With a few strategies, families can eat more highly nutritious foods on the cheap.
Among regional nutrition experts’ top suggestions: Spend more time in bulk-food and produce sections, but be flexible to adapt recipe ingredients to produce that’s more in season or less costly. Also, prep or preserve portion sizes soon after purchase.
Dietician Alice Ma dishes budget-friendly, nutrient-dense advice in her class, “Healthy Eating on a Budget,” at the Moscow Food Co-op. Today’s shopper has more choices to find healthier ingredients that also are affordable, said Ma, who offers students recipes and tips.
“Many people come in with the idea that eating healthy takes a lot of work and is expensive,” Ma said. “I present three to five recipes per class, and many of them are no-cook recipes or they take less than 30 minutes to prepare.”
Most of those recipes cost under $2 per serving. Some are less than $1.
A recipe that calls for spinach could use collard greens instead, she said, depending on which is more affordable. A breakfast recipe that Ma gives out has whole grain quinoa, but another option is to use millet as a substitute whole grain typically costing much less.
“There are a lot of good resources online and cookbooks at the library,” added Ma, who also works as a dietician for the Washington State University food program. “Pick a couple of staple cookbooks and a couple of go-to websites.”
Katie Miner, a University of Idaho food and nutrition instructor, echoes that thinking outside the box can bring in more affordable nutrition into the mix.
“I make a pesto that uses fresh basil, which can be expensive,” Miner said. “I’ll often substitute half of that basil with spinach. It still really comes out pretty good, and it’s a good alternative.
“By looking at a recipe from a new viewpoint, you can use something more seasonal, so you’re just using the recipe as a guideline.”
Miner, who has researched plant-based diets, agrees that people often assume that building in more produce and nutrition would cost more money, “because produce seems more expensive.”
“Most people find as they start making the transition, starting with including adequate fruits and vegetables, it really becomes more economic to move to a plant-based approach because our plant-based protein sources such as legumes are pretty economical,” she said. “When you’re replacing some meat options with plant-based protein sources — beans, seeds and nuts — you may find that actually reduces the amount you’re spending.”
More affordable nutrition also can get packed by considering alternatives to large portions of fresh-cut meat or fish, instead using more beans, whole grains and brown rice, said Christina Geschke-Lagrou, Second Harvest nutrition outreach coordinator.
Those commodities can be purchased in bulk, on sale or with coupons. Canned tuna, canned chicken and eggs are typically affordable and nutrient-dense too, she said.
“Whole grains, brown rice and beans provide a lot of nutrition in keeping you fuller longer,” Geschke-Lagrou said. “You can plan your weekly meals and include that into multiple meals during the week.”
To make it more appetizing for little kids to use fresh veggies, encourage them to cook and prepare fruits and vegetables with adults. They’re more apt to eat the foods they help prepare.
“Using meal planning and making grocery lists, you’ll stick to your budget easier,” Geschke-Lagrou said. “By buying sale items, shopping at farmers markets and buying fresh produce in bulk and saving the extra – freezing, dehydrating, and canning – you can use more in the off season.
“Even frozen vegetables and canned vegetables with no sodium and low-added sodium are good alternatives and can be very inexpensive.”
When comparing price differences among commodities, buying frozen produce or canned vegetables is sometimes more economical and still nutritious, both Geschke-Lagrou and Miner said.
“Look at the sodium content,” Miner said. “We’re seeing more options for low-sodium in about the same price range. With fruit, you want to look at the type of juice and syrup. Try to go to pick the ones that aren’t in a lot of syrup but in their own fruit juices.
“I wouldn’t rule out canned foods because they’ll keep longer, and they might be a more economic choice. People still get the benefits of those fruits and vegetables in their diet.”
Miner’s other favorite tip: Use storage containers that are clear plastic or glass for produce kept in the refrigerator and already washed, cut-up and pre-portioned for snacks or meal ingredients. She uses clear-glass holders, but clear-plastic containers or sealable bags also work if they remain visible.
“Sometimes produce goes to waste just because we don’t always see it in our fridge, or maybe we don’t have the time to prepare it,” she said. “When you purchase it, just take a little bit of time upfront to wash and cut it, so you have those snacks already available — sliced and chopped.
“It kind of gives you an option of a salad bar in your fridge, all ready to go. Some people find they’re going to eat more produce during the week if they’ve done a little bit of preparation upfront.”
Her children ages 5 and 7 usually enjoy making meals and packing lunches, using pre-portioned veggies and fruit prepped ahead and easier to grab on the go.
“My kids’ favorite is sliced cucumbers,” Miner said. “They both agree on that. I have one who really loves cherry tomatoes; those are already the right size. I have another who likes red bell peppers sliced. It comes down to individual preferences.
“They’re more excited about eating what they have some choice in preparing.”
On whether to buy organic-only, Ma recognizes that isn’t always realistic depending on costs, so she focuses on prioritizing. Some vegetables and fruits more likely to absorb chemicals and pesticides are on the top of her priority list to buy if possible, she said, such as strawberries, apples and spinach.
Because avocados and bananas have skins, those are examples of produce that are less of a concern whether they’re organic, Ma said. What’s more important, she said, is eating fresh produce.
She encourages purchasing from local farmers if possible, even if they’re not certified organic growers, because regional operators often use spray-free or pesticide-free growing practices.
Ma, Geschke-Lagrou and Miner offer these other hints for more nutritional eating on the cheap:
More on meat alternatives: Remember that chickpeas, lentils, quinoa and other plant-based options are still high in protein. Bonus: they are also high in fiber, low in saturated fat and contain no cholesterol. Buy them in bulk and on sale. Substitute about 2 1/2 cups of cooked lentils for 1 pound of ground beef in recipes for meatloaf, tacos and burgers, Ma said.
Stretching foods: Buy foods on sale and fix in large qualities in a slow cooker or for large one-pot meals. Freeze portions and take as leftovers in lunches.
Use up what you have: Supercook.com is a website for finding recipes based on foods already have in the pantry. Simply check off ingredients you do have, and a list of recipes that can be made using what you have will appear.
Look at store ads: See if there are any items on sale the family likes and take that opportunity to stock up. This approach works well for canned goods, grains, bulk items and other foods that have a long shelf life.
Look for coupons and rebates: Manufacturer’s websites and sites like coupons.com or Krazy Coupon Lady offer coupons for what can’t be bought in bulk. Apps like Ibotta can provide cash back after an item is purchased.