Recent increased awareness of the link between good nutrition and a long, healthy life has drawn attention to the benefits of high-quality food. We’re told of the value of choosing organic produce, meat, and poultry and of eating locally when possible. But amid this information about the value of making good food choices, some of us are still wary of the impact that transforming our shopping patterns will have on our pocketbook—especially in a time of continued economic uncertainty.
The good news is that eating healthy is possible even in today’s challenging economic climate. The key is to learn methods that will help you stretch those food dollars while getting the most nutritional value from your purchases and eliminating unnecessary or unhealthy items from your current shopping budget. Saving a small amount here and there really adds up and can allow for more healthy food choices or other needs in your life.
Food Shopping 101
A little food education can go a long way toward helping you get the most nutritional bang for your buck. First, let’s look at fresh food options. If money is no object, make organic produce the first thing you reach for at the market. If you can afford only a few organic items, buy those that are on the “Dirty Dozen” list (see sidebar on page 13), which includes the conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables that carry the highest levels of contamination. If organic produce is too costly altogether, focus on eating conventionally grown produce and wash it well (being sure to peel produce with thin skins). Here are a few simple and cost-effective tricks to help you eat well on a budget.
**1.**Fruits and Veggies: Look for Seasonal and Local Produce
Whether or not you’re buying organic, try to purchase in-season, locally grown produce. When possible, visit the growers’ markets for savings on local produce. In many cases these items are grown organically—sometimes certified, sometimes not. (Many small farm operations don’t obtain this status even though their growing practices conform to organic farming standards.)
At the grocery store, focus on in-season items along with common produce such as apples, oranges, bananas, carrots, and broccoli; forgo pricier, exotic options for considerable savings at the register. If you’re dying for out-of-season items, head for the frozen foods aisle; frozen produce has the same nutritional value as fresh and with a lower price tag. For even more savings, look for store brands, which are often less expensive than national brands and maintain the same quality standards.
The key point to remember for improved health is to eat seven to 10 servings of produce per day in whatever form you can afford.
**2.**Meat and Poultry: Choose Quality over Quantity
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The animal proteins you purchase may be the most expensive items in your shopping cart. Protein in some form is necessary for building muscle and providing important nutrients the body needs. When the grocery budget is under scrutiny, however, it’s difficult to justify purchasing farm-raised, grass-fed, organic and hormone-free beef—which might be two to three times more costly than conventional products.
The good news is that Americans, on average, could improve their overall health by reducing the amount of meat they consume. Balance your grocery budget by buying the higher-quality meat, fish, and dairy products while decreasing the amount consumed. One pound of meat should feed three adults or two adults and two young children. For optimal health, portions for men should not exceed 5 to 6 ounces per dinner meal; women and children should aim for 3 to 4 ounces, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Buying direct can also provide added savings, as there are online purveyors who will ship directly to consumers overnight.
**3.**Alternative Protein Sources and Grains: Get Creative
Additional protein sources, such as beans, lentils, and tofu—provide important nutrients that the body needs and can add welcome variety to the family menu. Not only are these proteins healthy but they cost significantly less than meat and poultry, which can help balance out the increased cost of better-quality meat.
Emphasize whole grains to add nutrition and substance to a healthy diet. Look for those that are unprocessed and high in fiber. Prices for most grains are stable and generally low. Buy bulk brown rice, bulgur, faro, and oats, and look for the new high-protein pastas that make a great vegetarian meal at a low cost.
**4.**Just Say No to Prepackaged and Processed Foods
Convenience sabotages the grocery budget and can derail a healthy lifestyle. Many of the prepared foods purchased today can be made from scratch at home for less money and in less time with just a little planning. If you are not a skilled cook, start with one or two easy recipes and build your repertoire over time until you can master a couple of meals each week. Get together with a friend and make a week’s or a month’s worth of dinners and freeze them—or cook double portions of a recipe, then freeze half for a quick, healthy meal when time is short.
**5.**Stick to Your List
Spend a few minutes before each grocery trip and plan the week’s menu. Shop with a list to avoid impulse purchases, which are often processed foods with little or no nutritional value, and you will see a decrease in your grocery bill.
For each of us, healthy, cost-effective eating is about finding the right combination of foods from conventional, industrialized, organic, and local sources for our family. Spending more on clean, fresh, high-quality food makes sense and is possible no matter what your grocery budget is. Make a commitment to improve your health and your cash flow through smarter food purchases. Remember that even small shifts in the way we eat and feed our families can improve our longevity.