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Kale Romain lettuce Red Onion salad
WASHINGTON - We hear it daily, it seems: "Cut down processed food and eat more produce and grains."

Okay, fine. But processed has its upside (easy and cheap), while produce and grains have their downside (prep-heavy and expensive).

Right?

Not so, says Allison Sosna, a chef and founder of MicroGreens, a group dedicated to teaching families - in particular children - how to prepare healthful meals on a teeny budget (as little as $3.50 per meal for a family of four).

"Produce is never too expensive, no matter what time of year it is. You just have to learn how to prepare it," Sosna says.

For example, learn how to make a mirepoix - the holy aromatic trinity of celery, onion and carrots - and you can create amazing flavors whether preparing a soup, stew or sauce, she says.

And those particular veggies are pretty cheap. One local grocery store recently listed the following prices: yellow onions at $2.49 per three-pound bag (or about 83 cents per pound), carrots at $3.99 per five-pound bag (or about 80 cents per pound) and celery at $3.49 per pound.

But let's face it, one cannot live on mirepoix alone.

"Then I would look for items on sale. Kale can be quite reasonable. Look for beans and brown rice and barley," Sosna says. "Look at the perimeter of the grocery store and you will find the less processed foods."

The same local grocery store had dried black beans at $1.69 per pound (13 servings) and two pounds of brown rice (22 servings) for $2.69.

Still, it means preparation. "It's true there is no way around that. It takes more time than heating up a pizza," says Kathy Pugh, a holistic health coach in Washington. "But if you want to be efficient, take one hour a week to chop up vegetables and prepare a big pot of brown rice and a big pot of quinoa, and you are set for the week."

Both quinoa and brown rice are great basics that can be dressed up with raw or cooked vegetables and proteins for an easy meal, says Pugh. "I see them as the basic black dress. You can jazz them up with accessories - in this case, veggies, nuts, avocado. The possibilities are endless."

And to really stretch your dollar, practice proper food prep to ensure that produce doesn't go bad, says Ebeth Johnson, a plant-based culinary nutritionist.

"Many people say one of the reasons they find healthy eating expensive is due to produce spoilage," says Johnson, who teaches wellness and healthful cooking. But, she says, you can get around this issue by buying "fresh fruits and vegetables on sale, cook them and then freeze them."

Packaged frozen veggies and fruits are another often cheaper option, especially in the winter, Sosna says. (Even on a recent trip to the store, I found fresh spinach for $3.29 for 16 ounces, compared with $1.99 frozen.)

But with summer coming, frozen options might be less appealing. Instead, look to farmers markets, Pugh says. Here, too, there are tricks of the trade. Arrive late, and, though you might get a slimmer selection, prices are often cut significantly.

"You can get some great deals that way," Pugh says, all while supporting local farmers.

Which brings us to the question of local and organic foods. Is it important to buy organic? Johnson and Pugh say yes, but Sosna, who "eats what she preaches," says that to her, eating more produce in general and eating locally grown produce in particular are more important than sticking to organic.

"I also know of a lot of farmers who are growing sustainably but who can't afford to be organic-certified," she says. "I feel like it's a whole minefield of its own."

When it comes to animal protein, though, Sosna agrees with Johnson and Pugh: Go with high-quality, grass-fed, non-antibiotic, non-hormone-treated and organic whenever possible. The issues with traditional meat are numerous: hormones, antibiotics, fat and protein content, factory farming and feeding practices. The only way to get around these issues, they say, is to pay for better quality - in smaller quantities, if cost is an issue.

Says Pugh: "I see meat more as a garnish. Use it sparingly, but go with high quality."

Sosna recommends preparing a whole chicken, which can lead to two or three meals including a soup.

Protein, though, can be had in many ways. Johnson suggests nuts, seeds and beans, which can be bought in bulk at places like Costco, where almonds recently were $12.99 for three pounds. That is less than half the price at most grocery stores, Pugh says.

Reasonably priced fish can be found in the frozen section or in cans - such as canned tuna in water, Sosna says. It can be used for "a summer salad of tuna, sauteed kale, shaved carrots, oranges and orange vinaigrette."

By the way, oranges sell for $5.99 per eight-pound bag at one local grocery store; that's about 37 cents an orange. Hard to beat.

Another relatively cheap seafood that's high in protein and omega-12 is the mussel, which Pugh prepares once a week - Mussel Monday - for her family of three. This includes two or three pounds of mussels (about $3.99 per pound), served with scallions and garlic, and paired with a fresh bakery-bought baguette.

"It's quick, easy and cheap, and you end up with a $15 gourmet meal for three people," Pugh says.

In the end, eating healthfully sometimes demands a little more of your money and definitely more of your time than TV dinners, frozen pizza or fried chicken. But you either pay now or later, Johnson says. Eating healthfully might cost more in the short term, but in the long term it helps cut medical costs while improving your general well-being, she says, adding:

"What people often forget about the cost of delicious, nutritious food is that the rewards for eating healthy - energy, vitality, long life and glowing skin - are priceless."