Nutrition Column – Eating Healthfully on a Limited Budget

The new Dietary Guidelines recommend increased amounts of fruits and vegetables and more emphasis on whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meat, nuts and fish. Can you serve healthy meals that meet the Dietary Guidelines on a limited budget? Yes, definitely.

Using today’s prices and the amounts of foods recommended for the 2,000 calorie Food Pyramid plan, you can enjoy all the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, meats and other foods you need in a whole day for about $3.50, less than the cost of a typical meal at a fast-food restaurant. Like all things worthwhile, it does take some time and planning. Here’s a breakdown of the costs in the five categories:

Fruits – 2 cups daily. The estimated cost to meet this goal is 73 cents per day. This assumes 1 cup bananas at 40 cents, 1/2-cup orange juice at 12 cents, and 1/2-cup applesauce at 21 cents. When you shop, take time to compare fresh, frozen or canned options for fruit. Buy what’s on special and in season. Interestingly, you’ll often find fresh to be the least expensive version. According to a recent USDA report, 63 percent of the fruits studied were cheapest in their fresh form. Inexpensive options include apples, bananas, grapefruit and watermelon (in season).

Vegetables – 2 1/2 cups daily. According to USDA figures, it costs about 79 cents per day to meet this goal. Like fruits, fresh vegetables often cost less per pound than frozen or canned ones. Cabbage, potatoes, broccoli, lettuce and carrots are often relatively low in cost. A salad containing one cup of fresh romaine lettuce leaves, 1/4-cup bell pepper, 1/2-cup cucumbers and 1/4-cup carrots costs 43 cents on average. Again, it helps to look for specials and to purchase what’s in season. During the summer months, be sure to visit your local farmer’s market to get the best prices on fresh produce.

Grains – 6 ounce-equivalents daily, with at least half whole grain.  The estimated cost to meet this guideline is 51 cents daily. According to the U.S. Consumer Price Index, you’ll pay up to a third more for "whole wheat" bread compared to "white" bread; still, at 9 cents per slice, whole wheat bread is relatively low in cost. Other low-cost whole grains include oatmeal at 5 cents per half cup and brown rice at 9 cents per half cup. Look for discount, day-old bread stores in your area for a wide variety of whole grain bread products at a fraction of the original cost.

Milk and Dairy – 3 cups daily.  Great news in this area! Low-fat dairy products generally don’t cost more than whole-fat versions, and substituting lower-fat milk for whole milk may even save you money. Skim milk costs about 24 cents per cup compared to whole milk at 26 cents per cup. The estimated cost to meet the Dietary Guidelines recommendations for this food group is 81 cents per day.

Meat and Beans – 5 1/2 ounce-equivalents daily.  Meat, poultry and fish can be the most expensive items on your grocery bill. Plant sources of protein tend to be a good bargain. Canned fish also provides a low-cost way to meet your daily protein needs. When compared by ounce-equivalents, plan on 5 cents per tablespoon of peanut butter, 5 cents per 1/4 cup of cooked dry beans, 8 cents per egg, 15 cents per ounce of canned tuna, 26 cents per ounce of cooked chicken breast and 32 cents per ounce of lean ground beef. Focusing on low cost items, you can meet the Dietary Guidelines for around 53 cents per day. Again, it helps to take time to compare fresh, frozen and canned items, to buy what’s on special if the unit price label shows it costs less per unit serving and to only buy what you can use or freeze for later use.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension