12 Tips For Healthy And Affordable Eating

Emphasize Fruits And Veggies, Vary Proteins
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Fish with spinach
U.S. Department of Agriculture

Fish with spinach, with a recipe provided by the USDA Mixing Bowl.

Vegetables, fruits, whole grains and a variety of proteins are basic to good health. However most Wisconsin children and their families don't eat enough of these foods.

Although people often believe healthy foods aren't affordable, when portion size is compared, they're often less expensive than those high in solid fat, added sugars or salt. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service indicates that a medium apple costs about 50 cents, which is less than a single 2-ounce candy bar that costs about 90 cents.

To get the greatest bang for your buck and nutrition, a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. In general, larger packages of food such as bags of frozen veggies or gallon-size containers of milk cost less per serving than smaller packages. And store-brand products are usually just as nutritious and tasty as name-brand products but cost less.

Here are some suggestions.

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables

  • Carrots, cabbage, bananas, and frozen veggies are great options for low-cost produce. Buying a bag of fruit such as apples is less expensive than buying the same number of pieces of fruit individually. 
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables usually cost less when they are in season. For example, tomatoes are in season in the summer and oranges are a better deal in the winter. The USDA lists when fruits and vegetables are in season.
  • Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables may be less expensive, especially when the fresh varieties are not in season. Choose frozen vegetables without sauces, and fruits canned in juice to reduce fat and sugar levels.
  • Buy only the foods that will get eaten before they spoil. Throwing away food is equivalent to throwing away money — especially when purchasing perishable foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Consider buying less than perfect fruits and vegetables. Some grocers sell imperfect produce such as ripe bananas, oddly shaped potatoes or yellowish cauliflower for a price lower than their standard counterparts.
  • Grow some vegetables. Even a few tomato plants in containers on a porch can yield a bounty of fresh tomatoes.

Choose 100 percent whole grain cereals, breads, crackers, rice and pasta

  • Brown rice, oatmeal and unsweetened whole-grain cereal bought in bulk are usually a good deal. Look for whole-grain breads (especially day-old items), tortillas and pastas that are on sale.
  • Compare nutrition facts on food labels, as well as prices, to find the best value. For example, nutrition facts for a store-brand whole-grain breakfast cereal and name-brand equivalent might be the same, even though the better-known option might cost more.
  • Be willing to spend a little more time preparing foods. In most cases, the more processed a food is, the more it costs. For example, popcorn that is already popped or in a convenience form (like microwave) usually costs more than a type that needs to be popped in a kettle or specialty popcorn maker.

Vary protein sources with seafood and beans

  • Canned tuna and pink salmon, as well as some frozen fish options are usually a good deal. Tuna salad, salmon patties and fish tacos are a quick and tasty way to eat these proteins.
  • Dry beans and peas (black beans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, lentils, pinto beans, split peas and others) are a great buy whether purchased dry or canned. Drain and rinse canned beans with water to remove about half of the added sodium. For example, chili bean dip goes great with raw veggies and is easy to make. (The "What’s Cooking?" USDA Mixing Bowl guide offers more recipes and nutrition resources.)
  • Use dry beans in place of some or all ground meat. Cooked lentils are a great meat extender or substitute in spaghetti sauce and meat loaf. Cooked pinto beans work well in burritos, enchiladas and tacos.

The USDA offers more suggestions for eating healthy on a budget, including ideas for shopping smart and planning meal menus, and the University of Wisconsin-Extension provides information and resources for families on food, nutrition and health.

Gayle Coleman is a nutrition education program specialist for the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

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