Disclaimer: If you are on a therapeutic diet under the direction of a healthcare provider, some of these tips may not apply. Strict adherence to restrictive diets can be necessary at times.
Whether you are just getting started trying to shift your dietary choices to a more whole foods or Paleo-style template, or whether you’ve been eating that way for a while, it’s possible that you’ve worried about eating healthy being too financially costly. I think it’s safe to say most people believe eating healthy is expensive. There is some truth to this belief. After all, you “get what you pay for.” Higher quality food comes with a higher price than the cheapest calories available, there is no doubt about that. But the cost of our food choices is much more complicated than that.
Here are seven simple tips to help you make eating healthy more affordable. Some are specific for eating a Paleo-style, whole-foods based diet while others are general grocery shopping/meal planning principles. Regardless, if you apply any or all of them, you very likely will start saving money immediately! In addition, you might improve your health as a beneficial side effect of letting go of some stress.
1. Reframe nutrition as an investment, not a cost
I promise I’m going to give you actual spending tips. But I really think this philosophical shift in our thinking is so critical to make. The money we spend on our food is not the same as the money we spend on Netflix or Spotify. This is an obvious statement, but… you have to eat to live! The money we spend on food is a necessary expense. But more than that, the way you fuel your body is literally the most important thing you do to take care of your body and promote your own health, well-being and longevity.
Can you afford not to eat well? That’s the way I think when I sometimes get flustered and wish I could save some money by going for the ramen and other dirt-cheap pre-packaged foods. I simply can’t afford to do that, and I don’t want to! I know that with every dollar I put into nutrient-dense foods, I’m actually investing in the health of myself and my family. I’m investing dollars into living better now, with more energy and vitality. Eating well now will also potentially save the cost of prescriptions and medical bills down the road—which could be huge.
Some people may feel fine eating a junky diet for a time, but the time almost inevitably inevitably comes when it catches up with them. I can focus my cost-cutting strategies on less important areas of my spending, such as spending less on entertainment or other unnecessary services.
2. Prioritize food categories over descriptors
Not too long ago, terms like “organic,” “non-GMO,” “grass-fed,” and “free-range” didn’t even exist in the context of food products. They didn’t need to exist. Humans evolved in a world connected to their food: 100% wild, organic, fresh, straight from nature. As part of a healthy approach to eating and living, eating organic foods is a way we can come closer to the pre-modern human environment.
However, there needs to be a hierarchy of priorities when we think about what foods to purchase to best optimize our nutrition. Sure, our ancestors ate organic, but they didn’t consume refined sugar, refined grains, vegetable oils, or any packaged or processed foods. Which aspect do you think is more important? Purchasing the types of foods they ate—fruits, vegetables, meat, etc—should be a higher priority than the quality of those foods, as important as that is. If you don’t have the extra money, don’t sweat buying everything organic! Consider using the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” to prioritize which produce you might consider buying organic. Buy organic eggs and meat when possible, but if you can’t afford it, don’t.
3. You don’t have to shop at Whole Foods to be healthy
Whole Foods and similar health food stores are pretty amazing. They have more options for special dietary needs than anywhere else, and tremendous food quality. With that being said, they aren’t the only options for buying good, healthy food. They’re expensive, and personally I rarely ever go, as much as I love exploring what they have to offer. You can find all of your essentials like meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fats/oils and spices at your local grocery store or Walmart, likely at better prices. If you’re having trouble finding any more unique items, such as ghee or coconut aminos, you can consider occasional trips to health food stores, or consider Thrive Market (an online store).
4. Limit eating out
This may not be the most unique advice, but it really can be a game-changer! No matter where you go out to eat (with perhaps the exception of Taco Bell, where you can literally eat a full meal for $3 somehow), eating out even a few times a week will almost always rack up your food spending, usually more than anything else. It is so easy to underestimate the cost of eating out. In order to save money and also eat well, eating out must be limited. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love eating out. Everyone enjoys trying new restaurants and just being in that social atmosphere, and I’m no exception. It can be good for your health to enjoy those social outings! It’s something I love to do, and very tempting to do more of, but something I work to limit each and every week.
5. Buy cheap cuts of meat
Steaks, ground beef, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin and several other cuts are some of the more popular meat products at the grocery store. But consider your other (cheaper) options! I haven’t bought a steak in months. We know that many past generations consumed animals “nose-to-tail”, but these days we often unnecessarily restrict ourselves to certain specific cuts over and over. Buying some less popular cuts of meat can benefit your wallet. Rump roast, chuck roast and chicken thighs are just some examples that can be a lot more inexpensive. Consider buying the whole chicken. Buying bone-in meat, while less convenient, can save money.
As I mentioned on the first tip, buying organic or grass-fed isn’t always a necessity, but one benefit of going for cheaper cuts of meat is that we find grass-fed can then become more affordable. Organ meats are also decently priced, and powerhouse sources of nutrition that our ancestors would regularly consume (if you can stand the taste!)
6. Buy in bulk, and keep it simple
Maybe this goes without saying, but buying in bulk is key if you aren’t already doing it. Frozen fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and other foods can often be purchased in larger quantities upfront to save money in the long run. Even if it makes your bill expensive one week, if it’s cheaper per ounce or per unit, it’s usually worth it! Just make sure you don’t burn through it faster than you would otherwise just because you have more on-hand.
After you’ve bought the staples of your diet in bulk where possible, try and keep the number of ingredients you buy to a reasonable amount. Often when people are trying to eat well they will find extravagant recipes with a laundry list of specialized (and often expensive) ingredients. While portobello mushroom burgers topped with bacon served alongside cauliflower rice and sweet potato fries is an incredible meal, it can be helpful to limit these kinds of meals, or save them for special occasions. Keep it simple throughout the week. An example: throw some meat in the crockpot along with a veggie and some potatoes, and eat that for several days. It’s very nice to occasionally have a special meal, but saves both time and effort when you keep things simple and focus on bulk ingredients.
7. Limit snacks
Snacks can be expensive, especially healthier options. Protein-rich snacks like beef jerky and nuts tend to be far more pricey than common snacks like chips or granola bars. It may be worth asking yourself if the snacks you’re buying are necessary. It may very well be that for you, they are. For many people who have high activity days, healthy snacks are an important part of what keeps them going. Others who may have suboptimal HPA-axis function or other issues may find an occasional snack keeps them feeling best.
However, I would argue that in general eating less frequently is a healthy practice. Studies are showing that, for many people, practices like intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding are valuable. It may be that eating less frequently is also more valuable for your budget, as meals based around whole foods tend to be more affordable than the healthy snacks.
I hope these tips can be helpful as you continue striving to eat well while saving some cash!