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(JOHN MACDOUGALL)
(JOHN MACDOUGALL)

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Keeping a balanced diet on a tight budget Add to ...

Some good friends of ours have been on a new diet for a few weeks. After consulting with a nutritionist, the couple is eating healthier and losing weight. The diet isn't complicated. They're cutting out processed foods and eating more lean proteins and green, leafy vegetables.

What they're not eating is perhaps more relevant. They're avoiding the foods that are staples in my home - bread, rice, potatoes and pasta. Not only are these foods filling and comforting, they happen to be relatively cheap. It's easy to build budget and family-friendly meals that revolve around these ingredients.

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While my friends are looking slimmer, their grocery bill is getting pretty chunky. It's expensive to subsist on a diet of lean proteins and greens. Beef, boneless chicken breasts and fresh fish are among priciest items at the grocery store.

Now, I'm not advocating my friends' diet for everyone. They have a professional dietician who designed a program for their specific needs. Grains and starches continue to play a role in my meal-planning, along with proteins and veggies.

But even for those of us not on a protein-rich, carb-free diet, it's challenging to stick to nutritious meals on a budget. Studies have shown that junk foods often cost less than fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods. Even with competition starting to drive prices down at the country's largest supermarkets, families are feeling the strain in today's economy. We all want to eat high-quality food, but it takes willpower to avoid the hot dogs and instant macaroni and cheese on sale.

A recent article by MCT News Service writer Jill Wendholt Silva pulled together " 20 ways to pinch pennies and still eat healthfully". Among them are some of my favourite money-saving ideas, such as cutting up a head of lettuce instead of buying a prepared bag of salad, using beans as a source of protein, and controlling portions. Did you know that a serving of meat should be no larger than a deck of cards? That juicy 12-ounce steak isn't only pricey; it packs enough beef to feed a family of four.

Her best piece of advice? "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."

On the Nutrition-Wise Blog, Mayo Clinic nutrionists Jennifer Nelson and Katherine Zeratsky recommend cheap, but healthy, food alternatives. "If fresh fruits are out of season and beyond your budget, buy frozen or canned. Just make sure canned fruit is in its own juice," they say. You should also consider buying large containers of low-fat yogurt instead of the more expensive individual containers and choosing protein-rich peanut butter or light canned tuna over higher-priced processed meats.

You may find that the trickiest aspect of eating healthy on a budget isn't finding the raw ingredients - it's finding the time to cook them. Buying prepared and take-out foods are convenient and dinner is ready as soon as you get home. But it's also the fastest way to blow a tight food budget, along with a healthy diet.

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