I never knew how expensive food could be until recently. After I graduated from college, I was going out and swiping a card to pay for meals like I always had. It didn’t take long to realize that this was my actual money and not just my prepaid – by my parents – meal points I was spending. I was, literally, devouring my budget.
But when I tried to spend less at restaurants and cook more at home, things didn’t get a whole lot better. I was saving money on food, to be sure, but I was feeling far less energetic and gaining weight. As it turns out, a steady diet of Rice-a-Roni and spaghetti is filling and very cheap, but not all that nutritious.
I needed to find a way to eat healthfully on my intern’s salary, so I spoke with Sonya Angelone, a registered dietitian-nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Now, implementing some of her ideas, I’m maintaining my tight budget for groceries but getting more, healthier meals for my money – and my clothes are fitting better.
Here are some healthy eating strategies for those of you who are as broke as I am. If you take some time to pay attention when making small decisions about your food every day, you’ll be happier, healthier and richer for it.
1. Make a plan and stick to it: Before you even go inside the grocery store, you need a plan, and that starts with figuring out your menu and creating a shopping list for the week. You don’t have to be an Iron Chef to cook healthy meals for yourself. As long as you can turn on a burner and boil some water, you can probably manage.
Angelone suggested adding nutritious elements to meals you already know how to prepare. Take my spaghetti, for instance. Boil the pasta, and when it’s a couple of minutes from being finished, add some broccoli. Drain it all together. Brown some beef, drain the fat and add it to the sauce. If you add a significant amount of veggies, you’ll have enough for several meals – eating leftovers saves you money – and, Angelone said, “it’s more filling that way.”
As a rule, about half your plate should be produce, she said. So knowing some tricks to save on fruits and veggies can be a big budget booster. You can start by buying produce that’s in season. It’s fresher, tastier and cheaper because it hasn’t had to travel as far to reach your store.
“Consider buying citrus fruit, sweet potatoes and squash during football season and berries and tomatoes during baseball season,” Angelone said. (See what’s season when at fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org.)
2. Don’t stress over buying organic: It can help you avoid pesticides in your produce, but buying organic can be very expensive and not worth the cost for certain foods. The Environmental Working Group, a health research organization, puts out a list of fruit and vegetables with the most and least pesticide exposure. The “Clean 15,” such as avocados and pineapples, have outer layers that you take off before you eat, so you can save your money and buy non-organic versions. If you don’t think you can afford organic food at all, just buy regular produce and wash it thoroughly.
“It’s better to eat non-organic produce than to eat no produce at all,” Angelone said.
Also, take some time to see what’s on sale at local stores, and schedule your meals accordingly. Before long, you’ll begin to see price patterns for the foods you buy frequently. That way, you can start buying your staples only when they’re on sale.
3. Shop smart: With a plan in place, you’re ready to head to the store, but be sure you eat before you go. Shopping hungry leaves you vulnerable to marketing and impulse-shopping, Angelone said. That’s when you end up either buying the unhealthy, on-sale food on the ends of aisles or buying too much food, which then goes to waste.
At the store, check unit prices. Items with higher list prices might be better values. For example, a big bottle of juice might cost more up front than a pack of three juice boxes, but each ounce of the former actually costs less.
Remember, too, that any time someone else puts time into preparing your food, you’re going to pay more for it. Is it worth it to pay extra for sliced cheddar cheese when you can buy a block and slice it yourself at home? Probably not. My grocery store in Washington, D.C., charges $7.99 for a two-pound block of the same cheddar they slice at the deli and sell for $8.99 a pound.
Is it worth it to buy prepackaged, frozen spaghetti with meat sauce? Definitely not. One serving of Stouffer’s spaghetti with meat sauce costs $3.39 at my grocery. Meanwhile, a box of spaghetti, a jar of sauce, a pound of broccoli and a pound of ground beef cost me $6.82. Spread across four large meals, that’s $1.64 a serving, to say nothing of the much richer nutritional value I’m getting.
4. Liquid savings: You can get all the energy and nutrition you need from food and quench your thirst with plain water. All those other drinks – beer, wine, energy drinks, sports drinks, soda and even juice – equal extra money and extra calories, so drink them sparingly.
Of course, when an occasion calls for libations – as occasions often do for young people – we’re not suggesting you drink water instead. Just have some along with your booze of choice, Angelone said. Watering down your alcohol intake not only saves you in cost and calories, but it can also save you from lowered inhibitions – which can result in questionable dance moves and unnecessary and unhealthy purchases.