Eat Healthy Without Going Broke

As part of the program's Cheapskate Week, author Dr. Rovenia Brock, a nutritionist, is joined by Jonell Nash, of Essence magazine, who wrote the article "Healthy Food Shopping for Less!" in this month's issue. The two discuss how to eat healthy on a limited budget, and which foods you might be worth a little extra cash.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, why recycling is about more than just separating your bottles and cans. It can be something to believe in. Our essayist tells us why in just a few minutes.

But first, we're observing "Cheapskate Week." We're trying to offer practical ways to save some cash in these hard economic times. Today we want to talk about food, how to save and still eat healthy. Fast food meals fill you up but they also fill you out. But cooking healthy takes time and money. Here to help us see our way out of the mess, nutritionist Rovenia Brock, better known as Dr. Ro. She is the author of "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy," and Jonell Nash, the food editor at Essence Magazine which features her article "Healthy Food Shopping for Less!" in the August issue, now on the stands. Hi, ladies. Thanks for coming.

Dr. ROVENIA BROCK (Nutritionist; Author, "Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy"): Hi. It's a pleasure.

Ms. JONELL NASH (Food Editor, Essence Magazine): Oh. Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So first of all Dr. Ro, we're not making this up are we? It really does seem that healthier food costs more, like options like organic and so forth. So, Dr. Ro, why is that?

Dr. BROCK: Well, you know I think there's more that goes into organic farming of food, but I do want to say that it is - it seems like it costs more. Healthy food does not have to cost more. Here's a case in point, beans and rice - beans and brown rice by the way, not white rice. It's a perfectly sound and nutritious entr?e. You can have it as an entr?e or a side dish but for pennies per serving. A great source of protein, plus you get the fiber and other nutrients that are needed. So, we like to think that eating healthier is an expensive proposition, but it does not have to be with good planning.

MARTIN: And just briefly, if you just give me the 30 seconds on fast food. I mean, fast food is cheap. You get your five bucks. You go to the counter. You're full.

Dr. BROCK: Yeah.

MARTIN: What's so terrible?

Dr. BROCK: The thing - well, I'm not going to say there's things so terrible, because even in the fast-food lane it's possible to make healthier food choices. You could choose to have a small burger, a single burger, that has not been fried - deep fried by the way. You could choose to have that with, say, ketchup and mustard, as opposed to a mammoth counter-part with all the sauces, more cheese, more burgers, more calories. That said, there are many options that you can make that are healthier and better for you in the fast-food lane. I particularly like the salads that are offered.

MARTIN: Now that we have talked a little bit about eating out, let's move to eating in. Jonell, you make the point that if you want to eat well for less, it seems like you gotta get out those pots and pans. So, what's the key to getting quality food at a reasonable price in the supermarket?

Ms. NASH: Well, generally I think - overall, I think the bright side though of cutting back in an economic down turn is that, you know, the foods that are actually the healthiest and best for us are really also the best for our budgets. And that the vegetables, the fruits, the grains, the nuts, you know, highly recommended by, you know, Dr. Ro, other nutritionists, is that they are the foundation of any good diet. And they are - they're typically going to cost less than the red meats, which we tend to be advised to limit.

But I think for a success at the supermarket and in shopping, it really starts with some preplanning, and you have to plan for a week's worth of menus. You create the menus, exactly what you'd like to have basically, for at least five of the seven days and then from that you grow a shopping list. And although it might seem like a lot of work, in the end it's going to save time and it's going to save money. It's those multiple trips to the supermarket during the week that result in a lot of unplanned and wasteful spending. And when you have the time on the weekends, then that's when you do a little slow cooking and the larger quantities, so that during the week you can have these quick, healthy meals that are sort of spin-offs from spin-offs from what you prepared on the weekends, or fortunately on those days when you might get home early during the week.

MARTIN: I see your point. The more trips you're making at the supermarket, the more inclined you are to perhaps make impulse purchases, kind of shop off the list, just get excited about a special up front that you don't really need. What about organic, Jonell? A lot of people are attracted to organic food for health reasons and for quality, but it does seem like it costs more. Are there ways you could cut the cost of getting organic food?

Ms. NASH: Oh, most definitely. The two ways that we sort of covered in our particular story, one is the farmers markets, and I think they are just such a boon, especially for many intercity residents where, you know, the corner convenience stores are selling more processed foods and, you know, sodas than actual fresh produce. So the fact that the farmers markets are now in so many urban areas are just a great shopping idea. And because you're buying direct from the farmer and in a sense you sort of cut out the middle men as such, prices can be lower, and so you're getting perhaps, you know, excellent quality, freshly picked produce at considerable savings. And the other aspect to buying healthful foods at a very low price is from the food cooperatives, which are growing very rapidly in the city and outlying areas. And these are of course nonprofit organizations that are owned by the volunteers, and so they're able to buy food in bulk, and again, eliminate a lot of the middle men, the cost of advertising, and so the food is also offset by the fact that the volunteers, the members of the co-op, are actually doing the work.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in right here just for one second to say if you're just tuning in we're speaking with writer Jonell Nash and nutritionist Rovenia Brock, aka Dr. Ro, about eating healthy on a budget. We want to hear from you too. What are your tips for keeping the food bill down without resorting to the Ramen noodles? You can call our comment line at 202-842-3522 or hit us on the Tell Me More page at npr.org. You can comment on any aspect of escalating food prices and how to eat well on a budget. Dr. Ro?

