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Good health on a budget

Tips on how to stretch that dollar

Karen Miller
Good health on a budget
(Photo: Thinkstock)

There is a misperception that healthy eating — especially in this state — is expensive. That’s understandable. Massachusetts is one of the most expensive states in which to live. Boston shares a similar distinction. In its Cost of Living Index, the Council for Community and Economic Research found that living expenses in Boston are exceeded by only New York City, San Francisco, Honolulu and Washington, D.C.

While the poverty rate of Massachusetts is roughly 12 percent, the city of Boston is almost double that at 22 percent, according to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, formerly called the Boston Redevelopment Authority. That rate varies by location and race. For instance, the poverty rate in Hispanics, Asians and African Americans is 35, 27 and 23 percent, respectively, while that of whites is 13 percent.

It’s not surprising that a high cost of living has a direct effect on one’s purchasing power. Those living below the poverty level in Boston therefore have a greater challenge getting the most for every dollar.

Julie Hersey, M.S., RDN, LDN, is a nutritionist for Stop & Shop New England Division

High on the list of expenses is food. It’s right up there with housing, transportation and health care, and even exceeds medical expenses in several households, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditures: 2015.

How then does an individual, let alone a family of four or more, stretch its food dollar to make ends meet? It’s not easy, but, with a little know-how and perseverance, it can be done. You just have to know the ins and outs.

Julie Hersey pulls double duty. She is a registered dietitian as well as the nutritionist for Stop & Shop New England. That unique combination gives her an inside track on not only healthy eating but also tips on saving a few cents when grocery shopping.

What is healthy eating?

This is tricky. There is no specific plan that all must follow. Food requirements vary by gender, age, physical activity and medical condition. For instance, a very active 15-year-old male teen might require 3,200 calories a day, while a sedentary 50-year-old woman needs only 1,800 calories a day.

What makes up those calories is the issue. Choose My Plate, a website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture describes a healthy eating plan of fruits, veggies, proteins, grains and dairy. Researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health have designed their own Healthy Eating Plate and substituted water for dairy. Their contention is that calcium is essential to one’s diet but is also attainable through foods other than dairy.

Fruits and veggies

Produce is probably the easiest taste to accommodate because of the variety. If you don’t like bananas, perhaps those peaches will do. You may never allow a Brussels sprout near your palate, but welcome the taste of collard greens. Invariably, there is something in these two categories that will strike your fancy.

Produce does not have to be fresh to be nutritious and tasty, Hersey said. “Most important is that all forms can count, whether fresh, frozen or canned,” she explained. If you do prefer fresh, however, buy in season when the prices are lower. That strawberry that looks so tempting now is out of season for the Northeast. That means it travelled far to get here, losing nutrition along the way. It also means that it is substantially more expensive.

Frozen produce is a great substitute. Veggies are frozen immediately after harvesting, thus maintaining a high level of nutrition. Canned fruits and veggies are fine as well, Hersey said. If canned in heavy syrup or sodium, they can be drained and rinsed before using.

And they are less expensive. The average price per unit of frozen plain vegetables in 2015 was $1.74, according to the Statistics Portal. Canned vegetables were $1.04.

Variety is important, said Hersey. “Rotate colors of fruits and veggies,” she said. “Don’t stick with the same ones every week.”

Proteins

It’s hard for meat lovers to give up their beloved steak. Then compromise, Hersey suggests. “Control the portions of protein,” she said. “This is the most expensive part of a meal.” One serving size of proteins is about 3 ounces or the size of a deck of cards.

Regardless of the type of meat you buy, you pay more for cut, boneless and skinless,” she explained. “It’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken and cut it up.” Or you can purchase a whole fish and ask the butcher to slice it.

The trend is to go meatless. Beans and lentils and eggs are high in protein and much less expensive.

Whole grains

Whole grains, like brown rice and cereal, are high in fiber, protein and a batch of B vitamins. This is one area where Hersey recommends buying in bulk, like oatmeal or rice. Popcorn is an old standby and is often overlooked as a whole grain. “But cook it the old fashioned way,” she said. “Buy the kernels and cook in a little oil.” You can even spice it up and top with parmesan cheese.

Dairy

Yogurt is a great choice to get your calcium, but not all yogurt is the same. Greek yogurt has double the protein as regular yogurt, explained Hersey. It has a similar amount of calcium, but more protein. Here’s a tidbit, though. If you buy flavored yogurt, the protein content goes down. The added sugary fruits take up more space. It’s best to go for plain and add your own ingredients, such as fruit or nuts.

Hersey also recommends buying yogurt in larger sizes. While the “8-ounce” container has shrunk to less than 6 ounces, the price moved in the opposite direction.

Unit pricing

Unit pricing is just fancy wording for the actual cost per unit for an item. It helps consumers make more informed decisions. The units can be in pounds, ounces and grams, for example. When comparing two products, make sure you are comparing the same unit. “The lowest unit price is the better bargain,” explained Hersey, “as long as you can store it properly.”

For instance, it may be less expensive to buy a half gallon instead of two quarts of milk. Your calculator will tell you the difference.

Sugar-sweetened beverages

Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soft drinks and energy drinks, are not only unhealthy, they can be expensive. Instead, Hersey favors plain drinking water flavored with citrus fruits or even a splash of 100 percent juice. Unsweetened, flavored tea and seltzer water are good substitutes as well.

Store brands

At one time store brands were purchased only during down times when money was scarce. However, they can now hold their own against national brands and are equal in quality, taste and nutrition. All this at a big savings.

The demand for store brands is on the rise. “Millennials are not brand loyal,” explained Hersey. “They look for the best bargain and quality.”

Even with these tidbits of advice, food still takes a healthy portion of one’s monthly income. But if you do your homework before you even enter the store, the chances are higher that you can exit with change to spare.

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