Eating Frugally With MyPlate


The USDA recently unveiled its new food icon, MyPlate, which has been receiving plenty of media buzz thanks partly to the star power of its top advocate, Michelle Obama. The new MyPlate icon replaces the old Food Pyramid and is meant to help families to eat more healthfully by providing an idea of what your dinner plate should look like. (See also: Food Pyramid Replaced by “MyPlate” via Healthy Theory)

The big question for many of us is whether or not it is possible to eat affordably by following the MyPlate icon. Naysayers are quick to point out that many grains, fruits, and vegetables are expensive, and that the MyPlate icon is unrealistic for most households. I do not believe that is true. I think that it is possible to eat healthfully and follow the guidelines of the MyPlate icon while keeping your costs down. Here’s why.

MyPlate Is a Guideline

While the MyPlate icon is supposed to simplify healthy eating for most families, you do still have to use common sense. It is a guideline with a great deal of wiggle room within it. For example, having your plate half-full of fruits and veggies doesn’t mean you should go to Whole Foods and fill your cart full of out-of-season, imported fruits and vegetables. Those are sure to be more expensive! Rather, shop for seasonal and locally grown fruits and vegetables at your local market. Shop around and find the supermarkets that offer the best deals on produce. I often find that ethnic markets offer the cheapest prices on vegetables.

Yes, this will take a little more work, and you might have to stop at a couple of stores instead of one gargantuan supermarket. That is the price you’ll have to pay for eating healthy, affordable food. Is it worth it to you?

Less Meat and More Vegetables Is Easier on the Wallet

One thing that should make us frugal shoppers perk up is that the MyPlate icon recommends that less than a quarter of our dinner plate be filled with protein. First of all, this means that we will be eating less meat. Meat can get expensive, especially if you’re trying to find good-quality meat! Serving less of it means that you can splurge a little on better meat and seafood, but consume less. And remember that protein does not equal meat — other great sources of protein like tofu, edamame, chickpeas, beans, quinoa, and eggs typically cost less than a good cut of meat.

You could try instituting a household tradition such as Meatless Monday, where every Monday you serve a meatless meal. It is one step towards moving away from a meat-dependent diet and putting a little more protein variety onto the plate.

Buy What’s On Sale, and Cook From the Fridge

I’ve recently started forcing myself to shop for groceries only once or twice a week. This makes me plan out what I need to buy a little better. For example, if I know I’m going to need five kinds of vegetables to serve during the week, I’ll look for the vegetables that are on sale when I go to my favorite market. If tri-colored peppers are expensive, maybe I’ll go for the cheaper broccoli crowns instead. Or I’ll buy a bag of carrots or a head of cabbage instead of the out-of-season hothouse tomatoes.

During the week, I cook the produce that I have in the fridge, instead of being inspired by a recipe and then going out to buy all of the ingredients (they’re never on sale when you want them!). I’ve eliminated a great deal of waste by making myself use up what’s in the fridge instead of shopping for new produce.

This does force me to be a little more creative and adventurous with my cooking and try out vegetables that I’ve never cooked before (can you believe I had never cooked beets before this little experiment?). On the plus side, the variety of vegetables you get by shopping this way is good for you!

Have a Well-Stocked Pantry

I like the designation “grains” on the MyPlate icon because it makes me think of whole grains, unlike the designation “carbohydrates,” which makes me think of gobs of white bread and cake. Having an assortment of healthy grains (and I assume that potatoes are included in this category) in your pantry can help you to come up with healthy, affordable meals. Costco is a great source for affordable rice, pasta, oatmeal, and quinoa. Sure, they come in 10 or 20-pound bags, but they won’t spoil for a long time.

Keep a variety of whole grains in your pantry, add to that the fruits and vegetables that you buy on sale, and supplement your diet with a small amount of meat or inexpensive plant proteins, and you’re well on your way to eating frugally using MyPlate.

I haven’t addressed specific issues such as special dietary concerns, lactose intolerance, and other situations in which it might be difficult to follow the MyPlate guidelines. What do you think? Is it realistic and affordable for you and your family to eat according to the new food icon?

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Guest's picture

Your article is full of sensible advice. You asked if it works for us. As our food budget is $21.25 per person per week, (teens through adult), it's near impossible to implement Mrs. Obama's plate. I do all the things you suggest and keep a small garden as well. Sadly, starches are still cheaper than vegetables. Somehow Michelle Obama's endorsement, though well intentioned, rings kind of hollow. Her husband earned 5 million dollars his first year in office. That changes people. She cannot possibly remain objective or remember what it's like for regular folk. Maybe her ideas are doable for others. Now if we could legally keep chickens....

