Eating Right on a Budget

The problem isn't just a matter of following prophetic counsel; it's a matter of life-long health or sickness. The rates of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and a myriad of other illnesses are linked to dietary choices. It's an issue facing the entire nation, but it's not as if we don't know what's good for us; most of us know we should be eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and that whole grains are healthier.

Yet the 2005 report by Trust for America's Health (TFHA--heathyamericans.org) shows a link between obesity and the cost and accessibility of healthy food in urban and rural areas--the same places that have low-income levels. The problem is that while easy and cheap, foods like white rice and pasta are loaded with high levels of calories, bad fats, and carbohydrates, but lacking in vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, and other elements crucial to good health.

One piece of good news from the report: Produce doesn't have to be as expensive as you think. According to the USDA in the TFAH report, about two thirds of fruit and vegetable options cost $.25 per serving in 1999. That's great news; it means eating right is possible without breaking the bank. If you're serious about both your family's health and your financial bottom line, there are some things you can do.

1. Indulge in the Season

When fruits and vegetables are in season--and cheap--indulge! Make it special to have fruits that are hard to find at certain times of year, like apricots, nectarines, cherries, and plums. Bring variety to meals. The more color you see at the table, the healthier the meal probably is.

Another benefit is that if fresh produce constitutes a big portion of your meal during the warm season, you can actually cut your grocery bill. You'll be relying less on high-priced meat items--which goes hand in hand with following the Word of Wisdom in eating meat sparingly.

Visit local farmers' markets where you can get melons, tomatoes, corn, and more at typically lower prices than at the grocery store.

2. Be Smart in the Off-Season

While tempting, don't abandon produce altogether in the off-months--just be more selective. For example, I refuse to buy grapes unless they're below a certain price. I won't buy strawberries in January, and good luck finding peaches on my counter top then either.

Apples and bananas tend to stay relatively low-priced throughout the year, as do oranges. Keep the family from getting bored by changing the type of apple or orange. Also provide inexpensive vegetables: baby carrots, celery sticks, and cauliflower pieces.

Even during the off-season, some fruits and vegetables will go on sale. Whenever that happens, run to the store. If you aren't used to noticing a good price on cantaloupe, peaches, or pineapple, watch closely and learn. In my newlywed years I had no idea how widely produce prices varied, and inadvertently spent twice as much as I intended to some weeks.

3. Prepare for a Rainy Day

Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are wonderful to use during the winter. Your first choice based on nutrition would be frozen produce, since it's healthier than canned. Corn, strawberries, and pre-pitted cherries freeze very well and are welcome in the off-months.

Home-canned produce is also a good option, even though it lacks some nutrients. But home canning is often healthier--and cheaper--than store-bought cans. For example, you get to control the sugar level in your peach syrup. You know that there are no preservatives in your spaghetti sauce, and you can add extra vegetables to your own salsa.

Again, use those farmers' markets for deals on large amounts, because if you buy produce for canning at regular prices, it won't save you a dime. Alternately, if you have a garden, try growing a few extra plants. There's a good chance you'll end up with a plethora of tomatoes you can preserve.

4. Buy Frozen--Cheap

Frozen foods are generally much cheaper than their fresh counterparts and are only slightly less healthy, especially if you don't cook them for long or douse them with butter. Since frozen produce lasts for months at a time, wait to buy them, then stock up like crazy when prices drop, such as during a store's frozen food sale.

Be on the lookout for foods that are expensive when fresh. Blueberries and raspberries can cost several dollars a cup fresh, but frozen they're always less. Berries make for nutritious and yummy dessert toppings and on-the-go breakfast smoothies full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.

Don't shy away from the largest bags of frozen food you can find. Pound for pound, they'll generally be cheapest. Even if your family can't use it all in one meal, just pour out what you need for dinner, tie off the bag, and toss it back into the freezer for next time.

6. Buy in Bulk and Split it up

Those warehouse stores can be overwhelming. Can your family eat a fish the size of your arm in one meal, even if it's at a great price per pound? Probably not. But it's worth taking advantage of warehouse bulk pricing. Go ahead and buy the huge amount. For the moment, it will feel like you just broke the bank, but you're saving in the long run. Just be sure to pace yourself on bulk buying, getting only a couple of big items at a time.

At home, divide the fish (or other product) into dinner-sized portions and put them into individual freezer bags. Label the bags with what's inside, add the date, and put them in your freezer.

7. Make Bread

I know what you're thinking, but don't write this one off immediately.

You don't have to bake fresh bread every single day, although I know people who do. Homemade rolls and bread are far cheaper than their store-bought counterparts, and you control what's in them. And even better, you can ease your family into whole grains by making half white/half wheat bread or rolls for a time and gradually increase the amount of whole grain flour.

To make bread in a simple way, get a bread-making machine. Dump the ingredients in (from scratch; don't spend extra money on those bread machine mixes!), and then adjust the settings and press "start." You can have fresh-baked bread at breakfast or dinner for pennies.

8. Where Applicable, Clip Coupons

The irony with eating well cheaply is that most coupons aren't for the things you're looking for. (When was the last time you saw a coupon for strawberries or green beans?) As is the case with most lean proteins and produce, you'll just have to watch for sales and snag them. But there are a few things you can do with coupons to bring down the grocery bill in a healthy way.

Coupons for breakfast cereals are common. Toss out the sugary stuff and use the coupons for healthier versions, the ones with whole grains and few sugars. An even less expensive and very healthy alternative is oatmeal.

Alternately, consider clipping those coupons for other items, like deodorant and toothpaste. If you can save a few pennies here and there on another must-have item, maybe you can spend those saved cents on cantaloupe.

9. Go Dried

Looking for another inexpensive way to get sneak in a serving of produce? Try dried fruits. Sometimes these can be expensive, so you might need to shop around. But you can often find deals on things like dried blueberries and cranberries that are great on breakfast cereal, or dried apricots and pineapple that make a good midday snack. The natural sugars in fruit are concentrated, so they're sweet and tasty, and you'll need less per serving.

If you have a dehydrator at home, you can make your own dried fruit and even your own fruit leather (call them "Fruit Roll-ups" and your kids will gobble them up).

10. Use Less-Expensive Protein

A high-quality roast can cost as much as a pair of children's shoes. To me, that's not worth the price for a single meal. Every so often, I figure it's okay splurge on something like that, but generally speaking, if you're watching those dollars, try to find less expensive forms of high-quality protein.

First off, remember that red meat isn't the only protein out there. Eggs are one of the best proteins around, and they're also one of the cheapest. Use them a lot. Same goes with cottage cheese and yogurt. Consider having string cheese as a snack; one stick costs about as much as a candy bar, but has calcium, protein and fewer calories. Plus, the protein will curb your hunger for hours. Tuna and other fishes are also great sources of protein that tend to cost less than red meat.

11. Increased Convenience = Increased Cost.

Whether it's with a skinless, boneless chicken breast or broccoli that's been chopped up, note that you are paying for any extra preparation that goes into food. A head of lettuce is much cheaper than a bag of salad. A whole chicken, weighing three or four pounds, costs about the same as a single pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast.

Instead of buying the pre-cut stew meat at a higher price, cut up a cheaper piece of beef and slow-cook it to for a tender stew. Cut up your own fruits and vegetables after your shopping trip and bag them or put them into plastic containers, then use them throughout the week.

Keeping yourself and your family healthy needs to be a top priority. With a little effort, you can make it happen--even on a budget.

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