When I was in university in New Zealand, one night we were talking about what we would do if we won the lottery.
It was a cold night, and we had this coal-range stove that heated ONLY the kitchen in our giant, drafty house that 6 humans plus boyfriends and girlfriends lived in. We were drinking Dilmah tea (to keep warm) and someone was making dinner.
One of my friends said:
"If I won the lottery or if I was rich I would buy only organic food"
And I was like - What the hell is organic food and why would you buy it???
This was such a sweet introduction to the world of food production and organics. I had grown up in Saskatchewan, and while my dad had a veggie garden and we talked about nutrition a lot, organics was a foreign concept to me. This was also the first time that I had lived on my own where food budgeting was a top priority and constant source of discussion.
The household had some generally hippy leanings and despite the fact that we all only pitched in something like $20/week for food, buying organic was a priority for them.
Let's just say we ate a lot of stir fries with canned tuna, organic veggies and sweet chilli sauce.
The cost of food and eating healthy is something that is still a constant source of discussion in both my personal and professional life. Many people find that the cost of whole foods feel like a barrier to them.
This subject came up again recently with my 3 Day Meal Plan that I sent out. Some of the feedback was that it seemed pretty pricey to get all the ingredients for just three days.
This is a valid concern and something that I think warrants talking about.
The cost of healthy vs unhealthy food is a super complicated topic.
How much we value food and our perception of what is too much to spend on food is also very subjective and is influenced heavily by our culture, marketing, and our own values.
Now before I launch into my Top 5 Tips - I have a caveat.
I am hugely aware that I am in a place of privilege to choose how I spend my money. Food security is a real issue for so many people living in our community. Erwin and I don't make a ton of money, but we definitely have enough to be able to buy good food, within reason. We also don't have any kids, and I know that kids are expensive! So please don't think that I'm trying to preach that everyone should do what I do - everyone's situation is so different and money is such a difficult subject.
These are just my best tips, and it does come from a pretty realistic place. I have eaten very similarly when I was a student living on $150/week to how I eat now when I make a bit more than that (I just drink better wine now). Every little improvement that you can make counts. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Be gentle with yourself.
That being said - here are my Top 5 Tips for eating healthy without breaking the bank.
1. Eat seasonally.
Buying your produce in season is (almost) always cheaper.
When things grow nearby, not only are they fresher and likely better for you, you don't have the associated costs of transport and storage. And if it's not much cheaper, it will definitely be much better for you, carry less food miles, and will support your local economy.
2. Build up a whole-foods pantry. Slowly.
Building up a pantry of healthy food can be expensive. Maintaining that pantry is not.
Other than the occasional bigger buy like a good bottle of olive oil, things like beans, legumes, and whole grains are DIRT cheap. Even organic ones are super reasonable.
Eating healthy doesn't have to look like your Instagram feed - all fancy expensive superfoods and charcoal everything.
Real wellness is more than a fad - it is about taking the long road with basic, healthy foods. Not as sexy, way better for your wallet :)
Try adding in one new recipe each week or month that has something new in it like quinoa or lentils. Buy a few cups of them and then you will have it in your pantry for next month. Build up slowly to make it more cost-effective.
3. Meal planning is your budget-friend
Y'all know I love meal planning! The initial shop is generally pricey (see point 2) but once you get in the swing of things NOT ONLY are you eating healthier - you are wasting way less food. Which means that you're not paying for something only to throw it out. Winning!
(*New to meal planning and want a hand and a super-freaking healthy program to follow? Check out my fabulous online program Taste Success. You'll be so happy you did!)
4. Eat at home
Eating at home is ALWAYS cheaper than eating out. Full stop.
I'm not against eating out. I love going out somewhere where they make different, delicious food that I couldn't/wouldn't make at home. And no dishes for me!
But I'm not talking about the occasional meal out as an event with friends and family. I'm talking about the habit of eating out or eating takeout - day in and day out.
I know a $5 "meal" from McDonalds seems cheap and filling. But not only is the food patently not good for you - it contributes to your daily calorie needs but not to your daily nutrient ones - it's just not that cheap.
Do you know what $5 in whole foods could get you? Lentils, carrots, onions and garlic. $5 worth of that would make you a soup that would definitely get you through more than one meal.
Expand that budget a little further to a $10 sushi. Now think about the cost of a bag of rice, some nori sheets, an avocado and maybe a bit of chicken. $15 tops? And enough sushi to feed 3 or 4. Plus rice left over for next time. You see where I'm going here?
Many of us eat out more than we would like to simply because we're not prepared. Wanna get prepared? See Point 3.
5. Compare your food costs to the cost of other things.
When I used to work at this health shop in Dunedin, there were a lot of university students. They had no money. Having only recently been a student myself, I got it.
But when they were basically falling apart of malnutrition from a steady diet of 2-minute noodles and were debating whether they could afford whole oats or lentils, I used to play this game with them:
"How much did you spend on alcohol this weekend?"
It was usually a minimum of $20. So I would bargain with them. Spend half of that on good food and it will last you way longer than those beers and then you'll have less of a hangover. Plus a good hearty breakfast to wake up to!
This is a great thing to do with yourself when you are looking at the price of a broccoli.
"$4 for a broccoli! That's crazy." You say. Holding a $7 caramel latte from Starbucks. Get it?
This is not meant to be about shame - it's just about being aware that we have been taught to value some things over others.
We have NOT been taught to value food and pay a fair price for it. We HAVE been taught that spending an outlandish amount of money on a sugary, average coffee is a great idea.
Buy $8 lunch out Mon-Fri? Put that $40 into your groceries and watch it stretch. Buy two $3 coffees/day? Drop down to one and put that $15 towards buying a good bag of Fairtrade organic beans which will last you a couple weeks. Obsessed with buying new shoes? Buy 1 less pair and put that money into your "healthy eating" budget. Boom.
Just start noticing where you are willing to spend your hard-earned cash and where you're not. See if you can make a little shift towards putting more in the food-budget kitty.
And it's not just you. Canada, the UK and the United States actually spend the lowest percentage of our household budgets on food. Food is actually very cheap in these countries compared to other parts of the world.
We have been taught that food should be cheap and plentiful - and this has come at a massive cost to our health. We subsidize cheap commodity crops like corn, soy, and canola which can then be dumped into processed foods like crazy and sold cheaply.
The cost of processed foods - cheap or not - does not take into account the whole effect that they have on human health or the community as a whole.
This includes things like the cost of lost sick days at work; the cost of medication or visits with doctors or specialists for health issues related to poor nutrition.
It does not include the lost quality of life that can come along with a diet of nutrient poor foods. Subsidized crops barely take into account the actual cost to the farmer of growing and producing the food, never mind feeding him or herself.
Right- food philosphy rant over. Got a little carried away there for a minute.
I hope these tips help you! I promise you that no matter your budget, you can make some shifts towards healthier foods. It just takes some practice and awareness.
What are your thoughts on the cost of food? Or what are your best budget-friendly tips? Leave a comment below to let us all know!
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