Guest Host: Rebecca Roberts

Whether you shop organic at upscale markets or clip coupons at the local supermarket, grocery bills are taking a bigger bite of everyone’s budgets. But there are healthy, tasty meals that can be had on a budget. We’ve got strategies for smarter shopping and meal planning that can save a bundle.


  • Jodi Balis Director of Nutrition Education, Capital Area Food Bank

Related Video

Jodi Balis, Director of Nutrition Education at the Capital Area Food Bank, explains healthy, value-conscious strategies for shopping and cooking:

The Capital Area Food Bank’s Jodi Balis’s Recipes

The Capital Area Food Bank’s Jodi Balis offers her “$16 Shopping Bag” list, which is designed to produce 16 meals:

Balis came up with two recipes from the “$16 Shopping Bag” that is designed to produce 16 separate meals:


  • 12:31:42

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we've been discussing the rising cost of food and how it's taking a bigger bite out of most people's paychecks. Food prices are up nearly 5 percent over last year. And on some basics, like eggs and beef, it's more than double that. The good news is that, given the number of choices, there are around 50,000 different products in the average supermarket.

  • 12:32:04

    MS. REBECCA ROBERTSAnd the decisions you make in the store can actually drastically affect your grocery bill. With a little strategic shopping and a plan for your weekly dinners, you can save big. Here to help us figure that out is Jodi Balis. She's a registered dietician and a director of Nutrition Education at the Capital Area Food Bank. Welcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:32:21

    MS. JODI BALISThank you, Rebecca. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:32:23

    ROBERTSAnd you can join us at 800-433-8850. Send us email at, or you can get in touch with us through our Facebook page. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. So I've just read that statistic, that there are 50,000 different products in the average grocery store. And it can feel sort of overwhelming. I mean, you can stand there in front of an aisle and kind of long for communist Russia, you know...

  • 12:32:46


  • 12:32:47

    ROBERTS...because there are so many different options and you feel that you're being targeted with what's at eye-level and the colorful displays and the special tags on it. How do you even begin to navigate that?

  • 12:32:57

    BALISWell, as you said, there are 50,000 ingredients out there. And the trick to eating healthy on a budget is how you put those ingredients together in a strategic way. And one way at the Capital Area Food Bank that we teach how to eat healthy on a budget is through meal planning, and, really, meal planning, shopping and cooking is the whole picture of food budgeting. But the planning tool that we use at the food bank is called the $16 Bag.

  • 12:33:31

    BALISAnd I actually brought the bag with me.

  • 12:33:33

    ROBERTSI see you have. This is a reusable shopping bag. It's got -- it's pretty full. I wouldn't say it's groaning. But $16, really?

  • 12:33:40

    BALISYes. And there's still room to grow in this bag. And I'll talk about that in a minute.

  • 12:33:43

    ROBERTSAnd how many meals do you think you get out of that?

  • 12:33:45

    BALISWell, this $16 bag will feed you 16 times.

  • 12:33:49


  • 12:33:49

    BALISYou can make two recipes from the bag, a black bean quesadilla and a barbecue tortilla pizza. So the ingredients in this bag -- I believe it's also on your website. We have a bag of frozen corn, two packages of whole wheat tortillas, a 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes, a bag of dry black beans that were actually on sale for 90 cents today at the store and a bottle of barbecue sauce.

  • 12:34:17

    BALISAnd, like you said, Rebecca, there are so many ingredients, including these, how do you put them together? The $16 Bag shows you how to put them together into two meals. And the food budgeting strategy -- the meal planning strategy behind this is you are using the leftover ingredients from one -- from preparing one recipe and applying that to prepare the next recipe. Essentially, you're using up the ingredients you buy.

  • 12:34:44

    BALISAnd you're shortening your grocery list. And that is how you get value out of your grocery list.

  • 12:34:49

    ROBERTSWell, this is pretty tactical, though. I mean, you don't just show up at the grocery store, first of all, certainly not blind, but not even with your standard eggs, milk, coffee list.

