by Leah Frankel, MS, RD | firstname.lastname@example.org
With increasing numbers of Americans now unemployed or taking salary cuts, it’s not surprising that people are trying to save money any way possible. Cutting back could mean only one double chocolate espresso ventichino per week instead of your normal five or carpooling to work instead of driving. Many people worry that cutting back in terms of food costs may mean more trips to fast food joints and less fruits and vegetables. In fact, there has been a boom in fast food consumption recently due to our current economic status. We’re here to discuss tips for maintaining a healthy diet even in these hard economic times, compare a typical fast food meal to one prepared at home (looking at both price and nutritional value) and prove to you that you can continue eating healthy even if the economy has let you down!
Getting in your 5-a-Day
When cutting the cost of your grocery trips there is a concern that fruits and veggies will be the first to go, however there are a variety of ways to continue to eat fruits and vegetables without breaking the bank. In general, fresh fruits and vegetables are least expensive when they’re in season; for instance, it is best to buy asparagus and grapefruit in the spring and grapes and eggplant in the fall. Not only are foods fresher and more flavorful when they’re in season, they’re cheaper.
While fresh fruits and veggies are great, you can still get essential nutrients from frozen or canned items. Canned and frozen items last longer than fresh items and prices won’t fluctuate seasonally as with fresh foods. When choosing frozen or canned foods, make sure there are few additives, such as sugar, salt or sauces, since these additions make the foods less healthy. For example, when buying canned fruit, choose fruit canned in its natural juice instead of in heavy syrup or frozen vegetables without added salt or sauce.
There’s no question that people are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables when they’re easily accessibly which is why many people turn to the freshly cut versions in the grocery store. Next time, instead of buying their pre-cut fruits and veggies, cut your own when you come home from the grocery store to save money.
Finally, you can always grow your own small garden with fresh herbs, veggies or fruit (depending how much space you have) and enjoy inexpensive produce right in your own backyard. It always tastes better when you’ve grown it yourself!
How to decide what to buy
With grocery stores carrying many options, it can be overwhelming choosing healthy and cost-effective foods, but there are some easy ways to make better choices.
Shopping at warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club can save you money but only if you know what to buy there. Depending on the size of your household, you might not benefit from buying fresh fruits or vegetables at these stores since they’ll go bad before you can eat them. However, items that can be frozen, such as meat or fish, or foods that are prepackaged in “normal” sized containers, such as pasta or cereal, may help you save money since they can be purchased at a discounted price and won’t spoil before you have a chance to eat them.
Almost every grocery store chain has its own brand of generic food items. The store’s brand is frequently less expensive than the other brands and is usually nutritionally equivalent. We’ve found that in some instances, as with yogurt, the generic brands are higher in protein and lower in calories (and cost!) than their brand name equivalent.
Have you ever looked at a 4 lb bag of rice and tried to compare it to a 15 lb bag of rice in terms of cost? Not an easy task without some serious arithmetic. Next to the price of each item in the store, there is a cost per unit that helps you determine which product gives you the most bang for your buck! Let’s look at an example, the 4 lb bag of rice may cost $0.50/ounce and the 15 lb bag of rice may cost $0.40/ounce, therefore the 15 lb bag is a better value assuming you can eat 15 lb of rice!
Lastly, and potentially most obviously, use coupons and stock up when foods are on sale. It seems like such a simple task but cutting out a piece of paper and bringing it to the store with you can save you thousands of dollars a year! As with buying foods at Costco, the money you save by stocking up when items are on sale at your local grocery can really add up. Remember to only buy as much as you can eat before it spoils or you’ll find yourself throwing your money straight into the trash.
While all of these tips sound great, they’re really not much use if we can’t use them to create healthy meals. Unless you’re cooking for a football team, it’s likely that your recipe will provide more than enough food for you and your family. While some people are ok eating spaghetti and meatballs all week, most of us aren’t so we need to be creative when it comes to leftovers. Depending on what you’re cooking for dinner, your leftovers can either be frozen, like a chili or meatballs, or transformed into a different meal, for instance turning baked chicken into chicken tacos or chicken salad.
