Learn tips and advice on preparing nutritious meals on a budget from Leonhard Lechner, senior Sous Chef at Toronto's Fairmont Royal York Hotel.
Putting healthy meals on the table doesn't mean spending more at the checkout and more time preparing at home. With a little planning and creative thinking you can have it all – nutrition, economy and great taste. Read the great food information, nutritional advice and shopping tips below.
Plan for leftovers. For example, instead of buying chicken breasts, buy a whole chicken and use the leftovers for casseroles, soups, stews, wraps, salads or sandwiches. Make double batches of soup and chili - enjoy some immediately and freeze the rest for fast and nutritious meals on busy days. The added bonus: Chicken with the bone in is tastier!
Use bulk food bins. The cost is usually cheaper (it pays to double check the unit prices) and you can buy exactly the quantity you need, whether a small or large amount.
Shop at farmer's markets or from local farm stands whenever possible. After a winter of imported produce they are a welcome harbinger of the new growing season. Buying local also means your produce should be fresher, thus retaining more of its important nutrients. For instance, tomatoes lose vitamin C over time, so the quicker the tomato gets from the field to your table, the better. Vine- or tree-ripened produce tastes much better, too. Be inspired and try a new vegetable or fruit each visit. Get to know your market vendors to be certain that what they are selling is indeed local.
If you have room in your freezer, stock up on grain products, such as whole wheat or enriched breads and rolls, when they are on sale. Be sure to wrap them tightly to prevent them from drying out or becoming freezer-burned.
Buy 100% whole wheat bread. It costs about the same as regular white bread but contains three times the amount of fibre. (One slice of whole-wheat has two grams of fibre; one slice of white 0.6 grams fibre.)
"Grainy" breads such as oatmeal or cracked wheat may not be as healthy as you think. For instance, one slice of 100% whole wheat bread has two grams of fibre versus 1.1 grams for oatmeal and 1.3 grams for cracked wheat.
Prepared baked goods are usually high in sugar and cholesterol-raising hydrogenated fats and low on fruit and whole grains. Use the information and ingredients below to make delicious nutritious baked goods:
Millet adds great crunch and is a source of niacin, folate and zinc.
Whole or ground flax seeds add texture as well as fibre, calcium, iron, zinc and folate. One-half cup (125 mL) of flax seed adds 12.3 fibre to the mix. Flax may help lower LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels. Ground flax seeds have more nutritional benefit since you can digest them more easily, which makes the nutrients more available to the body.
Walnuts, in small amounts (30-60 g [1-2 oz]) per day have been shown to help lower LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels when included in a heart healthy diet. The high levels of polyunsaturated fat found in walnuts is thought to be the key. Walnuts also contain Vitamin E, an antioxidant, and omega-3 fatty acids. Don't overdo it though as walnuts are high in calories. Peanuts, almonds and hazelnuts also help to lower cholesterol levels.
Add fruit for extra fibre and vitamins. Blueberries, raspberries and blackberries all contain compounds called anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants, preventing cell damage in the body. One-half cup (125 mL) of unsweetened raspberries or strawberries is high in vitamin C. Frozen whole berries are handy to have on hand and are a bargain when fresh is out of season.
Stock up when pasta is on sale. It can be stored indefinitely in a cool place. Besides being filling, fun and low in fat, pasta is enriched with iron and B-vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, niacin and folic acid.
Buy plain, whole grain cereals such as Shredded Wheat and add your own nuts or fruit. Pre-sweetened varieties and those with added fruit and nuts are more expensive. Pick up some rolling-ready pizza dough and save on your next pizza. By adding your own toppings you can control the fat and calories. Try lower-fat mozzarella cheese for calcium, sliced mushrooms, diced green bell peppers for vitamin C, broccoli for beta-carotene and tomatoes for the powerful antioxidant lycopene. Go for whole wheat pizza dough if you can find it. Compared to a deli- prepared pizza or takeout pizza from a restaurant, homemade pizza is a delicious and healthy bargain.
Make your own breadcrumbs out of stale, but not moldy, bread. Freeze them for longer storage.
If you bake a lot, buy flour in large bags. A 5.5 lb/2.5 kg bag of Five Roses, all-purpose flour costs approximately $3.20 or $1.30/kg. A 22 lb/10 kg bag of the same flour is a real cost savings at approximately $6.00 or 60Â¢/kg. (Bulk all-purpose flour was $1.52/kg!)
Brown rice is more nutritious than white rice. For quick cooking, try parboiled whole-grain rice. (You can cook rice ahead of time and reheat it later with a little water in the microwave, but be sure to immediately refrigerate any cooked rice you don't eat right away.)
Buy Canada Choice vegetables and fruit instead of the higher priced Canada Fancy. They are just as nutritious and a better deal. Canada Choice still taste good, though they may not look as perfect or be as uniform in size as Canada Fancy. Most of the canned fruit I found was Canada Choice regardless of the brand.
Buy local produce in season when possible. Since it has travelled a shorter distance than imported produce, it has retained more of its nutritional value and taste. The following vegetables and fruits have high nutritional value: bok choy, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, collard greens, corn, green beans, kale, romaine lettuce, potatoes, rutabagas, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, tomatoes, apples, bananas, blueberries, cranberries, grapes, grapefruit, kiwis, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, strawberries.
