Healthy, frugal eating

Photo: Philip Brewer

Every so often, I get hit in the face with two facts.  First, Americans (even poor Americans) are unbelievably rich.  Second, Americans (as a group) utterly lack a cultural tradition that teaches us how to eat a healthy, frugal diet.

The first time this really struck me was about twenty years ago.  I was listening to a radio story about people who'd risen from humble beginnings to become successful entrepreneurs.  One guy, taking about a time his family had gone through a rough patch where money was tight, said, "I can tell you, there were a lot of days we at bologna for lunch, and then bologna again for dinner."

My first thought was, "Only in America do the truly poor eat meat twice a day."  My second was, "Why doesn't anyone teach people how to create a healthy, frugal diet?"  My third was, "Oh, yeah--they do.  It's called 'the four food groups'--of course they thought they had to serve meat at every meal."

Since then, we've moved beyond the four food groups.  Today we teach the food pyramid and have the USDA National Nutrient Database and the Heath and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the Food and Nutrition Information Center.  I wrote a while back about healthy recipes with cost data, free for everyone thanks to the US government.

Thinking about all that information very nearly splits me in two.  

On the one hand, look what we can do!  One guy (with a bit too much time on his hands and access to the internet, even if only at the library) can not just design a healthy diet--he can design dozens.  He can tweak them to allow for pretty much any personal preferences or restrictions.  Even constrained by cost, he has almost infinite choice.

On the other hand, look at what using that information would actually require someone to do!  There are mathematical techniques for doing the sort of optimization involved.  Take a database of nutritional information, a universe of (constantly changing) costs, and a set of personal preferences--and turn that into a diet that provides all the necessary nutrients without providing excess calories, fat, and sodium, at the lowest possible cost.  But we're no longer talking about one guy using an internet connection at the library.  Now we're talking about PhD-level math and some serious number crunching on fast computers.

So, I'm not too surprised that I continue to run into stories like the one about the entrepreneur whose family ate lots of bologna.  The most recent was in a story about US educational benefits for veterans.  A former soldier was working on a degree, trying to make ends meet on the meager funds provided.  After paying rent and buying gasoline for his truck, things had been tight.  Explaining that he ate a lot at fast-food restaurants, he said, "I sure appreciated the dollar menu."

Only in America do poor students not only have their own apartment and truck--they eat out every day!

Happily, there's an easier solution than solving a non-linear programming optimization of multiple variables under multiple constraints.  Michael Pollan talks about it in his book In Defense of Food that I reviewed a while back.

Forget about the database of nutritional information.  If you know something about how your great-grandparents ate, you can start there.  If not, you can start with the food pyramid.  It has flaws, but if you don't have any cultural tradition to draw from at all, it's better than nothing.

Eat food:

Start with vegetables.  Get what's cheap.  If what's cheap is locally grown and in season, so much the better.  Eat more than one thing.  Eat a lot.

Get some grains.  Prefer whole grains, but generally buy whatever's cheap.  Get a few different things--rice, flour, cornmeal, oats.  Here, too, get a lot, but as much as you can, get raw stuff and cook it yourself.  Still, some amount of things prepared for you (like bread, pasta, and cereal) is okay.

Add some fruit.  Fruit can expensive, but you don't need a lot for a healthy diet--one glass of orange juice and a small apple is enough for one day.  If you can afford more--berries, raisins, melons, exotic tropical fruits--that's even better.

Add some legumes.  Beans, lentils, split peas--whatever you like is fine.  You don't need a lot, but these are reasonably cheap, so if you like them, get a lot.

That's really all you need.  If you're rich, you can get some meat, fish, milk, cheese, yogurt, eggs, nuts, oil, sugar, etc.--but you don't need any of those things.  A diet with a variety of vegetables and grains plus a modest amount of fruit and legumes will give you everything you need.  (Billions of people only wish they ate so well.)

As long as you eat a variety of things, it's going to be hard to screw up too badly on a diet like that.  If your only vegetable is potatoes and your only grain is white rice--well, you won't be getting all the nutrition you should.  Expand your vegetables to include a leafy one and another non-white one.  Make sure at least half your grains are whole grains.

It's not hard.  It's not expensive.  It's just that we don't teach people how to do it.  We don't have the cultural traditions--and without a culture to fall back on, people are left vulnerable to the influence of advertising and to the concoctions of "food scientists" who cleverly use fat, sugar, and salt to make "food products" that taste better than food.  On top of all that, the people in the most dire straits--the poor, the uneducated, the homeless--have additional obstacles:  inferior grocery stores, no kitchens, cash-flow issues that make it hard to buy even a week's groceries at a time.

Food prices are spiking up to record highs all over the world, making it really tough on people in poor countries.  In rich countries, though, things aren't nearly so bad--we just need to recreate a tradition of healthy, frugal eating.