Planning your meals and snacks in advance means you’ll be less likely to eat out since your kitchen will be stocked with plenty of food. Spend some time during the weekend planning out your meals for the upcoming week. If you have kids, involve them in the planning process. Once you’ve planned your week, bring a grocery list to the store to prevent multiple trips to pick up forgotten items. Keeping snacks readily available at home and at work will prevent snacking at the vending machine or an afternoon trip to the drive through or coffee shop.
Aside from saving money, there are many health advantages to preparing food at home. Since you’re cooking the food yourself you can control the amount of butter or oil that’s added to your food, eliminating excess fat and calories from your diet. You can also control the ingredients that are in each dish which is especially helpful if you or someone you are cooking for has an allergy to certain foods. Finally, cooking at home allows you to control the portion sizes; in case you hadn’t noticed, the portion sizes at most restaurants are 2 (sometimes up to 4) times as large as they should be which can lead to overeating.
For those of you that still don’t believe us, we’re going to prove that you can get a more nutritious meal and cost effective meal by cooking at home. What follows is a comparison of a day of eating at fast food restaurants to a day of eating meals prepared at home.
Meals/Snacks from the grocery store:
|¾ cup shredded wheat||$0.27|
|1 cup non-fat milk||$0.19|
|1 small apple||$0.50|
|6 oz non-fat yogurt||$0.48|
|¾ cup cranberry juice||$0.18|
|2 slices whole wheat bread||$0.25|
|3 oz turkey||$1.86|
|3 slices tomato||$0.30|
|½ cup baby carrots||$0.17|
|1 small banana||$0.40|
|¾ cup non-fat milk||$0.14|
|4 oz salmon||$2.49|
|1 cup wild rice||$1.00|
|1 cup broccoli||$0.52|
|1 cup garden mix salad||$0.08|
|½ cup fruit salad||$1.00|
|Snacks (2 per day)|
|1 oz mixed nuts||$0.35|
|1/2 cup grapes||$0.50|
|2 tbsp peanut butter||$0.13|
Grocery store grand total: $10.88
Meals/snacks from fast food:
|1 Sausage McMuffin||$1.00|
|1 serving hash browns||$1.00|
|1 medium orange juice||$1.99|
|1 Hamburger||Combo meal|
|1 order fries||Combo meal|
|1 medium coke||Combo meal|
|3 Crispy chicken strips||$3.99|
|1 small corn on the cob||$0.38|
|1 side mac and cheese||$1.49|
|Snacks (2 per day)|
|1.69 oz bag M & M’s||$0.65|
|2 oz bag Doritos||$0.99|
Fast food grand total: $16.74
|Grocery store||2,064 calories||120 grams||67 grams||272 grams||36 grams|
|Fast food||3,038 calories||90 grams||133 grams||374 grams||19 grams|
We know what you’re thinking, “I only eat off the dollar menu” or “I only eat healthy fast food items.” Let’s assume that you really do choose less expensive fast food items that also happen to be the restaurant’s healthier choices (unlikely but we’re pretending). The problem is that many people would have ordered two 99¢ hamburgers instead of one or a large shake instead of a medium soda. It’s hard to make consistent healthy and economic choices when eating at fast food restaurants. When we compare breakfast we see that even items off the dollar menu are more expensive than a well-balanced meal at home. It is possible to make healthy choices when eating out, but we’ll save those tips for another day.
Questions? E-mail Leah: email@example.com
1. Nutrition facts obtained for fast food restaurants obtained from: http://www.mcdonalds.com/, http://www.in-n-out.com/, http://www.in-n-out.com/
2. Price of groceries obtained from: http://www.safeway.com/IFL/Grocery/Home
3. Nutrition assessment of grocery foods completed via: http://www.mypyramidtracker.gov/