In the long run, we know that eating a healthy diet will not only improve our wellbeing, but likely reduce medical costs, lost income due to illness and other costs associated with chronic conditions. In fact, research from the Harvard School of Public Health found that the increased price of consuming a healthier diet (about $1.50 per day more) is “trivial compared with health costs of eating an unhealthy diet.” Nonetheless, most of us are living in the now, perhaps even paycheck-to-paycheck, so when making positive changes to our diets, we need to know that it can be done within our means. One of the biggest barriers to healthy eating is the belief that it is too expensive. The good news is that eating healthier can be done in a cost-effective way if we are open to new ideas and ready for some planning and resourcefulness.
Buy Fresh When in Season
Fruits and vegetables often cost less when they are in season and are grown locally, which cuts down on shipping and handling costs. Even if they aren’t local they will cost less, taste better and be more nutritious when in season.
…but don’t shun frozen or even canned
Although fresh and in season is ideal for both taste and nutrition, the hard truth is that we live in Vermont and the growing season is quite limited. Thus, vegetables and fruit aren’t “in season” for very long here. The good news is that frozen and canned foods are both cost effective and usually picked at the peak of ripeness and quickly preserved so sometimes, they can actually be a more nutrient-dense option. Just make sure to be smart with your selections. Pick frozen fruits and vegetables with no added sugar, salt, butter or sauces and canned foods that do not have salt added. You can also try purchasing fresh vegetables when in season and blanch (a quick dip in boiling water to stop the ripening process) and freeze them yourself for an even cheaper solution.
Buy from Bulk Bins
We’ve all had that experience while shopping at wholesalers where we end up spending way more than we expected to. What is different about buying in bulk from a wholesaler versus a bulk bin at a grocery or health food store is the packaging. At the wholesaler you are still paying extra for packaging. There are amazing deals from bulk bins, especially when it comes to herbs and spices (usually available at health food stores and co-ops), which improve the flavor of healthy foods without adding salt, fat or sugar. Buying from the bulk bins also allows you to try small amounts of a new spice, bean, grain or nut without purchasing a large amount and enables you to purchase exactly what you need when trying out a new recipe. This way there is less waste which equals money saved.
Eat Less Meat
There is no need to become vegetarian, but let’s face it, meat is not cheap. Eating meat less often and in smaller portions (a serving is only 3-4 oz.) will free up some of your budget for more fruits and vegetables. There are also plant-based protein alternatives that are much more cost effective, like beans and lentils, which have the added benefit of providing fiber in addition to protein. Other less expensive, non-meat protein options are canned tuna (look for no salt added), eggs and less-processed meat alternatives like tofu. Reducing your meat portions while increasing vegetables will also help you manage your weight, feel full after meals and increase your intake of vitamin, minerals and antioxidants.
Reduce Processed Foods and Cook More
Although they may appear to be cheaper, processed foods and snack foods are actually pretty expensive when you consider how much of them and how quickly you can consume them in a sitting. Because they are often high in refined carbohydrates and sugars, they aren’t as filling or nutrient dense as most whole foods. Homemade meals and snacks are almost always less expensive, so eating fewer processed foods and making more of your own foods will not only save you money, it will likely improve the nutritional quality of your diet.
Bridget Shea, RD, is a clinical dietitian at The University of Vermont Medical Center.