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Nutrition, On the Cheap

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Eating healthfully is easy to do when you have the money to dine on wild Alaskan salmon, arugula and fresh raspberries. But is it is possible to eat well on a tight budget?

That's a question that often surfaces in Lean Plate Club Web chats. Fast-food restaurants provide plenty of choices that are easy on your wallet, but it's rare to find nutritional bargains there.

You can stretch your dollars a lot further if you're willing to cook at home. Just ask Mark Erickson, a certified master chef and vice president for continuing education at the Culinary Institute of America. Though he helps train chefs for some of the finest restaurants in the world, Erickson is quick to note that "dining at home is a lot less expensive than dining out every night."

Trouble is, who has the time to cook?

That's something that Erickson struggles with, too. Each week, he commutes between his family home in suburban Atlanta and the two Culinary Institute campuses, in California's Napa Valley and Hyde Park, N.Y. He has a dormitory room at one, an efficiency apartment at the other. Despite the peripatetic lifestyle and cramped quarters, he makes it a habit to cook most nights for himself or his family, which he views "as a form of recreation, not a chore."

Those of us who aren't trained as chefs might not see it the same way. But Erickson says he's just like the rest of us and often faces nights when he feels too tired to cook. To cope, he has developed some easy -- and inexpensive--shortcuts that can help cut your grocery bills, lure you back into the kitchen and make you more efficient once you get there:

· Invest in a few basic tools. Erickson can cut, slice and dice fast with two very sharp, moderately priced knives: a paring knife and a chef's knife. Both are made of stainless steel and carbon. Keep them sharp with a steel sharpening tool. Other kitchen essentials include: a vegetable peeler, colander, sheet pan and a solid cutting board that fits comfortably on your kitchen counter.

· Make "planned-overs." Restaurants survive on the strategy of "cook once, use twice," Erickson says. You can, too. So the Sunday night roast chicken can become the Monday night soup, stir-fry or chicken taco. No need to limit this strategy to dinner. Thin slices of leftover chicken or other roast meats are cheaper than deli cold cuts for lunch.

Erickson loves oatmeal. So while cooking dinner, he sticks a pot of steel-cut oatmeal on the stove, then divides it into individual portions. Reheated in the microwave, each is a fast breakfast served with fruit, cinnamon and a little milk. Or saute them in a pan with some prosciutto, mushrooms, herbs and a little Parmesan cheese, and they become oatcakes for dinner. The trick, Erickson says, is to have a plan. Find a template to help create a week's worth of meals at http://www.leanplateclub.com.

· Be your own butcher. Turn rack of lamb into chops at a fraction of the cost you'd pay at the grocery. Boneless chicken breasts often cost $6 or more per pound -- more than three times the cost per pound of whole chicken. Use the back and necks to flavor soup, broth or stew. If you do buy boneless, skinless poultry or meat, choose family packs of store brands, which usually cost far less than brand names. Wrap and freeze what you don't need for future meals.

· Skip bottled water. A good home filtration system produces water at a fraction of the cost and eliminates recycling. Brew your own coffee and bring it to work in a thermos to save a couple of dollars per cup. Save at least a dollar per cup by brewing your own tea.

· Seek frozen bargains. Fresh cherries can cost $8 or more per pound. But frozen, unsweetened fruit has the same nutritional punch for much less money. Use them in smoothies, cooking, mixing with other fruit or even for eating slightly thawed. Year-round bargains include bananas (about 30 to 60 cents per pound), apples and pears (both about $ 1.50 per pound). Find farmers markets by Zip code at http://www.localharvest.com.

· Stretch your budget with vegetables. Dried beans cost just pennies per serving. A vegetable omelet with two eggs costs about 50 cents -- half the price of one item on a fast-food dollar menu.

· Reach for cheap, good fats. Fresh, heart-healthy fish can run $18 per pound and higher. But there are plenty of penny-

pinching options. Catfish and farm-raised salmon cost about $7 per pound. Canned fish -- anchovies, tuna, sardines, clams -- have the same fatty acids and cost from 50 cents to $4 per can. Another option: pickled herring, just a few dollars per jar and loaded with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

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