Downturn diet

Healthy eating on a budget

It's sad but true: Healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables can be more expensive, serving for serving, than potato chips and candy bars. But that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to getting fat in lean times. We invited our in-house nutrition experts, other staff members, and visitors to our Health blog to share their best tips on putting together healthful meals for less. Great ideas poured in. Here are 20 of our favorites:

Plan ahead

Make a menu for the week and aim to get everything you need in one or two trips to save on gas (and impulse buying). Watch for flyers or visit your supermarket online to check for sales, and let those drive your menu.

Handful of peaches
Photographs by JupiterImages

Buy in season

That means no strawberries in December in Maine, when you'll pay for shipping from some far-off warm place. Seasonal picks include cherries, melon, peaches, tomatoes, and peppers in summer; snow peas, spinach, and strawberries in spring; and carrots, cauliflower, citrus fruits, and cranberries in fall. For a list, click on "Save at the Supermarket" from the August/September 2008 issue of our ShopSmart magazine, free at www.ShopSmartMag.org.

Eat beans

They're inexpensive, versatile, and a great source of protein and fiber. Add them to salads, soups, chili, and pasta dishes to increase bulk. Canned beans are the easiest to use, but for maximum economy buy dried beans.

Try tofu

It's a low-cost, nutrient-packed substitute for meat and cheese . Add tofu to salads, or sauté with vegetables and something savory such as chili sauce or tamari and serve over brown rice. If you don't like tofu, experiment with tempeh, a related product with a meatier texture.

Frozen vegetables

For produce, go frozen

Frozen fruits and vegetables, often flash-frozen soon after picking, can be more nutritious than "fresh" items that have sat on store shelves for a while. And you don't have to worry about the frozen variety spoiling before it's eaten.

Choose store brands

Also called "private label," they are often just as good as the name brand and can save you money.

Bulk it up

Buy large packages of meats and frozen vegetables at warehouse stores, and repackage and freeze what you don't eat immediately. At the supermarket, buy extra chicken, meat, or fish when they are on sale. Buy large packages of snacks rather than individually prepackaged ones, then re-bag them on your own. Buy apples and citrus fruits in prepackaged bags rather than by the piece.

Go local

Shop at farmer's markets or ethnic groceries, or join a local Community Supported Agriculture outlet, which delivers seasonal produce. (To find a CSA near you, go to www.localharvest.org/csa.)

Buy a whole bird

Get a whole chicken and cut it up (or not) as you wish. It's more economical than buying separate breasts, thighs, etc., and you can get a nutrient-packed broth out of it, too (see next item). Freeze pieces that you're not using right away in individual freezer bags.

Use your scraps

Cook leftover vegetables and potatoes into a frittata, even for dinner; eggs are a great source of protein. Use bones, meat scraps, or vegetable trimmings to make broth.

Plant a garden

It requires a little time, but it can have nice payoffs (including exercise). Inexperienced gardeners might want to start small, with fresh herbs or simple vegetables such as tomatoes and chard.

Put meat on the side

Keep meat and poultry portions to the recommended serving size of 3 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards, rather than the larger amounts people usually eat. Then fill out the plate with whole grains and in-season or frozen vegetables.

Shop the perimeter

The sections of the supermarket around the outer walls hold the nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy. The inner aisles contain processed and snack foods.

Baked Potato

Bake a potato

With the right add-ons, it can make a satisfying entrée Add healthful or creative toppings such as cottage cheese, plain yogurt, black beans, low-fat cheese, or salsa. Sweet potatoes can offer even more nutrients.

Use powdered or evaporated milk

It can go in soups, casseroles, mashed potatoes, or desserts, saving your fresh—and more costly—milk for coffee, cereal, or drinking.

Mix a big fruit salad

Then divide it into individual food-storage containers for breakfast or for a snack each day. It costs much less than deli- or store-made fruit salad.

Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich

Go back to your school days

That's right: peanut butter and jelly (or PB and honey or PB and banana) sandwiches for lunch. Peanut butter packs a ton of nutrients and is very inexpensive. Use whole-grain bread and pay attention to the serving size. The fat might be healthful, but it's also caloric.

Avoid packaged drinks

Instead of buying pricey teas and fruit drinks, brew your own tea and mix in fruit juice. Dilute juice with seltzer or cold water, which cuts down on calories as well as cost. Invest in a reusable polyethylene (opaque plastic) water bottle and pledge to stop buying disposable ones.

Cook for the week

Set aside one day a week, or a weeknight, to make casseroles, one-pot dinners, and sides that you can reheat and eat all week long, take to work for lunch, or freeze for later use.

Get a slow cooker

They make easy one-pot meals, such as stews, which in turn allow you to use less-expensive cuts of meat. As a bonus, using a slow cooker is more energy efficient than cooking a meal using stovetop burners and an oven. Our recent tests found a number of good models available for $50 or less, including a Rival Crock-Pot and a Hamilton Beach Stay or Go.

Posted: January 2009 — Consumer Reports Magazine issue: February 2009