  • 12:34:58


  • 12:34:58

    ROBERTSThis is a recipe and, you know, amounts and...

  • 12:35:01

    BALISThese are two recipes that fit together like a puzzle. Not only are they two recipes, but there's kind of some food budgeting tips behind each ingredient.

  • 12:35:13

    ROBERTSUh huh.

  • 12:35:13

    BALISSo you'll notice, for example -- and this where I said the bag is going to grow.

  • 12:35:17

    BALISYou have a pound of -- I'm sorry, a pound block of cheese, for example. I'm just curious how many cups of shredded do you think you'd get from this?

  • 12:35:27

    ROBERTSI don't know, maybe five?

  • 12:35:29

    BALISPretty good. Six. You get six cups. And those six cups of shredded cheese actually covers both of our recipes.

  • 12:35:37

    ROBERTSUh huh. Whereas if you bought the bag of shredded cheese, that's two cups. You'd be buying three packs. It would probably cost twice as much.

  • 12:35:42

    BALISExactly. And the same goes for our dried black beans. Now, this -- depending on which culture you're working with -- dry black beans are familiar to some than others.

  • 12:35:49

    ROBERTSMm hmm.

  • 12:35:52

    BALISThis bag -- pound -- one pound bag of dried black beans can yield you seven cups of cooked black beans. These, again, were 90 cents today at the store. So you're basically covered with black beans for -- you're covering two of your recipes with black beans to spare, as opposed to if you bought canned, which is just a fine choice, too. You would have to buy four cans.

  • 12:36:14

    ROBERTSMm hmm. But this is also an investment. I mean, you can shred your own cheese. That's not all that hard, but you're soaking beans overnight. You're planning ahead.

  • 12:36:21

    BALISYeah, these are the two-time investments in this bag.

  • 12:36:24

    ROBERTSUh huh.

  • 12:36:24

    BALISAnd we really point that out to people. It's the shredding, and it's the bean preparation. And, really, I like to tell people, you know, if dry beans are a deal breaker, then buy canned black beans.

  • 12:36:38


  • 12:36:39

    ROBERTSI just never remember the day before. And suddenly I look at a good recipe, and it requires soaking overnight. Oh, well, you know?

  • 12:36:46

    BALISRight. And one way I do talk to people about it, as well, is, you know, it's really not your time. It's the bean's time. If you're home for the day, it's the beans that have to do all the work.

  • 12:36:56

    ROBERTSWe are talking about making your food budget go farther without sacrificing taste or nutrition with Jody Balis, registered dietitian and the director of Nutrition Education at the Capital Area Food Bank. You can join us with your own tips or questions at 800-433-8850 or email us, Let's take a call from Joy in Rockville. Joy, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:37:20

    JOYHi, I have extremely militaristic ideas about food. I think we should just stick to the plain foods. And, by the way, beans can be boiled for two minutes, left for one hour and you can -- and they're half-cooked then. You don't have to soak them overnight.

  • 12:37:39

    BALISMm hmm.

  • 12:37:39

    ROBERTSWhen you say plain food, what do you mean, Joy?

  • 12:37:42

    JOYPlain food, not refined, not anything processed. No corn flakes. If you want oatmeal, buy steel-cut oats. You buy plain grains, nothing processed.

  • 12:37:58

    ROBERTSSo buy the ingredients, not the product.

  • 12:37:58

    JOYFirst, (unintelligible). Pardon me?

  • 12:38:02

    ROBERTSSo buy the ingredients, not the product.

  • 12:38:05

    JOYWell, don't buy -- look at things as basic products, not refined things. Nothing that somebody -- some company has packaged.

  • 12:38:17

    ROBERTSJoy, thank you for...

  • 12:38:17

    JOYI really think that it is so important. So -- I mean, I don't think it really takes much intelligence to understand that.

  • 12:38:24

    ROBERTSThank you for your call. Well, what it -- one thing it does take is time. You know, I mean, the reason that processed foods are so popular is 'cause throwing a frozen pizza in the oven seems a lot easier than making one yourself.

