Cheap Treats That Are Good-for-You Eats
A side of fries today, a large soda tomorrow. Next year, a surplus of 15 pounds.
When a downward economy minimizes splurges on restaurant meals and pricey supermarket foods, fast food isn't the only answer. In the long run, fast eating, whether from vending machines or drive-thrus, is neither cheap nor healthful. Recognizing the hidden benefits of affordable foods can prove your most thrifty weapon against an unhealthy lifestyle.
We turned to local nutrition experts to get the skinny on foods that are both cheap and nutritious, many of which you might already have at home.
- Canola oil is your friend, especially since olive oil is more expensive. "You'll still get the healthy unsaturated fats as well as a dose of beneficial omega-3s," says Erin Palinski, a dietitian and personal trainer with a practice in Ramsey, N.J.
- Cabbage makes a thrifty, good-for-you vegetable or salad, says Debbie Bessen, a dietitian at Holy Name Hospital's regional cancer center in Teaneck, N.J., and at HNH Fitness, the hospital's gym in Oradell. "Use cabbage instead of -- or in addition to -- lettuce," she says. "Red cabbage is very inexpensive but full of nutrition. It is higher in fiber, vitamin C and minerals than romaine lettuce. Cabbage is known to help fight cancer, especially hormonal cancers like breast cancer."
- Buy farm foods in season. Fresh produce isn't just healthful -- it's also often a lot cheaper than packaged foods, says Stacey Antine, founder of HealthBarn USA, a healthy eating program based at Abma's Farm in Wyckoff. "Swing by a half-hour before closing and farmers will usually cut their prices and send you off with a big bundle of whatever they have for a reasonable price."
- Make your own coffee, says Tom Kersting, Ridgewood, N.J.-based author of "Losing Weight When Diets Fail." A $3.50 latte might not only be too expensive for your daily budget, but with milk and flavored syrups, it can also be high in fat and calories. Set the timer on the coffee maker the night before, Kersting says. "You can get top- of-the-line coffee on sale for $4.99 that lasts a few weeks, compared with $1.50 or $2 per cup." Keep some at work for the afternoons. "Spend $30 on a coffee maker and you'll save that in three weeks," Kersting says.
- Pop some olives. In addition to being tasty, they provide monounsaturated fats, or the "good" fats, says Jacqueline Gomes, a Montvale, N.J.-based dietitian and spokes-person for the New Jersey Dietetic Association. Both canned and jarred varieties remain at pretty consistent prices throughout the seasons, while other sources of monounsaturated fats, like avocados, go up in price during the off season.
- Want to trim down? "The leanest red meat is always the cheapest," says Joseph Andreula, a certified fitness nutrition specialist, CEO of Club-KO and owner of five gyms in Bergen and Passaic counties. One option is beef top round, about $1.99 a pound.
- Explore ethnic foods. For example, Asian soba noodles are high in protein and fiber, says Antine. And go to the source. At specialty markets, ethnic foods may often be the cheapest (at such markets, the noodles are about $1.99 for 5 pounds), she says. "Don't be afraid to venture out."
- Like spice but not the price? Go fresh and buy a jalapeno to mince and add to dishes. It's less expensive than packaged crushed red pepper but will definitely do the job, Gomes says.
- Go for frozen vegetables. Think fresh is always better? Think again. "When vegetables are frozen, they're taken from the farm and flash-frozen, which preserves all the nutrients," says Lauren Cohen, a dietitian with practices in Englewood and Ridgewood, N.J. Frozen vegetables are cheaper than the fresh supermarket variety, and they contain more nutrients as well. (Fresh veggies lose nutrients during their journey from the farm to the warehouse to the truck to the grocery store.)
