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Eating Better On A Budget Pt. 1: Prep, Lists, And Flexibility

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Two common New Year’s resolutions are eating healthier, and saving money. But these goals can often conflict, given the varying cost of fruit, vegetables, and meat. In the first of a two-part series, KLCC’s Brian Bull shares some tips from the experts on how Oregonians can dine well…without starving their wallets.

Meet Julia Baca, my co-worker and a resident of Eugene’s Whiteaker Neighborhood.

“Hello there,” she smiles.

The most obvious tips to many frugal shoppers are clipping coupons, and looking out for specials. Julia has another classic strategy as she enters The Kiva Grocery Store

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Julia Baca, KLCC employee and grad student, on a recent grocery trip.

“Ginger, eggs, chicken or beef, corn tortillas, avocado…(FADE UNDER)…”

Writing out what you need helps guard against impulse buying – often triggered by flashy displays, free samples, or worse yet….shopping on an empty stomach.

“If I write a list, I am able to focus on what I am going to buy and not get distracted with other items that look tempting.”

Julia also plans her meals a week ahead. Mary Cluskey of Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Services says that’s key.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Mary Cluskey, Associate Professor of Oregon State University's College of Public Health and Human Services.

"Most Americans think about what they’re going to have for dinner on their way home from work," says Cluskey. 

"Those are bad shopping practices that contribute to spending more money on food than you need to.”

Cluskey says recent Bureau of Labor Statistics show Americans spending more and more on food. This includes a 5 percent increase on dining out…which isn’t always within our means.

“We spend about 10 percent of our disposable income on food.  The less money you make, the more that percentage goes up.  It can get as high as 25 percent depending on your income. 

"So it really can be a significant chunk of money for people.”

With planning and resourcefulness, home cooking is more economical, and it doesn’t have to be messy, or complicated.

At her home in Bend, nutritionist Kristi Coughlin unloads about 40 dollars in groceries.

“So I have a 5-lb. bag of russet potatoes, about a 1.5 lb of red potatoes. A bag of brown rice, a bag of garbanzo beans…oats...”  (FADE REST UNDER)

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Bend-area nutritionist Kristi Coughlin, with some of the food she was able to buy with $40.

Portion control and utilizing leftovers in other meals – practices essential to the Greatest Generation during the war years – can also stretch the family dollar. Coughlin acknowledges there’s a temptation for people to splurge on fast and easy fare from a drive-through or convenience store...

“Depending on what’s purchased at a fast food restaurant, people could easily spend about twenty dollars and feed a family of four," she says.

"Whereas this right here could get you beyond the one meal, give you leftovers, and something like the rice or even the oats are gonna last…possibly up to even two to three weeks.”

Fast food often comes packed with sodium or sugar, which can set off addictive cravings.  Coughlin says not only is produce healthier in the long run, but it can offset long-term issues with your pocketbook and your waistline.

Credit ebru / Flickr.com

“Eating more fruits and vegetables is going to help make you feel fuller longer because of the fiber. And if you eat more fruits and vegetables, then you’re less likely to overindulge, overconsume, and your budget can be stretched so much further. 

"A banana can be like twenty-five cents, and it can keep you satisfied for a good amount of time.”

Coughlin adds buying produce in season is a budget-saver. Websites like FarmFlavor.com list by state what’s fresh off the orchard and what’s not.

And on produce… people are often compelled to prioritize fruits and veggies labeled “organic”, “fresh”, and “non-GMO”…but both Professor Claskey and Coughlin say despite the perceived value of these foods – which can see markups of 60 percent or higher -- many aren’t any healthier than conventional produce.  

“And I would rather somebody eat fruits and vegetables that are conventionally grown than going and buying convenience and pre-packaged foods which we have definitely associated with long-term diseases.”

Back to Julia, she’s found her avocado.  She says she’s flexible on produce, with a few caveats.

“If I see a good sale on pears, oranges, apples…uhm, it doesn’t necessarily have to be organic.  As long as it doesn’t have pesticides and all that, I pretty much feel that I’m getting the same nutritional value.” 

