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A Day on the “Coupon Diet”

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Recently some researchers released a study of what you happen if you only ate the food that was advertised on TV. (Answer: You’d be in a sorry state.) It also got us thinking a lot about coupons, which are marketed heavily toward people shopping for families with kids. In fact, we’re constantly hearing about how moms can save hundreds of dollars at the supermarket (plus the occasional apocryphal story about a “free” grocery shopping trip) using coupons alone.

But if you shopped using only coupons, you would be bringing home a lot of heavily processed foods, because that’s what food manufacturers are making and marketing. (They don’t give out coupons for fresh fruit.) So if you were determined to live the coupon-clipping lifestyle, what would your daily diet look like? To answer this question, we pulled out the coupon circulars from the last few Sundays and tried to figure out what we could feed the kids for a day if we used coupons alone. (Warning: Don’t try this at home.)

For breakfast it looks like our best bet would be Honey Nut Cheerios ($1 off two boxes), which appears to be far better than the other choices of Cocoa Pebbles or Fruity Pebbles. We’ll assume the Cheerios are marketed for kids because of the ubiquitous cartoon bee. One 3/4 cup serving with skim milk is 150 calories, although it’s a little high on the sugar (9 grams) and a little lower on the fiber than we would have expected (2 grams). There’s also 190 mg of sodium hiding in there.

For lunchtime we’ll take the Totino’s Pizza Rolls (“Kid’s Favorites!” the ad proclaims) with a 50-cents-off coupon. If we offer one serving (six rolls) of the pepperoni flavor, that will give us 210 calories, 480 mg of sodium (20 percent of the daily value), and 10 grams of fat (2.5 g saturated fat), and 1 gram of fiber and 3 grams of sugar.

We’re going to need something to drink and Juicy Juice (Save $1 on two products) looks like it fits the bill. (“Send them off to school with a full serving of fruit”) A “fun size” (4.23 ounces) will give us 60 calories, zero fiber, and 14 grams of sugar.

At snacktime, we are going to go with the Dan-o-nino yogurt (“Freeze ’em for Fun!”). The coupon says “Save .50 cents” but we’ll assume they mean “Save 50 cents.” For a single serving of the strawberry flavor, that’s 60 calories and 2 grams of fat. It’ll also give us another 7 grams of sugar and zero fiber.

For dinner it looks like we’ll need to use our $1 coupon for Tornados, which we assume are marketed for kids because they’re offering a free “Tornados Racing Collector Card” in every box. For the Ranchero Beef and Cheese Tornado, two rolls would give you 380 calories, 10 grams of fat or 16 percent DV (4 grams of saturated fat or 20 percent DV), 900 mg of sodium (38 percent DV), 2 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of fiber.

Dessert? Let’s go with the “healthy” option of Minute Maid Juice Bars (75 cents off). Whether we choose orange, cherry, or grape, it looks like we get 60 calories; zero percent of the RDA of vitamins A, C, calcium, or iron; no fiber or protein; and 14 grams of sugar.

So how did we do? On the bright side, we saved $4.75. On the other hand, we only managed to get a dismal three grams of fiber for the whole day. Let’s hope that even if we were really eating all this stuff we could add some fruits and vegetables into the mix. We also had 49 grams of sugar and 1570 grams of sodium, which is not insubstantial for a kid to consume during the course of one day.

Is it possible to do better if you’re on a tight budget? Sure – but you can’t rely on coupons alone. Some good strategies include buying food in bulk, joining a food co-op that will give you opportunities to buy food at wholesale prices, and buying fresh foods in season whenever possible. For illustration, here’s a story of how one mom feeds her family of five with primarily organic food for about $430 per month. And for some good suggestions on buying fruits and vegetables on a budget, see this list from Fruits and Veggies: More Matters. Those coupon circulars may be good here and there for cheese, nuts, “good” cereals, and other packaged goods, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that coupon-clipping is going to be the best way to feed your family. A child cannot live on coupons alone.

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