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Extension offers plan for eating healthy on the cheap

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension / ProviUniversity of Nevada Cooperative Extension nutrition expert Mary Wilson, center, teaches others healthier ways to cook.

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension / ProviUniversity of Nevada Cooperative Extension nutrition expert Mary Wilson, center, teaches others healthier ways to cook.

Eating healthy shouldn’t mean eating your entire paycheck. If your efforts to find a balance between a healthy budget and a healthy body have been unsuccessful, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension is here to help you set things straight.

UNCE nutrition experts Mary Wilson and Kerry Seymour have boiled down healthy eating into four simple steps:

1. Ditch the drive-through

2. Choose water over sugar

3. Make half your plate fruits and vegetables

4. follow ‘The Three Ps’

Ditch the drive-through

First, step into that kitchen. Don’t be afraid if the room feels alien to you. The lights may seem bright, and the floor glossy, but the kitchen is the gateway to an entire world of healthy, home-cooked goodness.

“We have to get away from this notion that eating well costs more than eating easily,” said Wilson, an extension nutrition specialist in Clark County. “We also have to get away from eating conveniently – not only is fast food typically unhealthy, but it’s also expensive.”

By sticking with the following steps, a Nevadan can feed his or her family of four for $6.65 per person, per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When you think about it, the average fast-food meal for one can easily surpass that price range just in one visit. So, step one: ditch the drive-through.

That doesn’t mean you should never eat out again. Eating out is a perfect way to celebrate milestones. But to save money eating at restaurants, consider changing celebratory dinners to celebratory lunches. Or dine out on early bird specials when you just don’t feel like cooking. Budget these dining-out funds though, so you don’t spend more than you can afford.

Choose water over sugar

Next, ask yourself, “how much water have I had today?” We’re not talking about soda, sports drinks, juice, coffee or tea, but pure, clear H20. Water is not just the world’s best non-calorie drink. It’s also free. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, your body is made up of about 60 percent water. Water is an essential fluid – like oil and coolant for your car or truck. If your drink is loaded with sugar, your body’s engine won’t process it as easily.

“To quench your thirst, choose water first,” said Seymour, UNCE’s western area nutrition specialist. “Save money by skipping the sodas and other sweetened beverages.”

Savings aside, if you put calorie-laden, sugary drinks inside of your body and don’t burn off those extra calories, they will turn into unwanted weight gain. What about artificially sweetened drinks? Water is still better, and diet drinks are still as expensive as sugary ones. Stick with water. Your body will thank you. Your wallet will thank you.

Make half your plate fruits and vegetables

So we’ve stepped into the kitchen and had a drink of water. Let’s take a look at your fridge. If at least half of your food in there isn’t plant based, chances are you’re paying too much for nutrient-sparse calories. The USDA’s newest rendition of the Food Pyramid – now known as MyPlate – calls for each meal’s plate to be at least half fruits and veggies.

In the U.S., the least expensive fresh vegetables are potatoes, lettuce, eggplants, cooking greens, summer squash, carrots and tomatillos. The least expensive fruits are watermelons, bananas, apples, pears, pineapples and peaches.

“Whether fresh, frozen or from a can, fruits and vegetables are rich in the nutrients your body needs,” Wilson said. “Eat fruits and veggies liberally.”

The other half of your plate – proteins and grains – can be comprised of plants as well – with half going to whole grains and the other half to protein from plant sources, like dried beans and peas, nuts, seeds and tofu.

If you can’t bear the thought of giving up cholesterol and fat-laden meats, select cuts of meats that are lower in fat and eat red meat less often. Choose lean protein sources like fish and poultry more often. Soups, stir-fry and stews are a good way to stretch small amounts of meat to feed a family. When cooking ground meat, brown it in the pan and rinse it off in a strainer to remove more of the fat before adding seasonings or other ingredients.

Meat or no meat, follow step three: Make half your plate fruits and vegetables.

Follow ‘The Three Ps’

Now that you know the importance of plants on your plate, it’s time to go to the store. The final tip is to follow the USDA’s ‘Three Ps.’ Plan, purchase and prepare your food to stay healthy and on budget.

“Step four is really a change in lifestyle,” Seymour said. “By planning out your meals for the week, you’ll go to the store knowing what you need. This will keep you from making impulse purchases of unhealthy and costly treats and snacks.”

Plan out a week’s worth of breakfast, lunches and dinners for your family. It’s easier than you think, and it will save you time and money at the store. Stick with the plan once you get to the store, and you’ll stay on budget.

If you have young kids, you might consider leaving them at home.

“Some kids exercise the ‘nag factor’ when they see something they want,” Wilson said. “They have more energy than you do, and sometimes it’s tempting to just spend money on a treat to keep them quiet. It’s best to leave them at home with your partner or someone responsible.”

Follow your meal plan, make your purchase, and you’re ready to prepare your own meals for the week. Preparation can be creative and fun. Experiment with friends’ and family recipes to make them your own. Once you get settled into the routine, you’ll wonder why you ever ate fast food in the first place.

By ditching the drive-through, choosing water over sugary drinks, making half your plate fruits and vegetables and planning out your own home-cooked meals for the week, you’ll see an instant change in your wallet. Keep track of your finances to see just how much you saved in comparison to your old non-plan. The health benefits won’t be far behind.