Eating Well, Even on a Budget

Related topics: Eating Right, Legal & Financial

Four grocery shopping tips to protect your health and your wallet

Concerned that rising food prices may lead Americans to pinch grocery pennies by skipping healthful vegetables and fruits, experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recently outlined four ways shoppers can make budget-friendly choices without sacrificing health at the supermarket.

Although higher fuel prices and recent cold snaps that hurt the harvest mean many Americans are paying more for food, "Shoppers can still choose a wide variety of vegetables and fruits and keep their budget lean," said Alice Bender, AICR Registered Dietitian. "By comparing prices, doing a bit of meal planning and staying flexible, Americans can fill up their grocery carts with healthy foods—and save money while they're doing it."

AICR's advice for making low-cost but healthy choices is based on recent data from the USDA's Economic Research Service comparing the cost of vegetables and fruit on a cup-for-cup basis.

Get them fresh, frozen or canned—but get them

Plain frozen vegetables and fruits are often cheaper than fresh and are quick and easy to prepare. For instance, fresh green beans cost $1.03 per cup, while frozen whole green beans ring up at only $0.57 per cup.

Frozen vegetables can be steamed in minutes with little preparation. Frozen produce is as nutritious as fresh and will keep in the freezer for several months without going bad.

"Canned vegetables and fruits can cost even less," says Bender, "but be sure to look for those packed in juice or water, not high-sodium brine or calorie-rich syrups."

Shop sales and seasons

Imported or unusual foods and out-of-season produce can hike up the grocery bill. An imported kiwi fruit will cost $0.82 cents per cup, while a seasonal U.S. grown apple costs only $0.28 cents per cup.

Take advantage of weekly and seasonal specials to stretch your fruit and vegetable dollar. Spring is a great time to look for fresh strawberries but wait for mid-summer for fresh blueberries or melons.

Plan and prepare

A grocery list means you're less likely to fill the cart with impulse purchases and unhealthy choices. Plan your week's menu with some staple recipes and think in general terms. For example:

  • Monday: Bean and veggie chili, cornbread
  • Tuesday: Baked potato topped with leftover chili and side salad
  • Wednesday: 3 oz. fish, steamed vegetables, rice
  • Thursday: Stir-fry veggies with lean beef or chicken and leftover rice
  • Friday: Low-sodium canned minestrone soup with added frozen vegetables and whole-wheat bread and reduced fat cheese

Use your list, but select the specifics when you're at the store so you can take advantage of specials.

Another tip: Try cooking a few dishes from scratch to stretch a buck. For example, frozen french fries cost $0.41 per serving. For half that price you can have a fresh potato ready to eat in minutes. You'll save fat, salt and money. And when you do cook, double the recipe and freeze meal-sized portions of leftovers to save time and money.

Lighten up on meats

Choosing leaner meats and substituting plant sources of protein can mean serious savings. For example, a high fat sirloin steak averages $5.67 per pound, while lean boneless chicken breast costs $3.21 per pound. Compare that with $1.25 per pound for dried kidney beans, and you can muscle up your protein dollars.

Bender says you can make these savings add up even more—and reduce your risk of many cancers—by following AICR's New American Plate way of eating: Let meat take up 1/3 or less of your plate and fill 2/3 or more with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.

Other ways to cut your food budget while maintaining your healthy eating habits:

  • Plant a vegetable garden for inexpensive vegetables in your back yard all summer long.
  • Pack a healthy snack to avoid the temptation to buy pricy, often less healthy, commercial snacks.
  • Eat first. Grocery shopping on an empty stomach increases the chance that you'll impulsively buy more food than you need.
  • If you're planning to shop at the local farmers market, wait till the afternoon when the sellers may cut a bargain on produce.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on the relationship of nutrition, physical activity and weight management to cancer risk, interprets the scientific literature and educates the public about the results. Visit the AICR website for information on healthy eating, to find healthy recipes, and information about the AICR's award-winning The New American Plate, which helps consumers "redesign" their meal planning to reduce the risk of disease.

For More Information

March is National Nutrition Month.  Sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), this event focuses attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. Visit the academy's website to learn more about this event and to download a free guidebook, Eating Right for Older Adults.