by Sara Ryba, R.D., C.D.N.
Finding a healthy, affordable diet is definitely a challenge given the rapidly rising cost of groceries. It used to be that buying fresh, unprocessed foods would save you money, but that no longer is the case. According to Tufts University, the rise in cost of more nutritious food is beating the rate of inflation.
A recent study by The University of Washington concluded that lower-calorie foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are far more expensive than sweets and snack foods, calorie for calorie. Sadly, this means that when people are watching their food budget, they may opt for higher-calorie, less-nutritious foods as a way to get by. However, this doesn’t need to be the case. Try these strategies for eating healthy on a budget.
1. Be prepared when shopping
Go over the grocery store’s weekly ad from the newspaper (or view online) as you prepare a meal plan and a detailed shopping list for the week. And remember, going shopping while hungry is sure to cost you an extra few dollars and calories.
2. Evaluate the food’s purpose
Before purchasing a food, consider where it is going to fit into your diet. Will this food be part of a meal, or a healthy snack? If the answer is “I’m not sure,” then leave it on the shelf. Only buy foods that clearly fit into your (or your family’s) meal plan, avoiding all “filler.”
3. When your store is running a sale on lean protein, buy extra
Take advantage of the sale by buying a few pounds of chicken breasts or fish. Then, at home, divide the protein into individual serving sizes and freeze it for up to three months.
4. Choose seasonal vegetables and fruits
Look for the cheapest fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle — which are most likely “in season” and best tasting. While it is tempting to buy berries in the winter or apples in the summer, you will pay a premium and likely not get a great-tasting product. When you see a good price on a particular fruit or vegetable, consider buying extra and freezing it. For example, fresh berries and broccoli will freeze quite well and last for months.
5. Don’t be afraid of frozen fruits and vegetables
Frozen produce is just as healthy as fresh, and will not spoil. They are also often less expensive, pound for pound, than fresh produce. I actually find that frozen spinach and broccoli are easier to prepare and tastier than fresh!
6. Avoid buying beverages
Drinks, especially those loaded with sugar and artificial sweeteners, are not only unhealthy empty calories, but are also a drain on your wallet. Yes, even that expensive fruit juice should be omitted from your cart in favor of healthier and less expensive fresh fruit. Can’t skip the juice for the kids? Buy frozen concentrated juice and only serve once a day. If you want an alternative to water, look for the store brand of fruit-flavored, calorie-free seltzer water, or make your own herbal iced tea.
7. Take advantage of dry-goods groceries
Bulk dry goods such as beans, grains and oats are quite inexpensive while being super nutrient-dense. Opting for these unprocessed, bulk foods will save you a lot of money when compared to processed oatmeal packets or rice mixes. While you’re at it, see if you can buy your cereal in bulk packages or at the very least, choose the store brands.
8. Avoid buying single-serving food items
Purchasing foods in single-serving quantities, such as chips, cookies, yogurt or cereal, will cost you at least 50 percent more. Instead, buy foods in larger quantities and then divide up the food contents into plastic bags or reusable containers.
9. Cut the commercial snack foods
As a mom, I know first hand how expensive brand-name (and cartoon-character) snack food can be. Explain to your family that these types of foods are not only unhealthy but are also pricey. Choose healthier, tasty snacks, such as air-popped popcorn (buy bulk corn kernels, not the microwave bags) and dried fruit.
10. Make your own nutritious soups, chilis and stews
Most of these recipes are chock full of healthy yet inexpensive ingredients, that will feed you and your family for many meals. You can even double your typical recipe and freeze half of it in individual containers for future last-minute meals. This is much cheaper and healthier than commercially prepared frozen dinners.