Image: Girl eats a snack in a grocery cart.
Lisa Poole  /  AP file
A family of four spends about $5,300 a year on groceries, according to the Department of Labor. But even though the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables have increased 40 percent, there are ways you can still buy healthy foods without busting your budget.
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updated 4/2/2009 6:47:26 AM ET 2009-04-02T10:47:26

It took a vicious case of Lyme disease to convince Keith Schorsch to change his diet — and his family's. The 44-year-old Seattle resident credits his recovery to nutritional improvements, and ever since then he has insisted on organic, unprocessed, and low-sugar everything. He cut back on carbs, beefed up his protein intake, and lost 50 pounds in the process. His two young sons evince a genuine fondness for yogurt and broccoli. "Eating well and exercising properly changed my life," says Schorsch. "I can now run five to seven miles, whereas before I could run only one to two miles comfortably. And now I bike for two to four hours at a high heart rate; before I was more comfortable in the one-hour range."

The only problem is that Schorsch, CEO of the health networking site Trusera.com, and his wife, a marketing executive, would rather spend time with their kids than drive around town looking for organic tomatoes. And they can't just zip through the supermarket, throwing frozen dinners into the cart. "Ninety percent of the food in the store is stuff you don't want to eat," he says. "It takes a lot of time to learn how to stock up on food that's good for you." Plus, healthy food simply costs more. "It's definitely an extra expense," he says. A family of four spends about $5,300 a year on groceries, according to the Department of Labor.

Schorsch has developed a strategy for maximizing nutrition while minimizing time in the produce aisle. He goes online to order nonperishables such as nutrition bars and organic beef jerky, and every two months or so, he hits Costco to stock up on healthy staples such as brown rice and cheese. He and his wife keep a template shopping list for their regular stores, so when they run out of something, they just mark it on the appropriate list; it makes shopping faster and easier. To ensure the family enjoys a good dinner every evening, they've been paying a cook to come in and prepare five meals in advance every two weeks. "It actually costs less than takeout," he says.

The deck is stacked against a busy guy trying to feed his family healthful food. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that over a 15-year period the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 40 percent, while prices on sweets and soda dropped. Adam Drewnowski, PhD, director of the University of Washington Center for Obesity Research, found that a dollar buys 1,200 calories worth of potato chips and cookies but just 250 carrot calories. The government's agriculture policy actually encourages low prices for corn and soybeans, leading the food industry to produce cheap snacks full of corn syrup and soybean oil.

If you're willing to look beyond the grocer, however, here are six ways to improve your diet while saving cash and time.

Buy direct
Jake Brown, a communications director in Montpelier, Vermont, bypasses the supermarket whenever possible. Each fall, he buys a lamb from the farmer down the road, paying $70 for 50 pounds of meat that comes butchered and wrapped in meal-size portions. Another local farmer sells him a box of freshly harvested fruits and vegetables each week at a 15 percent discount. Not only does Brown save time, but "it's really top-notch quality," he says. "I just feel good about having my son eat this stuff."

The number of farms offering individual food subscriptions (known as CSAs, short for "community-supported agriculture") has grown from roughly 600 in the 1990s to more than 2,200 today. A typical CSA charges $400 to $600 for up to six months of freshly harvested fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, and even meat. A farm called 2Silos near Columbus, Ohio, offers a protein share: A typical month's bounty, for $60, might include 10 pounds of meat, including grass-fed steaks, breakfast sausage, free-range chicken, and lamb roast, plus two dozen eggs and extras such as soup bones and organ meats. The DeBerry Farm in Oakland, Maryland, offers a box of vegetables, herbs, berries, and melons for about $20 a week. Some deliver, while others drop boxes at a central location. Either way, you avoid the shopping-cart derby.

To find a CSA, go to localharvest.org. The site also has a directory of more than 9,000 farms that offer provisions ranging from honey and cheese to whole pigs.

Bottom line: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American family of four spends about $2,100 a year on meat and vegetables. That makes the annual $1,700 a year a hypothetical family would spend at 2Silos and DeBerry look like a pretty good deal.

