With tomatoes these days costing about $3.49 a pound, it might seem cheaper to skimp on nutrition and just boil a package of ramen noodles.
But according to Marisa Moore, a registered and licensed dietitian with the Georgia Dietetic Association, a healthy diet costs less than you might think, if you know how to shop smart.
"Even before the recession hit, I would hear that eating healthy costs too much money, but that's not necessarily the case," she said. There are several different things you can do to combat that. To eat healthy doesn't mean that you have to spend a lot of money."
One of the first things she recommends consumers do is to take stock of what they already have before going to the grocery store. The average family throws away about $600 a year in expired goods, she said. Making a list based on what you need is a good way to ensure you eat everything you buy.
Planning meals in advance also gives you enough time to clip coupons for items on your list, to look for sales and to consider certain money-saving substitutions, she said.
"Most of the increase in food prices has affected chicken and eggs as well as beef, so look for alternatives to those protein sources," Ms. Moore said. "Substitute beans a couple of nights a week for your protein source, and maybe add those beans to your meat mixture for tacos. It's adding extra fiber, but it's also cutting down on the cost of that protein you're having."
Another way to reduce the costs of meat is to consider buying flank cuts of beef instead of sirloins, since flanks are just as lean but tend to cost a lot less, she said.
Focusing on locally grown, seasonal produce also can help save consumers money, according to Kristen Smith, a family and consumer science extension agent with Dade and Walker counties.
Local farmers markets are a good resource for those who want to stretch their budget, Ms. Smith said, because farmers tend to offer a set price for produce, rather than selling it by the pound.
For those who are willing to get their hands dirty, Ms. Smith also suggests planting a garden, a practice she said is growing in popularity this year as more people realize its cost-saving potential.
"I think we're going to see more farming and garden growing this year than we have in past years ... probably since the Great Depression," she said. "They (people) feel more of a sense of security of growing their own produce versus buying it at the store, (and) it's a lot cheaper to do it yourself."
Richard Johnson, of Chattanooga, said he started growing some of his own food last year as rising food costs forced him to downgrade from shopping at mainstream supermarkets to discount groceries.
"It saves you a whole lot of money (growing your own food)," he said. "I can get half a crop of tomatoes (for the same amount as it costs to buy them at the store). I just have to put the time in to do it."
Ms. Smith said learning how to preserve your own food also helps save you money over time.
"People are going back to their roots where their grandmothers and their great-grandmothers would can fruits and vegetables," she said. "When you can your own products, such as tomatoes or green beans ... then you can use it over a period of time (and) that's a way of saving money and not having to go to the grocery store all the time."
Ms. Moore agreed that the recession was making the old ways of eating new again.
"This is just kind of getting us back to the basics of the way that we eat," Ms. Moore said. "Take a little more time in the store, learn some new recipes. It doesn't have to be a difficult task. There are still lots of options at your store, at your farmers market that are nutritious and make it (possible) to keep your wallet and your stomach full."
This simple recipe from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is estimated to cost just $3.01 to make. It will serve eight, at an average cost per serving of about 38 cents.
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 cup chopped onion
6 cups water
1 pound dry lentils, washed (soaking not necessary)
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
6 large carrots cut into 1/2 inch pieces
4 large celery stalks
1 teaspoon salt
1 can (16 ounce) whole tomatoes cut into pieces or 3-4 fresh tomatoes cut in wedges
Melt butter in a large skillet. Sauté onion until tender. Add water, lentils, Worcestershire sauce, oregano and garlic powder. Cover, bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 45 minutes. Add carrots, celery and salt. Cover, and simmer for 30 minutes more or until the vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes. Heat thoroughly and serve.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site
* In 2007, Americans spent 9.8 percent of their income after taxes on food.
* Of that, 5.7 percent was spent on food at home, and 4.1 percent was spent on food away from home.
* Food at home increased between 5 percent and 6 percent in 2008.
* The average annual per person food expenditure is $2,207.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Agriculture
* Plant Sale at Crabtree Farms, April 18 & 19. 493-9155.
* Canning Classes in Dade County, Ga.: 706-657-4116.
* The USDA's Recipe Finder Database: http://recipefinder.nal.usda.gov.
* The USDA's Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals: Siource: www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/MiscPubs/FoodPlansRecipeBook.pdf.
ON THE WEB
* Find a farmers market near you in Tennessee: www.agriculture.state.tn.us/Marketing.asp?QSTRING=MKT&SCREEN=Farmers%20Markets&DISPLAY=Farmers%20Markets
* Find a farmers market near you in Georgia: www.pickyourown.org/GAfarmersmarkets.htm
* The USDA Recipe Finder Database: http://recipefinder.nal.usda.gov
* The USDA's Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals: www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/MiscPubs/FoodPlansRecipeBook.pdf
* Online cooking show featuring Depression-era recipes prepared by a 90-year-old Italian grandmother: www.greatdepressioncooking.com/Depression_Cooking/Welcome.html
* The USDA's research on low-cost, moderate cost and liberal food plans: www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/MiscPubs/FoodPlans2007AdminReport.pdf
* The USDA's research on the Thrifty Food Plan: www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/FoodPlans/MiscPubs/TFP2006Report.pdf