Healthy Eating on a Budget

By making a few mindful changes, you can be sure to eat well and healthfully on a budget.

By Heidi Reichenberger McIndoo, MS, RD, LDN

Eating nutritiously and saving money at the grocery store are two goals that may seem at odds with one another; in fact, the two go hand in hand. If you’ve been struggling to accomplish both, you’ll appreciate these four tips and suggestions for keep­ing your health and your budget in check.

Tip #1 Skip the Convenience

Yes, time is money, but consider what’s more valuable to you: the five minutes or so it might take to prep some ingredients or the dollars you could save by doing that prep yourself? Here are just a few examples of how much you can save by doing a little bit of extra work yourself. (Note: I live near a major New England city known for its costly living, so my prices may vary from yours, depending on where you live.)

Salad Greens
Romaine lettuce costs roughly $1 to $1.79 per head; when chopped it makes 5 to 6 cups of salad greens. Bags of precut lettuce run about $3 each and provide roughly three cups of chopped lettuce, or about half a head. If you eat the equivalent of a head of lettuce per week, buying and chopping up the greens will cost you $50 to $90 over the course of a year; the bagged stuff will run you more than $300. That’s a savings of up to $250 per year.

Carrots
“Baby” carrots make a great snack, but all that pro­cessing to turn big carrots into little ones has a price. A 2-pound (32-ounce) bag of carrots is about $1.80, while a 16-ounce bag of baby carrots is about $2. Peeling and cutting a few carrots takes only a few minutes—five at the most. If you use about a pound of carrots a week, buying the full-sized version will cost you roughly $47; the same amount of baby carrots will be more than $100. That’s a savings of more than $50 per year.

Apples
Little bags of precut apples are very con­venient, and they’re less than $5 for a 12-ounce bag, but I can get a pound of apples for $1 to $2. Buying 2 pounds a week and cutting them myself, which takes just a couple of minutes, will cost between $50 and $100 per year. Buying the same amount of the precut apples will cost $560. That’s a savings of up to $510 per year. Plus, freshly cut apples are free of the anti-browning preservatives. The same logic applies to cut-up melon, pineapple, and other fruit.

Burgers
Preformed burger patties are easy to throw on the grill, but they run about $7.25 for a package of four. In addition, they’re usu­ally sold in 1¼- to 1½-pound packages, meaning your burgers will be about ⅓ pound each, which is a large amount of beef for one meal. Plus, it can be difficult to find preshaped burgers made from lean beef. Instead, buy an exact pound of 90 percent lean ground beef for $5.25 and make your own burg­ers. Buying a pound of ground beef each week to make your own ¼-pound burgers will cost roughly $270, whereas buying the premade burgers will run you about $375. That’s a savings of more than $100 per year. Plus, forming your own burgers lets you add sea­sonings or other ingredients you like.

Shredded Cheese
When you need shredded cheese to sprinkle on tacos or stir into a casserole, grabbing a bag of the preshredded kind is certainly easy, but it too has a convenience price factored in. The bags, which some companies have qui­etly shrunk from 8 ounces to 7, are usually around $3, whereas an 8-ounce block of cheese goes for around $2.80. If you use about a half-pound a week, the prices are $145 and $178 for block and shredded, respectively. That’s a savings of more than $30 per year.

Tip #2 Do-It-Yourself

The cost of convenience isn’t a factor just for single ingredients. Several packaged foods that you may buy regularly you could actually make yourself to save money. Making these foods also means you control the ingredients, which allows you to avoid artificial fillers, reduce the amount of sugar and salt, and personalize the recipe.

Oatmeal Packets
Oatmeal makes a delicious, nutritious, and satisfying breakfast, but the little packets can be full of sugar. In just a few minutes, you can whip up your own individ­ual servings to have on hand for busy mornings.

How-to:
In a large bowl, combine 2½ cups oats, ¼ cup brown sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt. Mix well and divide the mixture evenly among eight snack-sized baggies— about ⅓ cup per baggie (or, to save on the cost and waste of bags, store in small plastic storage containers). In the morning, put the individual serving of oats in a bowl, add about ⅔ cup skim or low-fat milk, and microwave on high for 1 minute. After 1 minute, stir, then continue cooking and stirring in 1-minute incre­ments until the oatmeal reaches your desired consisten­cy. Tailor packets to your taste by adding your favorite spices, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, before mixing. Before cooking, you can also add a dash of maple syr­up or vanilla, dried fruit such as raisins, or fresh diced fruit like apples or bananas.

