You Can Afford to Eat a Healthy Diet!
Processed foods, junk foods, fast foods…we are surrounded by quick, easy foods! Some even appear to be fairly inexpensive when compared to whole real food. If this is how you view the economics of healthy vs fast food, I ask you to be honest about your priorities.
What are your health, and the health of your family, worth to you? Is it more important that you do not have to spend the time shopping for, and preparing, meals? Is it more important that you cater to food cravings and marketing ploys? Have you considered what poor nutrition now could cost in poor health later?
Everyone has heard of the “fast, good, inexpensive – pick any two” concept. To a large extent, this will also apply to your food. The specials at the local fast-food restaurant may sound inexpensive and fast when you are pinched for time, but, those meals are not healthy (good). Choose anything other than the $2 Special and you soon find that there is nothing cheap about a fast-food meal either – I NEVER spend $15-20 on a dinner for two at home! But let’s take a look at that $2 hamburger.
I just checked a local flyer for the current SALE prices. The most economical way to buy ground beef is the Club Size or Family Pack. The price ranges from $7.49/kg ($3.40/lb) for the cheapest (highest fat and water content) to $11.28/kg ($5.12/lb) for extra-lean. The cheapest hamburger buns are priced at $2.18/dozen. At these prices, a hamburger made of the poorest quality beef on the poorest quality bun is already priced at over a dollar BEFORE the staff at the counter, in the kitchen, on the cleaning staff, or in administration has been paid for their time at a minimum of $15/hour. Even if all the staff-time combined only came to 4 minutes, you have to add a minimum of $1 to that cost and there is no lettuce, cheese, tomato, pickle, ketchup, mustard, onion, or salt and pepper on that burger. Nor is there a napkin, container, or bag to contain it. How is it possible that this hamburger is containing ingredients comparable to even the lowest quality food we can buy at the grocery store? (I’m not naïve. I realize that the $2 menu is not the restaurant’s money-maker but we also have to remember that these expenses do not include the usual business overhead expenses of building and equipment purchases, property taxes, utilities, advertising, franchise fees, bank/credit card fees, insurance, payroll CPP and EI expenses, maintenance, or return on investment.)
On the other hand, eating healthy food can be within your budget, but it could require a few simple changes in your shopping and preparation habits. It is possible to save money and still eat whole, real food.
1. Plan Your Grocery List. Pick a day to plan your weekly menu, and use the weekly sales flyer as a guide to make a grocery list. Always check out what you have in your fridge, pantry, and freezer and never buy more than you can use, or be prepared to properly preserve extras by freezing or cooking ahead.
2. Stick to Your List! Once you arrive at the store, shop the perimeter for produce, dairy, and meat items that are on your list. Then, take your cart directly to the other items on your list, and head to the till. Do not allow yourself to be distracted by any marketing ploys to pick up last-minute temptations at the till or by clearance prices on unnecessary or unhealthy products. Sometimes there will be unannounced sales but unless it is honestly an item that is a) healthy, b) something you normally would buy, and c) easily stored – ignore them!
3. Make it a Habit to Cook at Home. As a general rule, you save about 50% by cooking for yourself. Also, knowing exactly what is in your meal is extremely important when trying to improve our health by avoiding extra sugars, salts, unhealthy fats, preservatives and chemicals. You may prefer to have a prep day on which the majority of your meals are prepared or started in order to cut down the time needed each day.
4. Cook Extra and/or Plan Your Leftovers. It may help to double up on casseroles, soups, or other dishes that can be frozen and reheated at another time. Leftovers can often be planned to do double duty. For example, an inexpensive roast may be the main entre one night and then used for a shepherd’s pie, casserole, stir fry, plus sandwiches, burritos, wraps, and/or a soup or stew from the drippings, small meat bits, and any vegetables in your fridge/pantry – even the ones nearing the end of their freshness. (Don't forget that almost any vegetable that is beginning to show its age - starting to wilt, wrinkle, sprout, etc. - can be washed, pared, chopped, and frozen to toss into future soups, stews, casseroles instead of the trash!)
5. Do Not Shop When You Are Hungry or Exhausted. Either of these conditions leaves you more vulnerable to temptation. If it has been a while since you have eaten, grab a piece of fruit or a serving of yogurt before you go to the store. Try to fit your trip into your day as early as possible because fatigue is often a trigger for a sugar craving.
There is a service offered by many grocery stores now where you can submit your list and pick it up at a scheduled time. I haven’t utilized this service myself but listening to busy people in my life I recognize the benefits of it. CAUTION: you will probably receive better quality produce and meats when you choose them yourself so you may prefer to do what my daughter does. She places her order for all the dry, canned, or non-food items on her list, specifying when substitutions are not acceptable. She arrives at the store a few minutes before her pick-up time and chooses fresh food items herself but minimizes the time she is exposed to marketing distractions. There is a small charge for this service but it is more than balanced by the fact that she seldom picks up anything not on her list.
