You can eat healthy meals on a budget

How much do you spend on groceries? The USDA maintains that careful shopping and cooking meals at home from scratch allows families to enjoy a variety of healthy, lower cost foods. I decided to test this theory by spending $38 at a local store for a week's worth of groceries for myself.

3SquaresVT, formerly known as food stamps, is the federal USDA program administered in Vermont by the Department for Children and Families. Its purpose is to help stretch food dollars, allowing greater access to healthy, nutritious food. The average 3SquaresVT benefit is approximately $1.80 per meal, or $38 for a week of meals for a single person.

My goal was to spend the weekly $38 average 3SquaresVT benefit for a single adult while following the minimum daily nutrition guidelines for a healthy adult:

5 servings of grains 2 cups vegetables 1 cup of fruit 3 cups of dairy products 5 ounce equivalents of protein

I looked for the healthiest, lowest cost foods within each of these categories:

Grains: 100 percent whole grains such as brown rice, whole grain pasta, and 100 percent whole wheat bread

Vegetables: Fresh, frozen without any added sauce or salt, or canned without salt

Fruit: Fresh, or canned/frozen without added sugar

Dairy: non-fat milk or yogurt

Protein: low-fat meats and legumes (dried beans and peas such as kidney beans, lentils, and garbanzo beans), peanut butter and eggs

A typical daily menu includes:

Breakfast: one slice of whole grain toast with two hard-boiled eggs and one serving fruit.

Lunch: Either a sandwich made with two slices of 100 percent whole grain bread and peanut butter, or leftovers from dinner. One cup of fat-free milk.

Dinner: Chicken with vegetables and rice; or chicken with pasta, tomato sauce and vegetables; or a vegetarian meal with potatoes, garbanzo beans and vegetables. One cup of fat-free milk.

Snack: one serving of fruit

Because even the healthiest meal plans can include some treats, I purchased the lowest cost cookies in the store. At 75 cents per two cookie serving, I can enjoy two servings per day for only 15 cents. I didn't purchase any other snack foods or convenience foods. Instead of soda, juice, or other beverages I'll drink tap water which is also the healthiest option.

Nutritious and low-cost discoveries:

The price per pound provides the most useful information. Canned pineapple with no added sugar at $1.03 per pound is less expensive than the cheapest fresh fruit: apples for $1.69/pound.

Plain frozen vegetables are less expensive than canned vegetables with no added sodium. A five pound bag of potatoes for $5.99 gives me several options: boiled, baked, roasted or mashed with fat-free milk.

Split chicken breasts were the best meat value at $1.29/pound and without the skin are a low-fat protein source. At 23 cents each, eggs contribute a lower-cost source of protein.

I spent the most time looking for the lowest cost 100 percent whole wheat bread.

Most of the less expensive bread was simply wheat; a closer inspection of the list of ingredients showed that it was made with enriched wheat flour. The healthiest bread is made from 100 percent wheat flour, and I paid $2.50 for a loaf of 20 slices.

Evaluate sales, specials and coupons carefully. Sometimes the best price for the healthiest food is the store brand, even without a sale or coupon. I spent $43.07 for the week's worth of groceries, expecting to have leftover brown rice, peanut butter, eggs and potatoes to use next week.

Overall, the USDA is right: it really is possible to purchase healthy foods on a budget with careful shopping and preparing meals at home.


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