In an uncertain economy, many families seek creative ways to stretch their food dollars while still bringing nourishing meals to the table. Though it’s easy to get distracted by inexpensive processed foods, keep in mind that money spent on quality, nutrient-packed food is an investment in your health and the health of your family. Here are some easy tips for purchasing sustainable, delicious foods without breaking the bank.
• Do your research: Checking for weekly sales means you can stock up on higher-quality ingredients without paying full price. Is your favorite brand of peanut butter on sale? Buy two, and keep one in the pantry.
• Shop from a list: Today’s grocery stores are set up to make higher-priced “impulse buys” look extra-appetizing, but those checkout aisle purchases can add up. Plan meals ahead and make a shopping list at home -- then stick to it! There are many handy websites and cellphone apps to help keep track of ingredients for specific recipes such as this one: http://nourishedkitchen.com/?s=budget.
• Eat before you shop: Those chocolate bars are much more likely to jump into your shopping cart if your stomach is growling. Eat a protein-rich snack before you head to the store, and you’ll stick to your list.
• Buy locally and seasonally: Eating seasonally, homegrown foods means buying healthy, delicious ingredients when they are at their peak of flavor and nutrition. Regional foods don’t have to travel as far, and bumper crops of local produce can mean big savings at the store. For inexpensive fruits and veggies in the winter, stock up at harvest time and freeze for later use.
• Buy in bulk: Most stores have bulk bins where you can save on nuts, beans, rice, grains, and granola while avoiding excess packaging. Bring your own bags to save resources and time.
• Limit processed foods: When you buy processed foods, including bottled drinks, cold cereals and snack bars, you are often paying for packaging, preservatives, and transportation. When you eat fresh, whole foods, you get more for your dollar while feeding your body what it needs.
• Grow your own: Grocery stores often stock vegetable seeds and plant starts that bring a great return for a small investment. Growing your own fresh foods can be so rewarding, and anyone can do it! From a few containers of herbs on your patio or kitchen counter to a full garden in your backyard, growing your own edibles is a creative way to save money.
• Make your own: Starting with one food at a time, find replacements for packaged goods you’d normally buy at the supermarket, including salad dressings, cereals, cookies, sauces, and marinades. Why pay
for preservatives and packaging when you can make your own quickly and easily?
Armed with all of these budget-enhancing skills, how do you know if the products you are buying are nutritious? Check out those ingredient labels! Look for wholesome ingredients that will give you a big boost of energy and enhance your nutritional profile. Stock up on raw nuts and seeds, colorful berries, wild-caught canned salmon, dark leafy greens, kid-friendly sweet potatoes, eggs from sustainably raised hens, pasture-raised lamb, and the ultimate cheap and healthy food -- sardines. These foods are packed with vital nutrients, healthy fats, and cancer-fighting antioxidants that battle environmental toxins from the inside out, which means fewer trips to the doctor’s office and more delicious meals.
If you’re skeptical that sustainably raised animals and produce are more nutritious than their conventionally raised cousins, take eggs from pastured, happy hens for an illuminating example. Compared with caged eggs, eggs from pastured hens contain a third less cholesterol, a fourth less saturated fat, two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fatty acids, three times more vitamin E, seven times more beta carotene, and nearly six times more vitamin D. While all eggs are a great, inexpensive protein source, pastured eggs are certainly an investment in your health.
Once you know which ingredients will give you the greatest health bang for your hard-earned buck, turn to your kitchen for more ways to save. Dust off that slow-cooker and purchase less expensive cuts of high-quality meat, and add a bunch of veggies to round out the meal. The slow-cooking process will help tenderize stew meats and chuck roasts to perfection, and you’ll be able to feed more people with less money. You can also marinate stew meat and tougher cuts in plain yogurt, kefir, or buttermilk to tenderize it and make it taste like a much more expensive cut. Your freezer is also a money-saving miracle. Buy ground beef or buffalo on sale and freeze in family-sized servings and stock up on frozen veggies to enhance flavor-packed soups that are great for your body and your wallet.
• The bottom line: You can afford quality, nutritious, and tasty food. Just shop smart, cook smart, and remember that every dollar you spend on locally produced foods stays in the community. If you prioritize sustainable and local ingredients for your family’s health, producers and grocery stores will respond to demand by making more sustainable, organic, and truly healthy food available at fair prices for everyone.
Karen Seibert, MS, is the lead nutritionist at New Seasons Market.