Healthy Food On A Budget

By Charlyn Fargo

November 7, 2018 5 min read

Most of us spend about 12.5 percent of our annual household budget on food each week -- for the average family, that's about $135 a week. There is a persistent myth that eating healthy takes a bigger chunk out of the family budget, but it's not true.

As a supermarket dietitian, I spend my time trying to refute that myth that healthy is expensive.

Keeping food costs reasonable and healthy revolves around a few simple strategies.

"Prepping and planning are the most important things, especially if you're trying to save money while eating healthfully, and I think a lot of people struggle with it," writes Ashley Reese, a registered dietitian with Hy-Vee in Omaha, Nebraska, in the company's Balance magazine.

According to My Plate (the U.S. Department of Agriculture's guide to healthy eating), half your plate should be vegetables and fruit, a quarter of it lean protein and a quarter whole grains. That pattern should be for every meal. Surprisingly, that strategy works for all of us.

Here are some strategies for eating healthy on a budget:

--Shop in season. This is the time for summer strawberries, peaches, apricots, cherries, plums and melons. They're not only at peak flavor but also abundant and typically lower in price.

--Buy family-size packages of lean meat and poultry and portion that into meal-size options; freeze them but be sure to label and date.

--When it comes to seafood, opt for canned or frozen to stretch your dollar and shelf life. Frozen fish fillets are typically individually wrapped, which means they stay fresher longer. For healthier choices, buy canned items packaged in water and frozen choices without breading or added salt.

--Repurpose and reinvent foods. Bananas too ripe for you? Use them in a smoothie or banana muffins. Make a pitcher of smoothies and freeze them in individual cups. Chop veggies ahead of time -- green peppers and onions can be used in omelets, stir-fries, jambalaya, pizza or salads. If you do the chopping, you save money. Roast a chicken for a meal and use leftover meat in soups, chicken salad, wraps or quesadillas. Hard-boil a dozen eggs and use them for protein in a salad or a quick grab-and-go breakfast. (Hard-boiled eggs keep about five days in the refrigerator.)

--Look to other foods besides meat for protein. You can save money using black beans, eggs, cheese and tuna to top or add to a salad.

--Make extras while you're cooking. It can save you time later -- a big pot of soup can be frozen in individual portions, or make several burrito bowls at once and freeze them.

--Here are 10 economical and healthy grocery staples to keep in your pantry or refrigerator and freezer: brown rice, beans (especially black beans), bananas, whole-wheat pasta, romaine lettuce, skinless, boneless chicken breasts, skim milk, canned tomatoes, frozen blueberries and eggs.

--Take stock of what you have on hand and eat from the freezer; it's the cheapest meal you'll have because you've already purchased it.

*Q and A

Q: Are canola, corn and other plant oils as healthy as olive oil?

A: There's no definitive evidence right now to show that olive oil is superior to other liquid plant oils, according to Alicia Romano, registered dietitian at Frances Stern Nutrition Center, Tufts Medical Center. One of the differences between oils is the types of fatty acids in them. You've probably heard a lot about the health benefits of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids; these are polyunsaturated fatty acids. Some research suggests that replacing saturated fats in butter and lard with polyunsaturated fats from plant oils is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Both soybean oil and corn oil are higher in polyunsaturated fats than olive oil. That said, olive oil -- with its mostly monounsaturated fats -- is still considered a healthy choice. In fact, there is preliminary evidence that phytochemicals in extra-virgin olive oil may contribute to the reduced cardiovascular risks associated with the Mediterranean diet pattern. If you prefer the taste of olive oil to other options, by all means, use it to cook with and dress your salads. Ideally, consume a variety of plant oils, the same way you eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, to obtain maximum benefits. But there is an exception: Tropical oils like palm and coconut are high in saturated fats, so oils relatively higher in unsaturated fats are the better choice.

Information courtesy of the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter.

Charlyn Fargo's weekly column, "Nutrition News," can be found at

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