By Joe Wilkes
By now, most of us know what we should be eating—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish, among other foods. But anyone heading off to the supermarket with a shopping list of the best recommendations for a healthy diet is in for a bit of sticker shock. Over a two-year period, a recent University of Washington study tracked the costs of “nutrient-dense” foods (foods high in vitamins and minerals and low in calories) and “energy-dense” foods (foods high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals—a.k.a. junk).* The nutrient-dense foods rose in cost by almost 20 percent while the cost of junk food declined. The study found that getting your average day’s worth of 2,000 calories from the junk side cost $3.52 while getting your 2,000-calories’ worth from nutrient-dense cuisine would cost $36.32. Since the average American spends about $7.00 a day on food, you can see where the rise in obesity might come from.
Other studies have shown similar findings. While the income percentage that Americans spend on food has decreased dramatically over the last few years, the obesity rate has risen even more dramatically, as has the incidence of type 2 diabetes, an obesity-related disease. And the obesity rate has grown the most in the most impoverished sectors of society, further emphasizing the connection between the rising costs of nutrient-dense foods, declining junk-food costs, and rising obesity rates. If you’ve priced out what a nice piece of Chilean sea bass with a side of asparagus costs compared to the latest offering from your local fast food joint’s dollar menu, it’s easy to be tempted to go to the dark side—especially if your budget is shrinking more than your waistline.
It is possible, however, to eat healthily and still have some money left over. Even on the tightest budget, you can do a little legwork and research to make the most nutritious choices for you and your family. And even if you’re fortunate enough to have the cash to eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as my grandfather would say, “There’s no point putting your paycheck through your stomach.” (And he lived to be almost 100 . . . but that was before the advent of dollar menus.) Here are nine tips for getting the most nutritional bang for your buck.
- ‘Tis the season. Eating seasonally is the best way to get the most delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. When harvest time comes around for your favorite fruit or veggie, the market is usually glutted, and following the time-honored supply-and-demand curve, the prices of those fruits and veggies plummet. And not only is it cheap to eat fruits and veggies that are in season, it’s the best time to get the most flavor for your money. Most fresh fruits and veggies sold in the off-season are either shipped from faraway lands or produced in greenhouse factories and don’t have nearly the richness of flavors produced by Mother Nature. It’s a good time to stock up, eat what you can, and freeze or can the rest for a rainy day. If you’re fortunate enough to live in a community with a decent farmers’ market, it pays to get to know the men and women who are selling the produce. They can let you know when the best time to buy the best stuff is and give you a preview of what’s coming up harvest-wise, so you can plan your menu accordingly.
- The big freeze. Speaking of freezing and canning, these are great ways to save money and still have your nutritional needs met. Not only are frozen and canned foods way cheaper than fresh foods, but in many cases, they’re more nutritious. Fruits and vegetables are usually preserved within hours of harvest, when they have their maximum vitamins and minerals. Fresh fruits and vegetables can take days, or even weeks, to make the journey from the field to your table. Add that to any time spent lingering on supermarket shelves and then your fridge’s crisper drawer, and suddenly, fresh doesn’t seem so fresh anymore. And for many recipes, frozen or canned might even be better than fresh. A pint of fresh off-season blueberries can cost more than $5.00 while a one-pound bag of frozen blueberries can cost less than $3.00. And the frozen berries will be a lot better in your morning smoothie. Any chef will tell you about the virtues of canned tomatoes over fresh ones when making your favorite pasta sauce. The only thing to be wary of is the sodium and sugar content in canned goods or frozen veggies that contain high-calorie sauces or other not-so-healthy ingredients in not-so-healthy amounts.
- Shop around. Smokey Robinson was right. It does pay to shop around. Check out those supermarket circulars that are stuffed into your mailbox every week. Each week, your supermarket advertises “loss leaders,” including fruits, veggies, lean meats, and fish. Their hope is to lure you into the store with these bargains that they don’t make so much money on and tempt you to buy extra high-profit stuff while you’re there. But if you stick to your list, you can fill your cart with the loss leaders and save a ton of money. They’ll usually be items that are in season as well, since they’re cheaper for the store to buy anyway. Also, signing up for their club or rewards cards can help save you money, too. It’s better to monitor sales and promotions rather than clipping coupons, as coupons are generally for processed, less healthy foods—although you can sometimes find good coupons for canned and frozen produce.
- Get to know your grocer. And your butcher, your produce manager, etc. Find out what day produce is delivered to the store so you get maximum freshness for your dollar. Find out from the butcher when meat goes into the half-off section as its expiration date approaches. The meat isn’t spoiled yet, and if you cook or freeze it that day or the next, it’s no different from buying full-priced cuts and leaving them in your refrigerator for a couple of days. Only your pocketbook knows the difference. Also, many butchers will custom-grind for you without charge. If a package of factory-ground turkey breast costs $6.00 a pound and a whole turkey breast costs $2.00 a pound, why not buy the whole breast and ask your butcher to grind it for you? You’ll save a lot of money, and you’ll actually know what went into the turkey burger you’re eating.
- Think outside the big box. Instead of always going to the big-box supermarket chains, investigate if there are farmers’ markets or food co-ops in your area. The food will be fresher, cheaper, and hopefully, not as coated with pesticides, waxes, or other unsavory elements. It’s a good way to save money and support your local community at the same time. You can get organic produce for the same price or cheaper than traditionally grown produce this way as well. (It’s also worth checking out what your state defines as organic.) Organic food is great, but if you’re trying to save money, traditionally grown food isn’t essentially less nutritious than organic; it just may require a little more scrubbing.
- Start your own farm. If you have a yard, start your own vegetable and/or herb garden. With a little online research, you can find out what grows well and easily in your neck of the woods. And if you’re an apartment dweller like me, you can get a lot out of a container garden. I have big pots on my balcony that keep me in tomatoes, peppers, and fresh herbs all summer long. And if you don’t have a balcony, you can grow small pots of herbs in your kitchen—decorative, tasty, and economical!
- Plan ahead. Take some time on Sunday to plan out your menu for the week for all your meals and snacks. Find out what’s in season and on sale in your area. If you can only make one shopping trip for the week, front-load your menu with fresh ingredients and stock up on canned and frozen items for the latter half of the week. One of the areas where my budget always falls apart is not having the ingredients that I’ll need or a plan for dinner; I end up grabbing takeout or having food delivered—both unhealthy and expensive. Just by planning ahead and not wasting money on unplanned restaurant meals, you’ll find that you have a lot more money to spend at the grocery store so you won’t have to cut as many corners for the meals you prepare.
- Tap into tap water. Not your wallet. If you’re going to spend money on your beverages, invest in a decent water filter to improve the taste of your tap water. As we’ve discussed in other articles, tap water is subject to a lot more regulations than bottled water, which is good for you, and it’s not shipped in from Fiji or Norway, which is good for the environment. And it’s practically free! It’s a lot better for your waistline and your wallet than multiple trips to the soda machine.
- Take your vitamins. Here’s the easiest, most economical way to ensure that you always get a base level of proper nutrition. Taking a good multivitamin and a fish oil supplement will help you get the benefits of a diet that would otherwise cost a whole lot more to get you the same nutrients you’d get from food sources—and fish oil supplements are especially good for those who don’t care for fish.
*Don’t confuse “nutrient-dense” foods with “high-density” foods, which is a common term for “energy-dense” foods. High-density foods aren’t always unhealthy but your diet should consist of mainly “low-density” foods that have few calories per volume, generally due to the presence of fiber. Foods in their natural state tend to be low volume. Processed foods tend to be high volume.