Fast food sales are also up during the recession.

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Economy Shrinks as the Waistline Grows

To save money during the recession, Americans are dining out less and eating more food at home. That sounds like a welcome trend toward healthier food habits, but like the true state of the global financial situation, reality isn't so bright.

The frugal comfort foods many people are turning to aren't carrot sticks and boiled rice. On the contrary, budget eaters are springing for macaroni and cheese, canned chili and stews and even the mystifying meat conglomeration Spam [source: Hughlett]. In other words, we're tucking into processed comfort foods that are loaded with sodium, carbohydrates and fat. Although pantry staples, including dry beans, white flour and peanut butter are also appearing in more grocery baskets, a quarter of respondents to a large-scale survey admitted that they were eating more high-calorie food as a result of their recession budget [source: Pagan].

In fact, medical experts have been concerned about the health impact of the recession since lower income is correlated with poor diet [source: Stoddard]. To illustrate, consider how fast food restaurants have fared in the economic downturn. When deciding whether to spend the time and money on cooking food at home or grabbing cheap fast food, many people are heading to the drive-through. McDonald's Corporation, for example, enjoyed 6.1 percent same-store sales growth in April 2009, followed by 2.8 percent growth the next month [source: Steverman]. And when mulling over the menu, recession-conscious consumers will likely spring for the ultra-cheap hamburgers, fries and sodas over the pricier salads.

If people are willing to get back to the kitchen and spare a few minutes, there are many tasty ways to save money and put delicious food on the table that won't just feed our waistlines. Time and again, food experts praise the thrift and sustenance of beans; they're packed with protein and can star in a variety of tasty dishes, such as black bean burgers. Choosing frozen vegetables, bulk grains and store-brand items will also cut costs at the checkout aisle.

People shy away from comparing the current recession to the Great Depression, but it may be wise to take a cue from that era's eating habits. For real comfort, we ought to fire up the stove and cook wholesome food that will keep our bellies and wallets full.