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Yet small packages of food tend to cost more and those prepackaged meals really add up in the budget department. Is there a way to save money, eat healthy and still lose weight?
Of course there is, says Toronto-based dietitian Cassandra Reid. "The cheap-food industry has made healthy food look expensive," she observes, "and yes, it is more expensive to eat well than to eat poor or junk food. But that is not to say you should cut back on good food."
In fact, with a little care, you can not only save calories, but actually eat better, while cutting down your overall food bills.
1. Plan meals in advance
Reid says one of the best things you can do now -- to trim both your waste and your waist -- is to get into the habit of planning the week's meals in advance each weekend, and heading to the grocery store with a list. "Get a calendar and put it on your fridge, and in the space for each day, write down whatever you're planning to serve through the week."
2. Cook meals from scratch
Cooking your own meals from scratch is the best way to control portion size (a key part of successful dieting), avoid such diet (and health) busters as excess fat and sodium, and to use the food you buy more efficiently. It's also a great way to take a bird's eye view of your diet planning. For example, say you make a roast chicken on Sunday -- you can have the leftovers for lunch on Monday, and use the bones for a low-calorie, veggie-rich soup on Tuesday.
Or, you can cook a big pot of rice, serve it as a side dish on Thursday and have fried rice on Friday. (Day-old rice tastes better in fried rice, anyway.) The same applies to calorie counting; you can have ice cream, guilt-free, at your friend's birthday party, if you plan to cut back on desserts for the next day or two.
Once you get into the habit, Reid explains, knowing what you're going to have each day solves a number of problems. The most pressing is the dreaded Refrigerator Burnout: that's when, after an exhausting day at work, you head to the fridge, find nothing inspiring, then simply give up and order a pizza or head to the take-out counter.
3. Buy in bulk
"Buying in bulk is another great way to save money and make sure you have enough on hand," says Reid. Rewrap bulk chicken breasts individually and freeze, then thaw as needed. Bulk frozen fruits and vegetables are another bargain that you can use as you need.
4. Pack your lunch
Brown bagging your lunch is a worthwhile habit, whether you're dieting, short on cash, or just wanting to get more control over your eating habits. If you're rushed in the morning, get in the habit of making your lunch the night before.
5. Limit alcoholic drinks
One big budget and diet buster is alcoholic drinks. Even a bottle of light beer packs 100 calories or more, and mixed drinks, especially those that have pop or other sugary mixers, carry a lot more.
If you head to the bar, order club soda, for both your waist's and your wallet's sake.
Ultimately though, cautions Reid, if you're tight on money, food is not the smartest place to economize. "Maybe you don't need those new shoes, or there's somewhere else you can budget. But by taking an hour or so to plan on the weekend, it will make the next seven days of eating -- whether you're on a diet or not -- exponentially easier, and much more efficient, in both cost and time."