Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 16, 2014

On the cheap: You can eat healthy on a budget


---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Amy Daniels Moehle knows there's almost nothing cheap about feeding a family, especially when it comes to trying to push healthy food to her husband and two daughters.

Moehle lives near Buelah and has spent countless hours trying to feed her family a diet of good food that doesn't break the bank. And she's become pretty good at it.

But feeding a relatively large family on a budget takes a lot of work, she said.

"I have a family of four and I don't work outside of the home," Daniels Moehle said. "We have gone through times of naught and times of plenty."

Tuesday night, with help from her daughters, Nadia and Sonja, she whipped up a budget-minded menu of carbonara with chicken thighs and lemon served alongside broccoli.

Her husband, David, owns and operates an electric contracting company, so the family has witnessed the ups and downs in the economy as much as anyone.

During the tighter times, she developed strategies to stretch every dollar in her family's food budget while still maintaining a healthy diet.

That's why, when Daniels Moehle perused the latest edition of Natural Foods News from Oryana Natural Foods Market, she was surprised to see a shopping list and attached menu that boasts it can feed a family of four for less than $125 per week.

"I have a lot of experience with this," she said. "I know that it can be done. I think the change came when I recognized the value in every piece of food."

Daniels Moehle learned to re-purpose every piece of leftover food. She also struggled with the reality that it takes a lot more creativity to get children to eat leftover food than experts would suggest.

"We can talk all day about what the experts say," she said. "The other thing is how do you apply it to modern life."

She leaned to hit the store with a loose idea of what she would like to cook, but to let bargains she found shape her week's menu. She learned to look at sale flyers. And to spot red tags in the grocery store.

"If the bananas have a red tag, they're half-price," she said. "I think a lot of times we are absolutely spoiled because we have food all around us."

Oryana's menu is simple and takes advantage of every sale and discount available. There are no steaks or lobster tails on the grocery list, but it's not beans, lentils and rice all week either. And it recycles only a few meals into lunches.

"First, I wanted to do it under $100," said Luise Bolleber, outreach and marketing specialist for Oryana. "We wanted to show people it is possible to eat healthy and live on a budget. You have to cook, though. You can't buy prepared foods."

Bolleber took advantage of every store sale and discount she could find to keep on budget. She has tools most shoppers don't — like easy access to stroll through the store and check prices before assembling a menu. Still, the task of compiling the budget-minded list was tough, she said.

The result was a menu of healthy food and a corresponding shopping list that rang up a total bill lower than the lowest cost estimate published recently by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's table of average food plan prices.

The tables, published each month, estimate that the most thrifty households should be able to feed a family of four for a week for about $146.

Jennifer Berkey, an extension educator for Michigan State University, often coaches families who struggle with tight budgets on how to stretch their dollars. There are several things she tells families when she teaches classes on how to eat well on a budget.

"You can still try to buy fresh produce if you get what's in season," she said. "Living in northern Michigan has its advantages, but it certainly has a limited growing season."

Berkey also tells her students to look toward the freezer section when the price of fresh produce climbs during the winter.

"Frozen food actually tends to be of good quality," she said.

But she warns people to look to products that are just vegetables, instead of packages that include sauces. Many products that include sauce packets cost more and include more sodium and fat than a scratch-made meal.

The most effective way to eat healthy on a budget remains cooking at home from scratch, she said.

It's a lesson Daniels Moehle learned over time.

"If you are shopping on a budget, you don't go with a menu, you go with an idea," she said. "I couldn't cook like this 15 years ago, but I've cooked my whole life."