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As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I often hear people tell me that healthy eating can be expensive. That's their explanation for buying junk food or eating out frequently at fast food restaurants. But, as a mom of four, I have found that with dedicated time spent each week on menu planning, grocery shopping and food preparation, you can save money and improve your family's health.

After taking a close look at what my family of six eats in a week, I found that we could eat well on a budget of less than $220 a week. 

Grocery shopping

Here's how I choose groceries with cost and health in mind:

  • If I can spend a few dollars less on generic items, I tend to purchase those.
  • Since we are a large family, I try to rely on purchasing predominantly bulk items.
  • I grow a garden each summer as a way to teach my children about where food comes from, as well as to save a few dollars.
  • We supplement our garden by going to farms when pick-your-own produce is in season and then can and freeze our treasures. This past June we canned 27 pints of homemade strawberry jam. We also can tomatoes in lieu of purchasing canned diced tomatoes, and we pick apples to make our own unsweetened cinnamon applesauce.

Starting the day on the right foot

We like variety, so we don't eat the same breakfast every day, but we do have to weigh convenience on busy school mornings, so bigger breakfasts tend to fall on leisurely weekend mornings. Here are some healthy and delicious family-friendly options for both:

Easy school-day morning breakfasts

  • Strawberry banana smoothie made with 1/2 cup strawberries, 1/2 a large banana, 1/4 cup ice and 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 slices bread with one tablespoon creamy peanut butter
  • 2/3 cup nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt with 1/2 cup frozen blueberries, 1/2 of a sliced banana and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 slice raisin toast with butter

Leisurely weekend morning breakfasts

  • 3 scrambled egg whites with 1/8 cup shredded mozzarella cheese, 1/8 cup chopped onion, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and 1/2 teaspoon sriracha sauce
  • 1 fried egg with 1/4 teaspoon sriracha sauce
  • To give your typical pancake recipe a healthy, fiberful and flavorful twist, add canned pumpkin (which offsets the need to add too much fat) and replace white flour with whole-wheat flour.

Smart snacks

Busy kids need nourishment throughout the day, including at snacktime! In our family, we usually try to include a fruit or vegetable, or a fiber source.

Many of these choices are easy to pack and send with the kids for school snacktime (The snacks that don't include nuts might be the best choices for school.) We also like after-school, mid-afternoon snacks to curb the appetite while we finish dinner assembly and help with homework, or sort through the abundance of paper from the kids' backpacks and our mailboxes.

  • Lightly salted popcorn
  • Baby carrots with hummus
  • Whole wheat and honey pretzel sticks
  • Asiago cheese with baby carrots
  • Cashews and strawberries
  • Bananas and peanut butter
  • Unsweetened applesauce with nonfat vanilla Greek yogurt

School lunches

RELATED: 9 ways to get your kids to eat their vegetables

When packing my kids' lunches, I aim to provide one protein source, one vegetable, one fruit, a grain and a dairy item. I also love to put frozen sliced fruit or frozen vegetables (such as peas) in the kids' lunches when I pack them the night before. By the time lunch rolls around, they'll be thawed and ready to eat!

Protein ideas

  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Nuts
  • Lunch meat sliced into quarters
  • Nut butters
  • Hummus

Vegetable ideas

  • Cucumber coins
  • Baby carrots
  • Green peas
  • Edamame
  • Celery sticks

Fruit ideas

  • Grapes
  • Fresh blueberries or sliced strawberries
  • Pear or apple slices dipped in lemon juice to prevent browning
  • Plum, nectarine or clementine orange
  • Applesauce

Grain ideas

  • Pretzels
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Sandwich thins for the lunch meat, nut butters or cheese

Dairy ideas

  • Greek or regular yogurt
  • String cheese or cheese cubes
  • Cottage cheese
  • Milk or milk substitute in a Thermos

Busy nights, healthy dinners

The biggest obstacle to providing healthy, homemade dinners on weeknights is finding the time to cook in between homework, after-school activities and family time. Here's how I set myself up for success.

Generally on Sundays, I spend a few hours in the kitchen preparing four dinner meals to make my work nights go smoothly. Then, since I already have four dinners made, when I have a little time during a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday evening, I prep for Thursday and Friday evening dinners.

I also make sure to have simple but healthy sides with the entrees I've already prepared. Examples are:

  • Cantaloupe or watermelon slices
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Steamed asparagus
  • Fruit smoothies (peaches, grapes and a banana with plan yogurt and ice)

Another great idea is to cook an entree in the slow cooker overnight from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. Then I cool and refrigerate it, and after work, I just reheat and dinner is served!

RELATED: A healthier take on enchiladas

Plus, a lot of your favorite recipes can be tweaked to cut fat and add nutrition.

  • When you make a casserole, forgo ingredients such as canned soup and cheese in favor of beans and brown rice, and pack in lots of veggies such as zucchini and spinach.
  • For a healthier twist on chili, use skinless chicken breast instead of ground beef.
  • Quiche can be made healthier by making it crustless, using egg whites instead of whole eggs, using cottage cheese and adding spinach.
  • A fun way to use up leftovers and give the kids some choices is to set up a baked potato bar. Just set out baked potatoes along with lots of healthy toppings, such as leftover vegetables, cheese, salsa, beans and nonfat plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream.

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