  • 12:38:34

    BALISRight. And I really appreciate Joy's comment because, first of all, she mentions ingredients, using ingredients. And I'll touch the time point in a second. But it's also -- it's about connecting the dots between ingredients and knowing how to put them together. And that really lends itself to versatility, knowing how to use an ingredient in many ways. So, as Joy said, use ingredients, but know how to use them in many ways.

  • 12:39:02

    BALISSo an example for the $16 Bag, for example, is black beans. We use them in a black bean quesadilla. Where do you think they appear in the barbecue tortilla pizza? They're actually mashed, added to the barbecue sauce to fortify it with protein, stretch the sauce, and there's your value. There's your nutrition. There's your versatile ingredient. So Joy's right. It is about using ingredients, tapping into the utility and the versatility of the ingredients.

  • 12:39:32

    BALISAnd, actually, another point that just came to my mind about the $16 Bag strategy is, before you even get to the store, shop in your kitchen because, in this bag, you don't see canola oil or chili powder, which are part of the recipes. So that's -- shopping in your kitchen first is actually going to subsidize your grocery list at the store.

  • 12:39:57

    ROBERTSDo you have a pantry list, a sort of everyone should have a bag of rice and a thing of kosher salt or whatever else there is, you know?

  • 12:40:03

    BALISReally, right now, we relate it to specific recipes.

  • 12:40:06

    ROBERTSUh huh.

  • 12:40:07

    BALISBut it -- because, again, if it's -- it all comes back to the meal, to the recipe at this point. I did want to address your -- the time issue that you brought up 'cause that is something that comes up every -- you know, in all of our classes and all of our lives. And, really, we like to call -- we like to refer to a type of cooking called cooking by looking, where you take a category of a recipe, pizza, an egg scramble, a soup that -- you know, Lynn referred to one of her family members always having pot of soup on the stove.

  • 12:40:44

    BALISAnd you basically combine different ingredients and throw different things in to that category. So we'll just take that pizza again. We have a barbecue tortilla pizza. And, actually, I happen to have my lunch with me today where we have another type of pizza, which includes that same whole wheat tortilla. We have, from my kitchen, a -- some farmer's market tomatoes that I was trying to stretch 'cause they are -- they were a little expensive this week.

  • 12:41:14

    BALISWe have a sauce that -- a green sauce that I made out of avocado and onion and garlic and then mozzarella cheese. So it's the pizza concept switched up with different ingredients.

  • 12:41:26

    ROBERTSWe got a tweet that Grocery iQ on my iPhone keeps track of prices when I grocery shop, and thank goodness for smartphones.

  • 12:41:32

    BALISOh, good suggestion.

  • 12:41:34

    ROBERTSWe also have a comment posted on our website. "I've been combating rising food prices by reducing my expenses for non-edible items. Given the choice between a less-expensive soap, shampoo or detergent and a less-expensive food, the cleaning bill is the first thing to get cut. I wonder how effective similar strategies would be for other low-income grocery shoppers." We are going to take a quick break.

  • 12:41:56

    ROBERTSWe will be back more with Jodi Balis, talking about how to stretch your food budget. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Stay with us.

  • 12:43:47

    ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. My guest is Jodi Balis. She's a registered dietician and the director of nutrition education at the Capital Area Food Bank. And we're talking about how to make good economic choices at the grocery store while still being healthy and nutritious and delicious as well. And we've talked about the delicious part of it.

  • 12:44:07

    ROBERTSThere is a concept that healthy foods are more expensive, especially fresh produce. How do you combat that?

  • 12:44:12

    BALISRight. And we hear this a lot as well. I mean, and you see it in the cost of food. If you're comparing a package of ramen noodles with a bag of carrots, when you compare number by number, it can look more -- it is more expensive. However, it all goes back to getting the value out of your food. If you were to eat those ramen noodles, not only you'd be getting a lot of salt, what you wouldn't be getting is leftovers.

  • 12:44:39

    BALISSo if you were to purchase a bag of carrots and use the -- tap into that versatility of the carrot, use it in three, maybe even four recipes, your cost goes down because you're tapping into the value.

