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Healthy Eating on a Budget

Jun 30, 2016 08:52AM ● Published by Jennifer Monahan

Liz Gore and Maddie Monahan

Feeding a family is expensive. The U. S. Department of Agriculture puts out monthly summaries of how much it costs to eat at home. For a family of four—with two adults and two children ages six to 11—a moderate-cost grocery budget is almost $1,100 per month, according to the latest USDA data. If the kids are younger, the average is just under $900 per month. Anyone with teenagers, a taste for organic vegetables or a love of grass-fed, high-end beef should probably just plan to take out a second mortgage. 

Shoppers may wonder whether eating healthfully can happen on a small budget. 

“It’s definitely possible,” said Liz Gore, a nutrition educator at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. Gore and her colleague, Maddie Monahan, also a nutrition educator, teach people how to create healthy meals on a budget. 

Stock Up on Fruits and Vegetables in Season

One way to conserve costs is by purchasing produce in bulk when it is least expensive, Monahan said. Buying fruits and vegetables in season can cut down significantly on costs. Monahan suggested setting aside what can be consumed within a few days, and then freezing the rest for later use. Most fruits can be frozen with minimal preparation, such as removing the stems and hulls of strawberries or taking the pits out of peaches. 

Monahan recommended blanching (boiling briefly and then plunging into ice water) vegetables to preserve their color and create a tender-crisp texture before freezing them. Gore said canning extra fruits and vegetables is a good storage option for those who know how to do it.

For anyone with a green thumb, a backyard vegetable garden can be another cost-saving source of fresh produce, Monahan added. 

The food bank has online resources such as guides for how long fresh produce can be stored, how to preserve foods and what to do with overripe fruits and vegetables. Details are available at www.pittsburghfoodbank.org/producetips

Find Less Expensive Sources of Protein

Red meat is often one of the more expensive items on a grocery list. Monahan suggested looking for specials on meat that is nearing the end of its “sell by” date. These items are often marked with a yellow sticker and significantly discounted. Such meat can be frozen and used at a later date.

Chicken thighs are another relatively inexpensive source of protein, said Monahan. More flavorful than breasts, chicken thighs can be used in a variety of dishes. 

Incorporating either canned or dried beans into meals provides protein at a far less expensive cost than meat or poultry. Monahan said that rinsing canned beans before use eliminates about 40 percent of the extra sodium and makes them a quick and convenient option when compared to dried beans which—though cheaper—take more time to prepare.

Drink Water

One way to cut costs and improve health is to stay hydrated—with water. Eliminating soda and sports drinks means eliminating the extra sugar and salt that go along with them, and the impact on a grocery bill can be significant. For those who get tired of tap water, Gore suggested mixing cucumber, strawberry or lemon slices into pitchers of chilled water. 

Get Creative with Grains

Gore and Monahan recommend that half the grains a person consumes should be whole grains. Think brown rice instead of white, whole-wheat pasta instead of regular and quinoa salad instead of dinner rolls. Whole-grain foods can cost more, though, so Gore said they try to give people less expensive alternatives. Rolled oats are one option, and Gore suggested preparing savory oatmeal with tomatoes, peppers or whatever vegetables are on hand. It tastes a lot like rice, she said, adding that the food bank website has recipes for oatmeal and other inexpensive healthy meals.

Make a Grocery Store Game Plan

The USDA offers a number of suggestions for how to get the most bang for your grocery buck via its website, www.choosemyplate.gov

Among the site’s tips:

» Plan meals for the entire week at one time.

» Make a grocery list. Stick to it. 

» Shop once each week. Fewer trips to the store mean less opportunity for impulse purchases. 

» Choose generic or store brands when they are available.

Such shopping strategies require advance planning but can pay off in a big way in cost savings. The My Plate website has printable tools such as a weekly meal planner and shopping list templates as well as recipes for low-cost meals. 

One option for families facing financial struggles is the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP). Backed by the federal government, SFSP provides meals to anyone under the age of 18 at no cost. The program is coordinated locally by the food bank and a host of other companies and organizations throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. To locate a SFSP site nearby, text FOOD to 877-877.

For more information, visit http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/CostofFoodApr2016.pdf

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