Buy apples in bags instead of loose when you're planning to cook them. They may not be Canada Fancy but they will be just as nutritious. And they'll cost less. You may have to cut out some bruises or other blemishes before using.
Eat whole fruit more often. Whole fruit may cost more than juice, but you'll get the added benefit of fibre, and in some cases more vitamins and minerals, and you'll feel fuller longer. A 1/2-cup (125 mL) serving of regular orange juice from concentrate has only 0.9 grams of fibre. One fresh orange on the other hand provides 2.4 g fibre. With apples, most of the vitamins are just under the skin and are lost when made into juice. A fresh apple has fewer calories and more vitamin A, fibre and folate than apple juice. Berries, dried prunes and figs have the most fibre in the fruit category.
Stock up on canned and frozen vegetables and fruit when they are on sale. Choose canned fruit packed in juice rather than sugar syrup with no added sugar to cut down on sugar and calories. For some brands the no-added sugar will cost a bit more. Canned vegetables usually contain large amounts of sodium and should be drained and rinsed before using.
Plain frozen vegetables are a good buy with less waste as you can use the exact amount you need. They are also quick and easy to prepare. Fresh, frozen and canned vegetables and fruit are nutritionally similar. In fact, processed products may actually be higher in nutrients than the fresh. Choose from: Whole leaf spinach, chopped spinach, whole okra, cut broccoli, brussel sprouts, peas, cut green beans, corn, sweet peas, diced butternut squash or choose a mix, though note that mixed varieties can be marginally more expensive. Frozen vegetables are an excellent quick way to add lots of vegetables to soups, stews and casseroles to boost the fibre, vitamin and mineral content. Try broccoli for fibre and vitamin C. (Blanching before freezing results in some loss of vitamin C, however once produce is frozen, the vitamin is retained); chopped spinach for calcium, carotenoids, folate and riboflavin.
If you find that your lettuce is always going brown and slimy before you can eat it - try the pre-packaged salad greens. They are usually more expensive than buying plain lettuce but if it means you actually eat them instead of it being wasted, then they are relatively economical. It also saves a lot of time. Choose mixes that include darker lettuce such as romaine for more folate and antioxidants. Add tomato slices, diced fresh carrots and use a low-fat salad dressing or make your own. Low-fat versions are often the same price as the regular or full-fat salad dressings.
Stock up on canned tomatoes when they are on sale. Though fresh and canned tomatoes are almost identical nutritionally speaking (except that canned have quite a bit more sodium), cooking tomatoes with a little fat or oil makes it easier for the body to absorb the lycopene, an antioxidant that may help prevent prostate cancer, heart disease and age-related macular degeneration. What's more, except during harvest time, canned tomatoes taste better than fresh tomatoes.
Potatoes are versatile, economical and tasty. Top with fat-free sour cream (same price as regular sour cream) and snipped fresh chives. Or layer on chili with lots of kidney and black beans. Or chopped steamed broccoli with grated lower-fat Cheddar cheese. A well-topped potato can be a nutritious and filling meal in itself. Leave the skin on for the most fibre. Potatoes are also low in fat, are a good source of iron and contain folate and other important B-vitamins. Regular table potatoes are a bit cheaper than Yukon Gold and Russett.
Buy plain lower-fat yogurt and add your own fresh or frozen fruit. Use fresh fruit that is in season such as peaches and berries in the summer; year-round, economical bananas are a great taste addition and a source of vitamin A and potassium. Canned fruit, packed in juice with no added sugar, is also good in yogurt. (Your body will be able to absorb the calcium in yogurt as long as you've eaten foods with vitamin D or are exposed to sunshine.)
Check the unit price for deli- or store-packed cheeses. They may be cheaper than commercially packaged name-brand varieties.
If you buy margarine, choose one that is non-hydrogenated. The process of hydrogenation produces trans fatty acids that have been shown to raise LDL or "bad" cholesterol levels. If you use it on a regular basis, buy larger size tubs for economy. Remember to spread thinly.
Prepare organ meats more often. The price is right and they are fairly low in fat and an excellent source of iron, zinc, vitamin B6, riboflavin, niacin and folate. Liver is also an excellent source of vitamin A (it is, however, very high in cholesterol so should be eaten in moderation).
Go for more quality, less quantity. Buy more expensive cuts and eat less.
Use tofu instead of meat or to extend meat. Add to chili, soup, noodle dishes. Choose tofu that has been made with calcium sulfate.
Buy frozen fish fillets when fresh is too expensive or unavailable. Choose fatty fish that are high in heart healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and mackerel. Herring, trout, sardines and anchovies are also considered higher-fat, omega-3 rich choices. Lean fish, such as cod, haddock and sole also contain omega-3s but at much lower levels. To get the best value nutritionally and taste-wise from fish, don't overcook it!
Lean deli meats are convenient and nutritious. Fresh-sliced deli meats are convenient, low in fat and nutritious, if you buy lean meats such as smoked or roast turkey, chicken and ham or roast beef or smoked pastrami. Though these meats often contain non-meat ingredients such as water, salt and glucose, if you stick with the lean meats and avoid mock meats such as bologna, salami and wieners, which are all high in fat, you'll still be eating a good source of protein. Buy only the amount you need and avoid wastage.
Buy value packs of meat and poultry. Usually packages of eight to 12 pieces cost a bit less per kilogram than the smaller packages. Divide them into serving sizes suitable for one meal for your family and freeze the portions in freezer bags.