smoothie. Any chef will tell you about the virtues of canned tomatoes over fresh ones when making your favorite pasta sauce. The only thing to be wary of is the sodium and sugar content in many canned goods, or frozen veggies that come with high-calorie sauces or other not-so-healthy ingredients in not-so-healthy amounts.
- Shop around. Smokey Robinson was right: It does pay to shop around. Check out the supermarket circulars that keep getting stuffed into your mailbox. Every week, your supermarket advertises "loss leaders," including fruits, veggies, lean meats, and fish. Their hope is to lure you into the store with these bargains that they don't make so much money on and tempt you to buy extra high-profit stuff while you're there. But if you stick to your list, you can fill your cart with the loss leaders and save a ton of money. Plus they'll usually be items that are in season, because these are cheaper for the store to buy. Also, signing up for your supermarket's club or rewards cards can help save you money. It's better to monitor sales and promotions rather than clipping coupons, because coupons generally apply to processed, less healthy foods, although you can sometimes find good coupons for canned and frozen produce (like the tomatoes and berries we just talked about).
- Get to know your grocer. And your butcher, your produce manager, etc. Find out on which day produce is delivered to the store, so you get maximum freshness for your dollar. Ask the store's butcher how soon before the printed expiration date they place meat, poultry, and fish on the "buy it fast!" discount shelf. These items are still fresh enough to consume, and if you cook or freeze them as soon as you buy them, it's no different from having bought full-priced cuts and leaving them in your refrigerator for a couple of days. Only your pocketbook knows the difference!
Another tip? Many butchers will custom-grind for you at no additional charge. If a package of factory-ground turkey breast costs $6.00 a pound and a whole turkey breast costs $2.00 a pound, why not buy the whole breast and ask your butcher to grind it for you? You'll save a lot of money, and you'll actually know what went into the turkey burger you're eating.
- Think outside the big box. Instead of always going to the big-box supermarket chains, check and see whether there are any farmers' markets and/or food co-ops in your area. The food will be fresher, cheaper, and hopefully not as coated with pesticides, waxes, or other unsavory elements. It's a good way to save money while supporting your local community's resources. Here you can get organic produce for the same price or cheaper than traditionally grown produce. It's also worth it to check out how your state defines "organic." Organic food is great, but if you're trying to save money, traditionally grown food isn't any less nutritious than organic; it may just need a little more scrubbing.
- Start your own farm. If you have a yard, start your own vegetable and/or herb garden. With a little online research, you can find out what grows well and easily in your neck of the woods. And if you're an apartment dweller like me, you can get a lot out of a container garden. I have big pots on my balcony that keep me in tomatoes, peppers, and fresh herbs all summer long. And if you don't have a balcony, you can grow small pots of herbs in your kitchen—decorative, tasty, and economical!
- Plan ahead. Take some time on Sunday to plan out your menu for the week for all your meals and snacks. Find out what's in season and on sale in your area. If you can only make one shopping trip for the week, front-load your menu with fresh ingredients and stock up on canned and frozen items for the latter half of the week. One of the areas where my budget always falls apart is not having either some kind of plan or the ingredients I'll need to make dinner; I end up grabbing takeout or having food delivered—either of which can tend to be unhealthy and expensive. Just by planning ahead and not wasting money on spur-of-the-moment restaurant meals, you might find you have a lot more money to spend at the grocery store, which means you won't have to cut as many corners for the mealsyou prepare.
- Tap into tap water . . . not your wallet. Instead of spending big money on bottled water, try switching to tap water, which is subject to a lot more regulations than bottled water and isn't shipped in from Fiji or Norway, making it good both for your health and for helping to reduce your carbon footprint. And it's practically free! Plus it's a lot better for your waistline and your wallet than multiple trips to the soda machine. If you're concerned about impurities or don't like the taste of your local tap water, consider getting a simple, relatively inexpensive filtration system—one that either attaches to the tap itself or is located in a separate pitcher. Ounce for ounce, it'll still be cheaper than bottled, and just as good for you.
- Take your vitamins. Here's the easiest, most economical way to help ensure that you meet your basic nutritional needs: Take a good multivitamin and fish oil supplement. They'll help you get many if not all of the same nutrients you'd get from whole-food sources (often without spending nearly as much money)—and fish oil supplements are especially good for those who don't care for fish.