Who hasn’t heard “it’s too expensive to eat healthy?” The most commonly sited obstacle to eating healthy is money. In fact, According the the HBO special The Weight of the Nation your zip code is a more accurate indication of lifespan and health than your genetics. There are multiple documentaries committed to this subject. In each there are many factors pointed to for the disparity in health outcomes. There is definitely a nutrition education gap, a food accessibility issue (food deserts are a real issue in low income communities), even time is a factor. But, The cost of eating healthy is the #1 obstacle being pointed to again and again. The idea that you have to spend a lot more money to eat healthy is such a common belief that many people have given up. The truth is that it doesn’t have to be more expensive. It is a balancing act and might require some creativity and research but you can eat healthy on a budget.
There are some simple adjustments we can all make to save ourselves money when it comes to food. You’ve probably heard these suggestions before and maybe even dismissed them. These strategies will help you save money on food right now before adding in the healthy counterparts. To get the money to pay for healthy food we’ll need to cut back somewhere else. Best to get current food spending under control and start there.
Stop eating out
This probably sounds like a no brainer, but it’s not. A lot of people aren’t aware of how much money they spend eating out. Consider keeping a small notebook with you and writing all of your food and beverage purchases in it for a month. You’d be surprised at how fast those “value meals” add up. If you add that amount of money to your grocery budget that will give you more to spend on healthy food. You are even likely to see a decrease in food spending when you switch to healthy eating. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat out but when you do it should be thought out and budgeted for in advance. It should not be an impulse decision or a force of habit.
Make a grocery list & Stick to it
Take a look at your local store’s weekly circular that comes in the mail or look online. Create a meal plan for the week based on what’s on sale. Don’t forget to include lunches, snacks & breakfasts. Create a grocery list for your plan and only buy what’s on the list. Don’t buy a bunch of junk food and don’t deviate from the list. Buying only what you need and avoiding impulse buys will save you money and minimize food waste. A helpful strategy for avoiding impulse purchases is to eat before you head to the store. If you aren’t able to do this head to the produce section as soon as you arrive and grab a bag of baby carrots to munch on while shopping. This will help keep you satisfied and make it easier to stay on task.
Buy in bulk & take advantage of sales
Remember when you looked at the weekly circular? Well, take advantage of those sales! When meat or staple items go on sale buy them. There is no reason to pay full price when you can get the discount. If you have coupons use those too for an even bigger discount. Only buy items you will use and would buy even if not on sale. If you are trying to switch to healthier food there is no reason to stock up on processed foods like crackers and cereal. Try to keep your bulk buying to the outside aisles of the store and in the hygiene, cleaning and baking staples aisles. You can even consider buying produce when it is on sale and freezing it for later. This can be especially useful if you are planning to incorporate smoothies into your new healthy plan.
Take the time to food prep. It is sometimes easiest to get this done as soon as you get home from the grocery store. Don’t put everything away and then have to dig it all out later. Leave out food that needs to be prepped. This way you can get it started right away.
Individually packaging snacks for the week and getting lunches prepped as much as possible is your best bet. It is important to set aside time every evening to prep breakfast and lunch for the next day. Being prepared really helps prevent eating out. I have found that it can be easiest to get this done by dividing the evening tasks. One person can do the next day prep while the other cleans up the kitchen. The work goes faster and you have company while getting it done. If you’re single and live alone pack up your left over dinner for work the next day or turn on some music and have some fun (& get some exercise) while prepping.
When doing your food prep don’t forget to properly divide and store your bulk purchases. It is helpful to divide food for freezing either based on how it will be cooked or in individual packages. This makes it easier to thaw and less likely to create waste later. Remember if you do thaw too much, go ahead and cook it. Leftovers make great lunches!
Make cost effective swaps
There are a couple of basic changes you can make to every meal plan and shopping list that will immediately effect your bottom line.
Stop buying all of the name brand products! In the long run it will be best to avoid most packaged food anyway but at the very least you can stop spending a fortune on name brands. It is very rare that you are paying for higher quality food. Most often you are paying their advertising cost. Think about that… you are paying a mark up so the food manufacturer can charge you to advertise their product to you so you will pay the mark up. That seems like nonsense to me!
Rethink meat. Going meatless is a common suggestion to resolve a number of issues including food cost. It is an effective and worthwhile strategy. Meat is not the only food that contains protein. Consider trying other protein sources, many of which are delicious and nutrient dense. In general, it is a good idea to get out of your food ruts and meat is one of them. It isn’t necessary for every meal or even everyday. When you do eat meat, consider buying other types and other cuts of meat. There are recipes online for every kind and cut of meat you can imagine. Try them!
