Jul 15, 2013

It's too Expensive to Eat Healthy!

Recently I got into one of those discussions that I tend to classify as a "someone is wrong on the internet" discussion. It started from a complaint that eating healthy costs way too much more than eating crap. I hate it when people use that as an excuse to eat poorly.

The first point/question would be what they consider "healthy". If you take as a starting point "Everything must be organic, locally sourced, free range, antibiotic/pesticide free, completely unprocessed, and not genetically modified by Monsanto", You're definitely not going to be able to do that on $3 a day.  If your goal, on the other hand, is to eat foods that recognizably came from a plant or animal, and you're willing to put in a little bit of work, it can definitely be done.

I won't mince words.  For a fair chunk of time growing up, we were poor, and therefore I learned some of what I know based on that.  My parents, for a while, were the king and queen of the raincheck. For a while, I ate more pasta and foods that ended in "Helper" than I care to remember.  I may have had a nervous tick at the thought of a can of tuna for many years after.  There's also a traumatizing event involving spaghetti O's and wheat germ that someday, with therapy, I might be able to talk about. Don't get me wrong, my parents did well with what we had, but past the "required for life" angle, food was not that important.

Once I started living alone (as opposed to having family support me), I had to find my own ways to eat cheaply. During the school year I was spoiled.  Not only did I have a meal plan, but I also worked in the dining hall, which provided me with a lot of access to free food.  On occasion I may have taken the idea of eating free whenever I worked to a bit of an extreme, but no one seemed to mind.  Over the summer was a different story, however.  The first summer I lived on my own finances were exceptionally tight.  I had to pay for rent, utilities, my own food, and save up money for tuition.  That entire summer I spent about $10 a week on groceries.

So here are some of the things that I've learned over the years about eating cheaply, in no particular order.

1. Legumes are your friends: Not only are they high in protein and fiber (high in fiber= you feel full faster and longer) but you can often buy a bag of dried beans for under $1, which will last several meals.  Black beans are really tasty in a lot of things, including salads, salsa, burritos, etc.  With chickpeas you can make your own hummus (SUPER SIMPLE) or falafel.  I recently discovered how tasty great northern beans are, especially in turkey chili.

2. Look for where the immigrants shop: The brightly lit, well arranged markets will have everything you're looking for, sure, but there's a cost for that.  If you're in an urban area, check out the local ethnic supermarkets.  It may not be cheaper, but often it can be.  In Boston, I love Haymarket. It's an open air market that is only on Fridays and Saturdays.  It's not a farmer's market, it's more like an old fashioned bazaar.  This is not a place where the customer is always right; for the most part, you don't even get to pick your own produce.  But when you're getting multiple pounds of fruits and veggies for $1, it can be worth it.  Also, if you're willing to be friendly, and smile at the people working in the stands, they give you better stuff.

3. Know your prices: One of the biggest scams large supermarket chains pull is that they will mark up the price of a product a week or so before putting it on sale.  People are lured in by the sale sign, but they're not actually saving as much as they think they are.  During tight financial times, I would keep a list of the things I'd normally try to have on hand, and what/where the cheapest price is normally.  If what I was looking for was lower than that, it would be a time to buy.  Some people I know swear by Costco or BJ's.  Often times, their prices can be better than local stores.  But before you shell out for a membership, think about how much you personally will save over the course of the year.  Remember that that membership fee will cut into savings.  Also, buying in bulk has its drawbacks.  Know what you're getting, how to store it, and that you will, in fact, use that much.  Otherwise, if you are paying for things that will be thrown out, you're not saving money.

4. Think Traditional: A lot of traditional cuisines developed because they were eating what they had.  Things like quiche, casseroles, and lasagna can be little more than refrigerator velcro.  You have a small amount of meat?  Mix it with more veggies and put it over rice (like most of asia).  Or use herbs/spices to add more flavor to it (spicy food helps make you feel full faster).  Left over rice?  Use it for fried rice, or aranchini before it dries out.

5. Be Flexible:  What's in season? What's on sale?  During tight times I will not pay more than $.99 a pound for meat.  But if there are things that are cheap, don't be afraid to try something new.  You can plan a week's worth of meals around one large cut of meat.  Roast a chicken one night, use it in sandwiches, on a salad, in a burrito, meat pies, a casserole, etc. and when you get to the end of it, you can make stock from the bones.  Cabbage, potatoes, you know, staples, are that for a reason.  They are usually cheap, and plentiful.

