Most of us know that throwing frozen fries and wieners into the shopping cart is not the healthiest thing to do.
But it is cheap, and when you are squeezed for cash, sometimes what will fill you up trumps eating healthily.
According to Statistics Canada, groceries cost 9.7% more in April of this year compared with April of 2021.
"On a year-over-year basis, increases in food prices have been broad-based, with consumers paying more for nearly everything at the grocery store. Basics, such as fresh fruit (+10.0%), fresh vegetables (+8.2%) and meat (+10.1%), were all more expensive in April," reads the Consumer Price Index report.
Sandra Gentleman, a registered dietitian with BC Cancer, says it is possible to eat well and stay on budget.
Ultimately, cooking at home more often will save you money, of course.
So, walking into the local grocery store with $100, she outlines what you should put in your cart.
"To help with a healthy lifestyle, including cancer prevention, through diet, aim for more whole foods such as vegetables, fruits and whole grains," she said.
Cost-effective whole grains include quinoa and bulgur, barley and couscous, rye and seedy breads, legumes and lentils, nuts and seeds.
And while it seems cheap to buy processed foods, those will cost your health in the long run.
"Especially if you're on a budget and a tight budget, then it's more important to stick with the staples and to really focus on that. Using a focused plant diet with less animal products will also help with overall health, with cancer prevention and also with your budget for sure," she said.
Veggies and fruit choices
Put a purple cabbage in the cart in terms of fruits and vegetables.
It lasts a long time in the fridge, she noted.
"Just grate that into your wraps, into your salads — you can add it, and it will go a long way," she said.
"Because of the purple colour, it is loaded with phytochemicals and antioxidants. So it's really good for you."
Choose what is in season, too.
Pick squash, yams, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Gentleman said they are good for you and last a long time in the cupboard.
They are also versatile, but be sure to cook them with the skin on for maximum health benefits.
Whole carrots are often reasonably priced and are good for you.
Price-wise, a bag of carrots is probably a better option than baby carrots.
Beets are a healthy option, and you can use the beet tops, which are similar to spinach, Gentlemen said.
It may be more cost-effective to buy a bag of salad rather than all the individual ingredients if you find that usually half of those ingredients go bad in the fridge, she said.
And there is no harm in buying frozen vegetables, which can be cheaper than fresh.
"You just use what you need. And it doesn't go bad because it's in the freezer," she said.
Turnips and cauliflower are generally relatively reasonably priced.
It is important to have berries in the diet, but fresh berries can give shoppers sticker shock right now, so frozen may do the trick.
Choose blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries or dark cherries.
"They are so loaded with nutrition," she said.
If you buy fresh vegetables and fruits, pick the ones that almost stain your fingers when you cut them, because that means they are loaded with phytochemicals and antioxidants.
Fish and meat
Fish can be an option, bought canned.
"Canned salmon with some bones actually has a really good level of calcium that your body can digest," she said.
Tuna and sardines are excellent options, she noted.
In terms of other meats, the less processed the better.
"The ones that are more processed or are marinated, or have sodium, or flavours added, they're going to be more expensive, plus they're not as good because they have more sodium."
Avoid cured meats altogether.
"The bacon, hot dogs, sausages, baloney. Those shouldn't even be in your shopping cart. Maybe just on a special occasion, once in a while, but those meats don't really fit into a healthy diet."
If yogurt is a favourite, choose the kind without flavouring.
"If you have flavoured or sweetened, it's going to have more sugar, and you can see that on the label by the grams of sugar," Gentleman said.
For breakfast, think oatmeal or granola over boxed cereals.
What to make?
Back home with the $100 worth of items, what can you make for meals all week?
Dried beans or legumes and lentils — dried or in a can — can be made into a healthy soup.
If you have a crockpot, put in the lentils and add maybe onions and garlic and then some vegetables like carrots or peppers. Mix in some canned, crushed tomatoes and you have a hearty soup, Gentlemen said.
Bean salad with different legumes can be a tasty option, too.
"Vegetarian chili would be good with lean ground beef," she said.
Other options include stir-fries, Greek pasta bake or Cobb salad wraps.
"You think of a Cobb salad and then you just put it in a wrap," she said.
Lasagna with lean meat and vegetables; spinach and broccoli; chicken enchiladas, or vegetarian enchiladas are other meal options.
A modern tuna casserole is another meal option, using penne noodles and adding vegetables.
Salmon patties with wild rice and vegetables can also make a tasty and reasonably priced dinner option.
What about snacks?
Gentleman said healthy snacks for kids that won't break the bank include:
- Celery with peanut butter and raisins
- Cottage cheese and fruit
- Yogurt and trail mix
- Banana and peanut butter
- Pears and cheese
- Carrots and peppers with hummus or even broccoli and hummus.
Pizza toast can be popular too.
"You put a little bit of pizza sauce and mozzarella and parsley and whatever little vegetables like — peppers or mushrooms or onions, — whatever kids like your kids like, and you make a little mini pizzas," she said.
If you go processed
When reading labels, look at the DV — daily value, Gentleman said.
"5% DV is a little and 15%. DV is a lot," she explained.
So, for example, quick-heat noodle packs can have %35 DV of sodium.
"It's really high," she said.
"If they're processed food, you want something that has less than 15% DV for sodium — 5% would be better."
Looking at serving size is also very important.
"You can go down and look at OK, how much sugar is in there and how much fibre and then the daily value of sodium."
For cereals, you want to look at how much fibre is in there per serving.
"So, more than two grams of fibre per serving is a good rule of thumb."
And "unflavoured" on the label doesn't mean sugar-free, she noted.
"Flavoured almond milk, for instance, still has eight grams of added sugar. So that's two teaspoons of sugar in a cup. But if it's unsweetened, then it has a lot less sugar."
For more advice on healthy eating, Gentleman also has a podcast: My Wife The Dietitian.