As long as healthy food costs more than junk, we'll seek the best choices for both your belly and wallet.
If you're tossing organic produce into your grocery cart with wild abandon, the final bill might be wince-worthyÂyou'll typically spend 30% to 50% more than you would on the conventional type. But there's a real difference: About three-quarters of traditionally grown produce show traces of pesticides, while only one in four organic fruits and veggies do, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Splurge on organic produce with soft skin or that you eat skin and all (like apples, peaches, bell peppers, strawberries, pears, and lettuce), but save on foods that are fairly pesticide-free thanks to their tougher outer layers (like bananas, kiwifruit, onions, mangoes, pineapples, and broccoli). Wash all items well with soap, water, and a brush, but skip the fancy veggie and fruit washes; the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) don't recommend them.
Your best bet for the environment and your health? Shop at your local farmers market for close-to-home foods that require less shipping, which means fewer greenhouse gases and lower costsÂeven for organics.
Organic choices in the meat and diary aisles are less straightforward. Beef, poultry, eggs, and milk rarely cop to pesticides, but conventional producers sometimes use antibiotics and hormones on their animals. Although less than 1% of meat shows traces of antibiotics later, there's some evidence that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are more common in conventionally produced cuts than in organic products. You'll pay as much as 100% more for organic meat and dairy, but if you're a big meat eater or milk drinker it may be worth the investment.
Here's how to decode the stickers on your food: A five-digit number starting with nine means it's organic; a four-digit number means it's conventionally grown.
Fortified waters, although tasty, can come with big doses of calories. And if you're really running low on your recommended intake of vitamins, a multi might work better. If you're tempted by fancy waters because you hate plain H2O, try this trick from Jessica Ganzer, a registered dietitian in Arlington, Va. Fill a pitcher with water, throw in some lemon, lime, and orange slices, and refrigerate for a tasty, cheap drink. Just can't resist flavored or vitamin water? Choose calorie-free.
Diet frozen meals
In a perfect world you'd cook a big batch of healthy food and freeze the leftovers. "Cook once and eat three times," dietitian Jessica Ganzer suggests. "You'll enjoy all the benefits of a prepackaged dinner without the added sodium and preservatives." Smart advice, but when you're running late it's good to know that affordable frozen meals have come a long way since their tasteless, sodium-laden predecessors. "They can be an effortless way to control calories," Ganzer says. "I tell my clients to keep some in the freezer for emergencies." A few good brands: Kashi, Amy's, and Lean Cuisine offer whole grains and lean protein and work to keep sodium low. You can find most frozen entrees for $3 to $5 per meal, and they cook in less than 10 minutes (some in less than five) in the microwave. Add a cup of veggies for good measure because some packaged meals don't include a ton of the green stuff.
Fancy kitchen gadgets
If you're a techno-chef who loves to play with the latest machinesÂand you'll actually use that juicer that will take over your counter spaceÂit might be worth the investment. But if you're part of the use-it-once-and-forget-it crowd, these four low-cost items are all you'll need to whip up plenty of healthy fare.
Nonstick skillet ($50 to $150)
A skillet with a great nonstick coating allows you to cook with minimal oil; the surface is perfect for stir-frying veggies, scrambling egg whites, and prepping healthy sauces. Try one in a larger size (12 inches) and look for deep sides, a fitted lid, and an oven-safe handle. Price isn't a great indicatorÂin recent tests of nonstick cookware, Consumer Reports found that cost had nothing to do with performance. Their top pick: Kirkland Signature cookware from Costco. (A whole set costs less than $200.) Calphalon nonstick pans perform well, too. And budgetistas can get a good $50 nonstick pan by Bialetti.
Bamboo steamer ($20 or less)
This age-old cooking method requires no oil (just add water), and it will allow your food to retain most of its nutrients and flavor. Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and www.amazon.com offer bamboo-steamer sets for $20 or less.
Steam bags ($5)
If you don't want to commit to an actual steamer, try the new microwave steam bags from Glad and Ziploc: Just throw in your veggies and follow the instructions on the back. Foods are crisp and deliciousÂand virtually fat-free!
Grill pan ($25)
If you're dying to throw some shrimp on the barbie, invest in a heavy grill pan, which can withstand much higher temperatures than a nonstick skillet. You'll achieve the same resultsÂgrill marks, low-fat cookingÂthat you would with a more expensive countertop grill but for less money. Tuesday Morning and other outlets carry a variety of low-price options.