Do you think it costs too much money and takes too much time to eat a healthy diet? You aren’t alone. For most people, groceries are the second largest monthly expense after housing.
More than 60 percent of shoppers say it costs too much to eat nutritiously. Food costs always seem to go up, while time to shop and prepare a healthy, balanced meal is limited. And you are supposed to do this for three meals a day, seven days a week? It isn’t surprising that we reach for quick fixes, like a fast food drive-thru, or run to the grocery on the way home to pick up something for dinner.
With advance planning, you can eat healthy and stay within a reasonable, even a strict, budget. Start by figuring out how much you spend on food now. Keep track of all of your food purchases for a week. Then have everyone in the family estimate what they spent on eating out. Have a family conversation about the food choices they made for that week.
How do those choices fit the government’s myPlate version of nutritious meals, which includes lean protein, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists four food plans that show how to eat a healthy diet at various budget costs. For a family of four, two adults and two grade-school age children, the Thrifty Food Plan allows $146 a week. The Low Cost Food Plan costs $191, the Moderate Food Plan, $239 and the Liberal Food Plan, $289 a week.
How do you compare to the Thrifty Plan, which is used as the basis for SNAP (food stamp) allowances?
The most important thing you can do to start eating healthier and saving money is to plan your meals, including snacks, for a full week. Check what you have on hand, and try to work these into your menu, especially leftovers. Keep family favorites on the menu, and maybe one new recipe for the week.
To use your time wisely, double a recipe, and use it twice that week, or freeze the extra for another week. Plan to use leftovers for lunches. Look over your menu for variety and balance. Look for opportunities to use whole grains and increase vegetables and fruits. Use all forms of fruits and vegetables: fresh, frozen or canned.
A meal prepared at home is usually less expensive than its store-bought version — and healthier, since you control what goes in it. On a work night, you might not have time to cook from scratch but can fix the meal or prep a part of the meal on a day off. If you’re making spaghetti and meatballs, try making double the meatballs and freezing half for another week. Keep your pantry stocked with basic ingredients like beans, rice, canned fruits and canned vegetables. Make sure you also have the whole grain options of rice, pasta and grains.
Make grocery lists and stick to them. By planning, you know what is on the menu for most of the week and what you want in your pantry. Don’t shop when you’re hungry. To avoid impulse buying, only go down the aisles that have the items on your list. Buy in bulk if possible. Larger packages are typically less expensive per unit. If you see a sale, don’t stock up unless you know you will use that item. When you buy prepackaged items, compare nutrition labels and look for the lowest sodium and sugar levels, and the presence of whole grains. Compare prices by checking the shelf tags.
With planning and a grocery list, you can have good nutrition, save money, and you will know “what’s for dinner."