Camilla Cheung's picture

Kudos to you, Olivia, for feeding your family on a tight budget! It is true that starches are the cheapest, and I wish it weren't so. More change has to happen in the upper echelons of policy makers if we are to eat healthily on a budget!

Guest's picture

I still believe the "grains" portion is too large. It should be right in the same category as dairy (which is also too large). The obesity, heart disease, and diabetes problems will remain unless we transition away from these two categories and more towards fruits and vegetables for the main sources of "carbs". Fill the gap in caloric intake with sprouted beans, seeds, nuts, etc.

Camilla Cheung's picture

I agree that the dairy portion is too large! I'm borderline lactose-intolerant (as are 70% of people around the world), so I can't drink milk, though I can have yogurt and cheese. If I had that much yogurt or cheese with every meal, I definitely wouldn't be healthy! The dairy portion is the weakest part of the model, in my opinion.

Guest's picture

Dairy doesn't have to mean cow's milk products. One can find lots of alternatives full of calcium and vitamin D such as soymilk (yum!) that are nutritionally even better for and more easily tolerated by some people. I've almost completely eliminated cow's milk from my diet and don't miss the bloating I used to suffer even with lactaid supplements.

Camilla Cheung's picture

That's absolutely true, and if you click through to the "food groups" on the ChooseMyPlate website it does note that calcium-fortified soymilk is part of the dairy group. My point was that for a food icon that is supposed to simplify choosing your food groups, it's strange that the dairy portion isn't labeled "calcium-rich foods" or "dairy and substitutes", given how limited a food group "dairy" is. After all, they changed "meat" to "protein".

Maybe I'm cynical, but it seems a bit like a nod to the dairy industry. But other than that, I do approve of what MyPlate is trying to do, overall.

Guest's picture

Potatoes are in the vegetables under a "starchy vegetables" category. :(

I agree with Sanctimonia - the grains section is still too large. I never felt better than when I was eating a diabetic diet when I had gestational diabetes. That diet was mostly lean proteins and non-starchy veggies, with smatterings of fruit and a healthy but smaller portion of carbohydrates - preferably whole grain.

Camilla Cheung's picture

Thanks for the tip about the potatoes; I must have missed that! I've been thinking of cutting down on carbs too...but...they are so good...

Guest's picture

Great write up. I am a vegan - so no animal products at all, and many times people ask me how I can afford it. Well, its pretty easy actually. Having a well stocked pantry is a great tip - because then you dont find yourself asking the dreaded "whats for dinner" question on your ride home from work plus you will resist eating out if you know you have things at home to eat.

A great thing to stock up on when it is on sale, which is rare is Quinoa. It is a grain, you can eat it with anything - smoothies, pies, rice, anything. It has no taste, and it is filling and has all essential proteins.

I am currently tacking a financial make over for my personal life and it is all

Check out it!

Guest's picture

Since I started eating gluten and dairy-free, and we no longer buy prepared foods, our budget has gone up about 25%. Unfortunately, the cheapest foods (think macaroni and cheese) are the ones that you can find coupons for and go on sale regularly. When we go to the register, we hardly have any coupons at all! Still, we save money by cooking from scratch once a week, trying to buy when things are on sale. We eat more beans, lentils, and brown rice dishes. Most people aren't willing to go to the lengths we do to eat healthy.

Guest's picture
Mavis D.

As a mom of 6, I'm always working to keep our grocery budget in check. There may be flaws in the MyPlate idea but I think it's a LOT better than the pyramid. I always thought having the grains on bottom was a very bad idea and we never followed that guideline. We prefer more veggies and fruit and I would almost guess that OurPlate is very similar to this guideline.

So how do we keep the costs down? We try to buy locally from farmers markets or from roadside stands. We try to buy in season stuff. We also buy at a local place that is actually a produce supplier for stores and restaurants. Many of them have sections that are "open to the public" and you can buy cheaper items that way. If a case is too large for your family, try going in with another family to share the costs. It's working for us.

Guest's picture

Unfortunately, potatoes are carbohydrates and not grains (sweet potatoes and yams are very good for you though and not full of fat-producing carbs!) I am trying (not wholly successful yet to go vegetarian and eventually becoming vegan, as I feel vegan is more in line with my ethical beliefs. My palate is more attuned to dietary habits I have developed over a lifetime of unconscious food selection, however, so that kind of major change is an on-going challenge and learning process.