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Can you eat healthily on a budget?

Kelly Dilworth

Last month, I blew my food budget. I overspent on nearly everything — but especially on fresh ingredients for ambitious home-cooked meals.

In my quest to eat more healthfully and cook a wider variety of dinners, I chose recipes with extra-long ingredient lists and used expensive substitutes for butter and sour cream, such as Greek yogurt and extra-virgin olive oil.

Can you eat healthy on a budget?

I rationalized my occasional grocery binges by the fact that we were cooking healthier meals and cutting down on the number of times my husband and I ate out. But when I realized just how far over-budget I went last month, I cringed.

In less than four weeks, I somehow managed to shop away more than a hundred extra dollars — a huge amount, considering we had already made our food budget fairly generous.

I’m convinced that part of the reason why I spent so much last month is because I chose recipes that were heavy on fruits, nuts, veggies and fresh herbs. To pare down our spending, will I have to sacrifice healthy food in favor of cheaper junk food?

A study released July 25 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggests I won’t. Instead, my belief that it’s the healthy foods that are dragging down my food budget (rather than, say, the packaged lunches I also bought) may actually be mistaken.

The study compared common grocery items and found that plant-based foods are usually cheaper than comparable snacks and side dishes. “The notion that healthy fruits and vegetables are expensive and that packaged snacks are cheaper is an urban myth that deserves to be put out to pasture,” said the Center’s Margo G. Wootan in a press release announcing the study’s results.

To complete the study, researchers scoured the aisles of a Washington, D.C.-area grocery store and pulled samples of packaged snacks and common side dishes, such as potato chips and Stovetop Stuffing, and compared them with healthier whole foods, such as sweet potatoes and grapes.

On average, researchers found that the fruits and vegetables they pulled cost slightly less than processed alternatives. A half-cup of summer squash, for example, cost 38 cents. One half cup of Knorr Teryaki noodle mix cost 45 cents.

A USDA study, completed in 2012, came up with similar results. Researchers there compared foods using a variety of metrics, including average portion size, and concluded that shoppers could potentially save a considerable amount of cash simply by swapping higher calorie items, such as packaged snacks and dairy, with lower calorie fruits and vegetables.

Researchers also found that sticking to the USDA’s dietary guidelines, which call for filling up at least half your plate with fruits and veggies, is possible on a budget — as long as you cut back on other items.

“Most consumers, even low-income consumers who receive benefits from the USDA/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), could afford to purchase the recommended quantities of fruits and vegetables if they chose to allocate 40 percent of their food budget to fruits and vegetables,” wrote USDA researchers in the report.

That means making fruits and vegetables a primary source of nutrients — rather than just an occasional side dish or dessert. “If consumers are trying to meet all of their fruit and vegetable recommendations on a significantly smaller share of their food budgets, it is understandable why they see fruits and vegetables as expensive,” wrote researchers.

The USDA’s findings make sense. After reviewing a handful of my receipts from last month, I can see where I went wrong. I dramatically increased the number of fruits and veggies that I bought (along with a number of other grocery items), but didn’t cut back on meat or other high-cost groceries to make up for it.

Going forward, I plan on making more vegetarian dishes throughout the week, since research shows that too can whittle down grocery costs. I’ll also cut back on the quantity of food I buy and try to stick to only what’s in season.

What about you? What strategies do you use to keep your grocery budget in check? Let me know in the comments section.

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