February 23, 2018

The P.D. Brown Branch library welcomed a representative from University of Maryland Extension on Tuesday for a seminar on healthy meal planning and food budgeting, complete with interactive games and displays.

Patricia Maynard is one of two financial educators for UME, an offshoot of the University of Maryland providing programs and assistance to citizens through statewide, non-formal education. Maynard teaches a variety of classes throughout Charles and Prince George’s counties, from debt management to identity theft protection, all focused on creating positive change through financial literacy. The smart spending event drew a handful of residents, who gathered around Maynard and her array of teaching materials to learn how to make intelligent dietary choices.

She opened by asking the participants to draw up a recall sheet tracking their food expenditures over the past few days, without using receipts. Most struggled to remember each meal and its cost, illustrating the crux of Maynard’s teachings.

“Many people do not include the cost of food into their family budgets,” Maynard said. “That’s where we get into the problem, because we’re really not tracking what we’re spending.”

Maynard advised holding onto receipts or recording expenses to keep a better tally of money used toward food between trips to the grocery store. Every family and every person has their own spending pattern, so there’s no singular way to develop a budget, making it important to nail down one’s individual habits.

As for what not to buy, Maynard pointied to sugary drinks and luxury products like ice cream that eat into the money allotted for weekly groceries. These products offer little to no nutritional value and tie up funds that could go to fresh fruits and vegetables. Maynard presented a poster board with several popular drinks and their prices, along with an accompanying vile of the sugar in those drinks. The sodas and energy drinks unsurprisingly contain massive amounts of the sweetener, but so do items like teas and juices, typically perceived as healthier options.

“A lot of people are not only drinking their calories, they’re drinking their dollars,” Maynard said. “This is just another way to visually see what we’re putting into our bodies.”

There was also a Diet Coke can on the display, standing alone without real sugar represented next to it. Maynard said she included this as a talking point for those who drink diet sodas as an alternative, despite the fact they contain other additives and artificial sweeteners making them just as unhealthy as the regular option.

When approaching meal planning, Maynard turned to MyPlate, an initiative by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showing citizens how to divide the food groups in order to create well-balanced diets. The program uses a picture of an actual plate, partitioned into uneven quadrants depicting proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables, along with a bowl labeled as dairy.

“MyPlate illustrates the five food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet using a familiar image — a place setting for a meal,” explains the ChooseMyPlate website. “Before you eat, think about what goes on your plate, in your cup, or in your bowl.”

Maynard passed out a “plate” to each member of the audience, and examined each section. The grain and vegetable chunks were the largest, followed by fruits and proteins, then the small circle for dairy. Maynard said each area is important to account for when putting a meal together, but the plate represents the degree to which each group should be addressed.

To put their new knowledge to the test, Maynard partnered the participants into groups and gave them family characteristics. One team was a married couple without kids, the other a single mother with two teenage kids. Maynard handed out 12 dried beans apiece to the mock families, who then had to go through a menu of groceries with corresponding prices, in beans. The exercise proved the importance of working together with family members to generate a budget, then implementing the plan to provide for everyone. Maynard concluded spending money intelligently and on healthy food options is the key to synergy between finances and dietary needs.

“If you are organized in [your finances], more than likely you’re gonna be organized in your food choices,” Maynard said. “That’s just the way it is, because you’re a planner. If you plan, you’re probably going to save money and you’re probably going to eat better.”

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