If you were to conduct a survey of a bunch of random people, many, if not most of them would say that they want to eat healthy. And if you took it a step further and asked what is their biggest obstacle to eating healthy, it would probably be something to do with cost.
And sadly, that’s often quite true. When it comes to dollars out of pocket in your typical grocery store, I can get 1,000 calories of potato chips for less than $2. A thousand calories of broccoli would cost significantly more.
But trust me, most people don’t want to hear about the fact that the thousand calories of potato chips have absolutely no nutritional value. Or the idea that they’re saving money now buying junk food but costing themselves big bucks down the road in healthcare expenses.
Don’t even try to bring up the notion that those potato chips are actually not cheap at all because they’re subsidizing the processed food industry with their tax dollars.
And definitely don’t tell them that for the same $3 they spend on sugared-up coffee every morning, they could buy a dozen eggs or half of a chicken or a bunch of spinach or any number of things with infinitely more nutritional benefits…
Eating Healthy On a Budget: Is It Possible?
I get it. Seeing as how most of us are not the government and can’t just print ourselves more money when we run out, we have actual fiscal constraints that we need to operate within. Would I like to buy organic, non-GMO, grass-fed everything? Sure (actually, I’d like to grow it myself, but you get the idea). But we all have limits.
The question is, how can we work within those limits to feed ourselves and our families the best food that we can? Because when it comes right down to it, this really is one of the most important decisions we make in taking care of ourselves.
By now you surely know that the food industry will take advantage of every change in the winds of public opinion to make a quick buck, and with an increased interest in eating healthy, those same large corporations that have been convincing us to eat crap are now, very generously, there to offer us “help” in our quest for better sustenance options.
But don’t listen to them. They’re going to feed you the same stuff, just in a different package with a pretty label and the latest buzzwords.
Listen to me instead. I still have the same no-frills label as always, no flash or buzzwords required. And I actually want to help. Eating healthy on a budget isn’t always easy, but neither is it as difficult as it sometimes seems. You can do it. (And sorry if that sounds presumptuous; these are just suggestions. You don’t really have to listen to me.)
Cook at Home
This one hits both the “eating healthy” and “on a budget” parts. It’s definitely cheaper to prepare your own food from scratch, and restaurants aren’t exactly known for their small portion sizes. While there certainly are decent options, eating out is probably not the best choice if you’re looking to save dollars and calories. Even if you eat lunch out just twice a week, that can add up quickly.
Buy in Bulk, Cook in Bulk
Food companies want you to buy their cute little single-serve packages, and buy lots of them. Which means that’s probably not what you should do.
Buying in bulk is especially great for dry goods like grains, nuts, legumes and other items that have a long shelf life, but with just a little prep, you can also take advantage of bulk deals on perishable items. If there’s a sale on broccoli, why not stock up? Save some to eat fresh, then freeze the rest for a future date. For many staples, it may be worthwhile to look for large amounts at retailers like Amazon or Thrive Market, an online health foods wholesale club.
The same principle applies to cooking larger quantities. Many meals lend themselves perfectly to freezing, so make a double batch of soup or lasagna and freeze half of it for later. Popping something homemade out of your freezer to reheat makes for happy dinner prep.
Don’t Buy Convenience
Eating healthy on a budget is not necessarily the easiest route. You may have to work a tiny bit harder, but it’s for the best. I’m not suggesting that we don’t all get busy, and sometimes it’s just easier to get take-out or warm up a frozen meal or whatever, but that should not be your default option. You’ll pay extra for that convenience, and unless you’re buying beef bourguignon, you’re probably not saving much time anyway, because how long does it really take to saute some chicken and veggies?
Buy in Season and Preserve
Know what we do in the fall? Buy lots of apples and turn them into applesauce, apple butter, and dried apples. How about in the summer? Buy a bunch of fresh sweet corn and freeze it. Green beans. Tomatoes. You get the idea.
When produce is in season, it’s cheaper and you can usually find it locally, so get it while the getting’s good.
