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5 Ways to Improve Your Diet on the Cheap

Toni-Ann DiSantis

5 Ways to Improve Your Diet on the Cheap

Going to the trouble of preparing meals, shopping for ingredients and cooking at home obviously takes time. But it's time well spent: a home-cooked meal costs a fraction of its equivalent in take-out, and so long as you avoid the obvious no-nos — processed ingredients, calorie-laden frozen dishes — dinner prepared at home will almost always be healthier than anything picked up in a hurry at the drive-thru. If you're accustomed to ordering out or dining at restaurants three nights a week, for the good of your diet and your wallet commit to scaling back on restaurant bills by cooking one extra meal per week.

We all know that regrettable impulse buys are more likely when shopping with credit cards, compared with the more tangible act of counting out greenbacks. Now a study in the Journal of Consumer Research also shows that consumers shopping for food are more likely to avoid unhealthy "vice products" — that tempting  Nutrageous bar at the checkout line, for instance — when shopping with cash. Why? Paying with actual currency feels more real, and more painful than swiping a card, causing the consumer to think twice before making unhealthy or just plain silly decisions. It's also a good idea to have a snack before hitting the supermarket — because shopping on an empty stomach is a recipe for rounding up random goods that seem essential at the moment, but that wind up as "What was I thinking?"

Because everybody's strapped for time, and because it's often just as easy to cook for 10 as it is for two, the cooking co-op concept makes a lot of sense. The idea is that you team up with a few friends and neighbors and take turns cooking an evening's meal for the entire group. This way, participants get home-cooked meals several nights a week while only having to cook once. How-to books are written on the subject, but cooking co-ops don't have to be complicated. The biggest issue is finding members who are not only into the idea, but who agree on what exactly constitutes a healthy, tasty dinner. It's probably wise to hold a few potlucks for stealthy taste-testing before bringing up the idea and inviting members to a cooking co-op dream team.

By ordering strategically at restaurants, you can easily limit calories while trimming your tab. Obviously, entrees with fish or veggies are healthier and less expensive than the bloody porterhouse. But the sneakiest items on the menu are the extras — appetizers and dessert — which tack a few more dollars and often more than a few thousand extra calories into the equation. Forgoing both is best, of course, but also a bummer. So if you're going to pick one to go without, skip the appetizer, which is probably something deep-fried and unhealthy — and ultimately less satisfying and possibly worse for you than that piece of Death by Chocolate cake, which you can share with the entire table.

The fast food industry spends billions in TV advertising, much of it aimed at kids: children ages 6 to 11 watched an average of 3.5 fast food ads daily in 2009, up 34% from 2003. Fifteen percent of preschoolers, who see an average of 2.5 fast food TV ads daily, ask their parents to go to McDonald's or other fast-food chains every single day. And wouldn't you know it: by no small coincidence, 84% of parents said they purchase fast food for their kids at least once a week. The costs of these seemingly cheap meals add up quickly, in terms of money and also soaring obesity rates among kids and adults alike — because parents are apt to order a shake or a Number 7 for themselves when they're in line for some Happy Meals. To remedy the situation, parents must figure out a way to make fast food a once-in-a-while treat rather than a steady weekly (or several times weekly) occurrence. Accomplishing that goal may mean (God forbid) saying no to your kids, turning off the TV, or both.