Eat better for less

Michelle Obama has been in the news a lot recently as she continues her fight to reduce childhood obesity through her “Let’s Move” campaign. The latest assault against her initiative has come from people in our House of Representatives. They want to undo school food service reforms that were passed in 2010. Amazingly, these people, people we elected, oppose children being served more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in their school cafeterias. They also don’t think limits should be put on the amount of sodium, fat, and calories in the foods served in schools. This became apparent in the House spending bill released in mid-May. It would let schools opt out of the new nutrition standards that the first lady has promoted through the “Let’s Move” campaign.

Why on earth would anyone oppose healthier food in schools? Well, there are a few reasons, but one of the main reasons is some kids clearly don’t eat healthy food at home. As a result, there was a lot of whining at school about not being able to eat the unhealthy food they eat at home when they’re eating school cafeteria food. Consequently, some kids just stopped buying their lunch at school. That hurt some school’s bottom lines, so some of those schools want a waiver. They want to be exempt from the standards so they can make more money at the expense of our next generation’s health.

Don’t be fooled. While serving unhealthy food in school may generate a little more income for the schools now, it will cost you, me and all the rest of this country’s tax payers plenty more down the road in increased health care costs.

All of this seems more than just a little crazy when there are many ways to eat better for less. The schools and all of the rest of us just need to be creative and follow some simple strategies to save money on food. It is possible to spend less while still being able to serve healthy and tasty food and beverages.

Probably the single smartest thing any of us can do when shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables is to buy produce in season, when it’s usually less expensive and at peak flavor. But be smart. Buy only what you can use before it spoils or preserve it. The easiest way to preserve produce is usually by freezing it. If you’re craving something that is not in season, buy it canned. Just be sure to choose fruit canned in 100 percent fruit juice and vegetables with “low-sodium” or “no salt added” on the label. These canned products are just as nutritious as fresh produce, and they often cost less, especially when the produce is in season. If you have the budget and the space, stock up when canned goods are on sale. The same is true if you have the freezer space. Buy frozen vegetables without added sauces or butter. They’re as good for you as fresh and often cost less. Remember, not only do canned and frozen fruits and vegetables last much longer than fresh, they can also provide you with a quick and easy way to add fruits and vegetables to any meal.

The 2010 nutritional guidelines recommend we all make half our grains whole grains, so when shopping, check ingredient lists and pick the items that have a whole grain listed first. Whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, bulgur, buckwheat, oatmeal, whole-grain cornmeal, whole oats, and whole rye. Of those, rice and pasta are often the most budget-friendly grain options. It usually doesn’t cost any more to switch to whole-wheat crackers for snacking and you can save a bundle by popping your own popcorn. For breakfast, hot cereals like plain oatmeal or whole grain dry cereal can cost a lot less than convenience foods.

You can save money on protein sources by using more beans and peas in your meal planning. Kidney beans, split peas, and lentils are great sources of protein for main or side dishes. They’re very filling and cost far less than a similar amount of other protein foods. If you do want to serve meat you can lower your costs by purchasing family-sized or value pack sizes and freezing what you don’t use right away. Choose lean meats like chicken or turkey and when buying ground beef, make sure it’s lean (92 percent lean / 8 percent fat) ground beef. Seafood is another great protein source and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Try canned tuna, salmon, or sardines – they all store well and don’t cost much. Eggs are also a great low-cost option, are easy to prepare and can be served at any meal.

In terms of dairy foods, choose low- fat or fat-free milk, which provide just as much calcium, but fewer calories than whole and 2% milk. You can save money by buying the larger size of low-fat plain yogurt instead of individual flavored yogurts. If you prefer more flavor, save more by mixing in your own fruits. You can save money on cheese by shredding your own and buying in larger portions, if you’ll use it before the expiration date. Look for “reduced fat,” or “low-fat” cheese. However, no matter what dairy foods you buy, always check the sell-by date to make sure you’re buying the freshest.

You can also save a ton of money by drinking water instead of sodas or other sugary drinks. Tap water is not only free, it has zero calories, so invest in a reusable water bottle to have water with you wherever you go.

You can find more nutrition information at ChooseMyPlate.gov and for more ideas to improve your family’s health, call to learn about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. Learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CCE-Chautauqua is part of a network of extension associations, programs and services located across the state and nation. For more information , call 664-9502 ext. 217 or visit the website at www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua.

If you, or people you know, are struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov/, or contact your local social services office.

If you’re looking for healthier snack options, try our tasty Peanut Butter Energy Balls. They’re budget friendly and especially fun to make with kids, so roll up their sleeves and let them get busy squishing all the ingredients together and forming these yummy sweet treats.

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County.