All too often people attempting to tighten their belts in tough economic times discover that there’s a little more around the middle than there used to be. That’s because many of those cheap eats advertised in Sunday circulars are processed foods loaded with fat and sodium, while restaurant value menus often are packed with fried foods filled with empty calories.
Surprisingly, trying to reduce your food budget can be an opportunity to eat right, according to American Dietetic Association (ADA) spokesperson Sarah Krieger, a registered and licensed dietitian/nutritionist. “It’s actually a blessing in disguise,” she notes. “What I’ve seen is that people are really becoming aware of their food budgets. Even those with stable jobs are saying their dollars are not stretching as far as they used to. I don’t feel that there is anyone who has not been impacted. As a result, people are eating out less and cooking at home more, which I’m so excited about because cooking at home gives you the opportunity to create healthy meals.”
“A healthy meal doesn’t have to be a big expensive production,” agrees registered dietitian and ADA spokesperson Bethany Thayer. “With just a little bit of planning, meals can be convenient, healthy and inexpensive.”
“Planning is key,” Krieger says. Start cooking at home more, especially during downtime on weekends, and you’ll feel less rushed and flustered during the week. “Just planning meals ahead instead of stopping at the store after work to grab something can have a huge impact. You’ll start noticing a difference, feel better and feel better about how you’re spending your food dollars,” she advises.
What are some ingredients you should work into your plan to maximize your budget and benefit your family’s health? Krieger is a fan of locally grown produce. “Try to find a farmer’s market in your area. Remember that the less food has to travel, the less costly it will be. So look for seasonal items, like squash and apples in the fall.” Krieger notes that frozen fruits and vegetables are the next best thing to fresh and can be quite economical. “If you buy fresh produce and end up throwing half of it away, it ends up being more costly,” she says. Whether considering frozen or canned products, stay as close to natural as possible. Look for those packaged without any sauce and choose a low-sodium version if it’s available.
“Protein sources are the next big question people have,” Krieger says. “I tell them that the more butchered a cut of meat is, the more you will pay for it. For example, boneless, skinless chicken tenders will command a premium cost, while a whole chicken will be far less expensive.” She advocates comparing the price per pound shown on the package to find the best bargains. “You can also look for meatless sources of protein, like eggs, peanut butter, soy nut butter and beans. Beans are really the underdog; they are extremely nutritious and very low cost. You can blend them in with meat in chili and spaghetti sauce to get the most from your budget.”
No matter what you buy, stretch it by making use of leftovers. As Thayer advocates, “Rice and pasta can help stretch out a small amount of leftovers. Leftover chicken can be mixed with rice for a stir-fry or mixed with a pasta sauce over spaghetti.”
When times are tough and uncertainties abound, eating right can have a major impact of how you feel about yourself and the situation. “No matter what else is going on in the world, this is the one thing that you can control every day.” Krieger says. “You make the choice about what you will put in your mouth, whether it’s something healthy or fried foods and ice cream…the healthy foods can taste just as good and will be much better for you in the long run.”