  • 12:44:56

    ROBERTSHere is an email from Wendell who says, "Don't buy the bottled barbecue sauce. Make your own." Now, there's a time investment.

  • 12:45:03

    BALISThat is a great suggestion.

  • 12:45:05

    ROBERTSAnd this is a comment from our website. "I'm so excited about the thought of using the $16 bag, not just to stretch my budget, but because, as a single person, I constantly have ingredients left over from an elaborate meal. When you're cooking for one, you're less likely to cook and more likely to microwave something that's sized for one."

  • 12:45:21

    ROBERTS"But being able to reuse ingredients from one meal for another allows me to make a week's worth of lunches -- I don't mind a little repetition -- and dinners out of one bag without having to purchase elaborate ingredients or having something left over that I'll only ever cook for one specific meal."

  • 12:45:35

    BALISAbsolutely. And we -- you know, if the -- if listeners will open their refrigerators right now, I'm sure you'd find that bottle of…

  • 12:45:42

    ROBERTSRice wine or something, right, that you used once.

  • 12:45:45

    BALISOf this, that or the other, right. And, really, again, it's seeing…

  • 12:45:49

    ROBERTSThat knob of ginger haunting you from the bottom.

  • 12:45:50

    BALISThat knob, right. Or that tofu that's in the back of your refrigerator you haven't used in two months. So...

  • 12:45:58

    ROBERTSWe've got a tip from Chris in Derwood, Md. Chris, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:46:03

    CHRISYeah, hi. Just a couple of comments that I use myself. Buy large bags, like, if you get a 20, 25-pound bag of rice, you're always going to find that the unit price is a great deal lower. I'm very big on unit price shopping. If you look around for sales in the supermarket, you can sometimes find chicken breasts -- skinless chicken breasts, they'll be down to $0.99 or $1.29 a pound instead of $4. Grab some, freeze them.

  • 12:46:31

    CHRISYou -- if you shop at Giant, for instance, they've got that gas plan. And for the money you spend, you'll get money off your gas at the pump, which is an additional saving that might not be food. But it helps the budget. Always look around for the $1 or $2 off on meats. And, particularly, if you get, like, $2 off on a small package, you may find that it comes in very cheaply. I don't think that cheese is terribly good. It's awfully expensive now.

  • 12:47:02

    CHRISBut yogurt is very good. And, I mean, you can't make a pizza with it, but it's a very good protein. And if you buy store brands, and also in fairly large volumes, on things like yogurt, you'll get a tremendous saving. Always look for the store brands. Giant and Safeway have great store brands, and I think probably the other chains as well. Those are just some of the things that I try to use.

  • 12:47:26

    CHRISAnd also look at any other savings that that store may be having that week. I tend to stay away from small units of processed foods. I try to avoid things with a lot of high-fructose corn syrup because it just gears up your appetite to eat more. So those are just some of the comments that I have.

  • 12:47:44

    ROBERTSChris, thanks for the tips.

  • 12:47:45

    BALISThank you, Chris. Great points. Whole ingredients, like we've been discussing. And also the great tip on the chicken. You mentioned chicken and cheese, for example. We like to refer to these at the food bank as expensive stretch ingredients, where these are ingredients that you break up into little parts and apply not just to one meal but to several meals. So great strategy there.

  • 12:48:14

    BALISI also wanted to comment on what you mentioned with protein. With the new MyPlate visual tool for healthy eating, there's a section of the plate for protein. There's also a section in the plate for -- well, the section a little off the plate for milk.

  • 12:48:29

    BALISAnd when working with low-income communities, like we do at the Capital Area Food Bank, we oftentimes talk about those two types of foods together because milk foods, dairy foods -- cheese, milk, yogurt -- are, in fact, really good and sometimes less expensive sources of protein compared to meat.

  • 12:48:49

    ROBERTSExplain what the food plate is. It's sort of the latest version of the food pyramid?

