Eating Better on a Budget

Adhering to the USDA's new dietary guidelines without breaking the bank

Enews Sept2011 MyPlate 260×180

Eating guidelines for Americans got a little bit simpler in January 2011, when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) retired its two-decade-old “food pyramid” and replaced it with a more literal model of healthy nutrition: MyPlate. The new model represents an ideal dietary balance of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein foods, in optimal proportions.

MyPlate is a visual accompaniment to the seventh edition of Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued jointly by USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. These guidelines have been routinely updated, based on best evidence, since their introduction in 1977.

Perhaps the most striking thing about MyPlate is that a full half of the ideal plate is made up of fruits and vegetables. Megan Boitano, registered dietitian and manager of clinical nutrition at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla, believes this bold visual reminder may have a more significant impact on eating behavior than its predecessor.

“After almost twenty years of the food pyramid, Americans still hadn’t gotten any getting healthier,” says Boitano. “In fact, we’ve been getting heavier with each passing decade. So the USDA took another look and asked, ‘could we use a new approach?’ MyPlate is a great teaching tool to help people become more aware of what they should be eating.”

For a 2,000-calorie diet, an ideal day’s nutrition looks like this:

  • Grains: 6 ounces (3 ounces whole)
  • Vegetables: 2.5 cups
  • Fruits: 2 cups
  • Dairy: 3 cups
  • Protein foods: 5.5 ounces

The USDA website includes an interactive personal calorie calculator that offers a MyPlate breakdown based on age, height, gender and weight.

Cutting the cost of healthy eating

Boitano acknowledges that eating several cups per day of fruits and vegetables may initially seem like a budget-buster. “It’s absolutely true that produce costs more than boxed noodle or rice mixes,” she says, “but there are a lot of ways we can fill up that half of the plate without breaking the bank.”

1. Buy produce in season

Apples are most plentiful from June through October, for example, while strawberries overflow in summer months. It’s always more affordable to eat what’s being harvested right now.

2. Plan ahead

Deciding beforehand what to put on the table can help you decide what to put in the cart. If you only shop once a week, a meal plan will help ensure you use up the most perishable items before they pass their peak.

3. Think frozen and canned

Low-salt vegetables and no-sugar-added fruits are nutritious additions to everyday meals, and you can stock up on them when you find them on sale so they’re always on hand.

4. Be realistic, not idealistic

If you know your family won’t devour that half plate if it’s covered in zucchini and broccoli, stick to “safer” items you already know they enjoy, like a big salad made from cucumbers, tomatoes, and artichoke hearts.

5. Cut down on—or stop—eating out

Meals you prepare at home cost just a fraction of the price for the giant, over-salted, fat-saturated meals served at many restaurants. Dedicate the dollars you save to fresh, healthy choices at the grocer’s.

6. Less protein leaves more $ for produce

The daily recommended amount of protein in a 2,000-calorie diet is just 5.5 ounces. Eggs, nuts, nut butters, poultry, beans and lentils can easily fulfill that requirement, and they are much more affordable than prime cuts of beef. Seafood, too, is more reasonably priced when you adjust portion sizes. Just a pound of shrimp can fulfill a family of four’s protein requirement for the whole day.

7. Shop outside the big box

Farmer’s markets, farm stands, and ethnic and specialty markets frequently sell freshly harvested produce for a just pennies on the dollar compared to big chain grocery stores, health foods giants or discount superstores. In Southern California, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and co-ops are plentiful and allow families to purchase organic, locally grown produce at deep discounts.

Take action

  • Make an appointment for individual nutrition counseling to get started on a healthy diet. Call 1-800 SCRIPPS ( 800-727-4777) for a referral.
  • Check out classes and programs at Scripps that are designed to teach you how to eat right, read food labels, shop smart and more.
  • Visit a weight management specialist to have a medically supervised weight loss plan tailored specifically for you.