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Eating well on a limited budget

Some simple strategies can help you eat right without spending a lot.

Trying to buy healthful foods on a budget may seem like "mission impossible." But there are ways to eat well without draining your bank account, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Here are some money-saving suggestions:

Go easy on the meat

Since protein-rich foods can be among the most expensive, look for low-cost sources such as beans.

When you do serve meat, add it to a casserole or stew instead of serving meat as the main dish. This allows you to stretch the meat with low-cost items, such as whole-grain pasta and rice, and reap the benefits of more than one food group.

Plan before you shop

Make a list. This will help you avoid buying foods you don't need on an impulse.

Watch for sales. Look for weekly supermarket specials and plan meals around them. If a store has special discount days, plan to shop then.

When something you use often is on sale, stock up at the lower price.

Some grocers offer end-of-day sales on products, such as bread, for which the fresh expiration date is approaching. And older shoppers can take advantage of senior discounts where available.

Prepare to compare

Look beyond the sticker price. Think the large-size box is a better value than the smaller one? Maybe, maybe not. Check the unit price, which is usually found on a small shelf tag below the product. It will show the price per ounce, pound, quart or some other amount. For example, if you're comparing a 12-ounce package and a 16-ounce package, check the price per pound. The package that costs the least per pound is a better buy regardless of size.

Compare brands. Also, compare prices of national brands, store brands and generic brands. Check the top and bottom shelves for lower-priced products. Often, more expensive products are displayed at eye level.

In addition, before you use a coupon, compare the savings with the cost of generic or store brands. Even without a coupon, these may offer a better price.

Consider buying in bulk. Bulk foods may be cheaper. But buy only what you can realistically use or store. There are no savings if food spoils and you have to throw it out.

Think seasonal. Frozen fruits and vegetables are about as nutritious as fresh foods. However, you can buy produce cheaply when it's in season. Fresh produce can be less costly than some packaged foods.

You can also find fresh produce, such as cabbage, that is relatively inexpensive at any time of the year.

Educate your kids. Children who accompany you to the grocery store may ask for special—sometimes costly—items. Explain that spending more at this store means you have less money for other activities. Encourage older children to compare the costs of certain products with the understanding that food is part of your budget.

Pay attention when you pay. Watch the prices as they ring up at checkout. Make sure you get the advertised sale price.

Manage your kitchen

Repackage bulk foods. Remove food bought in larger quantities from its original package and repackage it in amounts you can use for one meal. Store these packages in the freezer. If your refrigerator freezer is small, purchasing a separate freezer could save you money in the long run.

Repackage bulk snack foods, such as fruits and nuts, in single-serving sizes. This will help keep your family's snacking within healthy bounds and your budget.

Prepare ahead. You can save time (and avoid potentially costly fast-food nights) by preparing meals on weekends. Freeze foods that you can thaw out and add fresh ingredients to at the last minute. For example, you can freeze a tomato-based pasta sauce, thaw it out and add pasta, then complete the meal with a fresh salad. Your homemade dinner will be better—and cheaper ounce-for-ounce—than commercially packaged meals.

Think long term

Sometimes fresh foods are more expensive. Or you might have to pay extra for a canned food brand that your family prefers. In the long term, it's better to spend a bit more on healthy foods that your family enjoys than on less healthful foods or foods that your family won't eat.

Reviewed 4/23/2021

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