Healthy Eating on a Budget

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BENNINGTON, Vt. — Since COVID started, many of us have been trying to spend less money on food and make fewer trips to the grocery store. You can do both of these things and increase the healthy foods you eat, too. Use these simple tips to stretch your food budget, shop no more than weekly, and get healthy meals you and your family will love.
Cut back on dining out. According to Business Insider, at this time last year, the average American ate out 5.9 times per week. The average Vermonter spent $3,185 per year on dining out.  While both figures have likely decreased while we aim to reduce our COVID exposure, many families could still afford to decrease meals out. Reducing meals out by two or more a week to just one or two would save significant funds. Also, home-cooked meals are typically much healthier than those purchased in restaurants, which makes this a double win. 
Look for sales. Take the time to look up store deals in advance. Most stores publish their weekly flyer online and even have electronic coupons to use. When you find a great deal, especially for whole non-perishable items, stock up. Deals on dried beans and peas, whole grains, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, frozen fruit and vegetables, and low-sodium or no-salt-added soup stock are particularly valuable, because they keep well and can be made into healthy foods. Avoid highly processed, high-sugar foods, even if they're on sale.
Plan your meals to use what's fresh. Meal planning saves a ton of money, because you only buy what you need. Shop in season to save even more, because seasonal fruits and vegetables are often the least expensive. Plus, foods eaten in season are often perfectly ripe and especially delicious. Finally, following the season makes variety a snap. As new things are available, you'll plan exciting menus to incorporate them. 
Compare name brands and store brands. While some brand-name items are impossible to replicate, generic and store brands have become pretty good at replicating the products we love. Financial expert and author of the bestseller The Total Money Makeover Dave Ramsey estimates that you can save between a few dollars to almost half of meals costs by shopping store brands.
Try skipping the meat. For many of us, meat seems indispensable. But trying a vegetarian dish, even just one day a week to start, can be a real money saver. Plus, plant-based diets have well-researched benefits. By adding sources of protein, like beans, meatless dishes can be every bit as satisfying as those made with meat. Once you have mastered a few meatless dishes, try a stir fry using tofu or tempeh. With a whole grain and plenty of fresh or frozen vegetables, it could be your next go-to dish.
Cook big. Making one large batch of something and saving the leftovers saves both money and time. When you're in a rush, you can pull the extra serving of the meal you made 2 weeks ago out of the freezer, rather than eating something unhealthy or ordering out. 
Making lots of changes all at once is difficult. So start small by incorporating just one of the ideas listed above. Work on it until it's second nature. Then, pick another one. Gradually, you'll notice the benefits—your savings and feelings of wellbeing—adding up.
Kristin Irace, RD, is a registered dietitian for Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

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