With a new year often comes a new resolution to eat better and make healthier choices. But as the economy continues to struggle, many parents are left wondering how to provide healthy food options while shopping on a budget. Although nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, are often more costly than less healthful options, there are ways families can pull the purse strings tighter without compromising on nutrition.
“Even though many families will be shopping on a budget in the new year, nutrition doesn’t necessarily have to come in second place to price,” said Robert Murray, MD, director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at Nationwide Children's Hospital. “Parents need to look at what they’re paying for and determine if there are less costly ways to achieve the same nutritional benefits.”
According to Dr. Murray, also a faculty member at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, there are five food fads to be aware of in 2009 so that parents can make smart food – and money – choices.
The fresh versus frozen debate
When it comes to fruits and vegetables, don’t assume fresh is best. Buying food in bulk, either frozen or canned, can save a lot of money. In recent years, preservation and freezing methods have dramatically improved, thus preserving the nutritional quality of the frozen fruits and vegetables. Regardless of how they are consumed – frozen or otherwise – fruits and vegetables provide many nutritional benefits.
Dr. Murray suggests taking advantage of grocery store sales and stocking up on frozen goods. Parents can also consider freezing their own fruits and vegetables when they are in-season and plentiful.
What’s “organic” worth?
When a food item is certified organic, it refers to the methods used to grow or produce the food. Contrary to the beliefs of many, organic foods offer no additional nutritional benefit compared to their non-organic counterparts, but do cost more.
“Concerns about hormones, antibiotics or pesticides have driven many to choose organic foods,” explained Dr. Murray. “But don’t be fooled into thinking that because something is labeled organic that it is any healthier.”
Designer fruits and vegetables
In recent years, exotic and often heavily-marketed fruits, like pomegranate and açai berries, have become increasingly popular. While these fruits are rich in antioxidants and vitamins, they also come with a hefty price tag.
“These fruits do have many health benefits, but many of the same benefits can be found in other more common fruits for a much cheaper price,” said Dr. Murray.
Instead of paying high prices for these fad foods, Dr. Murray recommends other dark, ruby-skinned fruits like blueberries, plums or blackberries that are easier on the wallet.
Be careful of drinks that are fortified with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Not only do they cost more, they often have more calories than you think. Some pack as many calories as a regular soda, and from a nutrition standpoint, it makes more sense to eat foods that are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals.
Sports drinks, rich in electrolytes, may be a good choice for serious athletes who participate in intense physical activity for extended periods of time, but for most children and adults, these drinks are also unnecessary.
Paying for prepackaged
Prepackaged, grab-and-go options offer convenience and portion control but can cost more. For some busy families, the time saved by purchasing these items, especially prepackaged fruits and vegetables, may be worth the additional expense. This is particularly true if the convenience of these items encourages families to make more nutritious choices.
For families looking for a cheaper option, Dr. Murray suggests purchasing bulk items and individually packaging them at home for an easy, on-the-go grab. Plan snacks ahead of time and be sure to combine food groups to maximize nutritional value. For example, combine whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese in plastic storage bags; or peel and cut carrots into snack-sized pieces and place in containers with a couple tablespoons of peanut butter. Be sure to pay attention to portion size in order to avoid serving up too much of a good thing.