It’s a common misconception that cutting back on food expenses means sacrificing good nutrition. However, you can be healthier and wealthier by getting wiser about planning meals and shopping. Here are some guidelines that can help.
Choose Your Plate.
Many people plan their meals around meat, and leave grains, vegetables, and fruit for side dishes. However, according to the USDA, the bulk of your diet should be made up of grains (bread, pasta, and rice) and fruits and vegetables. Meats and dairy foods make up a smaller section, and should be treated as side dishes and eaten less frequently. This is not only more economical but more healthful.
For fruits and vegetables, you can choose fresh, frozen, or canned. Frozen or canned fruits and veggies are a great choice, because you don’t have to eat them all at one time. Just make sure you choose low-sodium canned veggies, and fruits canned in their own juice, not syrup.
Here are a few examples of meals made mostly with foods from vegetables and grains:
- Chili: beans, vegetables, meat, served over rice with corn muffins or bread
- Stir-fry: vegetables with a small amount of meat served over rice or pasta
- Stew or soup: beans, vegetables, pasta, rice, meat or chicken, served with bread or rolls
- Taco: beans or meat with lettuce, tomato, onions, and a corn tortilla
Many of the prepackaged, boxed, canned, and frozen foods you buy from the store are high in fat, calories, sodium, sugar, and cost, compared to foods prepared at home. They may also be comparatively lower in vitamins and minerals. You pay for the fancy packaging and convenience of these items, but you get much less for your money. For example, you can make many more bags of popcorn from a bag of unpopped corn compared to buying a bag of already-popped popcorn. The pre-made popcorn is much more expensive and has more fat and sodium than what you can make at home. Of course, making food from scratch may take a little more time, but it can be well worth it in terms of cost and nutrition.
Have a game plan for shopping.
Your game plan should include what you're going to buy and where you're going to buy it. Here are some tips on developing a shopping plan:
- Plan meals and snacks several days in advance. Then write out a shopping list and stick to it.
- Compare prices among grocery stores. Shop at national chains and discount food outlets. Don't shop at convenience stores.
- Go to stores that sell generic foods, store brand foods, and foods in bulk.
- Use coupons with caution. They are often for foods that are more expensive. Don't buy junk food, or something you normally wouldn't buy, just because you have a coupon.
- Never shop on an empty stomach.
- Look for sales on items that are on your list.
- Make sure the food you buy is fresh. Food on sale is sometimes starting to get old. Always check the dates on perishable food such as milk and meat, because you want it to be safe.
The unit price calculates the cost of a product per unit. For example, a unit could be by the ounce, pound, or number of items in a package. Unit prices are usually marked on the shelf below the product. For example: Let's say you're looking for canned green beans and there are three different brands to choose from. If you look at the unit price below each one, you can find the brand that is cheapest, especially if you buy the largest can. However, it only makes sense to buy the largest can if you're sure you'll use it all.
Generic brands can provide a great savings when shopping and are often labeled as the store’s brands. Often, the taste of the food is the same – it just costs less!
If you're going to be out running errands or shopping with your family, bring some healthy snacks and drinks with you. That way, if hunger hits, you won't be tempted to stop at a fast food restaurant or buy snacks from a vending machine — something that can hurt your wallet and your waistline. Whether you make snacks at home or buy them from the grocery store, it's less expensive than buying them in the mall.
Buy less junk food and soda.
Soft drinks, chips, baked goods, and other high-calorie items tend to be higher in price. You can really cut your grocery bill when you cut out these items.
Read food labels.
It's easier to make the most nutritious choice when you know how to read the nutrition facts label. These labels contain the nutritional information and are found on most packaged foods. Use the nutrition facts label to focus on the facts that are most important to you such as the fat, sugar, or sodium content. Nutritional labels make it easier for you to compare similar products. Look at page 149 in your Member's Guide for more information about understanding the nutritional facts panel.
Eat at home.
Eating out can be expensive and the food is often high in fat, salt, and sugar. A spaghetti dinner at a restaurant could cost $10 or more but only a few dollars if you prepared it at home. At a restaurant, your extra costs go toward profits and tips. Consider having a potluck. When you entertain guests at home, ask them to bring a dish.
Take, for example, a fast food chicken burrito. The cost is about $3.00 per serving. Besides the cost to your pocketbook, you'll also pay a nutritional price. That one small burrito has more than 400 calories, 6 grams of saturated fat, and 1,270 milligrams of sodium (and we didn't even count the beverage or the sides). On the other hand, if you cook up the recipe in this issue of the newsletter for Confetti Chicken Wraps (made with chicken, bell peppers, frozen corn, reduced-fat cheese and salsa), the cost is just $1.30 per serving. As for the nutrition, our recipe has 330 calories, 1.5 grams saturated fat, and just 500 milligrams of sodium. This recipe would be perfect with a small side salad topped with sliced, sweet, grape tomatoes!
To good health,
Erin Dubroc, MPH, RD, LD