In lean economic times, we may need to tighten our food budgets, but it is important to do so wisely. Processed foods are definitely cheap. A dollar buys 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips, but only 250 calories of carrots; or 875 calories of soda, but only 170 calories of orange juice. Filling up on cookies and soda, however, is a prescription for weight gain, cardiac disease, and other health problems.

Jennifer Ventrelle, clinical nutritionist and registered dietitian at Rush University Medical Center, maintains it's possible to grocery shop on a budget while staying healthy and maintaining your waistline. She offers these tips:

Eat foods with fiber: "Fiber keeps you feeling full because it takes longer to digest than simple carbohydrates," Ventrelle says. "Consequently, you eat less."

Sweet potatoes are high in fiber, and also inexpensive and packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants. White potatoes can be high in fiber if you leave the skin on. Bean, lentil, tomato, or broth-based soups take up more space in your stomach and help to keep you feeling satisfied. Lettuce and mixed greens do the same. You can buy them in bundles instead of pre-cut to save on cost.

"Brown rice is another high-fiber option. Buy the long-cooking kind instead of the instant to cut down on cost," Ventrelle says. "You can make your own 'instant' rice by cooking it ahead of time and freezing half-cup portions in individual baggies - a trick that not only saves money but also controls your portion size."

Buy seasonal produce: "Fruits and vegetables that are in season are cheaper than those out of season because shipping and storage costs are minimized," Ventrelle says. "Moreover, eating lots of produce helps you eat smaller portions of higher-calorie foods like meats and starches."

In the fall, look for seasonal produce such as apples, carrots, collards, kale, parsnips, pomegranates, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, winter squash, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, cranberries, jicama, onions, pears, and turnips.

Plan ahead: Planning your shopping trips and meals ahead of time ensures you do not overspend or overeat. "Go grocery shopping on the same day each week to form a habit of keeping healthy foods in the house," Ventrelle says. "You can save money by finding out what day of the week your local grocery store holds sales."

Ventrelle also suggests creating your own "TV dinners" by preparing large batches of soups, chili, stir-fry dishes, or pastas over the weekend. Divide the food into individualized portions using sandwich-size freezer bags.

Bring your own lunch: Bringing your lunch to work saves on cost and calories. Try to include three food groups for each meal. For example, have a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread and include fruit or low-fat yogurt. If you are in a hurry, a cup of homemade frozen lentil soup pairs perfectly with two whole carrots (cheaper than buying baby carrots) and a cup of low-fat yogurt.

Remember to drink water: The sense of being full comes from an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. "The hypothalamus cannot distinguish between hunger and thirst, so be sure to drink at least eight cups of water throughout the day not only to stay well hydrated but to prevent your body from mistaking thirst for hunger," Ventrelle says.

Tap water is virtually free, but even purified water can be cheap if you purchase a water filter instead of buying bottled water.

Eat in: Food away from home now accounts for nearly 49 percent of the average American food dollar, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Bureau. "Eating out is expensive, a fact you can prove to yourself by totaling up a month's worth of receipts from restaurants, fast-food establishments, carry-out orders and vending machines," Ventrelle says. "And eating out is a waist expander. Instead, clip coupons and bring those to the grocery store. You'll save cash and calories."

Rush University Medical Center