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20 ways to pinch pennies and still eat healthy

Have you tried organic goji berries from the Himalayas?

An acquired taste, the antioxidant-rich jewels look a lot like red raisins. You can buy a bag at health food stores, but at $14 to $18 a pound, they aren't considered cheap eats.

But trying to trim your food budget doesn't mean you should give up on making healthy choices.

Here is a list of 20 easy ways (and a few recipes from The Star's weekly Eating for Life column, on E3) to help keep your food budget and your waistline trim.

1. Kiss food fads goodbye. Sure, pomegranate juice is yummy and good for you. But you can approximate the same flavor in drinks, cocktails or smoothies by adding less expensive cranberry juice and still get that antioxidant burst. An even less expensive substitution: 1 cup red grape juice (still quite high in antioxidants) and 1 teaspoon lemon juice.

2. Save more with savvy recipe substitutions. If a recipe calls for a high-fat ingredient such as sour cream, consider using plain yogurt instead. If the recipe calls for an exotic ingredient, swap a less expensive one. From abalone to zwieback, The Food Substitution Bible (Robert Rose) by David Joachim is one of the best resources on the subject.

Case in point: While testing a recipe a few weeks ago, I needed eight Szechuan peppercorns. After two trips to the Asian market, I wound up buying a lifetime supply. Wow, I could have substituted 2 teaspoons black peppercorns plus 1 teaspoon lemon zest or 1 tablespoon salt-free lemon pepper seasoning.

A more compact substitution guide is available free at

3. Bag your own lettuce. Salads may be a dieter's delight, but bagged salad mixes are rarely a bargain. Buy lettuce and other greens by the head. Wash and chop leaves yourself, then store in a zipper-top bag. Want an even bigger bang for your buck? Buy a super-large quantity of salad mix at a warehouse store and split it with a friend.

4. Bulk up on spices. Spices are loaded with antioxidants. To save money, buy from bulk bins. Although it may sound counterintuitive, buying spices this way allows you to buy only the amount called for in a recipe, so there's no waste.

Keep in mind whole spices are the best value and last longer, up to two years. Powdered red spices, such as paprika, chili powder and cayenne, which typically have a one-year shelf life, last longer when stored in the refrigerator.

5. Munch money. Popcorn is a budget-friendly snack food. And it's a whole grain. Keep in mind the kernels need not be oozing butter to taste utterly delicious. You can easily transform plain popcorn with a dab of your favorite seasoning blend, a sprinkling of fresh herbs or a shaving of Parmesan cheese.

6. DIY dressings. Bottled salad dressings are pricey and usually loaded with preservatives. Instead, use oil and vinegar at a ratio of 3-to-1.

Resist the urge to buy olive oil in bulk since it goes bad in as little as three months once it's opened. And don't you dare pitch that vinegar lurking in the back of the pantry. Cook's Illustrated reports commercial brands contain 5 percent acetic acid and have been pasteurized for a long, long shelf life. If there is sediment at the bottom, simply filter the clouds away with a coffee filter.

7. Down-size dinner -- and dessert. Americans have grown used to bagels the size of hubcaps. So when meal-planning, keep in mind a serving of meat should be no larger than a deck of cards, an ounce of cheese is about the size of Monopoly dice, and a medium piece of fruit the size of a tennis ball.

But don't skip dessert just because you're keeping tabs on portion distortion. In tough times dessert is good for your psyche -- and it's easy to downsize with mini-muffin or tiny tart pans. (See Key Lime Tartlets, recipe above.)

8. Save with speedy grains. Quick-cooking grains like barley, couscous and quinoa are economical and quick to fix.

But if you want to add more grains to your diet, there is a world of others including sorghum and spelt. (See Quick-Cooking Grains above.)

9. A big return on investment. Most nuts and seeds are pricey but well worth the investment healthwise since they're loaded with hearty-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show that nuts and seeds also help you to feel full longer throughout the day. To keep nuts and seeds from turning rancid quickly, be sure to store in the freezer.

10. A cereal two-fer. No need to promenade down the pricey, presweetened cereals aisle. Just keep walking right past those breakfast bars and boutique granolas. Grab a barrel of old-fashioned rolled oats and you're doing your heart -- and wallet -- a favor.

A versatile staple, you can use rolled oats to make oatmeal or to make your own granola. To avoid boredom, experiment with different natural sweeteners (maple syrup, honey, molasses, agave and so forth) and vary the dried fruit and nut combinations you choose. (See Blueberry Cashew Granola, recipe above.)

11. Get more bang for your organic buck. The Organic Food Shopper's Guide (Wiley) lists 20 foods that might be worth paying more for if you are concerned about pesticide residue: apples, beef, bell peppers, carrots, celery, cherries, chicken, citrus, coffee, corn, eggs, imported grapes, milk, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries.

12. Snack attack. Nearly every snack chip, cookie or bar is available in 100-calorie snack packs, but do you really want to pay a premium to have someone else throw a few cheese crackers in a sandwich baggie?

Buy in bulk and take a few minutes to portion them into your own reusable containers. Not sure what 100 calories looks like? With most snacks, it's about a handful, but check the nutrition labels.

13. Budget beef. Like butter and eggs, beef is no longer considered a nutritional bad boy. Red meat provides protein, vitamin B-12 and iron. Still, steak is pricey even in the best of times, so choose lean beef cuts that are more moderately priced.

