If you’ve always suspected that healthy foods are more expensive than the not-so-good for you options in your grocery store, the sad truth is that you are right. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, making healthier choices — like opting for fresh produce and leaner meats — can cost you an extra $550 a year.
While trendy foods like kale salads, fortified artisanal breads and nut butters will absolutely thin your wallet, research shows that even healthy, nutrient-dense produce staples like potatoes and fresh vegetables are increasing in price. And these rising costs can be concerning for cash-strapped Americans struggling to stick to a budget.
Approximately 42 million people receive food subsidies through the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides up to four dollars a day to eligible low-income individuals or families. And even more Americans report feeling worried about having enough money to feed hungry mouths at home. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Food Research and Action Center, roughly one in four Americans stresses about not having enough money to put food on the table.
But eating — and eating well — is still possible on even the most limited budget. By combining savvy shopping strategies and smart cooking skills, you can stretch your dollars and still fill your belly with nutritious foods.
Shopping Healthy on a Budget
Where to start? Step one is building up a well-stocked pantry that can be a go-to resource for quick meals. In the free online cookbook, Good and Cheap, food studies scholar Leanne Brown discusses how to gather cost-effective and nutritious products for eating on less than four dollars a day.
“You can’t let packaged food tell you what’s healthy because that will be super expensive,” she says. Instead, Brown recommends focusing on whole foods and seasonings that can create many different tasty and satisfying meals. Soy sauce, olive oil and other spices will be expensive at first, but they’ll last for months and will go a long way towards flavoring otherwise bland foods. Budget to purchase one or two quality seasonings each week.
For week-to-week meal planning, Brown recommends choosing options that will work in multiple dishes. For example, using a large container of yogurt for a fruit parfait, a smoothie, and in tzatziki sauce. She also suggests prioritizing vegetables and buying seasonal since those items are likely to be priced lower than imported goods.
“Always go [to the store] with a list, or plan out what you’re going to have for the week,” says nutritionist Lauri Wright, R.D. Ph.D, a professor at the University of South Florida. Not only will you save time, she says, but you’ll be focused and less likely to buy items on impulse. Wright suggests looking for bulk dried beans and legumes, which are great, low-cost sources of protein. For produce, she advises reaching for frozen vegetables, which provide nutrients while saving longer than quick-to-spoil fresh veggies and fruits. While canned is also a good option for fruits and vegetables, she cautions that some brands use lots of sodium or sugary syrups.
Research has even scientifically determined which foods give you the most nourishing bang for your buck. In a study analyzing national food prices and nutrients, Adam Drewnowski PhD., MA, director of the Nutritional Sciences Program at the University of Washington identified which products from each main food group had the best nutrient-to-price ratios, and ranked them on a Nutrient Rich Foods Index. Milk, potatoes, eggs, citrus juices and beans all had superior ratios to other foods.
Based on insights from our experts, this guide can help structure your week-to-week spending:
Cooking on the Cheap
Brown acknowledges that there are certain ingredients, like fresh berries, that just aren’t affordable on a budget of four dollars a day or less. But she still believes in the importance of having the creativity and know-how to make a good meal with what’s accessible. And there are health benefits to knowing and controlling exactly what goes in your sandwich, stir-fry and more. Drewnowski’s latest research, publishing soon, confirms that people who spend more time preparing food have healthier eating habits.
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For those who need help finessing their kitchen skills, Brown’s Good and Cheap cookbook gives over 100 ideas for cost-effective and satisfying meals made with minimal kitchen tools and inexpensive ingredients. From vegetable jambalaya to chana masala and pierogis, each tasty-looking recipe has photos, instructions and a price breakdown, based on store prices in low-income Manhattan neighborhoods. Her book also has crafty ideas for repurposing leftovers, like reusing roasted vegetables in tacos or rolling scrambled eggs into a wrap for lunch.
“If you do mess up a recipe on the first try, don’t think that you’re a bad cook!” says Brown. Learning even simple techniques can take some practice, but once you’ve got the basics down you’ll have the confidence to attempt other meal ideas. “Healthy food is totally accessible, but you have to be able to know how to cook and how to take control of it for yourself.”
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