Smart Shopping: Healthy Eating on a Budget, Part 1

By Cassidy Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension

One of the most popular consumer excuses for avoiding healthy eating is “it’s too expensive.” Let’s be honest, there are numerous excuses as to why people avoid healthy eating until they receive diagnosis of a new condition, but we’ll focus on one thing at a time. Healthy eating truly does not have to be expensive. Sure, you could buy the most expensive produce and only name-brand frozen vegetables, breads, and cheeses, but paying more for the same product by another label, doesn’t automatically ensure the food as the healthier choice.

I often hear people say that fresh produce is healthiest and consumers should only buy fresh produce. False. Fresh produce may, or may not, be the healthiest option. Suppose you are on the search for broccoli. The “fresh” broccoli  is grown far away, shipped to your local grocery store, and sits in the bin for a couple of weeks. After all that time, is that broccoli any more nutritious than broccoli that was harvested and then frozen right away to preserve it’s nutrients? The answer is no. If broccoli is in season at the time, the fresh versus frozen consideration is a no-brainer. If broccoli is in season, it is likely a good bargain to buy fresh broccoli; however, if the broccoli is out of season, fresh will be much more expensive than buying frozen, and frozen broccoli will give you the same nutrition, possibly more, and more bang for your buck. Food waste is an additional consideration when buying fresh. Personally, I love buying fresh produce when it is in season, but I must have my menus planned in advance to be sure I incorporate the fresh produce before it goes bad. During weeks when I am very busy, frozen produce might be my best option to ensure that I will have quality, nutritious vegetables to eat whenever my schedule allows me to prepare them at home. I am a fan of both fresh and frozen produce, but depending on your schedule and food budget, one may be a better option for your family than the other. Again, buying fresh produce when it is in season can be much more bang for your buck; buying frozen when the fresh produce is not in season is where you can get more for your food dollar. When choosing frozen vegetables, I suggest choosing vegetables that have been frozen without any butters, creams, or sauces. This only adds more saturated fat, sodium, and calories. To add flavor, add your own seasonings and make them your own!

What about buying canned fruits and vegetables? I often interact with consumers who have been lead to believe that buying fruits and vegetables in a can is never healthy. This is not true. Fortunately, grocery stores have begun to carry canned fruits and vegetables that are healthy options. When choosing fruits, look for fruits canned in 100% juice or water. When fruits are canned in syrups, whether light or heavy, this contributes lots of unhealthy, unnecessary added sugars. When buying vegetables or canned beans, look for “no salt added” on the label. This greatly reduces the sodium content of these foods without compromising nutrition, and when you add your own seasonings and pinch of salt, you will contribute less sodium than if it had been done for you. Canned fruits and vegetables can be both economic and healthy. If you find that your favorite canned vegetables or beans are not offered with the “no salt added” label, use a colander to rinse the food until you no longer see bubbles remaining. This will reduce the sodium content by up to 40%. Even if the label claims “reduced sodium,” the food is usually still high in sodium.

My next tip is to buy the store brands. Often times, the food is packaged at the same facility as its name-brand counterpart and given a different label. You don’t have to pay more to get good nutrition. Of course, this varies food to food so be sure to read the ingredients to be certain. Also be sure to check for options that are above or below eyelevel. Stores tend to place the more expensive items at consumer eyelevel because we tend to grab the first item we see.

My final tip is to check the unit price. The unit price will help you know if buying a larger container really is the best purchase or if buying two smaller containers is actually cheaper. Typically, consumers only pay attention to the retail price. This is the price you see indicating the cost of the food that is often larger in size to grab the consumer’s eye. Over to the side of the price tag, there is a price indicating what you pay per unit. The unit price may be per ounce, per pound, etc. This is truly where you can make the decision between buying a larger container compared to a few smaller containers. From time to time, I find that it is actually cheaper to buy two half-gallons of milk compared to one gallon or two smaller cans of tuna compared to one larger can. Keep an eye out for sneaky marketing! For more smart shopping tips, be on the lookout for Part Two of Smart Shopping: Healthy Eating on a Budget.

(Part 2 will be published on Sept. 15th)