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How to eat healthy without going broke

Posted Aug 22 2011 12:00am
© Gualberto Becerra | Dreamstime.com
The guy bagging my groceries at the food co-op gazed at my bags of brown rice and kale and onions and walnuts and shook his head.

“When I see people buying this stuff,” he said, “I just think about how much work it’s going to be to cook it when you get home.”

The bagger was an older gentleman with some obvious health problems. I was tempted to ask him what he ate for dinner, if not rice and onions and stuff like that. But I was pretty sure I knew the answer. My food co-op carries not only “health food” (in other words, real food), but also the usual packaged dreck you find at any grocery store. Judging from my bagger’s remark, I guessed his diet was primarily based upon the second category.

Here was my chance to be Roaming Health Coach, to say something wise and helpful that would persuade this fellow that healthy eating was really worth the effort. But the best reply I could come up with at that moment, while keeping one eye on my running total, was: “It’s cheaper to cook from scratch.”

Even as I said it, I realized it’s not true.

A diet of canned soups and lunch meat and Wonder bread - in other words, what most Americans eat - costs less than buying organic vegetables and decent-quality meat and cooking everything yourself. Doesn’t seem fair, does it? No matter how conscientiously you try to buy on sale, or in bulk, or in season at the farmer’s market, you’d save even more money if you just ate three meals a day at McDonald’s.

Of course, the main reason junk food is so cheap is because its chief components - corn, soy, wheat, and factory-produced meat and dairy - are all supported by our taxes. To the best of my knowledge, no one subsidizes broccoli. Mark Bittman had a great article on this subject in the NY Times a few weeks ago.

I’ve also been hearing a lot lately about how much money people save at the supermarket by using coupons .

But again, coupons are always for processed food, never for fruits and vegetables, whole grains, eggs, or any of the basic building blocks of a healthy diet. So, yeah, you could go to the supermarket with a fistful of coupons and pay practically nothing for your groceries, but when you got home and unloaded your bags you’d have a kitchen full of junk.

Then, down the road, you’d spend all the money you saved (and then some) on medications to treat the chronic illnesses you’d developed from a lifetime of  eating processed food.

Personally, I’d rather lay out some extra cash now, eat good food and enjoy it, and not spend as much time and money in doctors' offices later on.

Nonetheless, I’m regularly shocked when I glance at my receipt at the grocery store, and I’m as keen as everyone else to shave a few bucks off my bill. So here are some of the ways I save money on food while refusing to trash my health.
  • Rule number one: don’t eat in restaurants . Honestly, where else would you willingly spend extra money to get an inferior product? Even swanky restaurants lean heavily on cheap food-service ingredients and disguise them with lots of grease and salt and sugar. I suppose when you go out to eat, what you’re paying for is the ambience, or the entertainment value, or the convenience of not having to cook. Something other than the food, at any rate. Personally, I’d rather spend my entertainment dollars elsewhere and eat better food. On the rare occasions I do eat in a restaurant, I’ll go out of my way to patronize a place that uses fresh, real ingredients. Expensive, definitely, which is why I don’t eat out that much.
  • The more stuff is done to your food, the more it costs. You can buy a cartful of frozen burritos wrapped in plastic, or for much less money, you can buy canned beans, a bag of rice, a jar of salsa, and a package of flour tortillas and assemble your own. To save even more, you could cook your own beans, instead of using canned. Make your own salsa from tomatoes you grow in your backyard. Roll your own tortillas. It all depends on how much time you have. Which brings me to rule #3:
  • Time is money. The guy bagging my groceries and I are in total agreement on this point. It takes longer to cook from scratch than it does to nuke a packaged meal. There’s no way around it: eating well on a budget requires some extra work and - more important - advance planning. You expend your valuable time and mental energy instead of your cash dollars. This is one of those universal rules of economics. 
  • Good-quality protein is one of the priciest items in your shopping cart. Have you seen what wild Alaskan salmon is going for per pound lately? I can’t afford to eat fresh salmon or locally raised organic chicken breast every night, but that doesn’t mean I’m reaching for the antibiotic-laced factory-farmed national brand of chicken, or worse, fish imported from China , where they raise seafood in pools of raw sewage and toxic chemicals. Yuck. Less-expensive but healthy protein options include beans and lentils, nuts, organic eggs and dairy, and canned wild fish like salmon, herring, tuna, and sardines.
  • Extend it. When you do splurge on meat, instead of serving it as a filet or steak, make it go further by chopping it up and using it in a soup, stew, stir-fry, or casserole. It’s the Hamburger Helper principle, only instead of stretching your protein with nutritionally empty white pasta and artificial additives, you’ll be using healthy vegetables and whole grains like rice or quinoa.
  • Buy as much food as you can on sale, but don’t buy something just because it’s on sale. Junky food is not a bargain. Not even if they pay you to carry it away! (Hear that, Extreme Couponers ?)
What are your strategies for saving money on food without resorting to processed junk?
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