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Guest's picture

You've hit upon an interesting issue in the U.S.: Poor people think that they need to eat heavily processed or quick-serve food to survive, but that's partly fed into by the fact that the working and surviving poor have lived for decades in urban neighborhoods that lack farmer's markets, bulk food in stores, real supermarkets, and reasonably priced fresh food.

Forget the time to prepare food (that's another issue for working poor who may work 16 to 20 hours a day including commuting time among 2 to 3 jobs 7 days a week). They can't get the food to prepare. That's been changing, as I've been reading over the last decade, as cities work to give incentives for supermarkets to locate in impoverished neighborhoods.

But the expectation of meat is a cultural imperative that often results in all kinds of problems, from overnutrition (too much of one kind of nutrition), to obesity, and violence. Jeremy Rifkin's Beyond Beef has extensive documentation of how a lack of ability to serve meat to men has resulted in domestic violence. It's not that bizarre in the chain of things.

Guest's picture

I enjoy reading your blog, but I found it ironic to read such a high handed post on healthy eating so soon after a post extolling the virtues of spam.

Guest's picture

It's better - and cheaper - to eat fruits instead of drinking fruit juice. You get more nutrients and fiber.

Guest's picture

I'm not a vegetarian, but most of my meals are. As a result, I eat healthy and it's super cheap. It hasn't always been that way, though. I used to hate veggies, but that was mostly because of the way they were served, as rather bland sides to a big piece of meat. Where I grew up, people think that being a vegetarian is about eating salads and french fries. What I learned since then was that there are soooo many different ways to prepare vegetables with a ton of flavor.

I know that fresh produce isn't always the cheapest food, but I have had enough of people who say that they can't afford to eat healthy while they continue to spend money on junk food that they feel entitled to.

Also, what's with it with all the talk of milk and juice? Some people talk like it is child abuse not to give a kid plenty of milk and juice to drink. There are plenty of other, much better sources of vitamins -- and they're much cheaper, too. I've never cared to drink milk, and I rarely drink juice. I don't think I'm any worse for it.

Guest's picture

I love blog posts, books and articles about a healthy vegetarian diet, and would very much like to eat just that. Unfortunately, I have some pretty intractable IBS that does not respond well to legumes in any nutritious quantity. Since I've been unemployed, I have greatly increased the legumes in my diet, replacing the poultry, fish, dairy and occasional meat--and the resulting symptoms aren't something for public discussion. Suffice to say it's not just a minor annoyance. Past attempts left me with a painful soy intolerance. Much as I would like to be vegetarian, my body won't let me. I can't be the only one; surely other people have this same issue, and continue to deal with either the symptoms that come with plants-only eating or the guilt that one gets from eating meat.

For the record, my normal diet is vegetables, fruits, whole-grain homemade bread, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, low-fat dairy, lean meat, poultry and fish, tea, coffee with milk and a daily piece of chocolate. As long as I limit the amount of yellow vegetables and very fibrous food, my IBS is under control and doesn't require medication--and I feel better when I don't have to medicate just to eat healthfully.

Guest's picture

I wanted to throw my 2 cents in--

Vegetables should NOT always equal salad. Lettuces and some of the components of salad are very calorie and nutrient poor. Some are basically expensive water, given the dearth of fiber and nutrients.

Higher density veggies like green beans, squashes, etc give way more bang per buck than veggie like iceberg lettuce or field greens. I would much rather an Italian style insalate of green beans with dressing- or say-- cut up brussel sprouts marinated in italian vinarette than any lettuce salad- and it gives way more nutrients, fiber, etc.

Guest's picture

[ Lettuces and some of the components of salad are very calorie and nutrient poor.]

They are calorie poor but extremely nutrient dense. They also provide more cancer protection than any other foods.

PMID: 15066921
PMID: 18208790

Nobody should do without a salad based on raw green vegetables daily, but such salads are expensive.

Philip Brewer's picture

Ah, that wacky Paul with his spam post.  It's just that sort of weird juxaposition that make Wise Bread so much fun to write for.

An earlier draft of my post had actually mentioned that eating whole fruits was better than drinking juice.  But I thought it kind of distracted from my point that this isn't rocket science.

I've got a subscription to a newsletter that every month has lists of foods ordered according to how nutritious they are (by some metric or another).  It's kind of interesting, but you could drive yourself crazy trying to take all that data into account.  Trying so hard makes one all-too-prone, I fear, to lurch from the extreme of agonizing over the healthest possible diet to just giving up and going with a burger, fries, and a soda.

The hard part in eating a healthy, frugal diet is that the problems are so diffuse, especially for the poor:  access to a good produce department, access to a kitchen, knowledge of what makes a good diet, knowledge of how to prepare foods, time and energy to do the preparation, advertising and artificial ingredients that can make bad food look and taste better than good food, etc. 

