Eating healthy on a slim budget

I spend almost as much on groceries as I do on my mortgage.

Now, before you spit your coffee all over your keyboard, you should know that my mortgage is pretty low, lower than what some of my friends pay in rent. And for me, “groceries” includes all of the extras one buys at grocery stores, like paper towels and soap and the latest issue of the weekly tabloid.

(Kidding! I have zero interest in the tabloids. Especially now that none of them cover the bat boy or alien baby adoptions.)

Anyway, non-food expenses aside, I still spend a lot of money on groceries. Part of it is need. We do need to eat. Part of it is want, since food and cooking is a hobby of mine. I make cuts in other places in order to afford things like fresh-pressed olive oil. And part of it I view as a health expense — things like antibiotic-free meat and organic strawberries.

The thing is, I know I'm lucky to be in a position to afford it. Yes, I prioritize food and health in my spending, so that helps. But not everyone can do that. You can't prioritize organic avocados over, say, paying the rent or paying for childcare.

For instance, check out this post by TomInTexas on the PaleoHacks message board:

“The wife and I are having to cut costs as I'm quitting my job to go back to school. I'll still have some income, but less than half of what I make right now. As such, cuts have to be made, and it looks like the ‘unnecessarily high' cost of my paleo diet is in the crosshairs. (I've recently gone paleo, she didn't.)

“After more than two months … I feel great. But today I had my first non-paleo meal in a while: Lentils and some chicken. 15 minutes later I was bent over the commode revisiting my lunch. Now I feel horrible. And I'm hungry again, 1.5 hours after I ate.

“Moral is at a bit of a low. Any ideas on how I can keep the cost … on the low end? I live in a small apartment, so buying half a cow, etc. is not an option. Based on my stomach's response to lunch, neither is rice and beans.”

Traditional advice isn't practical

Now, this post isn't about the paleo diet per se. I don't personally follow any diet plan. I chose TomInTexas's quote because it gets to the heart of the financial aspects of trying to eat a “clean diet,” whatever that means to you. These aspects are often disregarded by people who espouse these special diets.

Usually when you're talking to a health nut about the expense of eating healthy, they say things like “cut other expenses to afford it” or “consider it a medical expense.” Or they offer the advice TominTexas mentions: “Buy half a cow.”

But TomInTexas is on a very restricted budget. He can care about his health until the grassfed cows come home, but that won't magically put food dollars in his bank account. And he can't buy in bulk because he lives in an apartment.

Plus, his significant other isn't on board. She doesn't share his views on diet, and that's a difficult situation when his food expenses have increased and his income has decreased. She has a right to be concerned about their finances.

So what can Tom do to keep eating in a way that makes him feel better while keeping to a tight budget?

Decide what matters most

The solution is to prioritize. You may not be able to afford a “perfect” diet, whatever that means to you, but you can make choices where it matters most.

Here's a round-up of some of the best advice I've read about what to prioritize and how to stretch your budget.

Cut the fancy supplements, powders, and special drinks. If you have to watch your budget, think about cutting the $50 protein powder and have some eggs for breakfast instead. Ditto the special drinks. “Don't drink your calories,” writes Anthony Vennare at Hybrid Athlete. “Avoid soda, juice, and energy drinks. Stick to water, tea, and coffee.” (Cheaper and healthier!)

Don't throw your food budget in the trash. If your produce often goes bad before you get a chance to eat it, buy some frozen vegetables. “Sure, I love fresh veggies,” writes Steve Kamb of NerdFitness, “but since frozen veggies are picked and then frozen at peak ripeness (and thus most nutritionally dense), they are often a better value while being edible for months longer.”

Get the most nutritional bang for your buck. “Target nutrient dense foods, but understand that we're looking for the most economical choices,” writes Kamb. “If food A costs $10 and has 50 of nutrient X, we'll pick food B instead, which only provides 45 of X but costs just $2.” High on his list? Dark leafy greens, broccoli, eggs, meat, canned tuna, legumes, bananas, and plums.

Cook like your grandma. “After…ditching my go-to Pam cooking spray, I began to research other cooking oils,” Rachael Adams, The Freckled Foodie, tells Abel James, the Fat Burning Man. “My favorite early discovery … is to save all the excess grease from cooked bacon, ground pork, and any other meat, and use it to cook your veggies or side-dishes.”

Another way to use up everything you buy? Eat the perfectly healthy parts of produce that most people throw out. For instance, you can sauté beet greens and you can steam broccoli stalks.

It's okay to buy less expensive meat. If you want the highest quality of meat but can't afford it, don't sweat it. “If I can't eat grassfed meat, I look for the cleanest meat I can find (no hormones, no antibiotics, etc.),” writes Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint. Another way to save is by buying the cheaper cuts of meat. For instance, dark meat is cheaper than white meat. Skirt steak is cheaper than ribeye. There's nothing wrong with those cuts, they're just less desirable to the majority of consumers.

Shop sales. Okay, this one is a bit obvious, but it had to be included because sales are hard to come by for non-processed food. Places to look: grocery stores clearing out nearly-but-not-yet expired food, coupons for frozen produce, weekly sales on select cuts of meat, and end-of-day deals at the farmers markets, when vendors are packing up to go home.

As for specific advice for TomInTexas, I would tell him to sit down with his wife and come up with a food budget that works for both of them. Then, he could offer to do the grocery shopping using the tips above to stick to his diet as much as possible, while keeping in mind his wife's food preferences too. If he can find coupons for some of the foods she likes to eat, that would also help him stick to their budget.

What advice would you give TomInTexas? And whatever your diet of choice, what are some ways you eat healthy on a budget?

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