MECOSTA COUNTY — What tastes good doesn’t have to be bad for you. During national nutrition month in March, residents are encouraged to enjoy food with this year’s theme, “Savor the flavor of eating right.”

Savoring food means taking time to enjoy it rather than gulping it down, and taking time is a key component to eating better, said Marta Johnson, a registered dietitian nutritionist with Spectrum Health.

“I think people will eat more healthfully if they plan ahead,” Johnson said. “They should plan to take time to eat, take time to taste the textures and flavors of the food and make more meals at home. You need to plan ahead to prepare food — plan the menu ahead of time, plan to grocery shop.

“Don’t just react when your stomach is hungry.”

Choosing healthy food doesn’t need to break the bank, said Effie Jack, nutrition educator with Michigan State University Extension.

“It’s really not more expensive to eat healthy, it just takes more time,” Jack said. “If you only prepare good food, if you only have nutritional food in the house, that’s what your family will eat.”

To help area families gain momentum selecting and preparing healthy food, MSU Extension will offer a free seven-week course called “Cooking Matters,” which teaches people how to prepare healthy meals on a limited budget.

Taught by Jack and Don Zimmer, the class runs from 9 to 11 a.m. on Mondays beginning March 14 at the Mecosta County Services Building, 14485 Northland Drive, Big Rapids. During each class, participants will prepare a meal, eat in class and go home with groceries to recreate the meal. To sign up for the class, call (231) 592-0795 or email Jack at jackeffi@msu.edu.

“Most meals we make are $10 or less for the recipe ingredients,” Jack said. ” We really focus on the five food groups, budgeting, menu planning, unit pricing, salt content in foods and store versus name brand. We also practice basic knife skills, go over reading food labels and in one class we cut up a whole chicken because it’s cheaper than buying boneless skinless chicken breasts.”

In addition to preparing meals at home, focusing on eating can help people make healthy choices, Johnson said. Performing other tasks, such as watching television, working or shopping on the computer, talking on the phone or driving while eating take away from the enjoyment of eating.

“Doing other things while eating becomes a problem because people don’t separate food from the other activities, so when they’re doing the other activities, it can end up triggering them to also eat,” Johnson said. “People should enjoy what they’re eating and if they’re doing other activities, they’re not really enjoying their food.”

Slowing down gives your body a chance to let your brain know you’ve had enough food, explained Johnson. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to get signals to the brain indicating fullness and when people eat too quickly, they’ve overeaten before the “full” message has been relayed.

“All of a sudden, you’re stuffed,” she said. “That’s not good for a lot of reasons. Put the fork down between bites. If you’re eating with other people, engage in conversation.”

Planning ahead helps people stay on track when hunger strikes and they don’t have much time to eat. Bringing healthy options to work, for example, can help maintain a healthy diet without giving up snacks.

“When you go grocery shopping, pick up yogurt, make a healthful granola mix or get some fruit,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, you have a little refrigerator unit or an insulated lunch bag to take to work. If you don’t eat it one day, that’s fine, save it for the next day.

“Take healthy snacks to eat and when you’re grabbing that snack, push away from the computer and take five minutes to enjoy it.”

Most meals should be prepared at home, which gives you the ability to control the ingredients, nutrition and portion sizes, as well as saving you money, Johnson said.

“When you do go out to eat, do the best you can to order healthy things off the menu and not always eat as big a portion as they give you,” she said.

Selecting good-for-you foods doesn’t have to be tricky.

“What I tend to see out there nowadays is so much confusion and it doesn’t need to be difficult to learn to eat healthier,” Johnson said. “A good reference is the choosemyplate.gov website, which has a very simple icon of a plate showing how to setup healthful meals. It’s just practicing doing it three or four times a day.

“Don’t expect perfection. It’s a process and habits get easier. I like to say your taste buds learn to like the direction you’re telling them to go.”