Hardly a day goes by without another hysterical news report about the epidemic of obesity and unhealthy eating in America.
We all want to be fit and healthy, but for a family on a budget, the high cost of healthy eating can wreak havoc on monthly finances.
Part of the problem stems from the fact when comparing price per calorie, junk food costs a great deal less than fresh and healthy alternatives.
That does not mean that you are stuck feeding your family a diet of potato chips and Spam. You can be healthy eaters and stick to a conservative budget. Here is what you need to know to eat healthy on a budget:
Portion Size and the Real Cost of Healthy Foods
Even though each calorie of healthy food generally costs more than each calorie of less healthy fare, a new study suggests that this is not the best way to determine what foods are cheaper.
As USA Today reports, when comparing the cost of a portion of healthy food versus a portion of junk food, “many healthy foods are no more expensive than junk food…
in fact, carrots, onions, pinto beans, lettuce, mashed potatoes, bananas and orange juice are all less expensive per portion than soft drinks, ice cream, chocolate candy, French fries, sweet rolls and deep-fat fried chicken patties.”
What this report does not take into account is the associated costs of healthy foods. For example, junk foods tend to be convenient to grab and eat on the go, whereas a head of lettuce must be prepared before it can be eaten. The lower time cost makes processed and prepackaged food the obvious winner, particularly if it also cheap and filling.
Add to that the fact that many of the less nutritious and more processed foods tend to have a longer shelf life, and it becomes clear that the “cost” of eating healthy is not just about money.
My family is committed to eating fresh fruits and vegetables, which means I am at the grocery or market at least two or three times a week to replenish our fruit bowls. I also end up throwing away rotting fruit and vegetables somewhat regularly, despite the rate at which we eat through our favorite snacks.
Having some produce turn to the dark side before you have a chance to eat it is part of the cost of eating healthy.
So while the authors of the study are correct that fruits, vegetables, and other healthy fare do not cost more per portion than junk food, the associated costs of time and potentially ruined food can be enough to make it difficult for a busy family to eat healthy.
More Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget
That being said, healthy eating does not have to be a budget-busting or time-consuming endeavor. Some ways to reduce your grocery bill without sacrificing nutrition include:
Eating more vegetarian meals. Lean cuts of meat and fish tend to be the most expensive healthy options at the grocery store by portion. If you plan to eat more dishes based on inexpensive proteins, like beans and eggs, you can free up some money each week for healthy options.
Buying frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen produce offers the convenience and long shelf life of pre-packaged foods, while still providing almost the same nutrients as their fresh counterparts. This is a great way to add nutritious options to your regular diet without having to spend more or radically change your shopping or eating habits.
Making your own convenience food. It may be easy to grab a toaster pastry on the way out the door in the morning, but we all know that it’s not exactly the breakfast of champions.
Instead, take some time on the weekend to make a big pitcher of smoothies with some frozen fruit, milk, and a little honey for sweetness, and then freeze it in individual cups. You can eat it with a spoon while still frozen, or put it in the refrigerator the night before so you can drink it right away.
This is just one of many ways to replace pre-packaged convenience foods with things you can create on your own.
Adjusting your habits. Eating healthy is really all about having good habits. Even if you have very little money to spend on food, you can examine your food habits and see what you can tweak to find room for inexpensive and healthy food in your budget and on your plate.
Start by buying a bunch of bananas instead of a bag of cookies on your next shopping trip. Even if they turn brown before you eat them, you can bake with them or turn them into smoothie fodder.
Make these substitutions and changes gradually, and you’ll hardly notice the difference in your habits—although you might notice a difference in your waistline.
The Bottom Line
Eating healthy is not cheap. It can cost you time or money, or both. But planning ahead, buying the best nutrition you can afford, and gradually changing your habits will make your dinner plate healthier and will make you feel great.