budget considerations for healthy eating

4 Aug

A friend of mine shared the link to this article about the higher costs of healthy eating. It is true that some dietary habits are more expensive than others, and that processed foods (especially things like hot dogs or boxed pasta with sauce) are very cheap indeed. But there are some ways to eat healthfully and save your dollars. Those techniques usually involve investing some time in planning and food preparation. Here are some of my best ideas for saving money while eating healthfully.

Plan.

Planning your meals helps in a lot of ways, but the most fundamental is this: every piece of food that you have to throw out because it’s gone bad in the fridge is money down the drain. I am as guilty of this as anyone, but I’m making an effort to improve my planning to avoid it.

You can avoid wasting food by planning out your meals (dinners, at least, but all three meals and snacks if you are very organized). That way, you have everything you need for a recipe, but you don’t have a lot of extra things that won’t be needed. You can also plan so that you use up partial containers or bunches: for example, if you’re planning Mexican food on Tuesday, and you know that you won’t use the whole bundle of cilantro, plan to eat Thai curry on Thursday to use up the rest.

Planning also helps you to fit in the prep work you need. If you’re going to eat bean soup, for example, you can plan ahead and put your beans in the slow cooker the night before–it will save you money, because dried beans are cheaper than canned, but it will also cut down on the sodium in your finished meal, and it will taste better (in my opinion, anyway).

You’re often paying for the preparation, not the ingredients, when you buy healthy processed foods (or even unhealthy ones, for that matter). Choose the foods that you really want to buy, like a particular soup that you love and won’t give up, and learn to make the other things you buy from scratch. Restaurants are the same: you pay a lot more for your meal than you would if you made it yourself. Consider how often you eat outside the home when you’re contemplating your grocery budget and think about whether you might do better to make it an occasional treat, if you’re in the habit of going out often. I adore restaurants but try to limit visiting them, both for budgetary and health reasons.

Eat what’s in season.

That might sound confusing or difficult, but it’s really not; what it generally means is, buy the produce that’s cheapest. There will still be some things that are pricey (in my area, for example, you’re never going to see a truly cheap avocado), but a peach that costs 3.99/lb most of the year might cost 1.50/lb when it’s in season.

If you go to a farmer’s market or have a local produce farm or stand, you can usually get an even better idea of what’s in season, and it’s going to be even more delicious (the other big benefit of shopping seasonally).

Use less expensive proteins.

My vision of the ideal diet includes a fair bit of protein, because I seem to do better eating it on a regular basis. But we don’t eat much red meat; I try to focus on more affordable and healthful protein foods. (Full disclosure on this budget discussion: my parents raise Angus cattle, so we have access to free, ethically raised beef. We don’t eat a lot of it, regardless.)

Beans are an excellent source of protein and a very healthful food. I am not a huge fan of them, personally, but we eat them regularly anyway, and I’m finding that I like them more when I cook them more. Acquired taste, I guess (or at least acquired tolerance). Roasted chickpeas are a cheap and healthful snack; dal,  black bean soup, or hummus with pita triangles and vegetables are good dinner options, depending on the season.

I try to serve fish on a regular basis, too, because it has so many health benefits. I haven’t figured out a really affordable source for salmon (if you do, let me know!), so we work it in occasionally and that just becomes part of the budget even though it’s pricey, because it’s so very good for you. The same applies for shrimp, which we get at Costco. I recently discovered swai, which is a white fish similar to tilapia; it’s very inexpensive and was quite good. We also eat a lot of flounder, which is cheaper than most fish.

Prepare your own grains.

Whole grain products can be rather expensive (truly whole-grain crackers, just to name one kind of snack food, are usually pricey and sold by the small box or sleeve). But it’s not hard to cook whole grains yourself and that is very cheap. Rice, barley, steel-cut oats–they’re all very affordable if you can make them the basis of a meal. The barley risotto I posted here recently is a healthy dinner and quite cheap. Some whole grains are even high in protein. (The homemade bread that I bake is high enough in protein that my kids could get enough protein without ever eating meat, if we wanted to.)

Readjust your thinking.

Even when you shop carefully, sometimes it’s going to cost more, especially if it’s worth it to you to buy some prepared foods in healthy versions instead of cooking them yourself. (For example, it might be cheaper to make your own hummus or whole-grain bread, but not everyone has the time or inclination to do that!) But think of it this way: in the United States, we spend very little on food, as a percentage of our budgets, compared to the rest of the world.

The money you spend on groceries will come back to you in the form of lower health-care costs, more energy and better general health, and a longer life. It’s worth it to invest a bit in your healthier foods if necessary. And remember that the most expensive foods you can buy are restaurant foods, so eating in is usually going to save you money even if you’re splurging occasionally on fancy cheese or those pricey artichokes that you just couldn’t pass up in the produce section.

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