Credit Florent / Flickr.com

Meanwhile, OSU’s Mary Claskey also wants consumers to consider alternatives to fresh, whole, produce.

“Don’t penalize a single mom who works all day for using canned beans.”

Claskey says when it comes to reducing trim waste and expense, canned and frozen foods have their virtues, too.

“One of the problems with produce in general, is one, you have automatic waste, you’re gonna pull the leaves off the broccoli, and probably the woody stems, but yet you still pay your $1.39 lb. for those," she says.

"The other thing then is that sometimes people buy fresh produce and they don’t plan for when they’ll eat it. And as a consequence, it goes bad.”

Credit Stu Spviack / Flickr.com

If you’re creative, stems, cores, and overripe fruit can be used for smoothies, broths, juices and stews, or filler for casseroles, egg rolls, and breads, among other things.

That's it for part 1 of our two-part consumer finance series.  Tomorrow in part 2, we look at bulk items, meat, and CSAs


* Making a list ahead of your grocery trip seems like a no-brainer, but it can help you commit to what you've already planned.  Stopping by the store when you're on your way home from work means you're likely pressed for time and hungry...which can make you more impulsive and more apt to buy things you may not have wanted, or aren't as stretchable as other items (think a bag of rice or potatoes vs. the frozen pizza or bag of burgers).

* Planning your meals a week ahead may seem like a chore, but it can help save you money in the long run. And while no one faults you for wanting to dine out or seek something immediate time to time, planning lets you control the menu and even helps you decide if something -- say a chicken -- will be used in additional meals.  As an added bonus, there's often less packaging and food waste.

Credit Mark Bonica / Flickr.com

* Cooking at home can be done without a lot of mess or complications. A pound of lean ground turkey, several cans of beans, and crushed tomatoes can yield a batch of chili that lasts through several meals.

* Limiting portion sizes and encouraging leftovers were essential during the Second World War, when food rationing and victory gardens were more common. These practices are no less relevant today, when it comes to stretching one's food budget.

* Fast food or processed food is often chock full of sodium, sugar, or fat.  While this can taste good, it can also lead to addictive cravings.  Minimizing your intake of such foods and incorporating more fiber-rich fruits and vegetables into your diet can help alleviate your pocketbook as well as your waistline.  A lot of produce can leave you more satisfied than a value meal from your local fast food stop.

* Buy vegetables and fruit that are in season, to save a few dollars.  Websites including farmflavor.com have a state by state breakdown of what's in season by calendar month.

* Marketing has created what's called "perceived value" in more expensive foods labeled "organic", "farm fresh", and "non-GMO".  Many of these products can see markups of 60 percent or higher, and nutritionally, there may be little or no difference between such foods and those raised more conventionally. There are of course other  reasons why a consumer may want the more expensive items, but if it comes down to cost, conventional can save you money without compromising on nutrition.

* Many consumers also believe that the best food is fresh, plucked straight from the vine or branch.  But you may be paying for "trim waste" which means parts of the item that you pay for by the pound, but may eventually discard (stems, skins, peels, etc.)  Frozen or canned will not only keep longer, but also not come with excess parts that will go uneaten.  If you're concerned over salt in some canned items, rinsing them in a colander can eliminate a good deal of it.

Credit Mitch Altman / Flickr.com

* Overripe fruit can be tossed into smoothies or breads.  Stems and cores can be boiled or shredded down into broths, juices, or filler for items like casseroles, breads, and other items.

* Finally, have fun with it! Cooking can be a creative process that can be enjoyed alone, or with company.  You'll have control over what goes into your food, and with time, it'll get easier and easier.

WEB EXTRA: Hear an extended conversation with Mary Cluskey, Oregon State University Associate Professor at the College of Public Health and Human Services.  Cluskey discussed how food manufacturers market food in ways that can be deceptive - and expensive - to American consumers.  She also touches on how packaging often leads to waste, the rise of "portion distortion" in package labeling, and some of the mistakes people make in comparing foods.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC


Copyright 2017, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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