BENNINGTON — With high gas prices and the costs of other household items on the rise, it may be tempting to sacrifice healthy meals for those that are less expensive. Those less healthy options can also be less satisfying and can lead to health problems in the future. I am here to share that, with a little planning, you can have dinners that are healthy, affordable, quick to make, and delicious.
First, inventory what you have. You might have some rice in the cupboard or some meat in the freezer. It’s time to use them up! If you have a sunny patch of ground, plan a vegetable garden for next season. It is the best food value out there and will greatly increase the amount of food you have on hand during the summer months. Taking an inventory will also help you remember to get everything you need, rather than making extra trips.
Browse the sales in advance. Check out your grocery stores sales online. You can make plans to purchase the fresh seasonal items they have on sale and extra of the reduced price items you know you will use. Avoid buying something just because it’s on sale. And don’t be fooled into buying discounted snacks, cookies, or chips. Save them for special occasions.
Shop for good values. Some foods are almost always a good value because they have a healthy dose of nutrition at a good price. High-value starches include whole wheat pasta, brown rice, potatoes, and beans. For protein, you can’t beat eggs and canned tuna in water. For vegetables and fruit, look for items that are in season or buy frozen or low-sodium canned vegetables.
Look for recipes. Use the internet or your local library to search for recipes that include the things you have, the things that are on sale, and the high-value foods you like best. Often, affordable recipes allow you to cook a large amount once and enjoy leftovers.
Make swaps. Some affordable recipes use a small amount of a more expensive and flavorful ingredient, like prosciutto or capers, to elevate the other ingredients. Because you are only using a small amount per serving, it could be worth it. Or make a swap. If a recipe calls for pine nuts, for instance, you can use shelled pumpkin seeds (“pepitas”) or raw sunflower seeds instead. Thinly sliced deli ham can be a savvy swap for prosciutto. Green olives are a good replacement for capers. The recipe will be almost as good for a lot less.
Be realistic. Look for recipes that are quick and simple, so they fold easily into your routine. The inexpensive recipe that takes many hours to cook is likely never going to happen, no matter how healthy or delicious it is.
Finally, plan your meals. Use all of the information you have gathered to assign a meal to each time of day for a week or so. Make a list of all of the things you need for each of your meals, and stick to it. Avoid buying foods that are high in calories but low in nutrition, like sweetened beverages, chips, and cookies.
Next-level meal planning. The practiced pros are able to buy one ingredient that will be used in two meals. For instance, the other half of the jar of tomato sauce you bought for homemade pizza can also be used later in the week to poach eggs. Before long, you will have favorite recipe combinations that will be like second nature.
With careful and creative meal planning, you could be getting more health and satisfaction out of your meals and actually spending less.
Kristin Irace, RD, is a registered dietitian with Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, part of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, in Bennington.