Weekly Column_120 / August 16, 2012

Healthy, Wealthy and Slim

By Charles Platkin, PhD

The answer, as always, is more complicated than simply comparing the cost of certain health foods with the cost of other “normal” foods. Actually, the answer depends on a number of variables. What do you define as “healthy”? Where do you live and buy your food? Do you have a large or small family? But according to David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University School of Medicine, “The short answer is: No, it needn’t.” Katz believes, “Most people trying to ‘eat healthy’ go halfway, buying more fruits and vegetables or eating a bit less fast food. If you stop there, costs do go up: High-quality meats are costlier than burgers and fries. Produce costs more than Doritos and Cheez Doodles.”

“There is nothing cheaper than refined grains, added sugar and added fat,” says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Empty calories simply cost very little. With nutrient-dense foods, consumers need to be prepared to pay more, but that’s OK.” The bottom line is it costs more per calorie to eat nutritious foods, but it doesn’t cost more per nutrient. So, if you’ve been using cost as an excuse for eating empty calories, here are a few “excuse busters” to keep your wallet fat and your waistline trim.

“It’s not easy to plan every detail of your meal, but if you do, the rewards are significant in terms of cost savings and eating healthy,” says Hollie Raynor, Ph.D., a registered dietitian at The Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control & Diabetes Research Center in Providence, R.I. She recommends getting down to the nitty-gritty and figuring out exactly what you’re going to eat for the week. Most people eat the same foods for breakfast every day, lunch choices tend to vary every few days, and we typically eat about six or seven different dinners in a month. So, becoming aware of your own eating habits will help you plan your meals.

Yes, cooking and preparing food from scratch saves money — but what about all the time involved? “We would need about 15 to 20 hours each week to prepare all the meals for our families, but a typical working person only has about four to five,” says Drewnowski. Again, this is where planning is essential. Set aside one “cooking and preparation” day per week. You can freeze all the foods and simply defrost them as needed. Soups freeze particularly well and are great for the cooler months. Reduce prep time and avoid the risk of spoilage by using frozen fruits and vegetables. And get the whole family to pitch in — the more hands peeling and cutting and stirring, the faster it goes.

One hint is to start preparing tomorrow’s dinner while tonight’s is cooking. Cut vegetables for salads, remove skin for chicken, put together marinades or dressings or sauces, etc. Get everything ready to just pop in the oven or put on the stove the next day.

Once you’ve planned your meals, it’s time to make a shopping list. To avoid impulse purchases and cut shopping time, write the list according to the layout of the store. You probably know the store you shop in pretty well, but if you map it out, you will be more likely to stick to the plan. “A wise shopper knows exactly what he or she wants to buy, while a spender buys on impulse,” says Jenna Anding, Ph.D., R.D., professor of nutrition at Texas A&M University in College Station. Always shop on a full stomach. Hunger can lead to impulse buying that will cost you extra money and calories.

Large supermarkets are less expensive and tend to have more sales than small delis or gourmet stores. Here are a few more ways to save:


  • Look for store brands. You can always return to the name brand next time if you’re not happy.


  • Don’t fall prey to gimmicky “diet” foods.


  • Avoid out-of-season produce. Nutrient-for-nutrient, in-season produce is one of the best bargains around.


  • Stick with basic nutritious staples like carrots, potatoes, onions, broccoli and cabbage. Drewnowski advises avoiding fancy lettuces and “heirloom or imported produce.” Don’t feel you have to buy organic — especially if it’s a choice between non-organic produce or none at all. And don’t pay extra for pre-washed salad mixes or vegetable sticks. Buy heads of lettuce, bunches of broccoli and bags of carrots; then wash, clean and slice them yourself. Store them in plastic containers or bags so you can grab them when you need them. That way, you’ll get more for your money.

    When fresh is too pricey, buy frozen or canned produce, which can be a great nutrition bargain. Check labels for vegetables with no added salt and fruits packed in their own juices. Compare prices to get the best buys, and when they’re on sale, stock up. Unlike fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables don’t go bad!


  • Stock up on grains and starches. Whole-grain breads and cereals offer the most nutrition for your money. Buy non-perishable items like 100 percent whole-grain bread, bagels, cereals, pasta, rice and beans when they’re on sale, and store bread in the freezer to keep it from going stale.


  • Economize on protein. Purchase lean meats when they’re on sale, and freeze whatever you don’t use right away. When eating beef, try the less-expensive cuts. Chicken and turkey are less expensive and a change from beef. Pick up other inexpensive protein-rich staples like canned tuna, peanut butter and eggs.


  • Upsize on dairy. Buying milk by the half-gallon is cheaper than pints or quarts — as long as you drink it before it goes bad. (And keep in mind, skim is the same price as whole milk.) Yogurt is a great, nutritious snack, but skip the costly 8-ounce containers unless they’re on sale, and grab the less-expensive quarts instead.

Fill your pantry and refrigerator with foods that let you make dinner in 20 minutes or less to avoid the fast-food temptation on busy nights.

Beans are a great source of fiber and low-fat protein. Keep a few cans in the cupboard for those hectic nights. For example, black beans, canned corn, some salsa, a little cheese and a couple of tortillas make tasty vegetarian quesadillas. Try beans, spinach, and stewed tomatoes over pasta. They’re also terrific in salads, balancing out the meal by adding protein. And when you have the time to cook dried beans yourself, they’re even cheaper than the canned variety.

Bring your lunch to work or school. A great sandwich from home costs less than a burger and fries. If there’s a microwave available, reheat leftovers from last night’s dinner.

Sure, a couple slices of pizza may be less expensive than a grilled chicken salad, but with a few changes and a little planning, you can still make healthy choices. For instance, choosing the Chicken McGrill is about the same price as the Crispy Chicken at McDonald’s, and you’d save 100 calories. Oh, and as far as other choices at Denny’s, you could get a huge bowl of fruit for the same price as the French Toast Slam, and save hundreds of calories.

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