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Fueling Workouts on a Shoestring

Nancy Clark, MS, RD


If you're an active person on a limited budget, fueling up for athletic activity inexpensively can be a major concern. Fatty foods can fill your stomach for a bargain, but the donuts, nachos, french fries, and hot dogs that seem to be everywhere not only clog arteries, but also fail to provide muscles the fuel they need.

So what's a hungry athlete-on-a-budget to eat? The following tips can help you eat well at a reasonable cost.

Thrifty Home Fare

The key to staying within your at-home food budget is to plan ahead, make a list, and then grocery shop when you're not hungry. If you shop when you're hungry, you'll tend to blow your budget on treats. Also, if you stock up on a variety of appealing foods, you'll be able to resist the urge to buy fast food. As shown above, a homemade sandwich costs a fraction of the sandwich shop's price. And care with choices of brand and packaging can save money with no nutritional sacrifice.

Restaurant turkey pocket$3.20
Homemade turkey pocket
1/2 large pita.15
3 oz turkey breast1.10

Good Deals on Grains

Carbohydrate-rich foods should be the foundation of an active person's diet, and, luckily, breads, grains, and cereals tend to be reasonably priced. You can get 1,000 calories' worth of plain spaghetti or rice for only $.50. If you buy in bulk, you can save a few more pennies: Rice from a 5-pound bag costs only $.80 per pound, compared with $1.45 for a 1-pound box.

Oatmeal is an excellent choice for an inexpensive carbohydrate-rich breakfast. As with all grains, buy it in bulk; individual single-serving packets, though convenient, quadruple the price. You can also save considerably by buying store brands, as shown in these examples.

Cost per 300 calories
Oatmeal(2 servings)
Quaker individual packets$.65
Generic or store brand individual packet.55
Quaker quick 1-minute, bulk.14
Generic or store brand, bulk.11

Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals cost more than hot cereals, but you can save by buying them on sale or using coupons. Also, if you think you need extra vitamins, you could buy vitamin pills instead of spending more for cereals fortified to meet 100% of vitamin needs. See examples above.

Corn flakesCost per 300 calories
Store brand.33

Frugal Fruits and Vegetables

The recommended five servings a day of fruits and vegetables can pinch your food budget unless you shop wisely for produce, buy seasonal specials, and use fresh produce before it spoils.

To economize on vegetables, buy them frozen or canned. Contrary to popular belief, both frozen and canned vegetables provide valuable nutrition. The vegetables are picked when ripe and are processed quickly to retain nutrients. Three ounces of fresh spinach, for example, contains about 24 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C; cook it and it drops to about 9 mg. Three ounces of frozen cooked spinach has 10 mg, and 3 ounces of canned spinach (heated just until it is warm) has 12 mg. Most of the nutrients in vegetables are lost in cooking, so be careful not to overcook them. Here's how some vegetable prices compare:

BroccoliPrice per lb
Frozen, spears$1.99
Fresh, cuts1.59
Fresh, whole.99
Frozen, chopped (no waste).99
Frozen, Green Giant$1.29
Frozen, store brand.95
Canned, Green Giant.73
Canned, store brand.60

You can get the most fruit for your money by buying in season. Focus on fruits with the most nutritional value such as citrus fruits and juices and bananas. Cantaloupe, strawberries, papayas, and kiwi are also nutrient rich, but they tend to be expensive out of season—buy them on sale! Pears, apples, grapes, and most other commonly eaten fruits, though good for you, lack dense nutrient value.

Also, orange juice made from frozen concentrate is a money-saving alternative to fresh oranges. See below for examples of orange juice bargains.

Orange juicePrice per 1/2 gallon
Tropicana, not from concentrate$2.69
Store brand, not from concentrate1.99
Tropicana, frozen concentrate1.43
Store brand, frozen concentrate1.15

Dried fruits are an excellent source of carbohydrate for active people. As shown below, they're a bargain compared with fresh fruits. Apricots, by the way, are among the most nutrient-rich dried fruits.

FruitPrice per 130 calories
Red delicious apple (1/2 lb)$.70
Large banana (1/2 lb with peel).30
Apricots (dried).50
Raisins (bulk).15

In addition, smart shopping can save you money when buying dried fruits. Single-serving boxes of raisins cost twice as much as bulk raisins.

Low-Cost Protein

Protein is an important item in your food budget, and it can be expensive—even plant proteins can be high-priced if they're commercially prepared. While red meats provide the extra iron often lacking in female athletes' diets, dried beans and legumes are versatile, inexpensive, and a good source of carbohydrate. You can cook a potful of beans with rice, lentil soup, or chili—enough for several meals—for only a few dollars. A thousand calories' worth of beans or lentils costs only about $.60.

If you don't want to do a lot of cooking, try canned lentil soup, bean soups, vegetarian or fat-free refried beans (for burritos), baked beans, and other canned beans. A vegetarian cookbook can offer lots of ideas for quick and easy canned-bean cuisine. See table 1 for a comparison of protein prices.