6. Plan Ahead: There are some days when you will not want to cook.  We all have them.  With proper planning, you can have instant food on the cheap.  I will often try to make food in bulk and then pack it away, so I can have plenty of things to just grab and go later.  Recently I made a bunch of pizza dough and threw together individual sized calzones.  Used a bag of spinach, 2 red peppers, an onion, a small container of mushrooms, a bag of shredded cheese, 2 tomatoes, and a little pizza sauce.  Because I did several at once, I didn't have to worry about leftover ingredients, and I just stuck them in the freezer.  In the morning on my way to work I can just grab one out of the freezer, and pop it into the toaster oven for lunch.

7. Learn to Love your Freezer: Proper preserving of food makes buying in bulk a reasonable idea.  If you buy a bunch of something because it's super cheap, it becomes more expensive the more that you have to throw out.  Figure out what you use, and portion appropriately.  Often with meat, the less work the butcher has to do, the less you have to pay them for it.  But not only is a pork shoulder unwieldy to try to fit into a small apartment freezer, I know that I would never use the whole thing at once.  I will portion out pieces for what I would usually cook.  This means that I'm not thawing out more than I am planning to use at a time, and minimizing waste.  With a pork loin, I will cut it up into servings, wrap each in plastic wrap, then in tinfoil, and store it in the freezer in a labeled plastic bag.  If you want to learn more about freezing, Alton Brown has an episode of Good Eats on the topic.

8. Learn a Little Science: Food science is kind of an amazing thing, and I would recommend that anyone who likes to cook understand how/why the things that they cook do what they do.  If you understand your food, that's when you can start making useful substitutions.  I recently decided that I don't want to buy brown sugar anymore.  Inevitably it dries out on me (no, I probably don't store it properly, thanks for pointing that out), and on the occasions when I need to use it, I end up smashing the bag against the counter, trying to break it up into small enough chunks to use properly (and yes, I know the different ways that you can do that without the percussive maintenance, but sometimes hitting things is fun).  One afternoon I discovered that I was out, but needed some for a recipe.  Do you know how you can make brown sugar?  Add a tablespoon of molasses to a cup of white sugar and stir.  That's it.  Considering how often I use molasses, I'm not going to run out of it, and can always have fresh brown sugar if and when I need it. And making it in exactly the same way that factories do.

9. It is ALMOST always cheaper to make things yourself: This would go along with knowing a little bit of very basic economics, and being pragmatic about what you will and won't use. Personally I really like understanding what goes into a meal that I will get at a restaurant.  Not just ingredients, but how difficult is it really to make, versus what I'm paying for it? Because sometimes, it really is cheaper to just buy the finished product. Indian food is a wonderful example.  The most expensive hurdle in making a lot of Indian food is the spices.  For a restaurant, buying in bulk, this ends up being fairly cheap, because they also have a lot of turnover, and use those spices constantly.  But unless you are also going to be making those dishes a lot at home, you've just spent a lot of money on things that will most likely just take up space.  Or if you decide to try making your own cheese.  A fair amount of time goes into it, you would pay more for the milk and rennet than a commercial producer, and the product may or may not be better than something you can buy for cheaper at a store.

As with everything, there is always a balance between time, money, and quality.  Personally, I like making things.  Even more, I like making things that I've never made before. So the fact that I am spending more time on something counts as a positive.  Other people are willing to spend more money to be able to spend less time in the kitchen. Also, quality will always weigh into the equation. Generics brands can be great, but there are some things that I have learned that I want a named brand.  If I were to get the generic, it is different enough that I will not enjoy it, and not eat it, and therefore it is a waste of money.  For other things, it may be cheaper and faster to buy, but the quality of making it myself outweighs both of those.  Quality does not always equal flavor, also.  Because I can now afford to, I am getting my vegetables this summer through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  The fact that everything is local, fresh, sometimes novel (I've cooked several things for the first time recently because of it), and I'm supporting small businesses makes me willing to pay a little more for it.

If anyone else has suggestions to add to the list, I'd be happy to hear them. Please note that I really didn't speak to coupons.  I've tried doing things with food coupons periodically over the years, and kept coming back to one big problem.  Most coupons are for brand name, more processed foods than I tend to buy, and therefore spending the time to look through them even is not worth any pittance of a savings that I would receive. 


  1. Just because something is a GMO doesn't mean it is unhealthy. Don't believe the slander about GMO's and Monsanto.

  2. Also: Isn't "white sugar", just "sugar". Why you so racist Lilty?

  3. I actually didn't say that I feel that GMO is unhealthy. While they provide several economic and patent related issues, I have yet to see a valid study that demonstrates that they are a health risk. My point, however, is that the more limitations you put on what you will eat, the more expensive it will get.

  4. Indeed. As always Lilty a well thought out and articulate response. You rule btw.