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April, 2009

A Natural Stimulus Package

By Dennis Linden

One of the few places in a personal budget that can be flexed is one’s food expenditures. Fixed monthly costs like rent, mortgage and utilities leave little room for cutting costs, but we can all make decisions about what to eat or, more to the point, what we can afford to eat.
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Consequently, when times get economically tough and/or living expenses rise quicker than earnings, people tend to eat cheaper, less healthy foods. However, there is a nutritious way to tighten one’s food belt that will be a net gain in nutritional value and have a lower tally at the cash register than your current grocery list. With the spike in fuel prices last summer, the retail pricing of all dairy, meat, fish, fowl, bakery and canned goods shot up considerably and have, in fact, stayed high. These days we all find ourselves curbing those impulse buys that used to be our little rewards to ourselves and choosing a little cheaper, higher fat content, cut of meat. However, the one department in every supermarket where there are no unwholesome options is Fresh Produce. All fruits and vegetables are nutritious, flavorful and good for you, no matter the price; plus there are plenty of affordable “special treat” items in the fruit section, which usually offers several delectable fresh delicacies from exotic places around the globe at any time of the year.

This is the one department in the market that can always be counted on to have several sales going on that reflect each season’s crop production. The retail price of fresh produce is based on a very basic dynamic called Supply vs. Demand. That means that there will be fresh items in the produce department that are pricey because they are in very short supply, it also means that there usually are seasonal bounties, aka bumper crops, that need to be moved through the marketplace at a price that will sell this oversupply while it is still fresh. This limited shelf life works in favor of consumers, which is why there are so many sale items to be had at any one time.

One easy way to save on the food budget is by just adjusting the proportions purchased in the food categories on your grocery list. Going cold turkey on an item that you like to eat because of finances can be depressing and won’t work for long. So start by decreasing the amount, not the quality level, of the most inflationary foods in your diet, which are meat, fish, poultry and dairy. Make up the difference in volume on your plate with a larger helping of some delicious items chosen from the SALE rack over in the ever changing, ever dynamic, ever affordable produce department. Then, after a time, challenge yourself to prepare one dinner a week consisting of only vegetables, grains and fruit items. A veggie stir-fry is a great starter meal, served over a nutty tasting brown rice or perhaps a fried rice recipe without the traditional pork or shrimp ingredients.

From that one dinner each week, it’s an easy step to expand to lunch on that same day prepared under the same dietary parameters. In fact, think of the budget impact and nutritional earnings of one whole day of meals using only fresh produce and grains just once a week. That would be 52 days of meals in a year, representing 156 meals, costing about half as much by simply doing without fish, fowl, meat, cheese or bread on the plate – only three meals a week! More broccoli and less bread saves calories too.

This modest shakeup in one’s routine diet will pay off in more than fiscal savings, especially if you take the opportunity to expand your culinary knowledge as you try new fresh produce items in the name of variety. Fresh Produce is the one place in the retail market where the most flexibility and creativity is practiced in order to cater to local tastes; a good produce manager pays attention to what sells and listens to shoppers as far as what to sell. Not to mention the staff who tend the fresh displays are usually the friendliest and most knowledgeable personnel in the whole market. The produce department is an interesting and fun place to shop.

So call it a fresh produce stimulus package that turns these troubling economic times into a chance to develop a healthier and more affordable diet that we keep promising ourselves to do anyway. Instead of a chicken in every pot every day, replace it just once a week with a tropical fruit salad mixture on a bed of spring mix lettuces topped with a delicious tangerine sauce, like the one in this month’s Cookin’ With the Kids recipe, for instance. Done on a regular basis, you’ll also slim your waistline while keeping your wallet nice and plump.