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How We Eat When Times are Tough

When the economy's on the fritz, people spend less on food, most experts agree. But just how they go about cutting back isn't clear; nor is the impact of the economy on diet and nutrition.

Canned vegetables, unlike these carrots, are generally cheaper than fresh produce. (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

Some speculate that rising food costs prompt consumers to eat out less, and cook more meals at home. But are those home-prepared meals likely to be full of produce, whole grains and lean proteins? Or are we just eating more boxes of mac and cheese and Hamburger Helper, processed foods that may contribute to our expanding waistlines without providing much nutrition?

Shoppers may accommodate both their shrinking budgets and their nutrition needs by seeking canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, which are generally cheaper than fresh produce and, because they're packed at their nutritional peak, can be at least as good for you as their fresh counterparts. (But as this report suggests, frozen meals can be costly without delivering as much nutrition as meals prepared fresh.) Meat is relatively expensive; to get your protein and cut costs, try using canned or dried beans as the basis for a meal. Planning your weekly menus and grocery list can keep spending in check; putting leftovers to good use reduces budget-sapping waste.

Now may be the time to lose that extra weight: Some people who go on calorie-restricted diets may find they end up saving money, simply because they're not eating as much as usual. To relieve the stress of hard economic times, don't reach for comfort food, go for a brisk walk. Bonus: It's free!

Another school of thought holds that people under budget constraints will continue to eat out but will opt for less-pricey fast food restaurants rather than more expensive, and potentially more healthful, establishments. The nutritional aspect of that shift, though, is hard to sort out, as many menu choices at, say, McDonald's pack less fat and calories than a typical meal at, for instance, Chili's. (Or, for that matter, the Palm.) That's why requiring chain restaurants to provide nutrition data -- as Maryland may soon do - is especially important as we consider how best to spend our food dollars.

What course are you taking? Are you cutting back on eating out? Cooking more at home? Seeking healthful but budget-conscious recipes? Or splurging on food and cutting back on other expenses?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  March 6, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health , General Health , Nutrition and Fitness  
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"As a Graduate Student, here, "Beautiful East Tennessee/America, Class 2009, I'm single, Vet USAF, and Voter, who buys only what I consume, sometimes I go to the grocery store and buy great deals in the bakery department that I couldn't buy and make at that price at home, this buy and eat at say 3.25 for chicken, or a $1.65 bowl of chilli soup already prepared, can't be beat to me cooking this stuff, and paying for it twice once at the check out and again using the stove/electricity, which runs up my light bill which means more money I don't have to think about spending on an electric bill, I hardly ever use.

In conclusion, I eat a balance diet, mostly of chicken and fish and exercise and I don't smoke. I believe it's cheaper for me, to eat out at the grocery stores who save me time and money by making food very cheap if you know what and where to look for it.


Sincerely, Tommy Birchfield, Voter/Vet USAF, Master's Program,
East Tennessee State University,

Posted by: ztcb41 | March 6, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for sharing your very interesting and very practical approach to eating healthfully on a budget. You make some really good points here!

Posted by: Jennifer LaRue Huget | March 6, 2009 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I don't eat anything every other day. As my income shrinks, lately I skip two days and eat on the third.

Posted by: obrady | March 6, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

If I had a choice between canned mac-n-cheese to canned spinach, I would pick the latter. But the important thing here, that ZTCB41 missed is the immense ecological costs of transporting the canned stuff to the grocery stores. Do we really think that the long term environmental impact is correctly attributed in the cost of the packaged goods that we pay in a store?
Sure the hamburger at the fast food chains may just cost a buck or two, but the tremendous ecological impact of factory style meat production (CAFO) is defintely not reflected in the price.
Secondly, these packaging plants for spinach or meat have to go through cycles of cleaning the products to meet standards of safety and yet they falter with E.Coli bacteria sneaking into their products. Actually, farm fresh produce can be cleaned easily at home and has less chances of getting infected with produce of other farms.

Posted by: sr_1945 | March 6, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

I've actually found that shopping at the local farms in my area is less expensive than shopping in the grocery store and the food is great. I live in New Mexico so the chiles, fruits, veggies, local honeys, etc., are just amazing. It saves money and the environment. Sweet. Plus, you have not lived until you been there to smell a bushel of green or red chile being roasted...yuuummmm....rellenos, enchiladas, salsa, it's all wonderful!

Posted by: amileecamper1 | March 6, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

What is it seven weeks now that our country has taken a nose dive with a trail of trillons of dollars scattered around in no certain order.The only meaningfull activities if you want to call them that are the exchanges between Rush and Barach Hussein Obama which seem like a side show in a two bit carnival circus.Oh yeah a new cabinet member has signed on and of course he owes back taxes too.Wjhat else is new?

Posted by: a4853916 | March 6, 2009 6:53 PM | Report abuse

Or, you can be like me - unemployed AND dealing with an abcessed tooth! You'll find that you spend less on food because you can only eat soft foods sparingly, AND lose up to five pounds a week! :)

Posted by: ohalvey | March 6, 2009 9:05 PM | Report abuse

Since the growing season will not start for a couple of weeks and the local farmers cannot offer much aside from storage veggies, we find ourselves going to Asian supermarkets for beautiful fresh fruit and vegetables. In the DC area H Mart beats the other supermarkets hands down for price and quality. We also use a lot of beans. We get certain staples in bulk at Costco. We eat leftovers and plan meals carefully. Over the past few years the cost of food has increased dramatically so we have been watching the food budget for a while. We all carry lunch and snacks including beverages to work, school and daycare. We drink filtered water from home and have water bottles that we carry on outings to avoid the cost and waste of bottled water. We eat out sparingly.

Posted by: mmcgowen | March 7, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

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