3 healthy daily meal plans under $15

By: Cheryl Embrett

Author: Canadian Living


3 healthy daily meal plans under $15

By: Cheryl Embrett
We challenged three dietitians from across Canada to feed a family of four for just $15 a day. Here's how they'd slash your grocery bill -- without sacrificing nutrition.

With the cost of food growing faster than our waistlines, it's a real challenge to eat healthfully. So how can we keep our grocery bills in check without sacrificing taste and nutrition? That's the question we posed to three budget-savvy dietitians across Canada.

They each served up their best strategies (and a day's worth of menus) for feeding a family of four nutritiously and deliciously on less than $15 a day -- that's cheaper than two McDonald's Happy Meals and a pair of Big Macs.

Expert money-saving tips
When it comes to maximizing your food dollar, waste not, want not is Heather McColl's number 1 strategy. Thirty-eight per cent of the food we buy ends up in the garbage, says the popular Vancouver dietitian, chef and cookbook author. "One of the easiest ways to cut your grocery bill is by simply reducing the amount of food you throw out."

Start by getting creative with leftovers and reusing some of last night's dinner for today's breakfast, lunch or dinner. Spanish omelettes, for example, make super yummy sandwiches the next day, says McColl, who brown-bags it most days -- a huge cost saver compared to picking up lunch at the cafeteria or eating out. Before stocking up on three-for-the-price-of-one groceries, keep in mind that buying in bulk is only beneficial if you use the food before it spoils. Otherwise, you'll end up wasting in bulk.

Tips for buying seasonal produce
Another one of McColl's top money-saving tips is to shop in season. That means passing up on imported, expensive and often tasteless strawberries or asparagus in the middle of February. Instead, consider root vegetables such as carrots and turnips, which are readily available and reasonably priced this time of year. Or watch for sales on frozen fruit and vegetables, which are just as nutritious as fresh -- sometimes even more so.

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McColl, who's an avid gardener, grows some of her own produce so she can enjoy the taste of summer's bounty throughout the year. "I slow-roast my cherry tomatoes, then freeze them for a tasty addition to all sorts of meals like frittatas, scrambled eggs and pizza," she says. (Check out her Tomato Confit recipe on her blog at

Eating less meat

While a hearty beef stew makes a great dinner on a cold January night, so does vegetarian curry – at half the price. Meat is one of the most expensive items on our grocery lists, says McColl. Many global cuisines, such as Indian, Japanese and Mediterranean, rely on inexpensive and super nutritious ingredients, including beans, lentils and grains, so McColl recommends eating ethnic at least once a week. "It's a fun way to cut back on your grocery bill," says McColl.

While she has the advantage of living in Vancouver, where she has easy access to ethnic markets, many of the ingredients and spices, such as bok choy, miso and garam masala, are also available in grocery store chains across the country. When you do buy meat, consider less expensive cuts like bone-in chicken thighs instead of boneless chicken, and use it sparingly (in light stir-fries for example).

Daily meal plan
1. Breakfast
• Peanut butter and banana smoothie (made with low-fat yogurt and skim milk)
• One slice whole grain toast with jam, butter or margarine
Cost: $2.24
Tip: Peanut butter is an economical source of protein, and bananas provide energizing carbohydrates for on-the-go families with no time -- or money -- to spare.

2. Morning snack

• Apple slices with yogurt dip sweetened with a little honey and cinnamon
Cost: $1.28
Tip: Buy large containers of plain yogurt and add your own flavourings.

3. Lunch

• Broccoli, apple and chicken thigh Waldorf pita with sunflower seeds and a mayo-vinegar dressing
Cost: $6.16
Tip: For a vegetarian version, substitute chickpeas, which are loaded with fibre and protein, for the chicken.

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4. Afternoon snack
• Crudités and homemade hummus (made with chickpeas, tahini, cumin, garlic and lemon juice)
Cost: $1.64
Tip: Look for kid-friendly vegetables, such as carrots and snap peas, that tend to go on sale regularly.

5. Dinner
Spanish omelette with eggs, potato, onion, garlic and smoked paprika
• Cabbage, carrot and sesame seed coleslaw with homemade oil-andvinegar dressing
• Canned pineapple topped with vanilla yogurt and shredded coconut
Cost: $3.60
Tip: Make your own low-fat coleslaw on the weekend to enjoy with lunches or  dinners throughout the week.
Total cost for four: $14.92

Get the whole family involved

Whether it's grating cheese while she talks on the phone or making hummus during commercial breaks, Toronto dietitian Rebecca Noseworthy squeezes in prep time whenever she can.

"Convenience items like bags of pregrated cheese and precut vegetables may save you time but will quickly inflate your grocery bill,” says the busy young professional. "And keeping your hands occupied can help prevent mindless snacking in front of the TV.” Get everyone in the family involved with chopping veggies, tearing lettuce, and portioning out yogurt and raisins from costeffective large containers to smaller snack-size ones.

How to avoid junk food

Noseworthy, who is the manager of nutrition education for Breakfast for Learning, a national nonprofit organization that helps communities start child nutrition programs, also tries to steer clear of the junk food aisle. "The temptation of chips, candy and sugar-sweetened beverages can cost you both dollars and calories,” she says.

For the healthiest foods and ingredients, shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the inner aisles, where the more expensive processed foods and snacks will send your grocery bill skyrocketing. But do make an occasional detour to stock up on cost-saving items such as pasta and canned or dried beans.

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Score the best grocery deals
It also pays to know your food prices so you can recognize a bargain when you see one. "I never buy cheese unless it's half price,” says Noseworthy. "I get a big block, grate it and store it in the freezer so it's ready to add to lasagnas, casseroles and homemade pizzas."

