Eating at the Intersection of Cheap and Healthy

A lot of healthy food — organic, locally grown food — is priced like yuppy specialty items. That fact does not mean that poor or frugal people need to eat junk. (See also: Anyone Can Spend Less for Food)

Let me begin with the premise that you're willing to make compromises — that's necessary, because that's where the overlap is. If you insist that food must be organic or must be local or must be fair-trade — basically, if you insist that it must be anything in particular, you're limiting yourself to a very small set of options. Many of those options may be cheap or healthy, but some of them won't be both.

So let's say that you want cheap, and you want healthy, and that you're willing to compromise. The key is to be strategic about your compromises.

What's Cheap?

I'm very nearly going to punt on cheap, by suggesting that "cheap" doesn't matter. What matters is "affordable," and you figure that out by making a budget.

Having said that, there's a lot of stuff you can do to keep your overall food budget low, without regard to whether any particular item is cheap. I've written about several strategies before, including:

Most of these strategies only work if you have a kitchen and if you keep staples on hand, so that's the place to start. If you don't have access to a kitchen, none of this is going to work very well.

Stock Your Pantry

Once you have a kitchen, and a place to store some food, begin to build a pantry. Accumulate some staples. The right ones for you depend on what you eat, but begin with what's cheap to buy in bulk and easy to store — rice, flour, corn meal, lentils, etc. Then add some basic items that don't keep as well, but that you'll be eating regularly enough that it doesn't matter — potatoes might be an example.

Your goal is to have everything you need to build a meal except the main dish and a fresh vegetable. Then you can go to the store and buy just those things, knowing that you can make a meal.

You can easily include some expensive stuff without breaking the budget, as long as the expensive stuff is used in small quantities. Obviously that applies to things like spices, but it can apply to every part of your diet, including featured ingredients. If you want to eat locally grown organic beef (or lamb or goat cheese or whatever), that doesn't have to supply the majority of the calories of the meal — the expensive part can be quite a modest quantity.

What's Healthy?

I'm very nearly going to punt on healthy as well, because however much people may argue about healthy foods, it's easy to come up with a healthy diet. The key is variety.

People like to imagine that they can figure out an optimal diet. Some try to come up with perfect ratios of fats, carbs, and proteins. Others try to figure out how to maximize the amount of some vitamin (or all vitamins). None of that effort is likely to lead to a better outcome than simply eating a wide variety of foods. (See my post on Healthy, Frugal Eating for more info.)

Variety Is Good for You

Once you accept the principle of variety, you can tweak your diet however you like. If you want to eat low-fat, eat low-fat. If you want low-carb, eat low-carb (don't stockpile as much grain or starches when you build your pantry). If you can't eat wheat or lentils or dairy, then don't eat those things. If you don't like anything but filet mignon and french fries, then your diet isn't going to be as cheap or as healthy as it could be — but that's because your violating the rule that you're diet needs to be varied.

Going for variety doesn't just make it easy to come up with a healthy diet; it also makes it easy to be frugal — as long as you let seasonal price (and quality) variations drive your menu selection. Feature whatever vegetable is cheap and fresh in your meals. (Do the same for main dishes, when that works.)

The principle of variety applies most strongly to long stretches of time — seasons, months, weeks. There's no need to worry especially about variety every meal, or even every day.

What About Other Goals?

It may well be that I haven't hit your particular issue — maybe your hot button is that your food be fair-trade, cruelty-free, or sustainably produced (rather than merely cheap and healthy).

If you add a restriction like this, it gets harder to be cheap and healthy, maybe even impossible. I have a couple of suggestions.

The first is to emphasize local. Locally grown or raised is no guarantee that the soil is being well-managed or the animals treated humanely, but it makes it a lot more likely — especially if you know the farmer, and he knows you (and knows about what matters to you).

The second is to become politically active. It may be better in many ways to eat only cage-free eggs, but if your goal is for fewer chickens to be in cages, changing the laws on how chickens must be raised is going to be vastly more effective than merely voting with your dollars.

Build Your Diet, Step by Step

First, familiarize yourself with your choices.

Start at the best places to get the best food — your own garden, your farmers market, your local food co-op. See what you can get that's local, organic, or hits any other criteria that you think is important — and check how much it costs. Then proceed to the grocery store. See what they've got. See what's on sale. See what's cheap at its regular price. (Grocery stores have lots of healthy food, mostly around the edges.) Don't neglect specialty stores — international food stores, ethnic food stores, etc. You never know what places will have unique choices, or some particular item at an especially low price.

Once you know what your choices are, I suggest a three-step plan.

1. Start Your Menu With Slam-Dunk Wins

Slam-dunk wins are the cases where the healthiest item is also the cheapest:

  • When something is ready to harvest from your own garden, that's a win.
  • When the local, organic product from the food co-op or the farmers market is cheaper than the grocery store, that's a win.
  • When the grocery store product is cheap as well as being organic or local, that's a win.

2. Build Out a Tentative Menu With the Cheapest Options

Unless you're supernaturally lucky, the slam-dunk wins all by themselves won't produce a complete diet. Figure out what else you need, and make a shopping list with the cheapest (usually grocery store) option for each item (even if it's not necessarily the healthiest).

