In a tough economic environment, eating well on a budget can be challenging. Tempting low-cost, high-calorie comfort foods are readily available, but often lack important nutrients that are sacrificed in exchange for convenience. With a few key skills and strategies from TOPS Club Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the nonprofit weight-loss support organization, it can be relatively easy to create flavorful, well-balanced meals without busting the budget.
Eat In More and Out Less
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that spending on food away from home accounted for nearly half of every American food dollar, or $565 billion, in 2008. While they require more planning, home-cooked meals are an excellent way to minimize your grocery bill and they are typically healthier than the options you may find when dining out.
According to Katie Clark, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.E., Assistant Clinical Professor of Nutrition at the University of California – San Francisco and nutrition expert for TOPS, “Eating at home is a great way to save money and create nutritious meals; because you control exactly what goes into your food, you are more likely to avoid excess calories as well.”
To save money while cooking at home, try some of these tips:
- Make at least one meal meatless. Choose recipes that utilize eggs or dried beans like pinto or northern beans as the main protein.
- Double your recipes and freeze leftovers or extra amounts of meat, bread, and cooked vegetables. Bring to work for lunch or use the excess ingredients as inspiration for future meals.
- Eat dinner as a family, or consider having a weekly potluck with neighbors to reduce the cost per person of your meals.
- Clip coupons, avoiding “new food” coupon gimmicks that often are low in nutritional value.
- Subscribe to a healthy cooking magazine, or peruse recipe books for healthy ideas.
Plan Meals for the Week in Advance
A meal planning chart or simple shopping list for the week are great tools for the budget-minded, health-conscious consumer. Knowing what you already have in the pantry and what you intend to make ahead of time reduces impulse spending, saves time, and improves the nutritional value of your meal.
- Take part of one day a week to plan the upcoming week’s menu. Search “meal planning charts” on the Internet for a variety of templates and convenient shopping tools.
- Read the supermarket circulars in your local newspaper, or look online for weekly specials that can help guide your meal planning.
- Post meal plans on the refrigerator door where the entire family can see it and refer back to it throughout the week. This also helps avoid the dreaded question: What’s for dinner?
Only Shop Once a Week
In addition to shopping at grocery stores, Clark recommends trying local markets and even dollar stores.
“Deals often abound on seasonal items, and you can find a wide variety of quality produce, meat, and fish,” she notes. Butchers occasionally offer fresh or specialty items on sale. When you can select the exact quantity you want, you end up saving more money than you would with larger “value” packs that you may not use or that contribute unnecessarily to your daily caloric budget.
Some other suggestions include:
- Only shop once a week. This makes it easier to avoid unnecessary purchases and encourages you to stick to your weekly menu.
- Have a snack before you visit the grocery store. Shopping on an empty stomach can lead to impulse buying.
- Shop the perimeter, remembering that the least healthy and most overpriced packaged foods are concentrated in the middle aisles.
- If fresh fruits and vegetables are cost-prohibitive, try the frozen or canned versions. Frozen produce is often flash frozen at the source, locking in nutrients. Rinse canned vegetables before cooking to reduce the sodium content.
- Buy generics, which are often less expensive than name-brand items.
- Choose prepared foods with short ingredient lists and minimal additives or artificial ingredients.
Use Unit Pricing to Get the Best Value
Savvy shoppers know that using unit pricing can maximize their purchasing power. Commonly listed in small print below or to the side of the total price and as dollars or cents per unit of weight, such as pounds, ounces, or grams unit pricing can be a valuable tool that helps you make an informed choice about your purchases.
Grocery stores don’t always post the costs on sale items; bring a calculator with you to the supermarket, or use the calculator on your cell phone.
Buying economy or family size containers is sometimes, but not always, a better buy. Larger packages that have a lower cost per unit than their smaller counterparts are only going to save you money if you will truly eat all of the food in the package. If it spoils and has to be thrown away, it could just be a waste of your money.
Packaging Gets Downsized
Be cautious of stores shrinking food packages and their content while prices stay the same. Common changes include packaging redesign that holds fewer ounces by way of indented container bottoms, cartons that hold 1/4 less of a quart, and boxes that remain the same size but actually have smaller bags of product inside.
“I recommend taking a few extra moments to examine the containers of your potential purchases before you buy,” says Clark. “If you’re not careful, you could be paying the same amount for what used to be one or two more servings, ounces, or pounds per container. Ensure that you are getting the same products that you have purchased in the past.”
TOPS Club Inc. (Take Off Pounds Sensibly), the original, nonprofit weight-loss education and support organization, was established more than 61 years ago to champion weight-loss support and success. Founded and headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis., TOPS promotes successful weight management with a philosophy that combines healthy eating, regular exercise, wellness education, and support from others at weekly chapter meetings. TOPS has about 170,000 members in nearly 10,000 chapters throughout the United States and Canada, and several chapters in Europe.
Visitors are welcome to attend their first TOPS meeting free of charge. To find a local chapter, view www.tops.org or call (800) 932-8677.