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Eating healthy on a budget: Where to splurge or save

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Triathlete magazine.

You’re not imagining it — food prices are going up, and so too is your grocery bill. Feeding an active body can be an even more costly undertaking, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of nutritious bargains to be found at the supermarket. Here’s your go-to guide for what’s really worth your extra hard-earned money and where you can feel good about saving a few bucks.

Save: Whole produce
Sure, pre-cut fruits and vegetables are convenient, but they’ll come with a hefty cost markup and can lose flavor and nutrients much more quickly than their intact counterparts. Cutting increases surface area resulting in accelerated degradation in the presence of oxygen. So think whole broccoli instead of packaged florets.

Splurge: Organic milk
When it comes to what you float your morning cereal in, consider the organic route. A 2016 study in the British Journal of Nutrition concluded that organic milk has higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats as well as energy-boosting iron and the antioxidant vitamin E than conventional milk. It also has less of the types of saturated fat associated with heart disease. These nutritional perks can be chalked up to what the cattle are eating in organic livestock production, namely more pasture.

Save: Conventional avocado
A report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that avocado, corn, pineapple, onions, asparagus, cabbage, frozen peas, mango and eggplant grown non-organically contained relatively little amounts of pesticide residue.

Save: Chicken thighs
By joining the dark side you can save money and have a more flavorful diet. Darker meat cuts of poultry such as thighs and drumsticks often cost less per pound than chicken breast and are less likely to dry out during cooking. Cheaper yet, purchase a whole bird and enjoy the bounty of inexpensive protein for many meals to come. Don’t freak out about the fat: Compared to white meat, dark poultry contains just a couple extra grams. Watch out for cuts such as tenders and cutlets that can cost more per pound than even breast meat owing to extra labor.

Save: Dried beans
Few items at the supermarket are a better nutritional value than dried beans. They are a super-cheap way to load up on plant protein, dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. And when you do the math, those bags of dried beans cost a good bit less than canned versions, not to mention offer up superior flavor and texture. Once you get the hang of preparing dried beans — a presoak followed by simmering in water — you’ll be ready to sneak them into your diet every which way, including in salads, tacos and soups.

Save: Peanut butter
Sure, fancy nut butters like almond and walnut varieties are finding their way into trendy breakfast smoothies, but if you’re watching your food budget there is no shame in resorting back to ye-olde less expensive peanut butter. It delivers notable amounts of healthy fats, protein (more than almond butter) and vital minerals, but without the gouging at checkout. Just be sure to opt for a brand that has an ingredient list of no more than peanuts and salt.

Splurge: Artisanal bread
The cheapest options in the bread aisle are typically unsatisfying loaves baked with highly processed grains and other unwelcome add-ins like high-fructose corn syrup. Instead, dig into your wallet a little further for healthier, heartier options to make your lunch sandwiches including those made with whole rye flour, sprouted grains or a sourdough starter. Studies suggest these provide various advantages including better blood sugar control.

Splurge: Organic strawberries
In the EWG’s annual list of the most pesticide-riddled produce, strawberries came out on top (not in a good way). So by paying an extra buck or two for organic strawberries you’ll reduce the chemical load of your diet. Other offenders include apples, peaches, celery, grapes, spinach, tomatoes and bell peppers.

Save: Mussels
At the fishmonger, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything that provides more bang for your buck than often overlooked mussels. Frequently costing only a couple of bucks a pound (wild salmon? Not so much!), mussels are a great source of useful stuff like protein for athletes, and are considered by environmental groups to be one of the most sustainable seafood options — they actually clean the water that they’re farmed in. Plus, they are easy to prepare.

Splurge: Free-range eggs
Researches at Pennsylvania State University found that lucky birds with the opportunity to forage in the great outdoors lay more nutrient-dense eggs with higher levels of essential nutrients including vitamin E, vitamin A and the nutritional hero omega-3 fats than eggs sourced from birds that are cooped up in barns and fed a standardized grain-based mash. Unscrambling egg labels can be tricky, so to score true free-range eggs, which may cost you a couple dollars more per dozen than conventional ones, you’re best off befriending a local producer.

Splurge: Grass-fed beef
A handful of studies have revealed that beef hailing from grass-eating cows have several nutritional advantages including more lofty amounts of omega-3 fats and antioxidants over meat from conventionally raised cattle. Plus, investigators for Consumer Reports determined that meat sourced from conventionally raised beef — think feedlots, antibiotics and a grain-only diet — is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria linked to food-poisoning outbreaks. Look for the “USDA Certified Grass Fed Beef” label or the green American Grassfed Association label on packages.

Paper or plastic?
To save even more at the supermarket, consider paying for your groceries in paper currency. Research shows you are more likely to buy foods you don’t really need if you use a credit or debit card at the checkout counter, which encourages impulse buys.

Matthew Kadey MS, RD, has authored multiple cookbooks, most recently Rocket Fuel: Power-Packed Food for Sports and Adventure.

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