  • 12:48:52

    BALISYes. The -- MyPlate recently came out. Then it replaced MyPyramid, which, as somebody who's been teaching nutrition to community, I really feel like a sigh of relief because it really, I think, resonates with -- a plate resonates with people more than something like a pyramid. The pyramid, I found, brought up more questions than answered more -- than answered questions about nutrition.

  • 12:49:18

    BALISAnd the plate really just looks at what are you eating in a meal. And, in fact, with the $16 bag, it's -- if you think of, like, the pizza, for example, that's almost -- it's almost a plate, really. Your plate is just made of whole grain, and then you put stuff on top to complete your -- the nutrition.

  • 12:49:37

    BALISAnd what MyPlate is made up of includes whole grain protein, and then half of your plate, which would have fruits and vegetables and then, again, milk off to the side. So, basically, combine ingredients in a meal to make sure you're getting enough nutrition.

  • 12:49:55

    ROBERTSAnd do you recommend having a nutritionally balanced meal or a nutritionally balanced day?

  • 12:50:00

    BALISBoth. And MyPlate sort of addresses that. If you have balanced nutrition throughout the day, throughout each meal and snack, you're going to have it throughout the day. One way at the Food Bank that we talk about it, that relates to MyPlate, is we call it the meal of -- the meal or snack rule of three. So that if you know you're getting three food groups in, you're doing a pretty good job that day.

  • 12:50:27

    ROBERTSLet's take a call from Nicholas in Silver Spring. Nicholas, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:50:33

    NICHOLASYes. I got a question also. The problem is cooking at home is healthy, and people don't think of the cost of the fuel that you only use to cook. I love cooking at home. But at the end of the month, the bill that will come is so high that, I mean, it puts me off from cooking at home. I love -- rather -- I rather prefer buying food outside because, at the end of the month, the bill would be so high that I -- it doesn't encourage me to cook at home.

  • 12:51:04

    NICHOLASWhy don't you talk about that?

  • 12:51:05

    BALISMmm, that's a really important point that you bring up. When we train our partner agencies at the Food Bank, this has been brought up as well. If somebody's homeless, for example, they don't have access to cooking equipment. What can you make?

  • 12:51:23

    BALISAnd the way that we talk about that would be looking at things like salads and no-cook -- in fact, the Food Bank has a -- put -- has a small no-cook cookbook, actually, as well as, you know, taking -- really tapping into fresh, canned and dry goods, not uncooked dry goods, but dry goods like a tortilla.

  • 12:51:58

    BALISSo I'll just give you an -- I mean, I keep going back to a quesadilla. But a non-cooked version would be a burrito, where you take that whole wheat tortilla, you take your cheese and whatever other non-cooked fillings. And you make that without having to use cooking equipment. But I really -- that really is a challenge.

  • 12:52:18

    BALISSalads, we talk about value salad, where you take Romaine lettuce, shredded carrots, sunflower seeds, shredded egg -- if you're able to cook the egg -- and a variety of other ingredients, and you just make a really healthy, hearty salad. So those are a few options.

  • 12:52:41

    ROBERTSMarcel in Arlington, Va., joins us now. Welcome to the program, Marcel.

  • 12:52:46


  • 12:52:47

    ROBERTSHi there.

  • 12:52:49

    MARCELHi. When you were talking about black beans -- and I'm sorry, I didn't catch the very first part. So I might have missed it. You didn't mention the advantages of a pressure cooker when it comes to cooking legumes. Being a diabetic, I have gone to a very legume-heavy diet and find that the pressure cooker cuts cooking time tremendously when it comes to bean, stews and stuff like that. I -- they're not very popular anymore, and I don't really understand why.

  • 12:53:14

    BALISNo. That's -- pressure cookers are fantastic. What -- you know, I'm coming from the realm of working with low-income individuals who may not be able to make that investment. But if a pressure cooker can be afforded -- I've had mine for 10 years, and it's still working, just great. And you're right. It cuts -- it makes beans seem like -- cooking beans seem like nothing.

  • 12:53:40

    ROBERTSAnd it's one of those upfront investments that you reap back, you know, so often.

