Fueling Workouts on a Shoestring
By Nancy Clark, MS, RD
The reality is that if you eat healthy, you also eat more frugally.
Thrifty Home Fare
The key to stay within your at-home food budget is to plan ahead, make a list, and then grocery shop when you're not hungry. If you shop when you're hungry, you'll tend to blow your budget on treats. If you stock up on a VARIETY of appealing foods, you'll resist the urge to buy fast food. A homemade sandwich costs a fraction of a sandwich shop's price.
$1.25 Homemade Turkey Pocket
1/2 large pita .15
3 oz turkey breast 1.10
Add some lettuce, oil and vinegar.
Good Deals on Grains
Carbohydrate-rich foods should be the foundation of an active person's diet and fortunately breads, grains and cereals tend to be reasonably priced. You can get 1,000 calories' worth of plain spaghetti or rice for only $.50 cents. If you buy in bulk, you can save a few more pennies. Rice from a five-pound bag costs only $.80 center per pound, compared with $1.45 for a one-pound box. Oatmeal is an excellent choice for an inexpensive carbohydrate-rich breakfast. As with all grains, buy it in bulk; individual single-serving packets, though convenient, quadruple the price. You can also save considerably by buying store brands, as shown in these examples.
Oatmeal - 2 servings
(Cost per 300 calories)
$.65 Quaker individual packets
$.55 Generic or store brand individual packet
$.14 Quaker quick 1-minute, bulk
$.11Generic or store brand, bulk
Frugal Fruits and Vegetables
The recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables can pinch your food budget unless you shop wisely for produce, buy seasonal specials, and use fresh produce before it spoils. To economize on vegetables, buy them frozen or canned. Contrary to popular belief, both frozen and canned vegetables provide valuable nutrition. The vegetables are picked when ripe and are processed quickly to retain nutrients.
Three ounces of fresh spinach, for example, contains about 24 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C; cook it and it drops to about 9 mg.
Three ounces of frozen cooked spinach has 10 mg, and 3 ounces of canned spinach (heated just until it is warm) has 12 mg.
Most of the nutrients in vegetables are lost in cooking, so be careful not to overcook them. Here's how some vegetable prices compare:
(Price per lb)
$1.99 Frozen, spears
$1.59 Fresh, cuts
$.99 Fresh, whole
$.99 Frozen, chopped (no waste)
$1.29 Frozen, Green Giant
$.95Frozen, store brand
$.73 Canned, Green Giant
$.60 Canned, store brand
You can get the most fruit for your money by buying in season. Focus on fruits with the most nutritional value such as citrus fruits and juices and bananas. Cantaloupe, strawberries, papayas, and kiwi are also nutrient rich, but they tend to be expensive out of season -- buy them on sale! Pears, apples, grapes, and most other commonly eaten fruits, though good for you, lack dense nutrient value. Also, orange juice made from frozen concentrate is a money-saving alternative to fresh oranges. See below for examples of orange juice bargains.
(Price per half-gallon)
$2.69 Tropicana, not from concentrate
$1.99 Store brand, not from concentrate
$1.43 Tropicana, frozen concentrate
$1.15 Store brand, frozen concentrate
Dried fruits are an excellent source of carbohydrate for active people. As shown below, they're a bargain compared with fresh fruits. Apricots, by the way, are among the most nutrient-rich dried fruits.
(Price per 130 calories)
Red delicious apple (1/2 lb) $.70
Large banana (1/2 lb with peel) .30
Apricots (dried) .50
Raisins (bulk) .15
In addition, smart shopping can save you money when buying dried fruits. Single-serving boxes of raisins cost twice as much as bulk raisins.
Protein is an important item in your food budget, and it can be expensive -- even plant proteins can be high-priced if they're commercially prepared. While red meats provide the extra iron often lacking in female athletes' diets, dried beans and legumes are versatile, inexpensive, and a good source of carbohydrate. You can cook a potful of beans with rice, lentil soup, or chili--enough for several meals--for only a few dollars. A thousand calories' worth of beans or lentils costs only about $.60. If you don't want to do a lot of cooking, try canned lentil soup, bean soups, vegetarian or fat-free refried beans (for burritos), baked beans, and other canned beans. A vegetarian cookbook can offer lots of ideas for quick and easy canned-bean cuisine.
Dairy foods such as milk and yogurt are an important part of an active person's diet, supplying calcium, protein, riboflavin, and other essential nutrients. Infants live on milk; adults can also benefit from at least 3 servings per day of low-fat dairy foods.
If you travel with a pack, take along wholesome carbohydrates. Pack your gym bag with tried-and-true sports snacks such as dried fruits, pretzels, bagels, fig cookies, yogurt, and juice.
If you eat at a quick service restaurant, choose wisely (table 2). Several fast-food giants offer sports food bargains. At Taco Bell, for example, you can get 1,000 calories of low-fat carbohydrate by ordering two bean burritos and a soft drink for about $2.90. It's true that soft drinks are sugar-water with little nutritional value, but at least they fuel your muscles. Juice is a wholesome beverage choice--but juices tend to be twice the price of soft drinks. Drink juice when you get home or pack your own. Italian restaurants offer bargains as well. You can fill up on spaghetti for a reasonable price. Pizza -- particularly with a thick crust -- is another good choice. You'll increase the price by topping it with broccoli and green peppers, but you'll also add nutrients, which is especially important if it's your only opportunity to get vegetables that day.
Use your head and you’ll never have problems with your waistline or your wallet.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD
Author, Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition
Nancy Clark's Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions
Books and sports nutrition teaching materials available at www.nancyclarkrd.com
Director of Nutrition Services, SportsMedicine Associates
830 Boylston St. #205, Brookline MA 02467
Phone: (617) 795-1875 Fax: (617) 795-1876
"Helping active people win with good nutrition."
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