Could the shrinking economy cause waistline inflation? Some experts think so, predicting that in these tough economic times, consumption of cheap, calorie-packed food is likely to increase, along with sedentary habits. "Food insecurity has been shown to correlate with obesity," says David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program at Children's Hospital Boston. "It can cause people to overeat poor-quality foods because they're not sure where their next meal is coming from." At the same time, dwindling budgets force schools to cut back on physical education classes and after-school sports, and cause families to cancel gym memberships and drop out of sports leagues. Add in the fact that the inflation-adjusted price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 50 percent between 1982 and 2008—while fast-food prices have fallen—and you have a recipe for becoming overfed and undernourished.
But according to Ludwig, you don't have to choose between good nutrition and good finances. "In a frightening economic downturn, it's important to nourish our bodies, emotions and spirits with wholesome food," he says. "We can do that much better with high-quality food. Empty calories ultimately can't fill the empty spaces within us." He offers these tips:
Fast food may seem inexpensive, but over the long run, it's much cheaper to buy high-quality food in bulk and prepare it at home. Fast food is only cheap compared to eating at a sit-down restaurant. If you make a shopping trip on the weekend and buy whole grains in bulk and enough fruits and veggies to last the week, you don't have to make the difficult after-work decision of whether to go shopping and prepare dinner or eat at McDonald's.
Psychological stress often leads to taking solace in comfort food—and lots of it. But you can make comfort foods at home that are better for both your body and wallet. Home-cooked brown rice pudding, for example, is much cheaper and more nutritious than buying artificially flavored, over-sweetened versions. Or try a home-prepared, whole-grain macaroni with a rich tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese. And what could be more comforting than eating something you baked with the people you love? You don't need to be Julia Child to make a pie: Use a simple recipe that calls for whole-wheat flour, fresh fruits and modest amounts of sweetener. It will be a fifth of the cost of buying it at the store, and will taste a lot better.
You can prepare four days worth of a whole grain in the same time it takes to make one serving, so when you cook, make something you can use as the basis for a dinner the next few nights. If you make brown rice to serve with fish one night, make enough so that you can turn it into a Chinese stir-fry the next by adding tofu or chicken. Turning whole grains into fresh new meals can be done in 20 minutes, especially if you cook as a family. Spending this kind of quality time together—perhaps teaching your kids how to cook—is much more nourishing to the family spirit than sitting in front of the TV with take-out. Plus, you can use some of the leftovers for lunches.
Sure, it's easy to buy a muffin and drink for a quick snack, but it'll cost more than $3 and isn't nutritious. Instead, buy big bags of nuts and dried fruit and bring a serving to work in a zip-lock bag for a fraction of the cost. Or bring an apple and a piece of cheese (that you've bought as a block rather than as prepackaged sticks) from home for a balanced, filling snack. It's good to remember that prepackaged foods are two or three times more expensive than buying in bulk.
Similarly, many of us buy $1.25 bottles of water, which can add up to hundreds of dollars a year. Consider taking a thermos to work and give one to your kids to take to school. At home, brew a tasty herbal tea with one or two teaspoons of honey—which has much less sugar than the 12 teaspoons found in a large soda—and keep that in the refrigerator. Rather than buying something like a bottle of lemonade, try making fruit juice spritzers by mixing 100 percent fruit juice and soda water.
Nobody wants to stop meeting up with friends for fun nights out, so why not start a dinner club? If you and three other families go to each other's houses for a healthful, home-made meal each week, that means that once a month you'd have some work to do preparing food for the other families, but those other three weeks, you'd have nothing to do. And you get to socialize and have fun while eating well and saving money; the more people you cook for, the less it costs per person.
To reduce costs, buy what's in season, in larger amounts. A good way to do this is by joining a Community Supported Agriculture association, many of which are organic farms. These farms charge affordable prices and give you a share of the harvest in exchange for doing a little bit of work, like picking the food you want to take home. Since there aren't many overhead costs, the price per pound of food is much cheaper than what you'd find at a grocery store.
During growing season, your family will get an abundance of the freshest possible produce inexpensively. This has the added bonus of helping children learn about where food comes from and letting them discover what fresh food tastes like. Many times we buy fruits and veggies when they're out of season and tasteless because they were picked while still green and genetically designed to withstand shipping. But once a child has tasted produce she picked herself—like a vine-ripened tomato—it will completely change her perspective. And that's priceless.