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Eating Well on a Budget

Dec 3, 2010

Eating Well on a Budget

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by Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD

The economic downturn and skyrocketing food prices have forced most Americans to rein in spending, in an effort to keep monthly food costs in check. Not planning meals and not creating a shopping list are two mistakes that cost shoppers more in the long run. Planning is essential to eating well, especially when dollars don’t go as far as they once did. A healthy diet is affordable with a little planning, smart shopping and basic cooking skills. As fitness professionals, we can offer some budget-friendly shopping strategies that will help our clients find ways to eat well on the cheap.

Meal-Planning Tips

  • Check your fridge and cupboards to see what you already have on hand that you can use.
  • Plan meals around the best weekly store specials. Stock up on sale items if space allows.
  • Use coupons only for items you already buy.
  • Get inspired by exploring one of the many online recipe finders, or check out a cookbook from the library.
  • Add more meatless meals. Meat is the most expensive part of a meal.
  • Use leftovers, to save time and money.
  • Keep a running shopping list and jot down items when you run out. To make shopping easier, organize the list around your grocery store layout.
  • Keep all your weekly meal plans. In no time, you’ll have a monthly menu cycle and a “go-to” list of quick meals.

Shop Smart

Use these tips to “work the store” to your advantage:

  • Stick with an organized list.
  • Eat first. Hungry shoppers overbuy and usually purchase prepared (less healthy) foods.
  • Shop alone if possible. A partner and/or children tagging along can quickly stray from the list and increase the food bill. However, shopping with kids is a nice way to teach them smart shopping habits, so if they come along, set expectations before leaving the house.
  • Get a grocery store loyalty card.
  • Shop the perimeter to fill up on fruits and vegetables, protein and dairy.
  • Look for bargains near the ends of aisles and on the upper and lower shelves. Cheaper, generic store brands are typically found on lower and upper shelves and have the same nutritional profile as name brands.
  • Compare unit prices of different product sizes and brands. Unit prices are found on the shelf tags below the food items.
  • Buy in bulk.
  • Make your own single-serving snack packs from larger bags of food.

Preparing Food at Home

After shopping, dedicate a little time to organizing food at home.

  • Divide large packages of raw meat into smaller meal portions.
  • When you have time, brown meat and chicken, package them and freeze them for use in meals later.
  • Clean and cut up vegetables for meals and snacks that will be eaten within a few days. Wait to wash others just before eating.
  • Cook in batches, and freeze extras.
  • Keep a frozen-food inventory so that unknown meals don’t get buried in the freezer.
  • Toss food into a slow cooker in the morning so that dinner is ready when you get home.
  • Use the plate method: fill half the plate with fruits and veggies, one-quarter with protein and one-quarter with whole grain.
  • Cook with friends. Take turns hosting a small group to plan meals, share recipes and cook large batches of food. Package the meals for everyone to take home and freeze.

For more tips and a sample of a “7-Day Meal Planner,” refer to the article, “Eating Well on a Budget” by Jennie McCary in the online IDEA Library or in November-December 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal.


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