It's the first Monday of the new year, and for many people that means one thing: Time to diet. • But who can afford all the fresh produce, lean proteins, whole grains and fat-free everything else that you need to lose weight? • You don't have to invest in special ingredients and expensive foods to eat more healthfully. But you will have to set aside a little time for planning and preparation. • The payoff will come when you see your cash register receipts and slip on those skinny jeans that haven't fit for months or years. • Take it from me: I've lost 25 pounds since 2009, and I did it by eating healthy foods from local groceries and working out at an affordable gym. Convenience and economy were key for me and my unpredictable schedule. Here are some tips I'm still using to maintain my weight loss. I hope they help you with your personal resolutions.
. Make a rough menu plan for the week and use it as the basis for your shopping list. No need to be too detailed, but if you don't have the basics for your meal plan, the temptation to hit the drive-through or a pricier restaurant is too great. Here's one of mine:
Breakfast: cereal, milk, fruit, toast.
Lunch: meat, cheese and bread for sandwiches.
Dinners: Monday, pasta and salad; Tuesday, chicken and broccoli; Wednesday, beef and green beans; Thursday, vegetarian zucchini casserole and salad; Friday, fish or shellfish with brown rice pilaf; Saturday, thinly sliced pork chops with baked potatoes; and Sunday, roast chicken with mixed, oven-roasted vegetables.
Snacks: fruit, baby carrots, nuts, yogurt.
. Check the ads at a few nearby grocery stores, in the newspaper and online. See which has the best deal.
Before Christmas, Publix had Butterball turkey for $1.09 pound, while Target had it for 97 cents a pound.
. Double check the day sale prices go into effect. On a recent Wednesday, fresh pineapple was $4.99 at Publix; the next day you could get two for $5.
. Don't assume boutique grocery stores are always pricier. A Fresh Market near me has the best price on fresh raspberries, one of my favorite healthy snacks.
. Don't assume the store brand is cheapest. One example: the Publix brand of canned chick peas (a great source of lean protein to sprinkle on salads) was 89 cents on a recent day; the Hanover brand was 81 cents.
. Watch those BOGOs. They're not automatically the best deal financially (will you eat all that spring mix before it rots?) or calorically (are you strong enough to keep two bags of kettle chips in the house?)
. Beware of some conveniences. Compare the cost of boneless, skinless chicken breast with bone-in, skin on — or better yet, whole chicken — and you'll see what I mean. Besides, white meat is leaner, but cheaper dark meat is far more flavorful. Lose the skin and you lose most of the fat. Save the bones for stock.
. Let the butcher help you with portion control. We love steak, but to keep cost and calories down, we limit it to once a week and buy what I call "skinny" steaks, quarter-inch New York strips. They cook in a flash, and the lean, 4-ounce portion comes out to about 275 calories. Butchers can cut "skinny" pork chops, too.
. Skip the $3 or $4 bags of prewashed salad greens, and buy lettuce by the head for $1 or $2.
. Consider frozen vegetables. My husband loves brussels sprouts, but a small package of fresh was almost $4 on a recent shopping trip. I found a 12-ounce package of frozen Birds Eye sprouts for $1.97.
. Put blinders on, and stick to your list to save both your wallet and your waistline. If tempting foods aren't in your home, it's easier to stick to your plan.
. Always check the clearance table. I recently found a package of my favorite green tea bags for $2, about half-price.
. Grow your own herbs. Stop paying $2 and $3 for small bags of fresh herbs that you likely won't even finish before they expire. Put a $2 plant in a pot, park it in a sunny spot, and you'll always have a fresh supply.
. If all you need is lunch meat for two sandwiches, order 6 slices at the deli; you don't have to buy a pound or even a half-pound. Need just a handful of green beans? Ask the produce clerk to break the package. Don't let the rest deteriorate in the fridge.
. You can get good deals from bulk bins at stores like Whole Foods and Rolling Oats on healthy items like dry beans and brown rice, but make sure you shop at busy stores with lots of turnover so you're assured of freshness.
. Low-fat bakery items are expensive. Instead, make homemade bran muffins with egg whites and fat-free milk. Keep them in the freezer for a high-fiber, healthy snack.
. Buying fresh and in season is smart, and a great way to do that is at local farmer's markets. You're also likely to find unusual produce, which can add interest to your healthy plate. But do know that costs may be higher for organic produce — though the quality and idea of supporting local entrepreneurs may make it worthwhile to you. A friend says she gets the prettiest and cheapest sunflowers anywhere at St. Petersburg's Saturday Morning Market. Visit tampabay.com/things-to-do and search "market'' to get a list of local fresh food outlets to investigate.