When it’s December and you just can’t find any good local sweet corn, buy frozen. As a general rule, frozen produce is usually frozen shortly after it’s picked; much of the “fresh” produce that you’ll find in stores was picked days ago, if not longer. It’s often cheaper than fresh anyway, mostly because everything that’s “fresh” in Ohio in December is coming from South America.
You probably won’t be able to eat beef tenderloin every night. Sorry.
But you don’t have to cut out meat altogether. Learn to love roasts, legs, thighs, and other more economical cuts of meat. They’re perfect for throwing in the crock pot in the morning and having dinner ready when you get home. Besides, chicken legs are a lot more flavorful than boneless skinless breasts.
If you’re really feeling adventurous, seek out a local farmer and buy a whole (or part of) an animal. It is a bit more upfront cost, but over the long haul, it’s significantly less expensive than buying each piece individually. And you still get your tenderloin.
Eat More Beans and Whole Grains
Beans and grains are great meal building blocks – they can be utilized in any number of recipes, they’re extra nutritious (especially prepared correctly), and of course, they’re cheap. A pound bag of dried beans will set you back $1.50 and can make meals for a week. Grains like quinoa or rice will cost a little more, but not much, and can stand in as a base for just about anything. Start with some rice, add some sauteed vegetables and maybe some shredded chicken, and you’ve got a pretty substantial meal for a few bucks.
Eat Whole Foods
Not the store. Food that looks like it did when it was growing up. The more processed something is, the more it usually costs, and the more devoid of anything remotely healthy it becomes. Unfortunately, this rules out much of what’s in your average grocery store, but you’ll be happier and healthier if you stick to eating real food.
Don’t Lose Leftovers
When you have leftovers (as you should sometimes, if you’re cooking in larger quantities), make sure you eat them. We waste an appalling amount of food each year, and tossing leftovers is a significant part of that. Nothing hurts the soul worse than finding a moldy container of last month’s dinner buried in the back of the fridge that could have easily been used for another meal. That’s just throwing money away.
Many traditional cuisines from around the world know how to stretch your food dollar. Because the vast majority of the world is not as well off as the average American, they’re used to working with less, which often entails some sort of vegetable and grain and maybe some meat. So pick up an international cookbook from your library and take a few tips – simple food can be just as satisfying as a meal from a high-end restaurant.
Plan Meals Ahead
I probably struggle with this the most. On multiple occasions in the past several years, I’ve threatened to make a meal plan for the week, but the threat is as far as I’ve gotten. If I plan ahead, it’s usually just a day or two, and often just hours. On rare occasions, I’ll come up with something for the next several days, but not often enough.
So learn from me and try to plan ahead as much as possible. It makes mealtime less stressful if you already know what you’re doing, and constant last-minute scrambling leads to buying dinner, which is likely neither cheap nor healthy.
Plan Shopping Around Sales
I get flyers from at least three different grocery store chains every week, and while most of the items are junk, there’s always a sale on some sort of produce. If you’re putting that meal planning into practice, why not create some meals based around what’s on sale for that week?
Grow Your Own
The best option (at least in my opinion) is to grow your own. For a couple bucks, you can buy seeds that will pay you back many times over. Easy vegetables like beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash… no matter where you live, you can find something that will provide easy meals for much of the summer. And you don’t need a big fancy garden either – even a couple pots on a patio can yield a surprising amount, and many plants take to containers quite well. If you end up with more than you can eat at once, preserve it.
If you’ve conquered the annual vegetables, try a couple blueberry, raspberry, or strawberry plants. With a little care, these will produce year after year. If you really want to go crazy and have the room, buy a handful of laying hens. They’re actually very low maintenance, and fresh eggs for breakfast is a nice perk.
If you can’t grow your own, make friends at a local farmer’s market. With increased interest, these have been popping up all over the place, so odds are you’ll be able to find one nearby. While they aren’t always the absolute cheapest, the food here is fresh, and it’s local, so you’re helping out the community as well.
So don’t give up. It’s not as easy as hitting a drive-through window, but eating healthy on a budget is certainly within your reach. And don’t try to change everything overnight – take small steps, and eventually you’ll be where you want to be!