Consider recipes that call for bottom round steak, hanger steak, tri-tip, shoulder tender or shoulder center steak. Remember to eat a moderate amount of meat in your overall diet.

14. Fizz for less. Instead of buying pricey carbonated juice drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners, make your own thirst-quenching spritzer using sparkling water and just a splash of 100 percent fruit juice.

Take a long sip and feel the jingle in your pocket. That extra change used to help pay all those superstar spokesmodels to advertise those pricey soda and juice drinks. Now it's yours. (See Raspberry Green Tea Cooler, recipe at left.)

15. Save a penny. Bakery cakes, cupcakes and pies are pricier than baking from scratch. And to extend the shelf life, most contain hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fats. When you bake it yourself, you control the kinds of fats, sugar and flours you use.

16. Trickle-down economics. Drink more tap water. It's good for you. It fills you up. It's free.

17. Pint-size purees. Making your own purees for baby keeps the ingredient list as simple to decipher as ABC. But it's also downright trendy, judging from all the baby food cookbooks and specialized gadgets, including the Williams-Sonoma (NYSE:WSM) Beaba Babycook, a food processor that retails for $150.

All you really need is a decent food processor or an inexpensive food mill. Plan on pureeing the family dinner, and keep an eye out for produce on sale. Use freezer trays to freeze the food, then pop the cubes into a zip-top freezer bag for storage.

18. Bargain-basement beans. How low can you go? Beans are one of the most inexpensive staples you can add to your shopping list. Loaded with protein, fiber and folates, they're also one of the most nutritious.

Slow cookers are a great way to speed up the cooking time. Canned beans cost a little more, but are still healthy if you rinse and drain to remove the sodium that they're processed with.

19. Waste less food. Americans are reported to waste anywhere between 15 percent and 30 percent of all food they buy.

Guilty? Make your own vegetable stock from vegetable remnants. Roast a whole chicken, and find clever ways to sneak leftovers into the menu. Turn a stale heel of bread in breadcrumbs. Save the yolk, even when the recipe only calls for egg whites.

Just keep in mind you can take frugality too far. The Partnership for Food Safety Education reminds consumers there are limits to safe leftovers. For more info, go to

20. Luxurious leftovers. Take what lurks in the shadows of the refrigerator and make them into a sumptuous meal or snack. For instance, you can turn a lowly head of cabbage into something fit for the deli with the addition of a curry dressing, blue cheese crumbles, or a handful of nuts and dried cranberries.


Blueberry Cashew Granola

Makes 10 servings

2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2/3 cup unsalted cashew halves

1/2 cup wheat germ

1/3 cup unsalted sunflower seeds

1/3 cup molasses

1/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon canola oil

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

1 cup dried blueberries

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with nonstick vegetable cooking spray.

Combine the oats, cashews, wheat germ and sunflower seeds in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the molasses, honey, oil, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour molasses mixture over oat mixture and stir well to combine. Spread evenly in prepared pan.

Bake 30 minutes or until golden, stirring after 15 minutes and frequently after that. Remove from oven and cool completely. Stir blueberries into granola mixture.

Per ( 1/2 -cup) serving: 317 calories (27 percent from fat), 10 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 52 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 8 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.


Key Lime Tartlets

Makes 12 servings

12 crisp gingersnap cookies

3 eggs, at room temperature

1 (14-ounce) can fat-free sweetened condensed milk

3/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice plus grated lime zest from all limes (about 6 to 7 Persian limes or 12 to 14 Key limes)

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup heavy whipping cream, whipped

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line 12 muffin cups with paper liners. Spray each paper liner with nonstick spray coating. Place a cookie in each paper liner.

Whisk together eggs, milk, lime juice, lime zest and vanilla until well-blended. Pour a scant 1/4 cup lime mixture into each cup. Bake 16 to 19 minutes or until firm; do not overbake. Allow hot tarts to set in pan about 10 minutes. Carefully lift each tart from the pan and place on a tray. Cool completely, then refrigerate several hours or overnight. Dollop with 1 tablespoon whipped cream.

Per serving: 151 calories (19 percent from fat), 3 grams total fat (2 grams saturated), 9 milligrams cholesterol, 28 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams protein, 82 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Raspberry Green Tea Cooler

Makes 4 servings

2 raspberry green tea bags

1 cup light cranberry juice cocktail

2 cups 0 calorie raspberry sparkling water

Fresh raspberries, for garnish

Slice of lime, for garnish

Heat 1 cup water to a boil. Add tea bags and allow to steep 3 to 5 minutes. Pour into a pitcher and add 1 additional cup of water. Add cranberry juice and raspberry sparkling water. Serve with ice and, if desired, float a few fresh raspberries in glass as a garnish. Serve with a wedge of lime if desired.

Per (1 1/4 -cup) serving: 18 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 4 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 5 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Quick cooking grains

If the time commitment of whole grains trips you up, try cooking grains in the pressure cooker.

Barley, pearl: 18 minutes

Barley, hulled and hull-less: 18 minutes

Hominy: 45 minutes

Oat groats (whole oats): 30 minutes

Rice, brown basmati, medium-, short- and long-grain: 15 minutes

Rice, whole-grain blends that call for 45 minutes cooking time: 15 minutes

Rye berries: 25 minutes

Sorghum, whole: 28 minutes

Wheat berries: 35 minutes

Spelt: 35 minutes

Wild rice: 25 minutes


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