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Healthful, frugal eating possible



Michael Gna is standing in the produce section of a Henderson supermarket surrounded by a bounty that includes everything from teardrop-shaped Mexican papayas to plump, vine-ripened tomatoes still attached to their long, scraggly stems.

But Gna, a foodie in shorts, white tennis shoes and a glint in his clear-blue eyes heads straight for a display of Popsicle-orange tangerines and plops about half a dozen into a thin, plastic produce bag — humble shelter for a treasure he has sought out on a sweltering July day.

“I go to six different stores because I like to eat healthy and I like to eat what I like to eat. Nobody has tangerines this time of year and here they bring them in from Australia,” he says.

“You don’t get to be 70 years old by eating bad things. I don’t eat fast food, I watch my calorie intake, I exercise … I also don’t want to throw money in the street. I’m on a fixed income.”

As a retiree with the time to shop for his ideal foods at a price that doesn’t break the bank, Gna is more the exception than the rule. Time seems to be in short supply these days with busy work schedules and the kids’ extracurricular activities. And as far as being able to eat good, healthful food at a time when saving money is foremost on many shoppers’ minds? Well, let’s not even go there.

But, then again, food experts say that is exactly where we should go.

Nutritionists, chefs and those cookbook authors who promise you can make an entire meal for the price of a Big Mac and fries are absolutely certain that with some planning, time-shifting and a creative approach to shopping, we can all eat well. Some of the most nutritious foods on the market are the least expensive, they say, and can be quite delicious.

One of the first things to keep in mind is that the less a product is tampered with, the better, according to nutrition educator Susan Lednicky, of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. In other words, over-processed foods such as frozen entrees can have a diminished nutrient content and high amounts of sodium, sugar and saturated fat. Also, the cost of that extra packaging which requires more manpower is passed on to the consumer. Think about those four ears of shucked corn sitting on a Styrofoam tray and covered in plastic wrap, or the bag of pre-washed, de-stemmed spinach that can cost twice as much as the unpackaged version.

Other culprits include heavily marketed items such as energy drinks, which have little nutritional value.

“The general person doesn’t need (an energy drink) but they have been marketed that you’re not going to be healthy unless you have it,” Lednicky said. “If you’re an athlete, sure, but we have people sending their kids to school with them, and they have calories but no nutrients.”

The bottom line for smart shopping is to slow down and plan. Look at the nutrition labels, compare the unit-price stickers next to each item and always, always plan meals ahead of time so you are not running to the store at the last minute, grabbing whatever is convenient and wasting money, she said.

“We have to take a little more time and go back to our roots, so to speak. The key (to saving money) is to plan a menu, buy foods on the list and stick to it. Use what you have available at home and be practical. Don’t spend $5 on an ingredient you’re going to use once,” Lednicky said.

Lara Starr, a working mother and co-author of “The Frugal Foodie Cookbook: Waste-Not Recipes for the Wise Cook” (Viva Editions, 2009), jokes that she comes from a long line of “cheapskates” but understands not everyone shares her passion for hunting down bargains, or gets a gleam in their eyes at the thought of making compotes out of overripe fruit, or turning vegetable scraps into homemade soup.

But everyone does want to get the most value for their dollar and there are ways to do that even with the most basic changes. A good place to start is “shopping at home,” Starr said, or seeing what is already on hand and can be used as an ingredient or even the basis for a meal. In her own home she keeps staples such as rice, pasta and dried beans which are often overlooked by shoppers but are cheap, full of protein and fiber, and do not have the added sodium of canned beans.

Like Lednicky, she swears by planning ahead and suggests writing up a menu once a week that includes home-cooked meals, school and work lunches, even the upcoming church potluck or any other social event. “I (menu plan) every Sunday. It’s a total money-saving strategy,” she said.

Some of her other tips seem to harken back to another era when little was wasted. Starr keeps a bag in the freezer full of vegetable scraps she can use in a soup or as the basis for a stock, and finds ways to transform foods most of us rarely think about. She has a recipe for a snack called Kale Krisps, for example, which calls for drizzling Kale leaves with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, then baking them at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes. Once finished, you have a snack full of vitamins such as A, C and K.

Experts say using substitutes for more expensive ingredients is also a great idea such as trying cashews or walnuts in a pesto sauce instead of the more expensive pine nuts, and substituting evaporated skim milk for heavy cream in sauces and soups, a much cheaper and healthier alternative.

Scouring ethnic markets for deals on everything from tortillas to Parmesan cheese is another good strategy, according to Ellen Brown, author of “$3 Meals: Feed Your Family Delicious, Healthy Meals for Less than the Cost of a Gallon of Milk” (The Lyons Press, 2009). She recently dropped by a store specializing in Asian foods and found a quart-size package of dried shittake mushrooms for $1.75, a bargain compared to the $5 they wanted at a local supermarket for a much smaller package, she said.

Brown also recommends keeping things simple. Home cooks should take a second look at eggs which are inexpensive, can be used as the basis for a meal in something such as a frittata or omelette, and are “packed with protein and essential amino acids,” she said. One-dish meals such as casseroles and simple main dishes that require just a handful of ingredients are also a good way to save money. She has a rosemary lamb recipe, for example, that calls for a fairly inexpensive cut of lamb, a can of tomatoes, green pepper, rosemary, parsley, oregano and a little red wine.

Seasonings also can be pared down. In fact, Brown suggests keeping six basic herbs and spices on hand: thyme, chili powder, red pepper flakes, rosemary, cumin and Italian seasonings. “There are a million ways to combine them,” she said.

Herbs also can be grown at home in gardens and planters as a way to save money. John Metcalfe, director of culinary arts at the College of Southern Nevada, keeps a variety of herbs in his garden including garlic chives, lavender, marjoram, lemon thyme and bay leaf. “I haven’t bought a bay leaf in five and a half years. (Fresh herbs) are healthier, you just snip when you need them, and they’re not sitting around on a shelf or in a warehouse.”

Another way to keep the grocery bill down is to purchase cheaper cuts of meat such as the bottom-round and shoulder cuts which are tougher but, if prepared correctly, can be quite tender and delicious, he said. They simply need to be cooked over a long period of time and with plenty of moisture in something such as a crockpot, or even a pressure cooker which gives the same result but in much less time.

Whole chickens, which at some stores can be purchased for just a few dollars, are also a healthful, low-cost choice. Not only are they significantly cheaper than buying the de-boned breast filets or tenders, the leftover meat can be used in other dishes, and the bones can be simmered to make a stock, Metcalfe noted. In addition to saving money, homemade stock is much lower in sodium than the typical broth found at the supermarket, he added.

Even though we live in the desert there are plenty of seafood choices at the local markets including mahi-mahi, cod and salmon “which is really high in Omega-3’s and really healthy for you,” Metcalfe said. Fish can get expensive, though, so look for sales in the weekly shoppers’ guides.

Metcalfe also recommends buying produce in season to save money, and because the fruits and vegetables will simply taste better. He also suggests using brown rice and whole wheat pastas which have more fiber, vitamins and minerals than the processed versions, and choosing olive and canola over other cooking oils because they have lower levels of saturated fat. Olive oil can be expensive so it is a good idea to comparison shop at both supermarkets and smaller specialty stores, he added

Finally, in order to both eat nutritious food and keep the budget in check, it is important to do the work. Make a vinaigrette at home instead of buying a bottled salad dressing, or throw together a pasta sauce by blending pureed tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and basil, he said.

“People have to put in a little bit of time and effort, that’s the key. But you can save a lot more money that way,” he said.

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