It’s the great dilemma, isn’t it? Healthy food can be far more expensive than less healthy options. But for whatever reason, we want to save money and eat healthy. The two can seem likely completely conflicting goals at times. It is possible to figure out how to eat healthy and be frugal.
It doesn’t really matter why you’re wanting to eat healthy and save money on groceries. Perhaps you just don’t have much room in the budget for food. Or perhaps you simply want to put more of your money elsewhere. Either way, we’re going to look at how to accomplish it.
Why Is Unhealthy Food Cheaper?
It’s helpful to understand why all those boxed and sugary foods are less expensive.
Let’s blame the government.
No, really. The USDA subsidizes monocrops like corn. Corn and its many derivatives–starch, syrup, and many more–are ubiquitous in the cheap and unhealthy foods down the grocery store aisles. Since the ingredients are subsidized, the makers of the products can make the food cheaply, and sell it to the consumer cheaply, thus making a profit while still selling some of the least expensive products available.
That makes our task straightforward yet complicated: find healthy foods that won’t break the bank.
Things to Watch For
There’s a few things too keep an eye on that will help with this endeavor, and a few principles of healthy eating that can help us.
Not Just Calories In, Calories Out
The common wisdom of weight loss is a simplistic “calories in, calories out” formula. What this means is that you have to eat less or exercise off more calories than you need for everyday functioning in order to lose weight. If you google how many calories you need in a day, you’ll probably be asked to plug in your height, goal weight, and activity level, and the calculator will spit out a number or a range to aim for in calorie consumption.
While this is true to some extent, it’s rather simplistic and falls short. Let me make this clear. 2,000 calories of pizza and soda is not the same and 2,000 calories of lean protein and vegetables. I think that’s just common sense, but I’ve seriously had someone argue with me that a calorie-restricted diet of Twinkies would be perfectly acceptable for weight loss. Guess what? While you might lose weight, most of it would be in lean mass and you’d be unhealthy. Calories are not equal.
Diet is very complicated, but I’ll break down a few things for you in simple terms.
Macronutrients are the “big” nutrients that make up foods–carbohydrates, fat, and protein. The body can convert one to the other in some cases, but ideally your diet will fuel you correctly so your body doesn’t have to do much correction.
Protein is immensely useful in building lean mass, and does not easily become stored fat. Protein is found mostly in meat, dairy, legumes, and a few other sources. Very few non-meat sources of proteins have all of the amino acids–protein building blocks–essential to the human body.
Fat does not go straight to your hips or your arteries, despite what you may have been led to believe by common wisdom. Fatty acids are essential for immune function, makes up a huge percentage of the brain and nervous system, and getting plenty of fat from natural sources–yes, even saturated fat–can improve cholesterol. Fat comes mostly from meat, and also from things like coconut oil, full fat dairy, olive oil, and avocados. There are essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce itself and must get from food.
Carbohydrates are mostly an energy source for the body, and if you have more energy than your body needs, it will convert it to fat and store it for later. You body needs enough carbohydrates to fuel your brain and activity, and that’s it. All carbohydrates break down into sugar–glucose–in the digestive process. Some do this quickly and more readily, bumping insulin and blood sugar levels in a vicious cycle that quickly leads to Type 2 diabetes. Refined carbohydrates–white flour, sugar–are the worst culprits. If your diet is mostly carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, you’re asking for problems. Carbohydrates are mainly from grains, sugar, fruits and vegetables. While there are essential amino acids and essential fatty acids, there’s no such thing as an essential carbohydrate. A person can live without a single carbohydrate, and their body will enter a state of ketosis to meet their energy needs.
These are things like vitamins. Micronutrients are important to health too, especially the essential vitamins that the human body cannot produce itself. For example, vitamin D can be produced in the skin upon exposure to the sunlight, but most B vitamins are found most abundantly in meat.
Micronutrients are found most abundantly in whole foods, especially colorful ones and meat. Processes such as soaking and fermentation can make micronutrients even more available to the body. This is why sourdough, for example, is more digestible and beneficial than regular whole grain bread.
What’s It all Mean?
The way you apply this knowledge, quite simply, is to get the foods with the most nutrient bang for your buck, calorie for calorie.
Chicken is usually the least expensive meat in the store, followed by pork. Check for sales and deals. If you’re looking for highest quality, though, you’re going to have to pay a bit more. Free-range or grass-fed/pastured animals cost more than the factory farmed stuff. Chicken is still usually less expensive even in that case. Eggs fall under this category too, and are also fairly inexpensive and full of nutrients. Meat is going to be one of your biggest protein and natural fat sources.
If you’re a vegetarian, I’m not going to be a lot of help to you. I don’t think soy is a very healthy food for a number of reasons, and it’s usually the main protein source for vegetarians. I like my meat, and many homesteaders care about ethically raised animals.
Produce is fairly inexpensive, but you need to be discerning with it to get the most out of it. Apples are a better choice than watermelon, as they have significantly more calories pound-for-pound. Some have more vitamins than others. Some are better staple foods, like potatoes or sweet potatoes.
Grains and Legumes
Buy your grains and make food with them instead of buying pre-made stuff. Bake your bread–especially sourdough bread, as it’s healthier and more digestible than most other breads. Eat rice. Get legumes dry and soak and cook them yourself. All of this assuming you eat grains and legumes, of course. These are calorie-dense foods, and have some protein–especially beans–but are also high in carbohydrates. If you eat Paleo or have autoimmune problems, you probably want to forego these. If you get indigestion, too many legumes (beans) probably aren’t going to do you any favors. And for goodness sake, please avoid soy like the devil.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live without cheese unless it’s killing me. Dairy from grass-fed cows is fine for many people’s health, although again, it’s less so if you have an autoimmune condition or are lactose intolerant. Dairy has quite a bit of natural fat and protein, and many kinds are almost purely protein or fat with very little carbohydrate.
Use recipes that rely primarily on these foods; something with chicken and rice, beans and vegetables, whatever it may be. Use spices, sauces, condiments and broth to flavor things up and keep it from being boring. Broth, condiments, and sauces can even be made at home for less and without some of the less-healthy ingredients.
It’s going to take some adjustment and creativity. But when you find that your high-protein, natural-fat, nutrient-rich, and yummy meals are only costing you a few dollars to make, it will be worth it.
Let me give you a few ideas to go on as you search for recipes and meals to make.
- Salads with protein
- Stir fries
- Rice with meat and veggies
- Rice and beans
- Sourdough sandwiches
- Meat and veggies
- Eggs in various forms
- Oatmeal and overnight soaked oats
- Soups and stews
- Yogurt with berries
- Fruit (as a snack)
What are your favorite frugal, healthy meals?