March 27, 2012

Improving nutrition without breaking your budget


---- — A common complaint when people attempt to eat more healthily is that nutritious foods are more expensive.

In some cases, this is true — have you compared the cost of white and whole-grain breads? However, you can eat a more nutritious diet without spending much more at the grocery store, especially if you are willing to put a little extra work into your diet.

The best way to start saving money on food is to do a little extra planning before you purchase any food. Creating a simple menu plan can save you money — and time — later on.

I recommend starting by planning just one meal per day, like dinner, for five days per week. You do not have to designate a certain dinner to a certain day, but it can be helpful to plan a quick meal for a busy night.

When you create the plan, factor in what you already have (wasted food = wasted money) and what is on sale at your supermarket of choice. Just this step will save you money by reducing waste and taking advantage of sale prices.

Personally, the biggest benefit for me is the time savings: no debate on what to eat, frozen products are thawed in the fridge and ready to go, and I may have even had a chance to do a little extra prep work when creating a different meal.

Once you have a plan, you can create a shopping list, which will help you save time in the grocery store, which has been proven to reduce the amount of money spent. It will also ensure you have what you will need without buying excess that will go to waste.

When you are shopping, really compare prices. I say "really" because although a boxed pasta side may cost only 99 cents, if it contains only 8 ounces, it is more expensive than a bigger package of plain pasta and a can of sauce, even though the total cost of the latter may be $2.

The key to figuring this out, without breaking out your calculator in each aisle, is to use the unit price. Luckily, the unit price is listed, in smaller print, in the same spot you would find the total price.

This is especially helpful in comparing brands and different-sized packages. You may find a bulk container is not cheaper per serving than a smaller container, in which case, two of the smaller containers would be cheaper.

You may not always choose the cheapest product for a variety of reasons, like preference, convenience, etc., but this will help you to spend less and become more familiar with the cost of food.

So, what about healthy choices? Well, you can choose healthy foods more wisely, if you can plan for them and assess their cost, but here are some examples of inexpensive foods from each food group:

Whole grains: Oatmeal (all types), brown rice (cook extra to freeze as it takes longer to cook) and whole-wheat pasta are all good and less expensive grain choices.

Vegetables: Canned, no-salt-added vegetables, especially canned tomatoes; large bags of frozen vegetables, like broccoli cuts; and fresh bulk bags of carrots are usually quite inexpensive.

Fruit: Canned fruit with no sugar added, like unsweetened applesauce and canned pineapple, are good buys, and, combined with less expensive fruit, like bananas, are great ways to get more fruit into your diet.

Dairy: Typically, lower-fat milk is cheaper than whole milk. Low-fat yogurt is also a good, inexpensive dairy choice. Try buying a cheaper bulk container and adding fruit to it, instead of individual yogurts.

Meat and beans: Go for meatless meals. Beans are a bargain, especially dried. I sometimes cook mine in the crockpot, which is easy and, though it takes a day, I don't have to be close to the stove. Also stock up on lean cuts of meat when they are on sale and freeze them in freezer bags in easy-to-use portions.

Grocery costs are rising, along with everything else, and though good food should be valued, finding ways to cut costs on groceries can help us stretch the remainder of our budgets.

If you are having a hard time making ends meet, call your local Cooperative Extension office to see if they have any free programs that can help you stretch your food budget.

Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.