A nutritionist shares her secret to eating healthy on a budget (yes, it’s possible!)

Is it more expensive to eat healthy? Let’s get this out of the way: healthy eating doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, healthy eating can actually be cheaper than buying overly processed, additive-filled packaged food. Unfortunately, the general population believes that healthy equals expensive. But often this is not the case. So why are we conditioned to believe that healthy eating is not budget friendly?

Part of the problem is that we confuse ‘healthy’ with other brands like organic and gluten-free. Just because a packet of crackers (or artificial candy) is gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s nutritionally dense or cheap. The other problem is that healthy food can be associated with more expensive health food stores. In reality, however, a healthy diet is built on whole, unprocessed foods (think fruit, beans, nuts, etc.) which can be found very affordably in most grocery stores.

Selected image of Aishwarya Iyer’s kitchen by Michelle Nash.

Photo by Michelle Nash

While yes, a Big Mac is cheaper than a grass-fed burger, and a gas station soda is cheaper than an organic vegetable juice, the same notion works in reverse: a fried chicken sandwich is more expensive than a banana.

Different foods cost different prices – not all healthy food is expensive and not all unhealthy food is cheap. This misconception poses a risk to our overall health and well-being.

Picture of Suruchi Avasthi

Social inequalities in our food system

That being said, health and social status are inextricably linked. Systemic health and social inequalities disproportionately affects racial, ethnic, and poor minorities. This means that conventionally grown ingredients are more likely to be consumed by these groups (due to factors such as price, availability and knowledge). Ultimately, this means that low-income households are among the highest consumers of processed foods and fast food.

In essence, accessibility is one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle. Access to healthier options – as well as access to accurate education about healthy eating – is polarizing.

According to USDA Report 2012some research suggests that neighborhoods made up primarily of low-income ethnic minority groups have limited access to supermarkets compared to wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods. More and more surveys specify it food deserts is now up for debate. As Scientific American reportssince the areas are not completely devoid of food, some believe that a more accurate description would be to list them as “fresh food deserts” or “health food deserts.”

But while researchers debate semantics, it’s safe to say that aIn an entire ecosystem – from farm to corner shop or supermarket – we have a long way to go.

Photo by Michelle Nash

Blue Zones

Interestingly, research indicates that the world’s richest countries (indicated by GDP) are not necessarily the healthiest (indicated by life expectancy). Blue Zones are identified as having the longest life expectancy and longest service life. A few of these cities are Ikaria, Greece, Okinawa, Japan, and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. What is common in these areas is however what they eat: minimal animal protein, whole grains, fresh vegetables, fruits, olive oil, seeds and nuts. In other words, economical food.

How can you eat healthy on a budget?

There are a number of ways to stick to your budget while still creating nutritious, flavorful recipes. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to keep your grocery bill low while still providing your family with nutritious food. In the end, it’s all about planning, comparing options and knowing what’s best for your nutritional buck.

Photo by Michelle Nash

Meal plan

Planning your meals can help you avoid buying packaged goods you don’t need or fresh vegetables that can go bad. Meal planning also helps you avoid eating out on a regular basis. Find a few recipes to make (breakfast, snacksand dinner pages), check your pantry to see what you already have on hand, then make your shopping list.

By planning, you spend less money and waste less food. Plus, meal planning ensures that your refrigerator is in stock in good time. Wind, wind.

Compare options

Between e-commerce stores like Thrive Market and Brandless, it is always useful to spend a few minutes comparing prices. You can also sign up for merchant apps (like Sprouts) to see what’s for sale. Doing a little homework can help you stay within your budget. Another way to compare is by thinking about portion size.

While a bag of potato chips costs less than a bag of sweet potatoes, the sweet potatoes will likely yield more servings.

Photo by Michelle Nash

Buy in bulk

When it comes to sweet potatoes, it can be more economical to buy in bulk. In essence, it is cheaper to buy in bulk because it costs the producers less to sell the product in larger quantities. I love buying ingredients like nut butters, lentil-based pasta, olive oil, and organic meats at Costco. Some of the cheapest ingredients to buy in bulk are beans, rice, frozen vegetables and bananas.

Emphasize Whole Foods

As a useful rule of thumb, shop the perimeter of the store first. This will make you more likely to fill your cart with fruits, vegetables and protein. In other words, whole foods.

Typically, the most processed and unhealthy foods are in the middle of the store. But when shopping in the middle of the store, check the top or bottom shelves for your ingredients. The most expensive things are usually placed at eye level.

While processed foods tend to be cheaper than most fresh foods, this is because the US government subsidizes the producers of these main ingredients (ie corn and wheat). In turn, it helps keep crop prices low. However, processed foods and many packaged foods have added sweeteners and higher fat content along with sodium and other preservatives. Whole foods, on the other hand, contain a wide variety of nutrients—such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber—that your body needs to function optimally.

Photo by Michelle Nash

Buy the frozen section

Typically as nutritious as their fresh counterparts, frozen fruits and vegetables are cheaper and available year-round. Picked and packed at their height of ripeness, seals freeze in nutrients (and flavor). Since the shelf life is much longer, you can extend the use of the frozen fruit or vegetable. Frozen items are usually sold in large bags so you can only use what you need and store the rest in your freezer.

Photo by Michelle Nash

Choose What’s in Season

While buying frozen berries in winter is an easy way to consume immune-boosting antioxidants, buying fresh berries in the summer does too. In other words, it is just as advantageous to buy frozen fruits and vegetables in the off-season as to buy the same products during peak harvest. Eat with the seasons is more economical. When the ingredients are in season, there is an abundance. On the other hand, it is available at a lower price.

Think local

Produce grown close to home costs less money to transport, culminating in lower overall procurement costs. Plus, when you support local farmers and growers, that money becomes money in the community and subsequently helps stimulate local economies.

This post was originally published on June 28, 2021 and has since been updated.

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