Grocery store tours show how to shop for healthy food on a budget

During a grocery store tour Thursday at Dillons, 1015 W. 23rd St., Jolene Croxell of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department and other participants react with surprise when discovering the sodium content of some canned vegetables. Pictured clockwise to the right of Croxell are health department AmeriCorps members Beeta Kashani and Amanda Kong, and Kelsey Fortins, a health educator at Kansas University's Watkins Memorial Health Center.

Shopping for nutritious food is hard enough. Trying to do it on a budget can seem almost impossible. Fortunately, help is available.

This week, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department will begin offering grocery store tours to show people how they can get the most bang for their food buck without sacrificing their health. The tours are not only free to the public, but, at the end, attendees get $10 Dillons gift cards to see how well they can apply what they learned. Participants also receive reusable shopping bags and books filled with recipe ideas and shopping tips.

Three Journal-World staff members went on a test run of the tour Thursday at the 23rd Street Dillons to determine who could make the best shopping selections, including at least one item from each of the five food groups (grains, fruits, vegetables, protein and dairy) for less than $10.

Giles' items: Grains: Whole wheat pasta, .39 Fruits: Pears, .56 Vegetables: Green beans, .28 Protein: Lean sirloin steak, .16 Dairy: Greek yogurt, Total price: Suggestions: Yogurts, while a good source of protein, can be high in fat and sugar. Maybe switching the meat out for beans would give more wiggle room for other items to complete the meal.

Giles Bruce, health reporter

As a health reporter I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what to buy. Apparently, I don’t know as much as I thought I did.

During the tour, I learned about several concepts that had previously been foreign to me, such as unit pricing (for instance, bagged romaine salad was 65 cents an ounce, while whole romaine lettuce went for 35.3 cents per ounce) and that the first item on an ingredient list is the most abundant (good for telling whether something is truly made with whole grains). I knew that produce was best to buy when it’s in season, but, having grown up in suburban Chicago, I had no idea what that meant. The Cooking Matters shopping guide provided by the health department helps with that immensely.

As for the challenge, it was a lot harder than expected. I’m used to going the grocery store and purchasing whatever I went there to buy. But on this day, I paid especially close attention to price and what was on sale. That meant buying green beans that were a little brown and pears that weren’t quite my favorite.

It was particularly difficult to find dairy and protein items I could afford. For dairy, I ended up buying a $1 Greek yogurt with blueberries (the tour guides said it probably had a bit too many calories and too much sugar). For the protein, I went with lean ground beef, about the cheapest option I could find in the meat department. Half way through the challenge, I decided I would make spaghetti using whole-grain pasta but, running out of time and money, had to say I’d use some leftover tomato sauce from home.

Grocery store tour participants study the nutritional information on cans of beans.

Alma's items: Grains: Brown rice, Fruits: Pineapple, 99 cents Vegetables: Frozen stir fry vegetable package, .29 Protein: Six eggs, 98 cents Dairy: 16 oz. bottle of 2 percent milk, 99 cents Total price: .25 Suggestions: Good, solid meal. Since chicken can get expensive, consider canned chicken for the protein. Also, canned or pre-sliced pineapple might be worth the added price for the convenience.

Alma Bahman, digital editor

I’m an “I’ll-be-inspired-when-I-see-it” type of grocery shopper. That means I go to the store, unprompted and unprepared. Sometimes, I buy everything in sight. I let my sweet tooth dictate what I purchase. Sometimes, I just give up and get takeout.

I thought grocery lists were a matter of remembering items, but I learned they’re more a matter of planning. I know what constitutes a healthy food, but buying random fruits and vegetables doesn’t do me much good when it comes to dinner. The challenge is knowing why I need it and what I’m buying it for.

During the $10 challenge, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate food groups served as a grocery list of sorts that inspired a dinnertime meal: a simple stir-fry. Once I had a plan to follow, grabbing the food was easy.

Long-grain brown rice, a package of frozen stir-fry vegetables and a carton of a half-dozen eggs filled the grain, vegetable and protein categories, coming in at about a dollar each. To round out the meal, I grabbed a single-serving bottle of 2 percent milk and a pineapple to fill the dairy and fruit categories.

I hit a road block with the protein category, originally opting for chicken breast. But the packages were for at least 2 pounds of meat. For a single meal, that would have been too much chicken.

Tour guide Jolene Croxell, who supervises the health department’s Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, suggested canned chicken, which would have been a smaller serving size and kept the total cost of the meal at less than $10.

It’s like my mom always said: The key to a successful grocery shopping trip is the list.

Grocery store tours

The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department’s first grocery store tour will be 2 p.m. Thursday at Dillons, 1015 W. 23rd St. It is free to the public, but registration is required. To sign up, call 785-856-5326, email or stop by the clinic at 200 Maine St., Suite B. The health department will post information about upcoming tours on its website.

Elliot's items: Grains: brown rice, Fruits: Apples, 60 cents Vegetables: Carrots, .29 and frozen corn, .40 Protein: Southwest style beans, 99 cents Dairy: Half gallon of 2 percent milk, .98 Total price: .26 Suggestions: Items span each of the food groups, but could swap out an item or two to make it a more complete meal.

Elliot Hughes, general assignmentt

The tour provided a nice refresher course on label reading and basic nutrition for me. I’m admittedly not all that food conscious. I’m more likely to check brand names than ingredients before throwing something in my cart, and I tend to skip vegetables and fruits in favor of protein and dairy a bit too often. I’ll just blame that on being a Wisconsinite.

But here again my desire for dairy did me in. In my mission to put together a balanced meal for $10, my half-gallon of milk left little room for, of all things, the protein. I had only a can of beans to show for it. I also had the makings of a rice dish with carrots and corn mixed in, with a pair of apples to top it off. It’s not the best meal, but it could do the trick.

There are a few things I’ll surely take away from the exercise. One is to check for unit pricing, which divides the price by the amount of food in the product. At the Dillons we visited for the tour, the unit price could be found next to most products’ actual prices on the shelves.

Another is to not take the front label for its word. Our tour guides pointed out that there are several breads that give you the idea that they are made from whole grains, when a careful look at the backside labels reveals the presence of enriched ingredients.

The handy chart to check for in-season, and therefore cheaper, fruits and veggies is also something I’ll keep close by.

In the end, Croxell chose Bahman as the winner of the challenge because her items fit together best as part of a complete meal. Her colleagues are still waiting to try her stir-fry.