12 Ways to Eat Better for Less

Good-for-you food doesn't have to be expensive, experts say

by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

It's a myth that healthy food costs more, experts say.

True, certain foods, like baked chips or reduced-sugar or reduced-fat products, may cost more per ounce. But when you compare the costs of these foods to a serving of fruits or vegetables, the produce usually wins (except maybe when you're splurging on out-of-season produce). And let's face it, reduced-sugar cookies and baked snack foods aren't "must-haves" on anyone's food pyramid.

"When my clients start eating more healthfully, their grocery bills plummet," says Diet Simple author and nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge, RD.

She recommends comparing food prices based on the number of servings provided, along with the food's nutritional contribution. For example, one pound of peaches yields 3-4 servings. So when you divide the cost per pound, the cost is usually quite reasonable.

"The ideal food is nutrient-dense, not calorie-dense," Tallmadge says.

Healthy Foods Stretch Food Dollars

Healthier foods can actually save you money, according to 2002 a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The researchers found that when families went on weight loss diets, they not only lost weight but reduced their food budgets.

The savings came from reducing portion sizes, and from buying fewer high-calorie foods, which tend to increase the amount spent at the grocery store, according to the authors of the yearlong study. People tend to spend a lot on the "extras" -- foods that add calories but little nutritional value, such as sodas, bakery items, and chips.

Supermarket Trends

In a December 2004 survey of 804 shoppers, the Grocery Manufacturers Association found that most Americans (73%) are buying more nutritious food than ever before.

"Consumers have gotten the message from the media hype surrounding the [government's] new dietary guidelines and 'My Pyramid' that they need to eat more healthful foods, and they are responding," says Alison Kretser, MS, RD, senior director of scientific and nutrition policy for the manufacturers association.

In turn, manufacturers are rushing to create products to help consumers meet the new recommendations. And what exactly are consumers looking for?

"Whole grains topped the list, followed by low-fat, low-calorie, and reduced-sugar," Kretser explains. "We were surprised to see whole grains shoot to the top of the list, beating out low-fat foods for the first time ever in our surveys."

Of course, taste remains a very important consideration. The result is a wealth of new "better for you" products with improved taste, such as 50% whole wheat pasta.

"There is an enormous amount of reformulation occurring within the food industry in an attempt to capture the opportunity to help consumers meet dietary guidelines," says Kretser.

Your first step toward getting the biggest bang for your buck at the market, Tallmadge says, is to get organized. Take inventory of the food you have at home, and plan your meals in advance. Then consult your recipes, make a detailed shopping list -- and stick to it!

Here are 11 more simple strategies to help your grocery dollars go farther:

1. Buy produce in season. Check the food section in your newspaper to find the best buys for the week, based on fresh produce in season. During the summer months, corn on the cob can cost as little as 10 cents an ear; at other times of the year, it can cost 10 times as much. Also, shop your local farmers' market for great deals on local produce; the prices won't include shipping costs.

2. Use sales and coupons. A combination of clipping coupons and buying sale items is a great way to trim the grocery budget. Sunday newspapers are a great source of coupons to get you started. Stock up on staples when they're on sale, and plan your menus around ingredients featured in the circulars. "Buy one, get one free" is basically a technique to get you to buy twice as much as you need at half the price. At some markets, though, the product rings up half-price -- so you don't have to buy more than one to get the savings.

3. Never shop on an empty stomach. An empty belly leads to impulse buying, and usually, the impulses are for foods that aren't healthy or economical. Do yourself a favor and eat a light meal before going to the market.

4. Think frozen. Produce is typically frozen soon after harvest, when nutrients are plentiful. And fish and poultry are often flash-frozen to minimize freeze damage and to retain freshness. Next time you're gathering ingredients for a recipe, think frozen foods to shave costs while maintaining nutrition. There are many advantages to frozen foods; you can buy them on sale and use them at a later date; you can use only the amount you need, reseal the package, and return it to the freezer. If they're properly stored, there's no waste.

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