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Budget-Friendly Alternatives to Super-Sizing


As we were recently reminded, super-sizing fast food may seem economical, but it turns out to be a drain on the wallet and a lousy nutritional bargain.

A study presented two weeks ago by the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, a group of 225 national, state and local health organizations, found that:

* Double Gulp, the 64-ounce soft drink at 7-Eleven, costs $1.26, or 42% more than the 16-ounce Gulp and packs 450 additional calories--more than you'd get in a McDonald's Quarter Pounder.

* At Subway, a 12-inch tuna sub costs $4.82, or $1.23 more than the 6-inch sub. The 12-inch sub also has 840 calories--420 more than the 6-inch.

* A double-scoop chocolate chip ice cream cone at Baskin-Robbins costs $1.62 more than a Kids scoop (yes, adults can order them, too) and delivers 390 additional calories. That works out to 129% greater cost for 260% more calories.

* Super-sized fries at McDonald's will set you back $1.90, nearly double the $1.03 cost for the small size--and add an extra 400 calories.

"We all love to get a bargain," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, which was involved in the study.

With super-sizing, she says, "you may get more food, but you're still paying more money to get it, and you don't need those extra calories."

So if you're not going to save money--or your health--by upsizing your fast food, what can you do to eat well on a budget? It's a topic close to many readers' hearts.

Hit the farmers markets about half an hour before closing time, suggested one person in a recent online discussion:

"They sell produce at insanely low prices because they can't keep it fresh overnight. I've been able to score lettuce heads for 12 cents apiece and a pound of fresh tomatoes for about 50 cents. And don't forget about fresh corn: always filling, tons of ways to cook it and some places it's about 10 to 12 ears for a couple of bucks!"

Another person recommended shopping at large ethnic markets: The markets feature "a host of items--including tofu in various forms--for a fraction of the cost at organic markets, noodles in every shape and size, including fresh udon and lo mein, tortillas in bulk, dried mushrooms and many different kinds of dried and canned beans."

A native of India makes her own yogurt for both taste and cost. Her recipe: Boil whole milk (you can also use lower-fat varieties). Turn off the heat and let it cool to a lukewarm temperature. Then pour into ovenproof containers and add a teaspoon of plain store-brought yogurt to each container. "This is only for the first time," she noted. (After that, use the yogurt you made for the starter.) "I can hear my kids screaming, 'Mom can we finish all the yogurt off or do you need it for the next batch?' Then preheat the oven to about 170 degrees, turn off the oven and plop the containers inside. Next morning, you will have perfect yogurt. You will never buy yogurt from the store once you have tasted homemade yogurt."

Another reader pinches pennies by going meatless for part of the week. Without that expense, she said, "you can splurge on special veggies or fruits, or throw it back in the family budget."

A reader from North Carolina uses her bread machine to make whole-grain loaves for less than a dollar each--a bargain if you happen to have a bread maker. If you don't, there are better ways to shrink your food budget, including buying "a billion and one bean and rice dishes," as the reader noted. "Just about every culture has its own version ... chickpeas and Indian curry over rice, Armenian lentils and bulgur wheat, black beans and rice with salsa. All cheap and yummy and healthful."

One Washington resident on a limited budget makes a game of grocery shopping. "At the beginning of the week, I load up on basics: deli turkey, cheese, chicken breasts, beans (usually black beans or whatever is on sale), frozen veggies, oatmeal, yogurt, whole-wheat tortillas ... then use those basics to create meals throughout the week. I supplement daily with fresh produce that I pick up on the way home from work, as that is relatively cheap and goes bad fairly quickly."

Another reader noted that some markets will knock off up to 5% on case or bulk orders.

To arrange for the discount, "call ahead and talk to the department head," says Dean Shaffer, grocery team leader for the Whole Foods store in Washington.

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