Once you've done that, you'll have the cheapest possible menu.

3. Make Strategic Improvements Within Your Budget

If you're really poor (or for some other reason have a really small food budget), maybe this is all you can afford. If so, that's probably OK — as long as you've got plenty of variety, you've probably already got a healthy diet. However, if you have even a little headroom under your budget, you can make some real improvements.

There are some places where a little more money makes a big difference in food — paying a little more gets you food that's better tasting and more nutritious. Other places, you have to pay a lot more to get food that's a lot better. Some places there are a lot of prices levels, each one a little better than the one that costs less.

  • Swap in items that are healthier, starting with the ones where the price difference is smallest or where the health advantage is largest.
  • Be bolder about tolerating price differences when the quality difference is large.
  • Be bolder when the quantity that you need to buy is small.

The big win of working with a budget is that you know when to stop improving your diet. There will always be choices that are fairer, freer, local-er, sustainabl-er, or organic-er. Don't worry about that. If you build a diet around those slam-dunk wins, together with grocery store choices, strategically improved to the limits of your budget, you've have a diet that's healthy and cheap.

What are you doing to eat healthier and cheaper?

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Julie Rains's picture

I love the roadside stand as a source of cheap (most of the time) and local food. I have also started to pay more attention to trends in groceries, specialty stores, etc. -- and have noted that one of the nearby stores that is part of a chain has started to emphasize fresh and inexpensive produce (a surprising switch from its past). Plus, I am finally learning to grow a garden (and even had success with lettuce this fall).

I really like your statement on eating a variety of foods. I often get frustrated when I hear folks talk about new diets that revolve around avoiding something rather than embracing good food. Eating a variety of items (ideally unprocessed or minimally processed, local, organic, etc.) seems to be the most sustainable diet of all.

Philip Brewer's picture

Roadside stands area great idea—thank you for mentioning them. They're just the sort of place where you're likely to find the occasional slam-dunk win.

And, yes, a lot of diets seem to be based on eliminating whole categories of food. It's hard to argue with that in general. Some people really can't eat gluten (or dairy or whatever) and other people have principled arguments against eating meat (or, at least, meat from industrial sources). But each new category that you reject makes it tougher to get the variety that's key to making a healthy diet.

Guest's picture

Organic food is NOT healthier than conventional food. Local food--NOT the same as organic--can taste better, but only if it's picked riper and is one of the tastier (versus more shippable) varieties. And even that has not been shown to be healthier than supermarket-type produce.

Women should stop being guilted into unnecessarily spending extra money on labels that make no difference to food quality in the belief that it's necessary to properly nourish our families. The irony of the organic food craze during the height of the obesity epidemic can hardly be overstated. Most people are worrying about the wrong thing--about buying the right label rather than the right type of food in the right amounts. And it's making the nation sick.

Philip Brewer's picture

I tend to agree with you that organic is not healthier. It probably is more sustainable: Fertilizer let's you get a larger harvest, at the cost of depleting the soil; pesticides engender resistance in the insect population, meaning that they only work so long.

But in general, I agree completely: the key is for people to eat food (rather than food-like industrial products). If they do that they'll be healthier and save money.

Guest's picture

Great article! In my personal experience, locally grown produce is a lot cheaper than the supermarket and is super fresh. It must be just my area, but I've never run into that issue. And I agree that once your pantry is stocked with spices and other staples, it is easy to throw a meal together with some meat and produce! One thing that bothers me though is I have a ton of friends that always claim they have no food in their house but then I go there to find tons of it and they just aren't being creative enough, I like to tell them to take the challenge of just eating what is in their pantry and fridge until it is all gone so they make use out of what they have before it goes to waste!

Philip Brewer's picture

My experience is that locally grown food is way more expensive (maybe triple the price in the grocery store)—except at the peak of the season locally. At that time (maybe two or three weeks for each item) locally grown is often cheaper (and sometimes a lot cheaper).

One luxury I have is that my wife is great at looking in the pantry and coming up with a meal out of whatever we have. But even people who lack that luxury can learn how to cobble together a meal out of whatever's on hand, with a bit of practice and a bit of creativity.

Guest's picture

Here in England organic food's only slightly more expensive than "standard" food stuffs, but I think it has something of a snobbish image problem for much of the population. Given the extent of pesticide use on veg etc. I'd fully recommend a switch to well maintained foods, especially any parents with young kids to look after. This article's a big help for that, thanks!

Guest's picture

My substitute for grocery store 'organic' is growing it in a teeny plot beside the carport...just as 'pesticide free' without the massive price tag.

'Diets' that involve avoiding entire (and perfectly healthy) food groups drive me bonkers, so thank you for some common sense around eating :)

Guest's picture

It is our responsibility to stay healthy and there are a lot of things to consider but the most important thing is to eat right and have a good diet. Though we cannot deny that we need to spend some money in order to buy good food, somehow budget is also important to us but we can cope up and will come up some good way and strategy regarding with it. One good thing is to plant and grow our own fruit and vegetable, that way we are not only saving money and gain good and fresh food but at the same time a good recreational activity.