- Stock up on fresh fruits like plums, peaches and pears, Kersting says. Bring them to work or eat them for dessert. These healthful snacks provide an easy way to preempt unhealthy cravings. "The mind associates pleasure with eating fast food and junk food," he says. Eat water-rich fruit before any late-afternoon cravings strike, to create a feeling of fullness. By steadily incorporating fruit into your afternoon snack, you will start to crave healthful foods and avoid the expense of chips, nuts and candy at vending machines. "The body won't know the difference between a piece of fruit and a piece of chocolate," Cohen says. Apples, pears, oranges, grapefruit and all types of berries are high in fiber and immunity- boosting antioxidants, Andreula notes.
- Yes, you can do cans. Sure, you've always been told fresher is better, but consider canned salmon and other inexpensive canned fish, Palinski says. It's not just that they're cheaper and have a longer shelf life. "Canned fish often contains some small, edible bones, so it has the benefit of providing you with a good source of calcium," she says. To cut down on sodium in canned vegetables, rinse before heating or serving.
- Make your own trail mix. "Raw almonds contain less fat," Antine says. Pair them with ingredients like unsulfured apricots and chocolate chips. "Make little baggies," she says. "They're less expensive and can definitely be more healthy than granola bars."
- Whether breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert, eat whole fruit. Less expensive than juice, a whole piece of fruit, like an orange, packs way more nutritional benefit than its juice. "You gain fiber," says Cohen, because you're also ingesting part of the pith under the skin. "Ounce for ounce, juice has just as many calories as cola does," she adds.
- Vary your proteins, buy whole grains. Fiber-rich brown rice and canned beans are inexpensive-yet-complete proteins that can fill gaps between expensive meat meals, Cohen says. "I'm always shocked when a restaurant charges me more for brown rice instead of white; the cost between the two is equal at the supermarket," at about 64 cents per pound, says Gomes. "Whole grains are less expensive in the long run because they contain more fiber and are likely to keep you fuller." Peanut butter on whole wheat bread is another complete protein with a long shelf life, Cohen says.
- Pop your own popcorn. The microwave might seem easier, but an air popper is relatively inexpensive and can prove miles healthier in the long run. "Buy kernels in the bulk section of the store," Antine says. "Air pop and flavor using Parmesan cheese, olive oil and sea salt. You have a whole-grain snack that's certainly healthier and less expensive than the barrage of microwaveable popcorn you can buy."
- Fish for fish bargains. Three large frozen tilapia filets can cost less than $6 and still have the omega-3s minus the potentially unhealthful level of mercury found in fish oil pills, Andreula says. "If you're really concerned about mercury, get wild salmon," he says. "Your body responds better to things that come from food rather than things that are being made in factories."
- Sparkling water with a spritz of lemon or lime is a great way to entertain your taste buds while going easy on the sugar and being cost-effective. One 12-ounce serving of sparkling water costs just 24 cents, says Gomes, while a 12-ounce serving of cola costs 48 cents -- plus 39 grams of sugar and 140 calories.
- Try collard greens, Gomes says. They cost only 99 cents per pound, but pack in vitamin C, vitamin E and vitamin A, providing antioxidants that fight free radicals. Vitamins C and A can also be found in spinach, but spinach is more expensive, and collard greens can prove just as versatile in cooking, as an ingredient in both meat and veggie dishes or its own side.
- Make a hot potato. Sure, it's better for you than french fries, but also cheaper. Bring a potato to work, punch a few holes in it and heat in the microwave when a craving for greasy spuds hits. "Five to 8 minutes and it's done," Cohen says. Whether plain or a sweet potato, you'll end up full without the guilt.
- Feel your oats. Remember the large cylinders of whole rolled oats that predate individual packets of flavored oatmeal? They're more versatile than you might think, says Antine, and pack a lot of bang for the buck. "Slice up a few apples and walnuts to flavor oatmeal naturally," Antine says. "You're getting twice the amount of fiber than microwaved packets, without the sugar and preservatives." With so much in the cylinder, you'll have plenty to make your own granola, sans preservatives, which can be sprinkled on yogurt parfaits, ice cream or apple crisps. And of course, there's always oatmeal cookies.