Check out the unit prices on price tags to compare the cost per weight or volume and determine the best buy. A 454-gram package of penne on sale for $1.49, for example, isn't as good a deal as the 900-gram package for $1.87 one shelf over.

Keep in mind that while the nearest big-box grocery store may be the most convenient place to shop, it's not always the cheapest. You can often score deals on milk, bread and cereal at your local pharmacy, and if you drop by bakeries and produce departments at the end of the day, you may find bread, muffins, fruit and veggies reduced to half price or less. Check the meat department, too, for greatly reduced prices on chicken, roasts or fish that are close to their expiry dates.

Daily meal plan
1. Breakfast

• Frittata muffin (made with milk, eggs and frozen vegetables)
• Whole grain toast with margarine
Cost: $2.46
Tip: Breakfast is no place to skimp when eating on a budget. These ingredients supply high-quality protein and carbs to refuel your body and brain.

2. Morning snack
• Apple, banana and yogurt parfait with large-flake rolled oat topping
Cost: $1.75
Tip: This parfait is an inexpensive source of fibre that rings in at well under $2 for four servings.

3. Lunch
• Apple and carrot wrap with homemade hummus in a whole wheat tortilla
Cost: $3.27
Tip: Whole wheat tortillas offer more nutritional bang for your buck than wraps made from refined and enriched flours. Make your own protein-rich hummus for just over 50 cents per cup.

4. Afternoon snack
• Half-cup edamame Cost: $1.99
Tip: These inexpensive Japanese soybeans contain protein, fibre and heart-healthy fats -- and taste good too.

5. Dinner
• Chicken and bean chili with frozen vegetables, canned tomato sauce and onion
• Two whole-grain crackers each topped with peanut butter and a strawberry
Cost: $5.37
Tip: Using less extra-lean ground chicken and more beans boosts fibre and cuts costs. If strawberries aren't in season, use thawed frozen berries.
Total cost for four: $14.84.

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How to plan the perfect menu
When it comes to eating well affordably, a little bit of planning goes a long way, says Mary Sue Waisman, a Halifax-based registered dietitian, cookbook author and nutrition consultant. When her two children were teenagers, they would frequently bring over a horde of kids for dinner on Friday nights.

Waisman relied on make-ahead meals to fill all those hungry mouths nutritiously without breaking the bank. "If it was fall and cabbage was in season, I'd make a batch of cabbage rolls," she says. "If the kids showed up, great; if not, I'd freeze it."

Big pots of soup, chili and pasta were also kid-friendly favourites, and were easy to make on the weekend to have on hand throughout the week. No matter how many you're cooking for, having a weekly meal plan will reduce the temptation to eat out, pick up prepared food or order in (chaching). "It all comes down to what you value," says Waisman. "If it's important for you to get a healthy meal on the table inexpensively, take 30 minutes away from something else you're doing and devote that time to planning meals.”

Tips to reduce impulse buys
The biggest challenge for many of us is to get in and out of the grocery store without filling our carts full of impulse buys. Make a list and stick to it, advises Waisman, especially if your kids are "helping out." Leave some room for flexibility though. If an ingredient on your list is pricey one week, substitute it with something that's on sale (frozen broccoli instead of fresh during the winter months, for example).

The more you shop, the more you spend, so try to limit your supermarket trips to once or twice a week. Waisman reads the fliers on Saturday morning and does her big shop Monday night, then supplements for flavour, if necessary -- picking up a few fresh in-season bell peppers to add to chicken cacciatore, for example.

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Cook it yourself also tops Waisman's list of money-saving, health-enhancing tips. Yes, it takes more time, but the trade-off is worth it. "Home-cooked meals allow you to control cost, ingredients, flavour and nutrition," says Waisman. "You're also teaching your children an important life skill and handing down cooking traditions and rituals."

Get creative with flavourings (such as spices, herbs, oils and other condiments) and even the simplest, most economical dishes will taste like a million bucks, says Waisman, whose latest book is Dietitians of Canada Cook! (Robert Rose, 2011). An 89-cent can of chickpeas, for example, bakes up into a deliciously healthy graband- go snack with the addition of flavour boosters such as olive oil, sea salt or chili powder. Buy spices in small quantities at the bulk store to guarantee that they're fresh and affordable.

Daily meal plan
1. Breakfast
• Oatmeal with a dash of cinnamon
• Half a banana
• Half-cup orange juice
• Three-quarters of a cup yogurt
Cost: $3.78
Tip: Use frozen orange juice, which is less expensive and just as nutritious as OJ in a carton, and buy oats in bulk.

2. Morning snack
• Oven-roasted chickpeas with a sprinkle of chili powder
• One fresh mandarin orange
• Quarter-cup raisins
Cost: $1.54
Tip: Citrus fruits are a good buy this time of year.

3. Lunch
• One cup roasted root vegetable soup (made with onions, parsnips, carrots, turnip and sweet potatoes)
• Half-cup lentil salad
• One whole grain bun with margarine
Cost: $2.56
Tip: Root vegetables are in season, and lentils are inexpensive and nutritious year round. Make the soup on the weekend to enjoy the following week.

4. Afternoon snack
• Pineapple bran muffin
• One cup milk
Cost: $2.04
Tip: Use canned pineapple, and bran and whole wheat flour from the bulk store.

5. Dinner
• Whole grain pasta with evaporated milk and curried tuna sauce
• Half-cup frozen peas
Baked apples drizzled with real maple syrup or sprinkled with cinnamon
Cost: $4.90
Tip: Evaporated milk adds richness without the calories and cost of whipping cream.
Total cost for four: $14.82

Prices are for four servings and are approximated based on season and geography, and based on the assumption that basic staples such as margarine, salt and pepper have already been stocked.

This story was originally titled "Mission: Affordable" in the February 2012 issue.

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3 healthy daily meal plans under $15