Eating healthy does not have to break the bank. There are a lot of nutritious options that can fit into a limited grocery budget. For persons who have difficulty getting to the grocery store on a regular basis, there are also some easy steps you can take so that healthy, less expensive foods are always available.
When making the most of your grocery dollars, prioritize foods that provide good nutritional value. Why waste good money on nutrient-poor options? Instead, make most of those dollars contribute positively to your health (and possibly lower your risk of costly medical bills).
We all know that fruits and vegetables provide us with a number of health benefits. They are a great source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that are important for intake on a daily basis. They can also contribute to a reduced risk of illness and many medical problems.
When purchasing produce, look for options that are in season at the time. Examples might be apples in the fall, citrus fruits in the winter, berries in the spring and summer. Fruit like bananas and pineapple are relatively inexpensive most of the year. Fresh produce that has not undergone any kind of preparation (like being peeled or cut) is usually cheaper.
Out of season, frozen fruits and vegetables are less expensive and just as healthy as the more expensive fresh forms. Frozen vegetables also do not require additional preparation (cutting, peeling, etc.) which can save time and effort. Unsweetened dried fruit like raisins are another less-expensive option for fruit. Since a serving size of these is only two tablespoons, one container can last for quite a while.
Many vegetables are inexpensive year round. Some examples would be carrots, sweet potato, potato, butternut squash, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage. Reduced sodium canned vegetables, like various forms of tomatoes, are an inexpensive addition to soups, stews and other entrees.
For the fiber and nutrients of grains, less expensive options would include rolled oats, barley, brown rice, whole grain or bean pastas, generic or store-brand whole grain dry cereals or crackers. The refined and processed versions of these, on the other hand, may be lower in fiber and may contain more sodium, especially if a “season packet” is included. Stick with the basics and add your own seasonings.
Animal protein foods are often the most expensive items in the protein category. A couple exceptions would be pork tenderloin and turkey. Note that the cost of chicken per pound is often less when purchasing a family pack. You can then freeze what you do not need immediately and thaw as needed.
Less expensive protein options would be lower-sodium canned beans (black beans, kidney beans, chick peas, etc.), lentils, eggs, canned tuna, and low fat dairy products. Peanut butter is a good substitute and, like dried fruit, the smaller serving size of two tablespoons means the jar can last for a number of meals or snacks. Peanuts tend to cost less than other nuts and provide similar nutrients.
Many people consume more protein than they need due to larger serving sizes. By moderating the amount you consume at mealtimes, you can save money. You can fill the gap by increasing the proportion of vegetables at a meal. You could also make entrees with small amounts of animal protein and then add beans or lentils which can provide the remaining protein (plus lots of great fiber and other nutrients!).
Low fat milk and yogurt are relatively low in cost for the number of nutrients they contain. Two key nutrients they provide are protein and calcium. Studies suggest calcium intake is low in the diets of many individuals, so these low fat dairy products (or soy milk if you do not consume dairy) can be helpful additions to your grocery cart.
If a recipe calls for one or more costly ingredients, think of reasonable substitutes. Don’t forget to consider the cost of beverages that you buy. These can really add up. Make sure that what you buy is contributing to good health rather than providing empty calories.
Besides tending to be more expensive due to the labor involved, processed foods often have more additives and fewer nutrients than the more basic, less processed foods. This includes prepared frozen dinners. Foods that are portioned and those with more packaging also tend to be more expensive (and not as positive for the environment).
Buying foods in bulk can save money, but only of you can consume them before they go bad. Try to avoid impulse buying and do not go grocery shopping when you are hungry! Taking advantage of store brands, store discounts, coupons, and in-store specials are other ways to save money.
Using leftovers in a timely way means you are not throwing your food money in the trash. Rotate them – eat the older ones before the new. Soups and stir fries can be great ways to use up leftovers. Well-planned leftovers can be a good way to save time and effort. Try making healthy meals in bulk so they can be used for future meals and snacks.
If it is difficult to get to the grocery store in a timely fashion, try purchasing larger amounts of less perishable foods or those which can be frozen (fruit, vegetables, whole grain bread products, poultry, etc.). In your cupboards, keep a high inventory of items such as oats, brown rice, peanut butter, whole grain pasta, canned beans, lentils, pureed squash or pumpkin, healthy oils, vinegar, canned tomato products, lower sodium tomato sauce, healthy cereals and crackers, and other dry goods.
With a little pre-planning, you can secure a wide range of healthy foods that are always available while staying within your food budget.
Pam Stuppy, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, ME and Portsmouth, NH. She has also been the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy, presents workshops nationally, and is Board Certified as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics. (See www.pamstuppynutrition.com for more nutrition information, some healthy cooking tips, and recipe ideas).