Lose Weight, Eat Healthy & Don't Blow Your Budget (cont.)

The best way to put nutritious food on your table without breaking the bank is by simply doing a little planning before you shop. Use the grocery ads, whether they come in the newspaper, by email, or you pick them up at the stores.

Before you head out to the store, take three to five minutes to make a list, says Smith.

"Figure you'll have three or four dinners at home this week, and at least two of those will be leftovers. Where will you get the most value? We would certainly recoup our investment of time if we'd spend that three minutes."

Because much of your food dollar is spent on protein, Smith says, it's smart to have a freezer. That way you can stock up at sales of lean ground beef, turkey, chuck roast, and other healthy meats that will stay fresh in the freezer for six to nine months. But, she adds, buying in bulk isn't for everyone.

"Some people are freshness freaks and don't like the idea of keeping food over a long period of time," she says. "Others don't want the work of managing the food inventory. You have to get in the habit of looking the food over and rotating it, and that takes an investment of time."

Time is also a factor in the popularity of bagged salads, grated cheese, cut-up apples and celery, and similar convenience items that are used by about 75% of Americans.

If you want to be frugal, Howard suggests you wash your own greens, grate cheese, and cut up apples and celery. Markup on the prepared versions represents $80 an hour in labor costs for shredded cheese and $75 an hour for sliced apples. But pre-cut watermelon represents just $6 an hour, which Howard says you may find worth it.

Here's a money-saving diet tip that doesn't take time: Don't buy bottled water. Instead, buy dishwasher-safe bottles, and refill them from the tap. As soon as a bottle is empty, it goes into the dishwasher.

"I want to stress that those bottles need to be washed," says Smith. "Get everybody in the household following the same pattern."

When it comes to eating out, saving money often means saving calories as well. Portion control is the key.

"When I talk about my rules for dining out, people roll their eyes," Howard tells WebMD. "No. 1 is, I can think of no restaurant meal I've had in a nice restaurant in the last five years that I couldn't have easily split with someone else. The portions are often enough for three or four people."

He suggests sharing an entree with someone, which most restaurants allow (some add a modest plate charge).

"My rule that really upsets people is, never eat dessert," Howard says. "Desserts that once cost $2 or $3 are now priced at $6 or $7. Yet restaurants make desserts usually for under a quarter." If you must have dessert, order one dessert and extra forks, and share it with the table.

Similarly, he advises not ordering wine with dinner. "The typical house wine costs a restaurant 20 or 30 cents," he says. "Think of what you're paying for a glass."

One less controversial recommendation he has is to take advantage of restaurants' early bird specials. "I like it because it's cheap, and also the portions are smaller," says Howard. "It used to be that restaurants served the same thing for less money during early bird hours, but now they're likely to serve smaller portions for less money."

Of course, trimming portions translates to fewer calories and fewer dollars at home, too. Smith says that restaurants' tendency to supersize has led us to expect larger portions than we need.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture offers an easy-to-remember guide that equates serving sizes to familiar objects. Keep these in mind, and you'll keep both your body and your budget in good shape:

  • A teaspoon of butter or margarine is roughly the same size as the tip of your thumb (to the first joint).
  • Three ounces of meat is equal to a deck of cards.
  • One cup of pasta is about the size of a tennis ball.
  • One bagel is about the size of a hockey puck.
  • 1 1/2 ounces of cheese is the size of three dominoes.
  • Two tablespoons of peanut butter is roughly equivalent to pingpong ball.
  • A half-cup of vegetables is the size of a light bulb.

Originally published Dec. 23, 2003
Medically updated Dec. 9, 2004

SOURCES: Clark Howard, host, The Clark Howard Show. M.J. Smith, RD/FADA, author of 60 Days of Low-Fat, Low-Cost Meals in Minutes. WebMD Weight Loss Clinic Expert Column: Portion Distortion, by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, published Aug. 8, 2003. Center for Science in the Public Interest.

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