Table 1. Prices of Protein in Various Forms

Protein SourcePricePrice per 15 Grams of Protein

Soup (Campbell's split pea)$1.09/ 10.5-oz can$.72 (2/3 can)

Chili (turkey, Hormel)1.39/16-oz can.70 (1/2 can)

Baked beans (Heinz vegetarian).89/16-oz can.67 (3/4 can)

Tofu (extra firm)1.69/lb.56 (1/3 lb)

Chicken breast (boneless, skinless)2.99/lb.56 (2 oz cooked)

Hamburger (85% lean)2.19/lb.41 (2 oz cooked)

Tuna (light, water pack).79/6-oz can.40 (1/2 can)

Kidney beans (home cooked) .99/16-oz bag, dry.25 (1/4 lb dry beans)

Peanut butter (Skippy)1.69/18-oz jar.24 (4 tbsp)

Eggs (large)1.39/dozen.23 (2 eggs)

Dairy Discounts

Dairy foods such as milk and yogurt are an important part of an active person's diet, supplying calcium, protein, riboflavin, and other essential nutrients. Infants live on milk; adults can also benefit from at least 3 servings per day of low-fat dairy foods. If you can acquire a taste for milk made from dry milk powder, and if you buy the milk powder in bulk, you can cut your milk bill in half (see below).

MilkPrice per 1 quart
Independent dairy, skim (1/2 gallon price)$.80
Store brand, skim (1/2 gallon price).65
Carnation, powdered (in 1-qt packets) .84
Store brand, powdered (in 1-qt packets).60
Store brand, powdered (20-qt bulk).44

To save money on yogurt, buy 1-quart (2-pound) containers rather than individual cups. To carry yogurt to work or school, simply recycle an 8-ounce cup that you refill from a 1-quart container. Note that "organic" on the label boosts the price considerably, as shown below.

YogurtPrice per 8 ounces
Dannon (8-oz cup)$.73
Organic (2-lb container).60
Dannon (2-lb container).45

You can also make your own yogurt—simply add a dollop of plain store-bought yogurt (make sure the label says "live cultures") to a quart of milk made from dry milk powder, and set it in a warm place for several hours. The live yogurt cultures will convert the milk into a wonderfully fresh yogurt. Eat it plain or add honey, jam, maple syrup, fresh or canned fruit, vanilla, or instant coffee granules.

Thrifty Team Nutrition

If you travel with a sports team, take along wholesome carbohydrates. Pack your gym bag with tried-and-true sports snacks such as dried fruits, pretzels, bagels, fig cookies, yogurt, and juice. Then if your only choices for lunch or dinner are hot dogs or nachos from the snack shack, you'll have a better alternative.

If you eat at a quick service restaurant, choose wisely (table 2). Several fast-food giants offer sports food bargains. At Taco Bell, for example, you can get 1,000 calories of low-fat carbohydrate by ordering two bean burritos and a soft drink for about $2.90. It's true that soft drinks are sugar-water with little nutritional value, but at least they fuel your muscles. Juice is a wholesome beverage choice—but juices tend to be twice the price of soft drinks. Drink juice when you get home or pack your own. In general, you'll save lots of money by drinking water at restaurants.

Table 2. Budget Fast Food: Best Bets and Other Good Choices

CaloriesFat in Grams
and Percent
of Calories
From Fat

Best Bet Breakfast
McDonald's hotcakes with syrup (2 orders), milk (8 oz, low fat) 1,10010 (8%)$2.70
Other Good Breakfast Choices
Dunkin' Donuts muffins (2, low-fat), orange juice (10 oz), milk (8 oz, low fat)7008 (10%)3.00
Dunkin' Donuts bagels (2, plain) orange juice (10 oz), milk (8 oz, low fat)9506 (6%)3.00
Best Bet Lunch/Dinner
Taco Bell bean burritos (2), soft drink (20 oz)1,05022 (20%)2.90
Other Good Lunch/Dinner Choices
Pizza Hut cheese pan pizza (medium, 3 slices), lemonade (medium) 1,00033 (30%)4.00
Burger King Whopper (no mayonnaise), Dutch apple pie, cola (medium)1,00030 (27%)4.00
McDonald's Grilled Chicken Deluxe, muffin (1, fat free), vanilla shake (small) 1,10032 (25%)4.60

Italian restaurants offer bargains as well. You can fill up on spaghetti for a reasonable price. Pizza—particularly with a thick crust—is another good choice. You'll increase the price by topping it with broccoli and green peppers, but you'll also add nutrients, which is especially important if it's your only opportunity to get vegetables that day.

Part of the fun of eating is to share mealtime with your friends, so when you carry along your own stash of food, encourage other teammates to do the same—they won't be begging you for food and you won't feel left out.

Remember: you, your physician, and your nutritionist need to work together to discuss nutrition concerns. The above information is not intended as a substitute for appropriate medical treatment.

Ms Clark is director of Nutrition Services at SportsMedicine Brookline in the Boston area. She is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, a fellow of the American Dietetic Association, and a member of its practice group, Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN).




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