Money woes? Healthful foods a dollar away

Posted Jan. 26, 2009, at 9:26 p.m.

With today’s economy and rising food prices, many people are shopping on a budget and thinking they have to sacrifice eating healthfully, but that’s not true, two University of Maine educators say.

With a little planning, leaving the grocery store with a cart full of healthful items is possible without breaking the bank, Alan Majka, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator, said recently.

“Many Americans are overfed, while undernourished,” he said. “We really recommend that folks enjoy naturally nutrient-rich foods.”

A number of healthful foods are available for under a dollar a serving at any grocery store. Apples, bananas, cabbage, carrots, eggs, dried beans, oats, tuna, pasta, rice, nuts and potatoes are just a few.

“Make every dollar count, just like you make every calorie count,” Majka said. “People should think in terms of not only nutrition [per] dollar but per calorie as well.”

While fresh is typically better nutritionally, there is a misconception that frozen or canned items are unhealthful, he said.

“With fruits, frozen or canned, as long as it’s canned in water, is OK,” Majka said. “Frozen fruits and vegetables are just as good as fresh. They’re going to have about the same nutritional value as the fresh.”

Donning an apron and whipping up a meal in the kitchen is another great way to avoid prepackaged or prepared foods, which typically are high in sodium, carbohydrates and unhealthful fats, said Katherine Musgrave, UMaine professor emeritus in the department of food science and nutrition.

“I do a lot of cooking at home,” she said. “People don’t have time to cook dinner every night, so cook on your day off and cook large amounts” then freeze the leftovers for future meals.

Musgrave makes her own soups, stews, sauces, popcorn and cookies, and packs a lunch every day.

“We’re spending too much money on drive-ins and eating out,” she said. “Children are really suffering,” but “if I got home at 5 p.m. with two or three hungry children, I would be tempted by convenience foods.”

That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead and have shelves stocked with healthful alternatives.

“Folks just graze all day,” she said. “I think we could cut health care costs with good nutrition.”

Prepared foods, per serving, typically are much higher in calories and much lower in nutrients than foods cooked at home, Musgrave said.

“A lot of people are afraid” of cooking because they never have been taught, she said, adding that “youngsters need to learn.”

Lots of resources are available, especially on the Internet, for people to learn to cook basic, healthful meals quickly, she said. Older relatives who have cooked all their lives are another resource to tap and could lead to some family fun, Musgrave said.

A Maine tradition that is a cheap source of protein, vitamin B and iron, is home-cooked beans, Majka said.

“They’re a fantastic food,” he said. “I recommend them a couple times a week.”

People also should purchase low-fat meat sources, such as chicken, fish and lean cuts of beef.

“Stay away from processed meats, like bologna or hot dogs,” he said. Around “85 percent of that bologna or hot dog is fat.”

Taking simple steps can save hundreds of dollars in food budgets over the course of a year, both Musgrave and Majka said.

“Pack a lunch,” he said. “If you save $5 week, that’s $260 a year. You can also bottle your own water or fat-free or low-fat milk.”

By replacing two 12-ounce sodas a day for a year, at $1 a bottle, “that’s $730 saved and 20 pounds of body fat from soda,” Majka said.

Cooked cereal, such as oatmeal, is another healthful alternative to cold, usually high-sugar dry cereals.

“You’d be amazed at how much you can save,” Musgrave said.

French fried potatoes or chips are not healthful, but bake a potato in the oven and it will have half a day’s worth of vitamin C and a lot of potassium. Make it a sweet potato and beta carotene will top the list of nutrients.

“There has been too much emphasis on food to stay away from,” Majka said.

The key to a healthful diet is having nutritional items on the shelves at home.

“Plan ahead,” Majka said. “Try to plan out a week’s menu and create a grocery list” before heading off to the grocery store and don’t go to the store hungry.

“We don’t want folks to make impulse buys of fast foods, soft drinks or prepared convenience food,” Majka said. “Once you get to the point that you’re hungry, you’re likely to fall for the impulse buys that aren’t as good nutritionally.

“Putting your food dollars into nutrient-rich foods makes sense,” he said.

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