Health for Le$$: Eat well without breaking the bank
I head off to the supermarket full of resolve. Then, standing in the produce aisle, I hold a half-pint of organic blueberries costing $4.99 and my image of a healthier body dissolves into a screen shot of my bank account.
Is there any way to eat wisely and meet my budget at the same time?
“Foods don’t have to be organic to be safe and environmentally friendly,” said Tracy Warren, registered dietitian, certified nutrition support clinician and licensed nutritionist, who has been the clinical dietitian at Cape Cod Hospital for 10 years. “Buying produce in season, and foods that have been locally grown are other ways to eat healthfully and save some money.”
Warren and another local expert, Lauren Kunkler, nutritionist for the YMCA Cape Cod in West Barnstable, are experts in how to shop for healthy food without breaking the bank. For starters, think about the value of a particular food to your body, said Kunkler.
“If you’re going to spend money on food, the first thing to think about is what the food is going to do for you. Spending your money on snack food is not giving you any nutrition,” she said. “Every dollar that you spend on food is really an investment in your health.”
Here are five more ways they say will help you get more health for your dollar at the supermarket:
- Triage your organic spending. Check the Environmental Working Group’s list of the Dirty Dozen (e.g. strawberries, apples and sweet red peppers) and Clean 15 (e.g. bananas, avocados and cabbage) for what produce is most at risk for pesticide residue, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data. “Bananas are really helpful because they are inexpensive and full of potassium,” said Kunkler.
- Make a produce plan for the week. If you buy too much and it’s starting to turn, cut out the bad parts and use the rest in smoothies or a soup that you can freeze, said Warren. If you don’t have time to make soup immediately, make the broth and freeze it for later. Seasonal produce will not only be less expensive but more nutritious since fruits and vegetables lose nutrients when they are stored, said Kunkler. She ranks fresh produce at the top of the nutritional scale, then frozen, then canned. If you buy frozen or canned vegetables, look for “No Added Salt” or fruits canned in 100 percent fruit juice, Warren advised.
- Store produce properly. Make sure your produce goes right into the crisper drawer so it lasts longer, said Kunkler. Put potatoes in a cool, dark place. Apples and onions cause other fruits to ripen, so store them separately. Can’t use up bananas? Peel, slice and freeze in plastic bags to use in smoothies. Wrap fresh parsley and cilantro in a damp paper towel and place in a plastic bag or put it in the fridge in water like a bouquet. Parsley – even a teaspoon or two – is packed with calcium, Vitamin C and folic acid, Kunkler said. And, she said, scallions are healthy, inexpensive (usually less than $1.50 a bunch) and reusable: Just place the roots in a bit of water and keep snipping off the green shoots to add to all kinds of dishes. Pop a whole lemon and some peeled fresh ginger into the freezer then grate them into foods to add flavor.
- Use the My Plate guidelines to plan meals. Usually, the most expensive item on your plate is protein, said Kunkler, so keep in mind a serving of protein only needs to be the size of your own palm. Make at least half your plate fruits and vegetables, then balance it out with dairy and whole grains. Guidelines, tools and recipes are all on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s My Plate website. To make vegetables more convenient, look for the pre-cut ones in the supermarket, Warren said. Then steam, microwave, stir fry or roast them to maintain the most nutrients – no boiling! Save money on protein by cooking with beans and lentils and adding a small portion of canned tuna or salmon, suggested Kunkler. She also recommends Leanne Brown’s free recipe book, “Good and Cheap: Eat Well on $4 a Day.” [pdf]
- Shop the perimeter of the supermarket. “That’s where you’ll find the staples of a healthy meal,” said Kunkler. Avoid the middle aisles that are full of processed foods except to stock up on basics like flour, sugar, beans and spices. Buy foods closer to their natural states rather than those that have been broken down by processing, she said. Keep that in mind even if you only have time to dash into the convenience store: buy a hardboiled egg instead of a frozen pizza slice, for example. Some convenience stores do offer healthier choices now, said Warren, like whole grain cereals, milk and fresh fruits. Choose bread or bagels over muffins and croissants. Also, tuna or turkey sandwiches with lettuce and tomato are better than ham, salami and cheese.