Fast food restaurants can offer easy and welcome solutions for a single mom on a time or budget crunch. But, while quick service and value menus may be appealing, healthy foods are always a better bargain — both for money and for health.

The cartoon character Popeye boasted he was “strong to the finish” because he ate spinach. Though all moms want their children to eat nutritious foods, single moms are sometimes at a disadvantage to serve their family healthy foods due to tight budgets and high food costs.

Tambra Raye Stevenson, MS, CPT, a nutrition educator at the University of the District of Columbia, says there are practical solutions that single moms can use to dish up healthy fare.

“Farmers markets are starting up for the season and offer a great opportunity to take the whole family to learn and taste,” says Stevenson, who also operates dcfoodjustice.wordpress.com, a food and nutrition blog. “Go in the evening, because typically the vendors are small businesses and you negotiate prices at the end of the day.”

Buying food in season can also help stretch dollars, she says. And, farmers markets have an added bonus — an educational component.

“There is typically a nutrition educator there giving classes and cooking demonstrations,” says Stevenson.

Food costs are not a factor for single mom Tosha Robinson. Robinson, a medical billing and coding clerk in Poughkeepsie, New York, says her sixteen-year-old daughter’s taste buds are more of the problem.

“My biggest challenge to providing healthy foods and a healthy lifestyle for Ashley is not income [or access],” Robinson says. “It is getting her to follow a healthy regimen on a daily basis.”

She continues: “The biggest challenge is getting her to understand that what she puts in her system is what she is going to get out of it. She believes that she can eat anything because she is a kid and she will be okay but I am teaching her that bad habits are hard to break.”

Teaching children healthy habits is especially important now since more than one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

That sobering statistic is what prompted the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to announce new dietary guidelines in 2010 that promote healthy food choices and exercise. It is also one of the chief motivations behind first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative, which aims to lower soaring childhood obesity rates with physical activity and healthy foods.

Childhood obesity rates in America have tripled over the last 30 years, but the numbers hit harder in African-American and Latino communities, where almost 40 percent of children are overweight or obese. That is why Robinson is conscious to set an example for her teen by using healthy ingredients that put a fresh spin on traditional meals.

“For an example, I use fat-free cheese instead of whole cheese when I make quesadillas, and boneless, skinless chicken breast that is baked instead of fried,” Robinson says.

Catherine Fink, RD and CDN, a nutritionist in New Paltz, New York, says that moms do not always have the resolve to serve their children nutritious meals or snacks.

“One challenge for moms is peer pressure. Kids are looking at what other kids are eating. The kids are saying, ‘Hey, so-and-so goes to McDonald’s, or they eat this for lunch,’ and that makes moms feel pressure,” Fink says, who is co-owner of Peak Nutrition, which offers personalized nutrition counseling.

“So you can get something at McDonald’s for a buck or a happy meal and for a single mom who is trying to carry the load of providing healthy food to their children, they may think that [the children] like this food and it’s cheap, but that food changes the child’s palate to fried, sugar, and salt,” Fink explains.

For those who are still inhibited by the costs of healthy foods, Fink offers a few tips.

“Look at unit pricing. Fruit and vegetables have a lower unit price than potato chips; and buy in bulk,” Fink advises.

Stevenson, who is also a single mom, puts her professional advice in practice when she prepares nutritious foods and snacks for her two children. She warns against giving in to the temptation of quick, cheap food.

“What you perceive to be cheap or affordable now will have a cost later in terms of health issues,” Stevenson says.

Visit the USDA’s www.choosemyplate.gov for tips to eat healthy on a budget.