Healthy eating on a budget is all in the choices

jholleman@thestate.comApril 9, 2013 

The world would be a healthier place, or at least people would have the knowledge to eat healthier, if everyone could tour a grocery store at least once with a dietitian.

Registered dietitian Laura Stepp of Lexington Medical Center agreed to take us on just such a tour of a Lexington-area Publix. She starts with handouts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on making healthy choices, creating a comprehensive shopping list and adding more vegetables to a diet.

She also suggests picking up sales circulars from a kiosk near the store entrance and maybe even stopping by the customer desk to ask for any special store coupons.

Just a few steps into the store, she notes a buy-one, get-one-free offer. At most stores, shoppers aren’t required to get two of the items to get the price, she says.

Also near the entrance is a 10-ounce package of a variety of loose lettuce leaves for $3.99. It represents a trap many shoppers can’t resist – ease over cost. Lettuce on the stalk at the back of the store is $1.99 a pound. While that includes some stalk that most people don’t eat, it’s less than half as expensive as the 10-ounce package of leaves.

You pay for convenience, Stepp says, whether it’s already plucked lettuce leaves or skinned, boneless chicken.

In the meat section, chicken sections with the skin are $3.09 a pound, while skinless sections are $3.29 a pound. And the best deal is the whole chicken for $1.60 a pound.

“People say, ‘I don’t know how to cut it up,’ ” Stepp says. “It’s really not that hard, but you also can just put the whole bird in a broiler or in a crock pot. Then when you’re done you have chicken stock to use for several other meals.”

That leads to Stepp’s most important tip. It’s hard to eat healthy and cheap if you don’t know how to cook for yourself.

Ground beef is one of the few items where Stepp suggests going for the higher-priced option. Similarly sized packages – about 1.25 pounds – go for $6.19 for ground beef with 10 percent fat and $5.03 for ground beef with 15 percent fat. But because the fat cooks off, you’re actually getting nearly the same amount of cooked beef – and beef that’s better for you – with the leaner product.

Butter also is a product where the cheapest version isn’t the best choice. Usually the cheaper butters are high in trans fats. Check the labels and go for the slightly more expensive brands with lower trans fat, Stepp says.

On the cereal aisle, Stepp usually leans toward the Kashi brand, but on this day the Publix store brand honey oats cereal is too good a deal to pass up. The 12.25-ounce box is $2.25 compared with $3.85 for a similar size of the Kashi honey oats.

That gives Stepp an opening to preach the importance of store brands. They measure up in quality to national brands and usually are less expensive. For spaghetti sauce, a 28-ounce can of Prego on this day is $2.39, Ragu is $2.19 and the store brand is $1.59. The store brand whole wheat bread also is a great deal this day.

While the difference in cost for the name brands of spaghetti pasta is negligible, Stepp uses the noodles box to make another important point. The 16-ounce package says it holds eight servings. If you go to a major Italian restaurant chain, that 16 ounces might be one serving. A family of hearty eaters might not get eight servings out of the package, but it should get closer to eight servings than one.

Stepp recommends dried beans over canned beans. At $1.99, a 16-ounce bag of dried lima beans has 12 servings, while a 91-cent can of limas has 3½ servings. Sure the dried beans take more time to cook, but the savings are worth it. (Plus, the canned products usually have more sodium and preservatives.)

On the other hand, instant rice is close enough in cost to regular rice to make the convenience worth the extra cost.

Stepp is a fan of cheese and yogurt for their versatility. They can be eaten on their own or combined with other items in numerous recipes. For that reason, she recommends 16-ounce blocks of cheese (not shredded) and large containers of yogurt (not single-serving containers).

On the fruit and vegetable aisle, Stepp looks for whatever is in season locally or regionally. It’s usually obvious because there’s plenty of the in-season fruit or vegetable on the shelves and the price seems better than usual. But you also can check the state Department of Agriculture website for in-season items.

