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:
Calculating All the Costs 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 fact that not all costs are calculated at the cash register.
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.
In addition, the cost of healthy food goes up for those who are just learning how to cook. If you are comparing the cost of a drive through cheeseburger with the potential costs of making your own dinner, and possibly burning or otherwise making the food inedible, then it makes much more sense to go with the meal you know you will be able to eat.
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.
10 Ways to Eat Healthy 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:
1. Commit to Meal Planning
Planning out your meals in advance (or even just your dinners) forces you to think about what food you have at home, allows you to only shop for the ingredients you need, rather than going on a grocery binge, and makes you plan out your week with the difficult days in mind. Be sure to post your dinner list somewhere you’ll see it, so you remember to defrost the necessary ingredients ahead of time.
2. Carry Hot Sauce In Your Bag
Something the best chefs recognize is the fact that spices can cover up any number of cooking mistakes. This is particularly important for beginner cooks on a budget who can’t afford to throw out a culinary disaster. Always having a little Sriracha around can help you make sure that the low-cost cooking experiment you are trying will be edible even if it gets a little burned.
3. Eat 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.
4. Learn to Cook Various Ethnic Cuisines
Many ethnic cuisines, such as Mexican and Indian, rely on inexpensive, self-stable ingredients such as beans and rice, and offer a great deal of flexibility within recipes to swap out ingredients. For instance, you can make a delicious burrito with a tortilla and pretty much anything you’d like for the filling.
5. Shop at Ethnic Markets
In addition to being the least expensive place to pick up any number of pantry staples from rice to noodles to beans to tortillas, ethnic markets are also an excellent source for inexpensive produce and fresh seafood and meat. Your local Mexican, Asian, or Middle Eastern grocery store is also a good place to find delicious condiments and sauces you can use to spice up (or rescue) your cooking attempts.
6. Buy 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.
7. Cook in Large Quantities
One of the ways junk food trumps the healthy stuff is the fact it’s generally packaged in single serve (or single meal) portions. But you can save time by cooking once and eating from it multiple times. For instance, you could make a large pot of soup which you freeze in single serving portions and eat that on nights you would otherwise hit the golden arches or heat up a TV dinner.
8. Make Your Own Convenience Foods
It may be easy to grab a toaster pastry on the way out the door in the morning, but we all know it’s not exactly the breakfast of champions. Instead, take some time on the weekend to boil a dozen hard-boiled eggs, or make a big pitcher of smoothies that you freeze in individual cups. You save just as much time in the morning, without sacrificing nutrition or overspending.
9. Keep Your Refrigerator and Pantry Organized
A well-stocked refrigerator needs to be well-organized to avoid wasting food. If you can’t locate the leftover chili or uncut cantaloupe in the back of the fridge, there’s no way you’ll eat them before they go bad.
Similarly, most pantries are a mishmash of boxes and cans, with the requisite dusty food items shoved in the back that no one in the house remembers having purchased. This leaves you vulnerable to double-purchasing ingredients.
Make sure you know what foods you have in refrigerator and pantry so you can actually eat the healthy foods you’ve taken the time to purchase and cook.
10. Adjust Your Habits
Eating healthy is 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, learning how to salvage cooking mishaps, and gradually changing your habits will make your dinner plate healthier and will make you feel great.