If you want to stick to a decent budget and eat health food there is a lot more that you need to know. There are some out of the box ideas, alternative shopping options and important considerations related to the way your body changes when you eat healthy.
Think outside the box
Some of the best ways to save money while following a healthy diet involve creative thinking. You don’t have to buy all of your produce organic, you don’t even have to buy it all fresh. And there’s no reason the cost of everything you consume has to be on you alone.
Organic produce options
If you want to start eating healthy then you’re going to have to eat mostly plants. There is almost no debate about this.
Plants are healthy whether they are conventionally or organically grown. I know… shocking! Often times people get overwhelmed with the idea of buying produce. They think they need to buy everything organic. This just isn’t the case. There are actually guidelines put out every year by Environmental Working Group (EWG) related to what produce is most important to buy organic and what is not. Anything not on these lists is somewhere in the middle.
If you’re going to spend your hard earned cash on organic produce make it count! Buy things on the Dirty Dozen list organic but buy conventional off of the Clean Fifteen list.
I like to mix up my meal plans and make sure that I’m not planning more than 1 or 2 dirty dozen foods a week. This helps save money on organic produce.
Fresh produce options
This is the other big fallacy regarding eating healthy. Everyone thinks you have to eat fresh produce. The truth is that if it isn’t local it’s usually not fresh. Consider buying frozen options. Fruits and veggies are are picked at the peak of ripeness. Then, typically frozen within hours. Fresh produce is sometimes picked before it’s ripe, sprayed with chemicals to make it ripen and transported over thousands of miles. Several days later it reaches your super market. Not only does frozen produce have some pretty awesome health and nutritional benefits. You don’t have to worry about it going bad so quickly. Often you can get it on sale or get store brand varieties really inexpensive.
Getting your community behind you with your new healthy lifestyle is beneficial in so many ways. Obviously having support is priceless. An accountability partner drastically increases your chances of success. There is a practical reason having a community helps as well. It is, sharing bulk products and cooks. It can be very helpful for each person in your community to buy and prep items in bulk and swap. This gives you more variety in your diet without having to buy or prep so many items. It is also fun and gives you the chance to try new things you may have never thought of.
You can even do this with leftovers and prevent food waste. Someone else in your community will probably love the left overs you’re tired of. No reason to throw them away or eat them for the 5th time this week. Swap with someone else! It would be super fun to see social media used in this way or to organize weekly bulk cook or swap parties.
Alternative Shopping Options
There are so many alternative shopping options that it would be very difficult to cover them all here. I’d like to highlight some of my favorite ideas.
I’m pretty sure that most of you have heard of farmer’s markets. There is a local farmer’s market in most parts of the country at least once a week. In some communities there are multiple within just 15 – 20 miles of your home.
How they work
Farmer’s markets are a win-win. You get the discounted price of buying directly from the farmer and the farmer get’s the full profit. No store overhead costs for either of you. In addition, some vendors at farmer’s markets take SNAP and they often double it up to a specified amount. The produce was usually picked within a day or two of your purchase so it is SUPER FRESH. Cost and resource waste is reduced because it doesn’t have to be transported over a significant distance (gas is expensive in so many ways). Then there’s the cool added bonus of getting to meet and talk to the person who actually grows your food. This connects you to the earth, your food, your environment and your community in ways that are invaluable. What’s not to love?
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
If you haven’t heard of CSA’s you aren’t alone. These are actually relatively common but they seem to be a well kept secret. A CSA is a farm where average people like you and I can buy “shares”. I refer to this as “joining” in this post. Technically you aren’t joining anything though. You haven’t joined a club or bought part of the farm, you’ve simply bought a share. This entitles you to a portion of the harvest. I did the math and CSA’s can be a very affordable way to acquire fresh, in season produce.
How they work
There are many options regarding CSA’s so it is best to contact the ones in your area with questions. For example, there are CSA’s that give discounts if you are willing to help with the work load. Some people prefer this model because they enjoy spending a few hours a week weeding and harvesting themselves. Some CSA’s allow you to pack your own produce boxes. So, you can select the items you want. Some pre-pack your share of whatever was harvested. They all offer different products based on what they grow. There are many variations so it’s a great idea to think about what works best for you and contact your local CSA’s to see if you can find a good fit.
Things to consider
One thing to consider when joining a CSA is that you will likely need to supplement your produce. You will get various items based on what’s in season but there may be some items, like onions, that you use year round. Depending on where you live there might be items that aren’t available at all. And, often times you don’t get much fruit.