Make it automatic
Set up a shopping list at a site such as peapod.com or freshdirect.com in the East, or winderfarms.com in the West, and you can do a week's shopping in minutes and have it delivered. For nonperishable items, consider amazon.com, where signing up for regular deliveries will knock 15 percent off your bill.

Bottom line: Delivery services save time, but may not save money. With Peapod, for instance, you'll pay a $10 delivery charge for orders under $75 (the price drops as you spend more). And some items cost more online than they do in the store; for instance, a box of Cheerios is $4.19 on Peapod, but $3.39 at the Giant supermarket affiliated with the site.

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Don't rule out warehouses
Okay, your idea of the perfect Saturday morning probably doesn't involve pushing a cart through Costco. But filling the trunk of your car this Saturday is a good way to avoid shopping trips for the rest of the month. There's a reason the store attracts customers with a median income of $100,000, and it's not the 64-ounce jars of mayonnaise. It's more like the 2005 Cos d' Estournel, an outstanding second-growth Bordeaux that will run you $299 a bottle at wine.com. It's just $199 a bottle at costco.com.

Bottom line: Buying in bulk can save significant money. Tropicana orange juice costs $1.31 a quart at Costco versus $2 a quart at Giant. Filippo Berio extra-virgin olive oil costs $6 a quart, versus $15.92 a quart at Giant. Got a newborn? Parents can save about 10 cents a diaper by going with the Costco brand; that adds up to nearly $200 saved a year. Just beware of what The Wall Street Journal calls "the Costco Effect": the tendency to buy more stuff simply because you perceive it to be a good deal.

Check the frozen-food aisle
While your instinct may be to buy fresh food, you can save time and boost the nutrition factor by heading to the freezer case. Sure, locally grown produce is the best bet in season, but the frozen version is often more nutritious off season, says Mary Beth Kavanagh, a nutrition instructor at Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine. Most frozen produce hits the deep freeze within hours of harvest. The stuff flown in from Mexico, meanwhile, probably shed a trail of nutrients all the way to your kitchen table. A study published in the journal Food Chemistry found that the nutrient status of frozen peas, broccoli, carrots, and green beans was equal to that of supposedly fresh supermarket produce, while frozen spinach was nutritionally superior to its fresh counterpart. Bonus: Reaching into the freezer instead of driving to the store will save time.

Bottom line: You'll cut your vegetable bill in half by going with frozen. In a survey, we found that fresh broccoli, snap peas, squash, and green peppers ran $3 or more a pound, while the frozen versions were $1.50 or less a pound. To maximize your savings, look for bags of frozen vegetables, which tend to cost less than the boxed variety.

Know when to go organic
When is it worth it to go out of your way and spend more on organic foods? Studies have shown benefits for milk and eggs, largely because they have more omega-3 fatty acids. Just be sure the label says omega-3 as well as organic, because the omega-3s result from the diets of the cows and hens. As for produce, the Environmental Working Group conducted nearly 43,000 pesticide tests on 43 fruits and vegetables and found that some soak up more bad stuff than others. Among the most highly contaminated were peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, pears, and grapes. Meanwhile, there's less reason to pay for organic onions, avocados, mangoes, asparagus, kiwis, bananas, broccoli, or eggplant, which all carry relatively low levels of pesticide residue.

Bottom line: Organic costs more, but it's sometimes worth it . And if you follow the rest of the advice in this article, you'll save more than enough money to cover the extra cost.

Plant a garden
The cheapest, most convenient, most carbon-footprint-friendly source for healthful food is your own backyard. Even a little container garden can produce enough lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs for a summer's worth of salads. Brown planted a garden on the roof of his front porch, and he says, "It's incredibly prolific." Somehow an overabundance of fresh tomato sauce and pesto is a problem he's willing to endure.

Copyright© 2012 Rodale Inc.All rights reserved. No reproduction, transmission or display is permitted without the written permissions of Rodale Inc.

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