6. Buy Whole Foods. A chunk of cheese will be less expensive than a bag of grated cheese. Whole fruits and vegetables are much, much, MUCH less expensive than their pre-cleaned, pre-cut counterparts. Uncooked grains, cereals, and legumes are very economical and most take minimal time or attention to prepare. (Utilize your slow cooker or InstantPot for unsupervised cooking.) Many whole foods can also be purchased in more economical bulk portions – just be sure you are able to cook, eat, and/or preserve it before it becomes stale or spoils.
7. Buy Generic Brands. Very few name-brand foods are actually of discernable higher quality than the no-name foods. If the ingredient is to be used as part of a recipe such as a casserole, soup, stew, meatloaf, or other cooked dish, the difference will almost never be noticed. Read labels to ensure that the lower-priced item does not contain unhealthy additives or is of lower quality ingredients than you are used to.
8. Do Not Allow Junk Food Into Your Cart. Generally speaking, junk food is not only of no, or little nutritional value, it is usually expensive. This includes soda, crackers, cookies, prepackaged meals and processed foods as well as the usual candy, snacks, and sugar-added cereals, etc.
9. Stock Up on Sales Items. But do not buy more than you can use before it spoils. There is no savings in purchasing food that is thrown out.
10. Choose Less Expensive Cuts of Meat. These meats are often perfect for large meals, or to use in casseroles, soups, stews and burritos.
11. Replace Meats With Other Sources of Protein. Once or twice each week, serve meals based on beans, legumes, eggs or canned fish. These are all inexpensive and nutritious sources of protein. Or, especially in the warmer months, top a huge salad with cooked legumes, quinoa, chopped eggs, fresh cheese, canned fish, or a small amount of chicken, beef, or pork. Serve with homemade dressings of extra virgin olive oil and vinegar, used sparingly.
12. Shop for Seasonal Produce. Of course this means most of your fresh produce will be purchased during the warmer months but even imported produce has seasons of more economic pricing. Pay attention to the seasonal availability, take advantage of the lower prices to eat the produce fresh while in season, and when possible freeze, dry or can for future use while at the peak of flavour and lowest pricing. Remember, frozen fruit and vegetables are better choices for prices and nutrition than fresh produce that has been in storage for weeks or picked under-ripe in order to withstand shipment from across the globe.
Citrus fruits are at top quality and lowest prices right now because their natural growing season in the US (our closest source) is now! Find oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit at their best flavour and value January through March. Fall vegetables such as rutabagas, turnips, beets, carrots, cabbage, onions, garlic, leeks, potatoes, squash, and sweet potatoes are all still plentiful and relatively economical throughout the winter months.
As spring arrives, fresh vegetables start to gradually appear so from April to June, we will be able to enjoy asparagus, radishes, spinach, rhubarb, kale, salad greens, beets, lettuce, green onions, strawberries, swiss chard, peas, summer squash, zucchini, fennel, and cherries.
July brings us gooseberries, Saskatoon berries, raspberries, blackberries, green beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, peas, peppers, new potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, beets, peaches, watermelon, and kale.
In August, we are still enjoying most of the fresh produce of the previous spring and summer months but as summer peaks, we add apples, blueberries, melons, nectarines, pears, plums, parsnips, peppers and grapes. By September, the pumpkin, cabbage, corn, and cranberries are readily available. Most of the fall fruits and vegetables produced in Canada will continue to be available throughout the winter months but never as affordable as at the time of their natural harvest.
13. Buy Frozen Fruits and Vegetables. As noted above, frozen is your best option during the off-season. Flash-frozen produce is more nutritious and tasty than the “fresh” produce shipped from Africa, South America or Asia and is almost as nutritious as fresh seasonal produce. Frozen fruits and vegetables are often sold in larger, economy sizes which allow budget savings. It is convenient to take only as much as needed and simply reseal the bag. TIP: Often frozen produce appears at the best prices while the fresh item is still in season, especially towards the end of the growing season. This is the best time to stock up.
14. Grow Your Own Produce. Any small plot of ground can be utilized for garden vegetables. Salad greens, small tomatoes, and climbing plants such as zucchini and cucumbers can be grown in patio containers. Micro greens and sprouts are easily grown indoors, year-round.
15. Pack Your Lunch. You will save money by preparing your lunches and snacks in your own kitchen but most people don’t realize, or forget, that bought lunches seldom if ever, compare nutritionally. Add a few raw vegetables, maybe a small container of hummus, and a fruit to any sandwich, wrap, salad, or soup for a tasty, healthy, satiating and affordable meal.
16. Use Coupons Wisely. Never buy something simply because you have a coupon for it. Make sure it is something you will use, and that it is healthy. Coupons for processed or junk food should be tossed in the garbage, no matter how big the dollar incentive! Also, check prices because name-brand foods, even with a coupon, may still be more expensive than no-name products.
Depending on your present lifestyle, adopting these suggestions could involve a major shift in your behavior. You may not be able to do them all at once, but start where you can and every step will improve your diet as well as save money. Allow yourself time to adjust to unfamiliar foods and flavours.
Remember, junk food costs you twice…the health problems, directly or indirectly caused by processed foods, poor nutrition, and dangerous additives will take their toll, so even if healthy eating is a little more expensive (but if you follow these suggestions, it will not be), it would still be worth it to enjoy optimal health.
We cannot put a price on good health!