You should also keep in mind that you are buying shares at the beginning of the season. There is no guarantee as to what the yields will be. In most cases you will not be refunded in any way if yields are low. It is a good idea to go with an established CSA and check their references. Then you’ll know what to expect and are less likely to feel short changed.
You need to be pretty adventurous with your food and willing to try new things if you are going to join a CSA. It is very healthy to eat foods that are ripe, local and in season but can also be a little intimidating. If you are going to join (even one that lets you pack your own produce each week) you are going to have to be willing to try new things or you won’t get your money’s worth. There are a ton of recipes online to help you and it’s well worth it to try something new.
A co-op is a member owned grocery store. This is a really nice option because they generally have lower prices and higher quality items. The members of the co-op decide what items will be stocked and determine any rules they might have based on quality. They often stock more local produce and products than typical markets and more specialty items.
I was surprised to learn that you can shop at a co-op even if you aren’t a member. If you become a member you get to help make decisions about the store and you usually get a discount as well. Many co-ops even offer profit sharing. If you move or choose not to be a member anymore you can usually be bought out. You’ll get some or all of your money back.
Co-ops can be great options for winter shopping when farmer’s markets and CSA yields are dwindling. They are also a great option because they offer more dry goods than either of the other suggestions.
*This is NOT sponsored content*
According to Wikipedia “Thrive Market is an American e-commerce membership-based retailer offering natural and organic food products at reduced costs”. What does this mean? You pay to join Thrive Market and in exchange for your membership you save up to 50% off of the products they offer. They offer a wide range of dry goods, health and beauty products, health products and much more, even pet products.
Their website indicates that the current membership price is $60 per year and they guarantee that your annual membership will pay for it’s self. They also give free memberships, educational content and a grocery stipends to low income families, teachers, veterans and students through a program called Thrive Gives. Joining Thrive or applying for their free membership (if you qualify) is a great way to save time and money.
The additional perk of shopping alternatives
Whatever shopping alternatives you choose to pursue there is a perk that goes beyond your waist line or your bottom line. You can feel good about the choice you’ve made. Every suggestion recommended above is better for the environment and humanity than the traditional ways most people shop.
For more information regarding these shopping options and a directory of CSA’s, Co-ops, Farmer’s Markets and more in your area please visit www.localharvest.org. I found this site very helpful and it even contains a great list of considerations and questions regarding CSA’s.
How your body changes when you eat healthy
People typically have unrealistic ideas about how much food they need to buy or will be eating. When you switch to healthy food you actually don’t need to buy as much food because you eat less. Your body needs proper nourishment. When it is getting it you find yourself naturally cutting back on portion sizes and cravings disappear.
Your body breaks down and uses the nutrients in food. It keeps a basic inventory of the vitamins you’ve consumed during this process. If it is not getting enough micro nutrients it will keep telling your brain that you are hungry and need to eat more. When you eat highly processed foods that are lacking in nutritional value you’re body remains unsatisfied. You consistently feel hungry because your body isn’t getting what it needs. Processed food might cost less but you have to eat so much more of it. That it isn’t a bargain at all. When you eat produce and other nutrient dense foods your body’s needs are satisfied. Your brain is signaled that you have had enough. Because of that, you stop eating and don’t have cravings. This in turn causes you to eat less.
Being aware of how your appetite and body has changed helps make eating healthy more affordable. The individual products might cost a little more but you won’t need to buy as much. This will help make your food budget more reasonable. When you start your healthy lifestyle, plan to buy less than you think you need. Make sure that there is time throughout the week to pop into the store if you need to pick something up. Try to keep track of what you have excess of and adjust your shopping accordingly. Instead of throwing it away in the meantime though, toss it all into a pot of broth and make some soup to freeze for lunches later or to trade with your community.
Can You Afford Not to Eat Healthy?
When you are eating healthier and taking better care of yourself it impacts your life in so many ways. You have more energy to enjoy your time with your loved ones. You might even be able to tackle a big project yourself instead of hiring someone else to do it. Healthy eaters have less sick days. Less missed work usually means more money in your pay check and faster promotions and raises. You will also notice that you have lower medical expenses and it is less likely that you will develop a chronic disease. People who eat healthy have longer life spans and longer health spans. So, in the long run you’ll save bundles in other areas of your life that are impacted by healthy eating. The truth is, you have no excuses and you can’t afford not to eat healthy!
Let me know what ideas you’ve tried and how it worked for you. What was your favorite idea presented in this article? Please share any ideas you have for eating on a budget with all of us. I look forward to hearing your feedback on this important topic!