Dr. BROCK: You know, I just wanted to pick up on something that Jonell said earlier, Michel, and that is the food co-ops in this economy of rising food costs and everything, it's a good idea, if you live in an apartment building or a complex or something, to get together with your neighbors and form your own co-op so that you can go either to grocery stores or go to other stores that sell food in bulk, buy it as a community, and then distribute it amongst your neighbors. And you could even sell it, you know, to people who live in your community, and you set it up either in a basement in a rec room, at a church, or wherever it's convenient, but you could decide to do this with say five other neighbors that you're going to choose one day a month and go to do the bulk shopping for the community and save, you know, tremendously that way.

MARTIN: But I can hear some people saying, I don't have time for that. It all takes time. How do you - how do you manage the time that it takes because it does take time to shop carefully, to make that list, to prepare the food, and I can just imagine people saying, listen, I'm a single mom I got all these - I got, you know, two kids, I work full time, and when am I supposed to do about that?

Dr. BROCK: You're going to have - the time is going to pass anyway. You're going to have to do it. You're going to have to be doing something in that time. That's the point. You have to feed your family anyway. So we can't pooh pooh it away with the whole nation that, you know, I'm so overwhelmed I can't take the time. If you are joining a food co-op for example with your neighbors, the good news is that you can distribute the work, you see what I'm saying? So one person gathers the sales, one person takes responsibility for some aspect of that shopping, so in other words, it becomes, you know, a community affair, and the load of the work is not all on you.

MARTIN: Jonell, what about some of the big-box stores like Costco or Wal-Mart that sell a lot of these, what do you call them, mega stores, Costco, Sam's Club and BJs, you know, the prices seem great. What's your take on that?

Ms. NASH: Well, the prices are great, and you have to determine though if buying in gigantic sizes, if that's right for you and your family. There is a membership fee, and that might range up to about 50 dollars, but if you have a large family, or again, if you are sharing with other members of your family or in the community, then it could be very practical. The savings can be quite tremendous. Those - the stores - they are again gigantic, and it does in a sense - they can be rather time consuming. But again, if you set the time aside, if you plan for it, again there are definitely good bargains to be had in the mass stores.

MARTIN: Dr. Ro, you were telling us earlier that there are some particular foods that offer significant nutritional punch for the dollar. Any other suggestions on that point?

Dr. BROCK: Yeah. You know, we talked about produce, and I can't say enough how important it is to get fresh fruits and vegetables in a diet because the more you do the better off you're able to stave chronic diseases, heart disease, hypertension, type two diabetes. If in fact it's about budget, as Jonell said earlier, the planning of course is essential, but it doesn't mean that you cannot have, you know, fresh produce. In fact, you should. There are some cases where you could sort of back that up with frozen vegetables, even for convenience, canned fruit, and it's packed in its own juice, so you can have a combination of those things, but you definitely want to make sure that you have adequate vegetables and fruit in the diet. You want to make sure that you have adequate whole grains so brown rice in place of white rice, whole grain pasta, and other grains that we don't normally use in our diet like quinoa, looks like "kee-NO-a" but pronounced "keen-wa," pearl barley - we want to have a number of those kinds of grains. And beans, again, for pennies a serving, you can have one of the best protein sources that is also high in fiber and a great complex carb at the same time.

MARTIN: I get the impression that you're saying actually maybe you start your meal planning there. Start with the veggies…

Dr. BROCK: Yes. And go out from there.

MARTIN: ...The beans, and go out from there. A lot of us are used to thinking the other way, you know, start with the meat. You're saying no, go the other way.

Dr. BROCK: Go the other way. We're so accustomed to having this boring brown and beige American diet of meat and potatoes, which is the stuff that's put us in the position that we find ourselves today.

MARTIN: Jonell, you have a couple of other great tips in your piece, and one that I liked was look at the ingredients, if you can't pronounce it, don't buy it. But finally, you said eat with the seasons, look for the fruits and vegetables that are in season. Why does that matter? Why is that important?

Ms. NASH: Oh. I think that's most important in that when you're buying produce, when the produce - when it's really at its peak at its height of availability and harvest, actually that's when the flavor is highest, the nutrition is highest, and actually the cost - the prices are lower. So it's just a very practical thing to do. And when we eat with the seasons it really puts us just sort of in sync with nature, and it is I think in a sense it just sort of touches us on a more soulful level.

MARTIN: And it's pretty too. The food is prettier. All right. We have to leave it there. Rya Jonell Nash's article "Healthy Food Shopping for Less" is published in Essence magazine's August issue. It's on the stands now. She's food editor there and she joined us in our New York bureau. And Dr. Rovenia Brock, a nutritionist and author of "Dr. Ro's 10 Secrets to Living Healthy," joined us in our Washington studio. And I have to tell you, she is looking fabulous, and fit and I'm kind of jealous right now, but thank you so much despite that fact.

Dr. BROCK: It's always a pleasure.

Ms. NASH: Thank you very much, Michel.

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