  • 12:53:45

    BALISAbsolutely. I mean, cooking equipment in general, if you can afford it, it is, like you said, an investment upfront that just keeps on giving over years and years and years.

  • 12:53:53

    ROBERTSWe have a tweet about using a slow cooker. She says, "When I..."-- it seems it's a woman. I don't know why. This tweeter says, "When I get a roast chicken, I make stock with my slow cooker and freeze it in one-cup measures in Ziplocs. I haven't bought stock in three years." Let's take a call from Alex in Annandale. Alex, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:54:15

    ALEXHi. How are you?

  • 12:54:16

    ROBERTSGood. How are you?

  • 12:54:17

    ALEXI have a tip for a lot of the consumers here in this area. I know we do most of our shopping at Giant and Safeway. But there are a lot of local Asian groceries that have great prices on produce and meats that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. That's it. That's my tip.

  • 12:54:39

    ROBERTSThanks, Alex. And let's hear from Kara in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Kara, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

  • 12:54:45

    KARAThank you so much. I am so happy to listen to the show. I was actually driving, which I'm not driving while talking on the cell phone.

  • 12:54:52

    ROBERTSThank you.

  • 12:54:53

    KARABut I had just bought a couple of cucumbers right out of a little farm stand. I'm in the village of (word?), as I drove towards Shepherdstown. So I feel very fortunate to have local produce.

  • 12:55:03

    KARABut in relation to the $16 bag, which is amazing that you brought that up, it's just very interesting, the increase of percentage of people in this country alone that, let's even say, you know, each month what they spend on a cell phone bill or cable expense, that 20, 30, 40 years ago didn't exist, that amount of money that actually does not go to food and actual grocery shopping like it used to or could.

  • 12:55:33

    KARAAnd I just think that's always -- as time goes on and food pricing increases, so have other things that we kind of spend money on. So it's interesting to me that the $16 is just a fraction of most people's monthly expenditures that aren't needed items, per se.

  • 12:55:55

    ROBERTSYeah, it's amazing what you can consider necessary after being used to it for a while, I guess. And we should say that the $16 bag, which I have the benefit of seeing 'cause Jodi is showing it to me here in the studio, we actually do have a video of Jodi explaining the $60 -- $16 grocery bag. And we're going to put that up on our website soon.

  • 12:56:13

    ROBERTSI'm a little surprised that in these tips that people have been calling in, no one has really talked that much about coupons. Are you a coupon fan?

  • 12:56:20

    BALISCoupons are an excellent strategy while you're at the store. And so I've been talking all about cooking and planning. But, absolutely, before you get to the store, if you clip coupons or when you get to the store and find specials, great strategy. And, again, it leads -- it lends to knowing how to substitute out ingredients because if something's on sale one week or there's a coupon for it, just knowing how to switch it out and using that coupon and shopping with the sales.

  • 12:56:51

    BALISSo -- I also actually wanted to mention -- I don't think I brought up where the $16 came from in the first place.

  • 12:56:56

    ROBERTSOh, yeah.

  • 12:56:57

    BALISSo $16 is actually the minimum SNAP benefit -- SNAP, which was previously called food stamps and mentioned by our previous guest. It's the minimum amount of SNAP benefit per month that a person or single -- or small family can receive as a food supplement. And so what we hear in the field with my colleagues that go out and help people enroll in SNAP benefits, they hear, well, what's -- why is it worth even, you know, attempting to try to get $16?

  • 12:57:32

    BALISWhat can I buy with it? So this education tool, created by the Food Bank, was used to show how can you use the minimum? What could you really even get with a minimum? In fact, we have a whole grain $16 bag and a protein $16 bag. And I imagine with the Food Bank's -- Capital Area Food Bank's push with fresh produce, we'll have a fresh produce bag as well.

  • 12:57:53

    ROBERTSJodi Balis, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:57:55

    BALISThank you.

  • 12:57:56

    ROBERTSJodi Balis is a registered dietician and the director of nutrition education at the Capital Area Food Bank. I'm Rebecca Roberts, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thank you so much for listening.

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