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Easy ways to make your food dollars go further

Stretching our food budget seems to be on a lot of people’s minds these days. “With the average person spending more than $4,000 each year on food, the cost of groceries can put a burden on a tight budget,” says . “But eating well without breaking the bank is possible — and it doesn’t have to be difficult.”

How to eat healthy on a budget

When you’re trying to stick to a budget, every dollar counts. And although eating well can be expensive, it doesn’t have to be.

Here are some things you can do to make your money go further.

  • Stop Impulse buying. Make a grocery list and stick to it. Don’t shop when you’re hungry to avoid spontaneous purchases.
  • Shop the outside aisles. Here you’ll find your basic food: fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy. Avoid inside aisles with higher priced processed foods.
  • Look for sales and use coupons. Check grocery store websites or fliers to see what’s on sale and stock up on those items. Look for items you can use for multiple meals, like beans, eggs, brown rice, pasta, meats and hearty vegetables, like carrots and onions.
  • Shop at co-ops and buying clubs. Buying in bulk saves you money, especially on grocery and pantry staples like chicken, frozen vegetables, whole grains and peanut butter. Freeze or store some for later or split your haul with a friend or family member.
  • Visit your local farmers market. You can find fresh produce, eggs and even meat at these markets — often at much lower prices than the grocery store. Many farmers offer shares of their items, also known as CSA — or community supported agriculture. This means you pay one price for a set portion of the farmer’s crops and other items, usually spread out over weeks or months. Buying directly from a farmer means you’ll get a large variety of fresh, healthy food while supporting the local economy. Because items are at the peak of freshness, you can stock up on your favorites (or find new ones) and freeze them for later use.
  • Save money while increasing fruits and vegetables.
    • Choose in-season fresh fruit and vegetables that cost less.
    • For best quality, buy only as much produce as you will use within 4-5 days. Use overripe fruit such as bananas or peaches in baked goods or freeze for later use.
    • When fresh produce gets expensive, buy frozen or canned fruit and vegetables, preferably without added sugar or salt.
  • Try store brands. They’re the same quality as brand-name products but they cost less
  • Limit unhealthy snacks and sweetened beverages. Most provide higher fat and sugar per serving and less fiber. These items are costly as well and offer less nutrition than fresh fruit, vegetables, yogurt and nuts. Drink water and less sweet iced tea, lemonade, sweet coffee drinks, soda, fruit beverages or energy drinks.
  • Don’t forget about discount grocers. These stores often sell overstock items from other stores at deeply discounted prices. Many times, you can find organic items, fresh produce, meats, snacks, pet food and even baby items. Make them your first stop when you do your regular grocery shopping to extend your food budget.
  • Plant a garden. If you have the space and time, planting a garden can save you money while providing a supply of healthy food. Visit your local garden center for seedlings — peppers, tomatoes, carrots, peas and radishes are all easy veggies to start with and can be used to make a variety of healthy dishes.
  • Planning meals for the week. Making a weekly menu and planning meals around what’s on sale or items you already have will save you both money and time. Challenge yourself to use up aging pantry or freezer items and enjoy the leftovers for lunch. Check what foods you have, foods you need to pick up and foods which may be close to expiration date.

Cooking healthy meals at home

After you stock up on groceries, turning them into nutritious meals is easy. “Rely on meal planning to create weekly menus based on the items you already have or what’s on sale that week,” Ms. Milner advises. The internet is a great place to start. A simple search can help you figure out what to make with your ingredients and find nutritious recipes to keep your budget, and health, in mind.

Base your meals around vegetables, protein and whole grains. A slow-cooker allows you to make recipes you can eat all week long. Plan casseroles into your weekly menu since these require less meat. Try canned or dried beans for protein such as kidney beans, black beans, lentils or chickpeas. If you make a large amount of something, like soup, freeze the extra to eat later.

“If you have greens or fruit that are a little past their prime, freeze them or turn them into smoothies,” says Milner. “Scraps of veggies or meat can be used for stir-fry, soups or added to eggs. The possibilities really are endless.”

With some work and careful planning, you can save money on groceries and still make nutritious meals.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with Janet Milner, RDN

Learn about clinical nutrition at Geisinger