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Planning is key to eating healthy on a low budget

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GINA R. HEINE
April 1, 2008

When you're pinching pennies, it's hard to pass up 15 cent Ramen noodles. Or a six-pack of Easy Mac for $2.59.


But the sodium- and carb-packed quick dinners certainly don't pass for a meal built around the food pyramid.


Eating healthy without blowing the bank is possible, area dieticians say. But it will take time and effort.


The goal: Picture your plate, said Jennifer Johnson, a registered dietician with Nutrition and Health Associates of Janesville. About a quarter of it should be starches such as rice, pastas or potatoes, while another quarter of it should be meat or protein-type foods.


"That large half should be vegetables and fruits," she said.


To achieve that ratio, here are some tips from Johnson and other area dieticians.


Getting started

-- Plan your meals.


That's the No. 1 recommendation among area experts.


"So you don't get caught in that, 'I'm really hungry right now, what can I eat?'" Johnson said.


When you plan meals, you have foods on hand and make fewer trips to the grocery store.


Planning also helps you make good use of leftovers, said Audrey Shomos, a nutritionist with Dean Care. That can cut your cooking time and food costs.


Bottom line: Planning ahead always helps to save money, said Mary Kay Blint, senior instructional specialist with Wisconsin Nutrition Education Program run through UW Extension.


"If you plan before you go to the grocery store, you tend to not spend as much money," she said.


-- Build the main part of your meal around grains.


"Then just (add) a small amount of meat—poultry, fish—which typically are more expensive," Johnson said.


Use beans—typically less expensive, lower in fat and higher in fiber—instead of meat.


Watch for store specials, especially on meats.


-- Buy skim milk, or at least avoid whole milk. The lower the fat, the less expensive it is, Johnson said.


"That doesn't often happen," she said.


A gallon of skim milk, for example, was 40 cents cheaper than a gallon of whole milk on a recent day at a local grocery store.


-- Plan snacks to incorporate foods that are lacking in your meals.


If you don't get as much fruits and vegetables as you should in your meals, keep apples or carrots on hand for snacking.


Filling the plate

-- Prudently use nonperishable items.


By keeping nonperishable items on hand, families keep nutrition on hand.


"Keep things that don't expire," Johnson said. "Canned fruit, canned or frozen veggies have a pretty long shelf life."


When fresh fruits and veggies are out of season, buying canned, frozen or dry foods can cut costs.


"Fresh can be expensive this time of year," Johnson said.


-- Use fresh foods when affordable because they contain the most nutrients.


The more fruits and vegetables are processed, the less nutrients they contain, Johnson said.


Compare an apple to applesauce to apple juice.


"The juice is a lot quicker to consume versus eating an apple," Johnson said. "But with the apple, (you get the) benefit of fiber, and it also makes you feel fuller longer."


Frozen food is less processed than canned food, she said.


To save money, buy a head of broccoli or cauliflower to wash and cut up yourself instead of buying the higher-priced, ready-to-eat package. For example, 8 ounces of cut celery was $1.59 on a recent day at a local store while a celery bunch was 69 cents.


-- If you live alone or have a small family, eating fresh food before it expires doesn't have to mean broccoli every day for a week.


For example, find family members that live nearby or neighbors with whom you can split food. When one family buys a 10-pound bag of potatoes, split it in half and take turns buying such items, Johnson said.


-- Seek alternatives.


Be aware of programs for which you might be eligible, including the Wisconsin Women, Infants and Children program, free or reduced lunches in school and food stamps.


Also keep in mind farmers markets as summer approaches.


"Sometimes you can get things cheaper; sometimes you can't," Blint said. "You have to shop just like at the grocery store."


In the store

-- "Don't go to the grocery store hungry. You want to buy everything in sight," Blint said.


-- Look at the nutrition label. Ingredients are listed from most to least amounts, so you want "bad" ingredients to be toward the end of the list, if at all.


Avoid trans fats and partially hydrogenated fats.


-- Choose foods that have whole grain wheat flour toward the beginning of the ingredient list. Granola bars, for example, should have whole oats in the top amounts.


The closer high fructose corn syrup and sugars are to the bottom of the list, "the better off you're going to be," Johnson said. "If you can avoid those things, that's even better."


-- Be aware of marketing strategies that get you to spend more than you planned. Such strategies include in-aisle and end-of-aisle displays, store music and putting higher-priced foods at eye-level compared to the top or bottom shelves, Blint said.


-- Choose generic foods over brand names.


Most foods have generic brands, which have to abide by the same food safety laws, Johnson said.


"A bean is a bean," she said. "It's just a matter of, 'How high is the profit margin?'"


PLAN YOUR MEALS ONLINE
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site lets you to personalize your eating habits based on the government’s dietary guidelines. Log onto www.mypyramid.gov to plan meals, assess what you eat and your physical activity and other tips.

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