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Home is where the health is

Why do people choose fast food when much healthier food is available? There is a familiar explanation: Unhealthful food is cheaper.

If you are comparing a McDouble cheeseburger, fries and a Coke off the dollar menu at McDonald's with organic vegetables and grass-fed beef, that is true. But there's a whole range of healthful food that isn't expensive; it just requires more effort. You have to be willing to plan, shop and cook.

"People don't cook enough," says Jessie Price, deputy food editor at Eating Well magazine and author of the new cookbook "Eating Well on a Budget." Price says good-for-you food, from vegetables to whole grains and lean proteins to beans, isn't expensive. And cooking at home saves money in the long run.

When Price and her staff compared the cost of a sausage, pepper and mushroom pizza from Domino's with a recipe for the same in their cookbook, the cost difference was dramatic: $17.41 vs. $7.58. If a family ordered a pizza every week, it could save $511 in a year by making it at home.

To prove that healthful food can be made for little money, we challenged ourselves to come up with three dinners that cost less than $12, which is what it would cost a family of four to order off the dollar menu at a fast-food restaurant. We found three entrees — chicken tostadas, a Spanish potato omelet and pasta with roasted red-pepper sauce — and sides whose ingredients cost less than $12.

For the purposes of the limited budget, we assumed you would have salt, pepper, oil and vinegar in your pantry. But we did hold ourselves to getting you in and out of the store with all the ingredients for $12, even though you will buy more than what you need to make the meal. That means you not only will have leftovers but also will have ingredients to make other meals.

We chose recipes that don't require much activity in the kitchen. Two of the three — the roasted-red-pepper pasta and the chicken tostadas — can be made in about 30 minutes. The potatoes and onions for the omelet take an hour to roast in the oven, but then they can be turned into dinner in 20 minutes.

Pasta with Creamy

Red-pepper Sauce

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)

2 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (about 2 teaspoons)

One 16-ounce jar roasted red peppers, drained, rinsed and chopped

1/2 cup chicken broth, low-sodium preferred

1 cup crumbled feta cheese (6 ounces), divided

One 16-ounce box whole-wheat pasta

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Heat oil in a medium-heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring a few times, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add roasted red peppers and cook, stirring a few times, until heated through. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.

Transfer red-pepper mixture to a food processor, add broth and all but 2 tablespoons of the feta. Process until smooth, about 30 seconds.

Cook pasta according to the directions. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Toss pasta with sauce, adding pasta water by the tablespoon if needed. Season with salt and pepper. Divide among six bowls. Sprinkle with reserved feta and serve.

Yield: 6 servings.

Per serving: calories, 445; fat, 11 grams; cholesterol, 22 milligrams ; protein, 17 grams; carbohydrates, 70 grams; fiber, 10 grams ; sodium, 810 milligrams.

Ingredients for this dish plus lettuce for a side salad cost $11.76. Calories for one serving of pasta plus salad with oil and vinegar dressing: 489. From "The Food You Crave: Luscious Recipes for a Healthy Life," by Ellie Krieger (The Taunton Press, 2008).

Crispy Chicken Tostadas

Ingredients:

1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably with jalapenos

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

3 cups shredded cooked chicken

8 6-inch corn tortillas

Cooking spray or 1/4 cup cooking oil

1 avocado, pitted

1/4 cup prepared salsa

2 tablespoons sour cream

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 cup shredded iceberg lettuce

Directions:

Position racks in upper and lower thirds of oven; preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Bring tomatoes and their juice to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft and most of the liquid has evaporated, 15-20 minutes. Add chicken and cook until heated through, about 2-3 minutes.

Coat tortillas on both sides with cooking spray or brush with corn oil. Divide the tortillas between two large baking sheets. Bake, turning once, until crisped and lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Mash avocado in a bowl. Stir in salsa, sour cream and cilantro until combined.

Assemble tostadas: Spread each crisped tortilla with some of the avocado mixture. Top with chicken mixture and lettuce.

Yield: 4 servings, 2 tostadas each

Per serving: calories, 447; fat, 11 grams, cholesterol, 22 milligrams; protein, 17 grams; carbohydrates, 70 grams; fiber, 10 grams; sodium, 810 milligrams.

I served this with black beans heated with a tablespoon of the prepared salsa. Total cost for ingredients: $11.21. Calories for two tostadas and black beans: 447. Adapted from "Eating Well on a Budget," by Jessie Price and The Eating Well Test Kitchen (The Countrymen Press, 2010.)

Spanish Potato Omelet

Ingredients:

6 cups thinly sliced new potatoes (about 3 pounds)

2 cups thinly sliced sweet onion

Cooking spray

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided

4 large eggs

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place potato and onion in a roasting pan coated with cooking spray. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons oil, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Toss well.

Bake for 1 hour or until potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally with a metal spatula to prevent sticking.

Combine eggs and 1/4 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Stir in potato mixture; let stand 10 minutes. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in an 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Pour potato mixture into pan (pan will be very full).

Cook 7 minutes or until almost set, gently shaking pan frequently. Place a plate upside down on top of omelet; invert onto plate. Carefully slide omelet cooked side up into pan; cook 3 minutes or until set, gently shaking pan occasionally. Carefully loosen omelet with a spatula; gently slide omelet onto a plate. Cool. Cut into wedges.

Yield: 6 servings (serving size: 1 wedge)

Per serving: calories, 315; fat, 8 grams; cholesterol, 142 milligrams ; protein, 9 grams; carbohydrates, 53 grams; fiber, 4 grams ; sodium, 345 milligrams.

The ingredients for this dish cost $11.25. Serve a wedge of this traditional Spanish dish with two slices of tomato for a 324-calorie meal. Adapted from Cooking Light magazine, August 2001.

Home is where the health is