It can be pretty challenging to stick to a new year’s resolution to eat healthier when you start browsing the aisles of your local grocery store these days. Have you seen the price of a head of cauliflower these days? Or beef? Or lettuce and tomatoes? The cost of food rose 4.1 per cent in 2015 and will likely rise another three per cent this year, says the University of Guelph’s annual food prices report. So how do you stay healthy with such high food prices?
With 80 per cent of our produce coming from outside the country and with the value of our dollar dropping, it’s clear that putting a healthy meal on the table in 2016 is getting more expensive.
So how can Canadians eat well without blowing their budgets? Registered dietitians Kate Comeau and Cara Rosenbloom have a few ideas.
Broccoli instead of cauliflower
So much of our produce comes from California, which is in its fifth year of drought, with no end in sight.
“This isn’t going away. So we have to look at ways to make better food choices,” Comeau told CTVNews.ca from Halifax, where she is also a spokesperson for the Dietitians of Canada.
Comeau says she loves cauliflower, but not when it’s $8 or $9 a head. She says she’s using a lot more broccoli, cabbage and brussels sprouts instead and encourages others to. be flexible with recipes to switch out more expensive ingredients.
Toronto-based Rosenbloom loves nuts, but says many have recently become ridiculously expensive.
“So I’ve turned to seeds — sunflower or pumpkin seeds — because you can use them the same way you use almonds but they’re probably one-third the price,” she said.
“You can toast them and add them to veggie dishes or pilaf, you can add them to oatmeal, or add them to yogurt. So it’s a crunchy nutty flavour but you’ll pay a lot less.”
Find the bargains
There are also still lots of vegetables that remain a great deal. You can get a whole bag of carrots or a head of cabbage for about $2, for example — assuming you buy them whole, rather than pre-cut. Potatoes are still a good deal, too.
As for fruit, apples, pears and bananas are good options all year-round, though prices can vary between different varieties.
Cut back on meat
Another key way to cut your grocery bill is to reduce your intake of meat, say both Comeau and Rosenbloom. They note that 2016 is the UN’s International Year of Pulses and both suggest incorporating more beans, lentils, and chickpeas into your meals.
“It’s a smart move not only from a cost perspective but also from a health perspective,” says Comeau, who says pulses are nutrient-rich, high in fibre, and easier on the environment than meat production.
Rosenbloom suggests cutting out half meat can be filled out with cooked lentils or beans.
“It’s not a huge change,” she says. “You’re still getting a high-protein food, but it’s going to cost less overall and still taste great.”
Another way to cut meat costs is to invest in a slow cooker and buy less expensive cuts, which need long, slow heat to tenderize. Comeau also suggests moving away from the meat-and-potatoes model in favour of a grains-and-veggies-first model, in which meat is more of a condiment rather than the star of the show.
Right now, she’s crazy about rice bowls, which have rice, quinoa or another grain topped with veggies, beans, meat, and sauce. What’s great about rice bowls, she says, is that every meal can be different and you can adjust the veggies to each family member’s tastes.
Choose frozen or canned
When fresh produce is expensive in the winter, frozen fruits and vegetables are a healthy alternative, say both Comeau and Rosenbloom. Frozen fruit can be added to smoothies or stirred into yogurt, while frozen veggies can be added to stews, soups and stir-fries.
Frozen produce does lose a little bit of its vitamins in processing, but “the amount is fairly negligible,”and the produce’s fibre and mineral content remains the same, says Comeau.
Canned fruits and vegetables are good too, but not as great as frozen, because fruits are often packed in syrups and veggies in salty water. They suggest running canned produce under water to get rid of much of the salt and sugar.
Reduce food waste
By far, the biggest way to save money is to reduce your food waste.
A study from the University of Guelph last year found that the average family wastes $28 (R280.00) a week on food that goes bad or stale. That’s more than $1,000 a year — higher than the extra $345 that Guelph food economists say we’re going to spend for groceries this year compared to last.
“So imagine taking $1,000 and just throwing it away. That’s what we’re doing,” says Rosenbloom.
She suggests households do a big fridge cleanup and take note of how much they’re tossing out, since she thinks many would be surprised how much goes into the compost.
The solution to food waste? Meal planning. Taking an hour or so on a quiet evening to look at what you have in the cupboards, browse some recipes, and plan out what to buy this week will help ensure most of it gets eaten.
“It doesn’t have to be this picture-perfect plan with every morsel and cost mapped out,” Comeau says.
Start with just planning suppers and resolve to make large batches, so that leftovers can be taken to work the next day of frozen for a later date when you’re tempted to order pizza.
Rosenbloom also notes you can re-use meal plans from week to week.
“Most families don’t eat totally different dinners 365 days a year. They have their 10 or 15 favourites they keep going back to. So if you make one or two plans, you can keep re-using them,” she said.
“It’s actually quite simple.”