The Healthy Budget

The Healthy Budget

It’s possible to eat well without overspending

“Essentially, all produce is nutritious, regardless of whether it is fresh, canned or frozen,” says Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The remark may surprise some shoppers who insist that fresh, organic and local is the healthiest. However, “We can’t assume that fresh is always best,” she says. “Some nutrients in fresh produce are lost during transportation, while other nutrients in canned vegetables are increased due to the canning process. An example is that antioxidants in canned corn are higher than in fresh corn.”

While Dobbins doesn’t discount that fresh is ideal, it’s not always necessary from a nutritional value standpoint, nor is it cost-effective.

“There are choices in the marketplace, and convenience can be expensive,” adds Dobbins. “You can choose to buy a block of cheese and shred it yourself, which is cheaper, or buy the more expensive shredded cheese. Planning ahead is one of the simplest and most effective ways to buy healthier food on a budget.”

That being said, she doesn’t want people to throw up their arms in frustration when they can’t access fresh food on their budget. In many cases, she says, prepackaged and canned foods can be an option if they’re not laden with syrupy sugar or sodium. It’s about finding a balance and focusing on getting enough fruits and vegetables rather than ditching them altogether if you can’t find fresh or organic on your budget.

One of her favorite grocery shopping strategies is to keep a running shopping list at home. Once an item is consumed, add it to the shopping list under the appropriate food category. Before leaving the house, do a quick overview of what’s in the crisper and pantry to fill in the gaps. Spending a few minutes reviewing supplies at home not only saves time at the grocery store but also saves money because it deters impulse purchases.

Laura Bruzas, founder of Healthy Dining Chicago, recommends joining a buying club as a way to access high-quality, healthful foods at affordable wholesale prices. As the author of 100 Simple Ways to Eat Well for Less, she also suggests that people start small and only make one or two small changes at a time rather than do a complete overhaul of their eating lifestyle.

Dietrich and Andrea Mattson-McGaffey launched Edible Alchemy Foods in 2009 because they felt strongly that healthy food should be available to anyone. “Our primary goal is access,” they say, counting their 500 members who take advantage of their no-obligation program (meaning you buy as you go, when you need). Members are able to purchase produce and fruit shares every week at five drop-off points throughout the city in Pilsen, Hyde Park, Logan Square, River North and West Loop, with a sixth opening soon in Wicker Park. The business model operates similarly to a food-buying club, and members often realize a savings between 1/3 to 1/2 of what they would spend at a chain store.

“A lot of people fear for their budget,” they add.

Since the appeal of prepackaged foods is convenience, the duo recommends that people precook with friends and family to overcome the obstacle of not having enough time to prepare meals in advance. “We encourage members who intend to share meals to make large batches over the weekend when they might have more time, so they can get whole meals quickly from the fridge during a busy workweek.

“If you can make it convenient for yourself to eat better, you will take more advantage of it. Cooking with friends and family helps to make food into a social gathering instead of a task to be completed.”

Sara Master feels that ethnic stores are an untapped market when it comes to healthy and inexpensive options after she was introduced to them by her mother-in-law from India. She says she saves about 35 percent on produce and some other goods, such as spices, and deli items like feta cheese.

If the idea of shopping at an ethnic grocery store seems daunting, Master recommends reaching out to a friend or co-worker of that ethnicity or familiar with that particular store.

“In my experience, people have always been eager to share their culture when they see I appreciate it,” she says. “It would also help to start small—purchase things you know and recognize on your first trip and one thing that is new. After a few trips, you won’t feel like an outsider when you’re shopping—you’ll feel like a culture pro and a great shopper!”

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How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

1)    Buy dry goods in bulk and store in airtight containers for longer shelf life.

2)    Buy whole items, such as chicken and cheese, and break them into pieces you’ll use. Meat items can be split and placed into freezer bags for later use.

3)    Buy frozen vegetables when on sale to supplement fresh since frozen is often more affordable than fresh when not in season.

4)    Cook meals with friends and family on the weekend so you have meals ready during the week.

5)    Consider ethnic grocery stores, especially for staples like spices. Bring a picture of what you’re looking for in case the employees may not know the English word for it.