Stepp likes to buy multiple whole fruits – mangos, apples, oranges, plums and strawberries on this day – and cut them up for fruit salads. Apples, especially, usually are a much better deal in large quantities such as 3-pound bags. That’s more than can be used in a week’s worth of fruit salad, but individual apples are a great as dessert.

If a certain fresh vegetable isn’t in season, shoppers can consider the frozen option. Frozen vegetables have the same health benefits as fresh, and they might be less expensive than fresh vegetables that are grown far away at certain times of the year. Stepp often buys both fresh and frozen vegetables.

Stepp doesn’t even walk down the chips, candy and soft drink aisles. For those who insist on a sweet treat for their families, she suggests buying a box of brownie mix. Make the baking process a family event, thus encouraging children to learn their way around the kitchen.

The goal of the trip was to select groceries to build a week’s worth of meals for a family of four. Breakfasts would be cereal and fruit several days; eggs, toast and fruit several days; and oatmeal or yogurt and toast or fruit several days. Lunch would be peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, sliced turkey sandwiches and grilled cheese sandwiches with garden salad or fruit salad.

Dinner would be some chicken recipe two nights and some ground beef-based recipe two nights. Spread out items such as rice, lima or black beans, broccoli, cauliflower and garden salad throughout the week.

The shopping trip total came in at $117.59, well under the $135 goal. The quantities might not be high enough on some items. If all breakfasts and lunches are eaten at home, the bread, cereal and milk needs might increase. But even if you doubled the quantities for those items, you’d be under $135 ... and eating healthy.

Healthy grocery list

Registered dietitian Laura Stepp’s suggested one-week grocery purchase, with prices based on a recent day at a Lexington-area Publix store.

Sliced turkey lunch meat, 8 oz. $4.50

Mozzarella cheese, 16 oz. $4.99

Swiss cheese, 16 oz. $4.99

Publix Honey Nut cereal, 12.25 oz. $2.25

Quaker Oats oatmeal, 30 oz. $3

Dried lima beans, 16 oz. bag $1.99

Dried black beans, 16 oz. bag $1.99

Rice, 16 oz. $1.09

Dannon yogurt, 32 oz. $2

Apples, 3 lb. bag $4.99

Publix whole wheat bread $2.59

2 whole chickens, 4.85 lbs. each $14.42

Lean ground beef, 2.48 lbs. $12.38

Diced tomatoes/chilies, 5 cans $3

Publix spaghetti pasta, 2 boxes $2.43

One dozen large eggs $2.39

Two tubs, Smart Balance butter $3.59

Gallon, 2-percent milk $3.79

Four mangos $4

Four navel oranges $2

Four plums $2

Loose leaf lettuces, two heads $2.98

Box of grape tomatoes $2

Broccoli/cauliflower bag $2.50

Frozen Calif. Blend veggies $2.50

Frozen Japan blend veggies $2.50

Celery bunch $1.69

Carrots, 16 oz. $1

Green beans $2

Bananas, ($0.69 a lb.) $1.50

Grapes, 1 lb. $1.69

Bell pepper $0.69

Strawberries, 16 oz. $2.99

Publix ranch salad dressing $2

Publix natural peanut butter, 16 oz. $3.19

Welch’s Natural grape jelly, 27 oz. $1.99

Brownie mix $1.99

Total $117.59

What these items can make for a family of four

Breakfast

• Cereal and fruit

• Eggs, toast and fruit

• Oatmeal or yogurt and toast

Lunch

• Peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches

• Sliced turkey sandwiches

• Grilled cheese sandwiches with garden salad or fruit salad

Dinner

• Chicken

• Ground beef

• Sides of rice, lima or black beans

• Broccoli

• Cauliflower

• Garden salad

More green for your green

In an effort to make fresh, locally grown, organic vegetables more affordable, City Roots is now offering all SNAP participants a special program in which they will receive “two for one” on all food purchases at City Roots. The in-town farm is located at 1005 Airport Blvd., (803) 254-2302, www.cityroots.org

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