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How to Find Healthy Food During Tough Economic Times E-mail
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Are you having a hard time stretching your grocery dollars during the current economic downturn? You’re not alone. But before you stop buying fresh fruit, meat, vegetables and other items often perceived as costing a lot, check out these tips from a University of Michigan Health System dietitian.  

Holly Scherer, R.D., says you can follow a few easy guidelines and still buy healthy foods, rather than switching to a diet of potato chips, macaroni and cheese, and a fast-food burger.

She suggests that you make your own coffee, buy fruits and vegetables that are in season, occasionally replace meat with protein sources like eggs and beans, and, no matter how tempting it is, skip the fast-food drive-thru window.

“Hard economic times don’t mean that you have to eat less well,” says Scherer, a health educator with MFit, the health promotion division of the U-M Health System.

“By planning ahead, shopping the sales and trying out those generic or store brands you really can save a significant amount of money while also providing healthy, well-balanced food for your family.”

Fruits and vegetables:
Scherer debunks a popular myth: That produce is too expensive. Wrong, she says. In fact, if you buy fruit and vegetables that are in-season, the price typically is very reasonable, she says. Buying fruit or vegetables by the bag instead of individually also tends to be cheaper.

If the produce you want isn’t in-season, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables can cost less. They are just as nutritious as fresh because they are packaged at their peak of freshness.

If you’re feeling especially frugal – and you have a green thumb – try growing your own, she says.

“A great way to get fresh fruits and vegetables right outside your own door is to plant a vegetable garden, or, if you don’t have space, you can plant a few plants in a pot,” Scherer notes. “You may pay one to two dollars for a vegetable plant, but you’re going to get a very large amount of produce from that.”

Protein can be a tricky thing to buy on a budget. Filet mignon and fresh lobster are probably out of the picture, but you can still find tasty meat for low prices.

First, Scherer says, it’s better to buy the less-prepared items. “You can season and marinate your own meat; you don’t need the store to do that for you,” she says. You’ll save money, and you can also find nutritious, low-salt ways of preparing meat compared with store-prepared items. In addition, buying chicken with the bone and skin can cost a lot less, and you can remove those easily to make a skinless boneless chicken breast.

And meat isn’t your only option. Consider replacing meat with a protein substitute a couple times a week. “You can pay sometimes three times more per ounce for meat rather than buying a substitute such as beans, eggs or peanut butter,” Scherer says.

As with protein sources, buying less-processed grains is the way to go. Stick with the plain brown rice instead of boxed rice mixes. Buy big containers of quick-cooking oats instead of individual packets of instant oatmeal.

And it’s a good idea to buy bread, English muffins or whole wheat tortillas when they’re on sale and freeze any extras that you’re not going to use before the expiration date, Scherer says.

One of the biggest cost-savings can result from buying a filter for your tap water instead of buying bottled water, Scherer says. Also, buying the frozen juice concentrate instead of a large bottle or can of juice can save some money.

For the triple-iced-latte lovers among you, coffee can cost a lot less than $4 a cup. “Making your own coffee at home and adding a specialty creamer or something that makes it a little tastier is a lot less expensive than going out every morning for that specialty coffee drink,” Scherer says.

Single-serving snacks:
Instead of buying 100-calorie packs or individual bags of baked chips or pretzels, buy the bigger box and package them yourself in little snack bags. You’ll pay about half of what you would if you were buying the single-serve packs, she says.

General tips:

  • Use coupons, but only for things that you normally would buy – not a lot of high-fat, high-sugar foods.Look for the generic or store brand
  • Look for bigger containers and boxes to save some money.
  • To see if you are really getting a better deal, compare the unit prices of the bigger and smaller containers on the store’s shelf.
  • Stock up on non-perishables when they go on sale.
  • Spend more time in the perimeter of the store, where the fresh products are, and really focus on the fruits and the vegetables and the lean meats and the low-fat dairy
  • Do not forget to look at foods at the upper and extreme lower shelfs, instead of the items placed at eye level. Often better priced products can be found out of the "eye catching" premium shelf placement areas.
  • Cook at home instead of going out to eat.
  • When you do eat out and you know that a restaurant serves large portions, have them bag half the meal right when they serve it and eat the leftovers for lunch the next day.
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