by Mollie Bailey,

We’ve all been there at some point–too tired, rushed and hungry to prepare a healthy nutritious meal. So we stop for fast food. Our present economic problems make it even easier to justify that inexpensive drive-thru meal. Fast food is cheaper than buying fresh produce, lean meat and seafood. In fact, 30% of shoppers say they’re buying less fresh produce because of rising prices. The prices of healthy foods surged 19.5% over the past two years while junk food prices dropped 1.8%. These numbers, from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, make it easier to understand why 23.3% of Floridians were categorized as “obese”

.. New agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack told his staff that their agency needs to encourage healthier eating among Americans, which will then cause farmers to boost crop production and reduce the price of produce. He added that the Obama administration will lead a “very significant push” to increase consumption of healthy and affordable food. At the same time, grocery prices are predicted to increase steadily in 2009.

Why don’t we eat healthy food? Availability of quality foods, cost, confusion over what to choose, taste, and most importantly time constraints are just some of the reasons. So how do we overcome these obstacles and eat healthy nutritious food without breaking our budgets? Start by making a plan. Read the following suggestions and choose the ones that will work for you, your family and your lifestyle. Then implement a plan of action with the goal of eating healthy and saving money.

• Use your computer to make a weekly menu, find recipes and to help you make a grocery shopping list. Websites such as Eatingwell.com offer budget friendly menus planned for the whole week. Recipe websites such as allrecipes.com also have ideas for good meals.

• Use coupons which are also available online as well as in newspapers. One of many great coupon sites is Couponmom.com; at these sites you can also compare store prices, check weekly specials and print only those coupons you will use.

• Shop wholesale clubs for produce. Abag of broccoli that contains the equivalent of three heads of

broccoli is $5.24 at Sam’s; one head at my local supermarket costs $2.69 and includes long stems.

• For extra savings, buy as many generic brand foods as possible and try the grocery store’s house brands.

• Shopping at a local farmers’ market not only yields fresh produce but also supports area farmers. Remember to buy produce in season. If a u-pick farm is within driving distance, stock up on the available fruits and vegetables and consider freezing some of the produce for future use.

• Use your freezer to reduce food costs. When properly kept, prepared frozen vegetables can taste just as good as fresh ones. Buy meats in large packages when they are on sale and then divide them into meal size portions and freeze them for future weeks.

• Organic foods are not necessary; regular produce is the least expensive way to meet the daily requirement of five servings of fruits and vegetables.

• Meals that feature soups, sandwiches, beans and eggs are inexpensive and healthy.

So the next time the “dollar menu” is calling out to you, stop and think what it is really costing you. Illness, fatigue, obesity, and heart disease have all been linked to “super size” meal deals. Brownbagging lunches and eating your other meals at home may take more planning and effort but it is the best way to stick to a nutritious diet and balance your checkbook. Think how good that will feel!

Mollie Bailey, is a certified Diet Master nutritional counselor, AFAAcertified personal trainer and has a B.S. in social science