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Eating healthy on a budget

By Staff | Sep 8, 2017

-Farm News photo by Dawn Bliss Holly Van Heel, left, health and nutrition specialist with the Humboldt County Iowa State University Extension Office, discusses what to consider when buying fresh vegetables to get the most for your money while Darlene Broughton, of Humboldt, listens to the tips.

HUMBOLDT – When surrounded by aisle after aisle of groceries and produce, attempting to choose something both healthy and cost effective can be a confusing and somewhat overwhelming endeavor.

However, health and nutrition specialist Holly Van Heel, with the Iowa State University Extension Office in Humboldt County, said keeping a few tips in mind can help consumers make better choices for themselves and their budgets.

First, plan meals and write a grocery list based on ingredients needed for that menu. Menus can help stretch ingredients for multiple meals, saving money and lessening food waste. Even more importantly, though, Van Heel said, planning meals makes it possible to serve balanced, healthy meals developed using the My Plate food guide issued by the USDA.

My Plate uses the image of a dinner plate to replace the previous well-known food pyramid. Vegetables and fruit make up half of the plate, a visual reminder, Van Heel said, of the importance they should have in your diet.

Then, a fourth of the plate goes toward grains, a fourth toward protein and an accompanying small plate goes to dairy.

The My Plate campaign is an approach that focuses on incorporating variety into the diet, Van Heel said, along with monitoring the amounts and overall nutrition of food selections, as well as encouraging people to go for foods and beverages with less saturated fat, sodium and added sugars.

Next, with produce being the largest portion of the serving plate, Van Heel said it means the base of consumers’ food budgets should be allocated for fruit and vegetables. And just buying the latest “super food” is not going to cut it.

“There’s no one food going to give us everything we need,” she said, “so we need a variety.”

People need to “eat the rainbow” to be sure they acquire all the nutrients and vitamins they need, Van Heel said. Research has also shown the darker or deeper the color, the better when it comes to a vegetable’s nutritional value.

To ease the pinch buying produce may have on the pocketbook, Van Heel said look at all your options before deciding which ones to buy. If you’re going to purchase something like green beans, check the price and weight of fresh then compare it to the price and weight of canned and frozen green beans. Be sure to look for canned vegetables that do not have added sodium or canned fruit that does not have added sugar.

Also, consider the unit price rather than simply going by the retail price or total cost for the item, Van Heel said. The unit price is often listed a price per pound or price per ounce and can typically be found on the shelf tag in the store. Unit prices are good to use when comparing same food in different forms, like whole carrots versus baby carrots; foods in different sizes of containers; and different brands of the same food.

She said another way to save money, specifically on fresh produce, is to eat in season. This means using the fruits and vegetables being harvested at the moment. Farmer’s markets will usually have locally-grown seasonal selections, but grocery stores do as well. Signs at the store and stickers on the produce can tell you where the items were grown. Eating local and seasonal can lower shipping costs and travel time, making the selection more flavorful and more affordable.

Looking for sales can also help stick to the budget, Van Heel said. If a vegetable is on sale that can be substituted for a regular priced one in your meal menu, try it. Also, buying in bulk can save people money, but they need to be sure they are going to use, freeze or can the vegetables and fruits before they go bad.

Grains are the next portion of the meal to consider. Included in this group is everything from wheat, oatmeal, rye and oats to barley, brown rice, wild rice, millet, bulgur, buckwheat and quinoa.

“We need 48 grams of whole grains a day,” Van Heel said. “Whole grains are good for digestion, keeping our gut healthy and ‘sweeping’ cholesterol out of our systems.”

However, recognizing whole grains can be tricky. Just because bread is brown or carries labels like “multi-grain,” “seven-grain” or “100 percent wheat” does not mean they are whole wheat. When in doubt, look at the ingredient list. The whole grain should be first on the list. If it falls later on down the list, it is not truly whole grain. The food item must have 3 grams or more per serving of dietary fiber to be a whole grain.

When looking for protein sources to round out the meal, Van Heel suggested people go lean or draw on an unconventional source.

“Consider fish,” she said. “We don’t get it in our diet all that well. We didn’t grow up with it usually and when we cook we fall back on our familiar habits.”

Canned tuna or salmon can be frugal options, she said, and they are high in Omega 3s, as well as calcium, since when they are canned, their bones are generally ground up and included. No matter the selected meat, though, be sure to consider how much of the weight of the item will be lost when it is cooked when comparing unit prices.

Van Heel said comparing micronutrients can help when it comes to the dairy section. When considering healthy options for items like yogurts, look at the grams of fat and sugar listed on the label. Less is better. Also, she said, when it comes to milk, skim milk provides more nutrients than whole milk simply because when the fat is taken out it leaves more room for more skim milk. Lastly, when it comes to cheese, watch for higher amounts of fat and sodium.

Recipe provided from “Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters,” an educational campaign offered through ISU Extension and Outreach.

Baked flaked chicken

Serves 8, four ounces chicken per serving

Prep time: 15 minutes. Cook time: 20-25 minutes.


2 pounds boneless chicken pieces

3 cups cornflakes cereal

1/3 cup whole wheat flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

2 large eggs

1/4 cup nonfat milk

Non-stick cooking spray


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Remove skin, if any, from chicken pieces. If working with large chicken breasts, cut in half lengthwise for faster cooking time. Trim any excess fat.

In a medium bowl, crush cornflakes.

In second medium bowl, mix flour, salt and black pepper.

In third medium bowl, add eggs and milk then beat with a fork.

Dip each chicken piece into flour, then egg mixture, then cornflakes. Each piece should be fully coated with flakes.

Coat baking sheet with non-stick cooking spray. Place chicken pieces on sheet, evenly spaced. Spray pieces lightly with cooking spray.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.

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