Cream Soups
Many casserole recipes call for cream-of-something (mushroom, chicken, broccoli) soup. But even the healthier varieties of these soups are chock-full of in­gredients you wouldn’t find in your own kitchen—and they rarely go on sale. The next time you have a recipe calling for a can of cream-of-something, you can save money and eat a little healthier by substituting your own mix.

How-to:
Whisk the following together and store in an airtight container: 1 cup nonfat dry milk, ¾ cup cornstarch, 3 tablespoons dried minced onions, 1 teaspoon dried basil, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1 teaspoon ground pep­per, and ½ teaspoon dried parsley. This amount of mix will make enough for the equivalent of 6 cans of soup. When you’re ready to use a can of soup, sim­ply add ⅓ cup soup mix with 1¼ cups of your desired stock (chicken, beef, or vegetable) in a small saucepan and simmer until thickened.

For bonus savings, in place of stock you can use 1¼ tea­spoons low-sodi­um Better Than Bouillon dis­solved in 1¼ cups water. This product has a much longer shelf life when refriger­ated, and you can make the amount you need instead of opening an entire 4-cup box of stock that must be used within a week.

Do-It-Yourself
The cost of convenience isn’t a factor just for single ingredients. Several packaged foods that you may buy regularly you could actually make yourself to save money. Making these foods also means you control the ingredients, which allows you to avoid artificial fillers, reduce the amount of sugar and salt, and personalize the recipe.

Tip #3 Save On Produce

The amount of money you can save buying seasonal produce can be impressive. Consider that a package of strawberries in New England in December costs around $4; the same package in the summer can be less than $2. This price fluctuation applies to all sorts of fruits and vegetables.

If you don’t want to limit yourself to what’s in season, consider that canned and frozen produce are great, inex­pensive options. Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are processed immediately after harvest and main­tain that freshness until you open the package. To ensure that you’re mak­ing healthy selections, choose fruit processed without added sugar and vegetables processed without salt, butter, or sauces.

And don’t ignore the discount rack. If your store has a place for slightly damaged produce, take a look. Slightly bruised apples can be salvaged into yummy homemade applesauce. Bananas past their peak make delicious quick breads and smoothies.

Tip #4 Keep Food Longer

If you’re throwing away uneaten food, you might as well just throw cash in the trash. Consider alterna­tive ways to store food or use food that’s just a bit beyond its peak. In addition, knowing what all the different dates on packaged foods mean can help you maximize the value you get from some items.

Vacuum sealers are an ideal way to make food last longer. Use only half a block of cheese? Seal the rest in a vacuum bag, and it will last much longer than if it was stored in a baggie or plastic wrap. Vacu­um bags can also prolong the life of leafy greens. Wash and cut your lettuce or other greens and store them with a paper towel in a vacu­um-sealed bag. The greens can last for more than a week when stored this way. Vacuum sealers can also help you take advantage of deals at the supermarket. For example, when skinless, boneless chicken breasts or lean ground beef are on sale, stock up; once home, divide it into individ­ual portions, vacuum seal, and pop in the freezer for when you need it.

Many foods have a date stamped somewhere on the package along with one of the following: “Sell by,” “Best by,” or “Use by.” Believe it or not, the use of these terms is com­pletely voluntary and, with the ex­ception of infant formulas, have no legal requirements. In general, these terms are not related to food safety but actually food quality. In other words, the item in question is at its best before the date on the pack­age, but that doesn’t mean the food should be discarded after that date listed. Long story short: you can keep and use foods past these dates and not risk harm, which could save you money if you’re frequently throwing out past-dated food. Here are some examples of how long food can be used past the label’s date:

Eggs: three to five weeks past date

Milk: usually okay up to a week beyond the date

Other Dairy Like Yogurt and Sour Cream: at least a week past date, but possibly beyond; so long as it smells and looks normal, you can eat it

Poultry and Seafood: use or freeze within one to two days of purchasing

Beef and Pork: use or freeze within three to five days of purchasing

Acidic Canned Goods (Such as Tomato Sauce): up to 18 months

Non-Acidic Canned Goods (Such as Corn): up to five years

To maximize quality and freshness, be sure you store food properly. Perishable foods should be in a re­frigerator, and canned and boxed foods should be stored in a cool, dry place.


