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Preparing Low-Cost, Simple, Healthy Meals

August 2009

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RD, FADA, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Have you noticed that food prices seem to always keep going up? Worse yet, prices on many food items are not likely to drop anytime soon. Higher food prices can be found at supermarkets and convenience stores, vending machines, coffee shops, gas stations and restaurants. All food purchases count toward your “food budget” whether you prepare foods at home or buy them outside the home. Below are some tips to take small steps to eat healthier during the current financial downturn

  • Separate Needs From Wants - Tracking food purchases for home consumption as well as snacks, along with coffee, from a local corner store or fast food outlet is a good way to identity eating and spending patterns. Also keep track of restaurant spending for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The more you eat away from home, the more you will be spending on food and beverages.
  • Cut Out “Junk Foods” High in Fat, Salt and Sugar - Focus your food shopping dollars on healthy fruits and veggies (stock up when they are on sale and/or in season), whole grains with fat-free cheese, yogurt, and hummus for snacks. Forget the chips and substitute pretzels, forget high-fat crackers and substitute rice cakes or thin, high-fiber crackers instead.
  • Eat Less and Exercise More - Many Americans would like to lose some weight. The budget busters are soda, chips, pizza, candy bars, and restaurant meals. Think “smaller portions” and eating at home with plain food that is not loaded with rich sauces. Make sure you consume two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of veggies daily. Eat salad once or twice a day and make veggies a substantial part of your meal. Choose fat-free dairy products and drink three cups of non-fat milk or try eating yogurt for some of the milk each day.
  • Prepare Food at Home - It is cheaper and you know the ingredients, along with how it is being prepared. Studies show that you will consume less fat if you fix food from “scratch” and know the basic ingredients of the dishes you eat. Keep it simple and you can have a meal ready in thirty minutes or less.
  • Plan Meals Ahead - Plan meals at least a week in advance so you are not stopping for fast food, pizza, or deli food every night. Planning ahead allows a choice of recipes and time to check your cabinets and refrigerator/freezer for food on hand. Checking existing meal ingredients before shopping helps avoid the need to make extra trips to the supermarket, where it is tempting to buy many more items than those originally planned (not to mention the cost of extra gas). Also remember that, if you buy lots of pre-prepared foods, your food bills will generally be higher than if you prepare them yourself.
  • Make New Dishes With Planned-Overs - Taking leftover baked chicken and using it to make a chicken casserole with rice and veggies or using it for sandwiches for lunch the next day, enables you to use leftovers BEFORE they spoil. Staple foods kept on hand can be used to prepare favorite meals that your family enjoys. For example: macaroni, tomato sauce, green beans, and fruit. Add garlic bread and you have a simple meal with all the ingredients available as dry, canned, or frozen food items that can be stored ahead.
To keep meal costs down, plan ahead. Buying foods on sale, using coupons, and preparing a shopping list and/or daily menus will help you keep food costs within your household budget. Small steps to eat better and reduce food costs can really make a difference in your future health and wealth. Even in a recession, healthy eating is possible and can be enjoyable for everyone in the family.