Agri Leader

Eating healthier on a budget in the new year

Once you decide to enjoy your last lemon square, candy cane, or eggnog for the season, your attention will no doubt turn to healthy eating in the new year. We all know how well that usually goes.

The good news about living in Florida in the winter, however, is that it's easy to eat healthy from local sources, as so many items are in season right now.

Still, when you combine your increased produce shopping with other healthy food purchases, you may experience some sticker shock. As a friend of mine who grew up in South America said, "Eating healthy in the United States isn't cheap."

Although I see her point, I was enlightened and encouraged after I interviewed a dietitian who studies how to teach healthy eating habits on a budget.

Mary Flynn, PhD, RD, LDN of The Miriam Hospital and a professor at Brown University, Providence, R.I., and fellow researchers reported this year in the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition on the results of a six-week cooking program at the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Participants learned how to prepare healthy vegetarian meals that also were economical, averaging $1.10 a serving. The recipes closely followed a Mediterranean diet, which focuses on healthy whole grains, lean protein, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Once the program finished, Flynn and researchers did indeed find that participants lowered their grocery bill. However, participants also got healthier in the process; they lost weight and lowered their average body mass index.

"The study had these incredible spin-offs that we never expected," Flynn said.

Tips for Healthier Eating

Here are some tips from Flynn's study to help you eat healthier in 2014 without emptying your wallet.

1. Invest in frozen and canned produce. If you read my column regularly, then you know I encourage you to buy Florida fresh produce as often as you can. However, there are times where quality fresh produce may be a little pricey, or you may find much of it goes to waste, especially if you're only cooking for one or two people.

Frozen and canned produce can be just as healthy as the fresh counterparts, said Flynn. They are often on sale, and you can stock your pantry with items like canned tomatoes, peas, corn, green beans, and fruit to use as needed and keep costs down.

I like Flynn's practical approach to eating. For example, canned fruit is often stored in 100 percent fruit juice or syrup. If you can't find the juice version and must buy in syrup, then Flynn recommends you buy the light-syrup version and just take the fruit out of the syrup, so you're not eating a lot of extra sugar.

2. Use extra virgin olive oil. One trick to boost fruit and veggie consumption during Flynn's research was to teach participants to cook items in heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil. Kids usually like the flavor, she said (since speaking with her, I've found find this to be true with my son) Extra virgin olive oil may not always be a cheap item, but I do find buy-one-get-one free offers occasionally; if you have extra dough to splurge, we have local olive oil vendors around Central Florida that you can use.

3. Invest in cheap proteins and grains. Beans and eggs as well as grains like brown rice and whole wheat pasta are a big part of the recipes in the cooking program. Lentils, barley and black beans are inexpensive staples to have on hand for protein sources; beans that you soak overnight can lower your costs even further. Eggs are a great protein source and do not contribute to heart disease as assumed for so long, the researchers reported.

As for grains, if you've bought pasta or rice recently, then you also know how affordable those items are - my whole wheat spaghetti is about $1 a box.

One last thought: Setting up a healthy kitchen may take some initial investment, but once you get in the habit, you'll slash your costs.