Budget-Saving DIY Recipes

Looking for more ideas to stretch your grocery budget and improve the nutritional value of the food you make at home? Try these recipes for foods we commonly purchase rather than make.

Chewy Granola Bars

One batch of these granola bars costs less than a store-bought box—and makes twice as many. And these bars lend them­selves to creativity, allowing you to cus­tomize and boost nutrients to your lik­ing. Just a few quick swaps to try include switching out the chocolate chips for coconut and dried pineapple or papaya bits for a tropical flavor; using dried cran­berries and walnuts in the fall; or making a s’mores version for a summer trip by re­placing the all-purpose flour with graham cracker crumbs and adding some marsh­mallow bits and milk-chocolate chips.

Basic Bar
4 cups rolled oats
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup whole-wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ cup canola oil
3 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup honey
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 325°. Lightly grease a 9-by- 13-inch baking pan. In a large mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients and stir together. Add wet ingredients and stir until well com­bined. Stir in chocolate chips.

Press mixture firmly into the prepared pan. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes until gold­en brown. After 10 minutes, remove from oven and use a buttered or silicone spatula or spoon to press down firmly again; return to oven. When cooking time is up, imme­diately remove from oven and press down with the spatula again.

Let cool for 10 minutes, and then cut into bars. Let bars cool completely in pan before removing and serving.

Store in an airtight container. These also freeze well for longer storage.

Yield: 18 (4-by-1½-inch) bars

Homemade Seasoned Rice Mix

Seasoned rice packets are good side dishes for a quick meal, but even at a dollar per packet, the price adds up. A prepackaged bag of flavored rice is roughly $0.50 per serving, but when you buy plain rice and make your own packets, you’ll spend about $0.12 per serving, depending on how large a bag of rice you buy; you’ll also cut down on the salt and other potential health-busters.

Rice Mix:
3 cups uncooked long-grain rice
6 teaspoons low-sodium chicken bouillon
granules
¼ cup dried parsley flakes
2 teaspoons onion powder
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon dried thyme

Additional ingredients:
2 cups water
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup Rice Mix (above)

Combine all dry ingredients in a storage con­tainer with a tight-fitting lid.

Yield: about 3½ cups

To prepare rice as a side dish, combine 2 cups water and 1 tablespoon butter in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir in one rounded cup of Rice Mix. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Note: You can skip the bouillon in the dry mix and instead add 2 teaspoons of low-so­dium Better Than Bouillon when preparing the rice.

Yield: 4 servings


DIY 100-Calorie Snacks

Eating a 100- or 200-calorie snack be­tween meals is a good way to keep your healthy eating on track by helping pre­vent “overhunger,” which can lead to overeating. Healthy snacks can also be a great way to boost your nutrient intake throughout the day, and an occasional small sweet treat can keep cravings un­der control to help prevent binging.

Food manufacturers have jumped on the portion-control bandwagon in full force. You can’t walk into a grocery store, department store, gas station, or drugstore without seeing an array of in­dividually packed snacks. But these pre­pared snacks come at a cost, both finan­cially and environmentally: all of those pouches, boxes, and bags head straight to landfills! And you usually pay at least double the price for food in those smaller packages.

You can help keep your wallet full and reduce the environmental burden by buying a few reusable single-portion containers and packing your own snacks.

The following are examples of create-your-own 100-calorie snack packs (give or take a few calories):

Fruit: 1 medium apple, 1 cup blueber­ries, 2 medium kiwi, 2 cups watermelon, 28 grapes

Crunchy: 15 almonds, 30 pistachios, 11 wheat crackers, 5 saltine crackers, 3 cups plain or lightly salted popcorn, 40 pretzel sticks, 12 small pretzel twists

Sweet: 14 gummy bears, 3 red licorice sticks, 4 chocolate kisses, 2 mini pep­permint patties, 15 chocolate-covered raisins