I think our society's efforts to produce optimal nutrition (as opposed to merely really good nutrition) works against a lot of people having a healthy diet.

Guest's picture

I think where most people go wrong with their diet, is the assumption that the purpose of eating is to feel full. With that in mind, the heavier the food they eat, the better. I have learned to eat much more lightly, and I still feel satisfied without filling up and getting weighted down. I no longer break the day into mealtimes, I eat whenever I feel like having a little something. And that's what I have... a little something. Never empty, never full. It's all about the balance.

Philip Brewer's picture

Hunter-gatherers probably ate whenever they found food.  Early agricultural people probably ate three meals a day--a big breakfast after the morning chores, a lunch that could be taken out to the field, and then a big dinner.  Industrial people continued the agricultural tradition, because it worked well for running a factory, just like it worked well for running a farm.

You can eat a healthy diet on just about any schedule.  If your culture gives you one that works for you, go with it.  If you find something else that seems to work better, that's okay too.

In Okinawa people say, "Only eat until 80% full," which is probably great advice.  I've seen a quote attributed to Ben Franklin with a similar message.

Guest's picture

Great post. When I became a near-vegan vegetarian, my grocery bills plummeted. I stopped buying processed crap and starting living on $25/week for food, if that... And my meals are delicious, healthy, and nutritious. If I shopped the sales, I could probably get that number down to $20/week. I adore oatmeal, soba noodles (kind of pricey, actually), and ridiculous amounts of veggies and fruits. I feel better now that I ever have before and I'm loving it. Plus, this food obsession is what made me discover the world of blogging and got me to start my own food blog. It's fun. I like healthy, frugal eating.

Guest's picture

I find that rather hard to believe. Even shopping at the farmer's market, where I can fill a cart with produce for less than $150, a diet that is so central in whole grains and fruits and veggies still costs more than $25 a week. I know how to eat healthy. I'm a vegetarian. I know how to prepare food. And I have about five or six feet in a city kitchen, so that's enough . . . but when I eat all the produce I'd like, my food bill more than doubles.

Lynn Truong's picture

Hey Philip,
I'd love to know what newsletter you're referring to. I'm always wondering which veggies have what nutrients.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's called Nutrition Action Healthletter:

It's all good stuff.  But if you're the sort of person who wants to use data like this to solve problems (rather than the sort of person who just uses it to inform decisions), it could really drive you crazy.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

It's interesting. When we moved to the United States we couldn't believe how cheap meat was compared to veggies. Chicken was a luxury when I was a kid in China, but here you can get it for 99 cents a pound on sale. On the other hand, bok choy could cost $2 a pound sometimes.  We had a similar shock at the price of cooking oil, because it is really cheap here. It seems that the high fat things in America tend to be cheaper than leafy greens and fruits.

Guest's picture

Lets not forget that how we shop also has an effect on what we eat. Supermarkets are set up to try and maximize the products we buy from them. Plan ahead, and make sure you shop with a purpose. Here are other easy tips one can use to deal with the high cost food.


Dealing With The High Cost of Food 

Guest's picture

Xin Lu,
that's because certain crops are subsidized in the US. The US farm bill heavily subsidizes five crops. If I remember correctly, those are corn, wheat, rice, soy and cotton. This means that food products made with these crops are artificially cheap while other vegetables are priced to market. The cheap price of corn and wheat also makes feed lot meat cheaper since those are the two basic components of cheap beef and chicken feed. This is also part of the reason why High Fructose Corn Syrup is so widely used, because it's cheap.

The government wonders why we have an obesity epidemic and at the same time they subsidize corn instead of tomatoes and wheat instead of spinach. Go figure...


Guest's picture

I feel it is important to include animal fats and proteins in your diet. Many nutrients in plants are converted better by natural herbivores than by humans (natural omnivores). The trick is to get items that provide the most nutrition for example: Liver is a great source of folic acid, vitamins A, D, B2, B5, B12, and many trace minerals. I don't know how difficult it is to find liver in other areas, but my local butcher sells it sliced for less than $2 a pound. To save money on meat yet still get a meaty taste I have been eating liver about 2 times a week. It is an interesting exercise to look at the work of Weston A. Price. It makes a good case for omnivores.

Guest's picture

When I first relocated to America after marrying my native born American husband, I was invited to his friends home a fair bit. Most of his friends kitchen looked like those from the magazines but the irony fact is that the women seldom cook in the kitchen and most of them eat out !

My kitchen is very small and I only have a rice cooker, 2 pots and 2 simple flying pans but I cook 3 meals a day and 7 days a week.

Whenever in the check out counter, I see the amount of processed food and the amount of $ that American consumers consumed and spent, I felt sad. Despite the fact that we ( I am an American now) probably have the most number of universities in the world but we have the most uneducated consumers !

I see a lot grocery consumers spend like $120 per weekly grocery bill with all the processed food but I spend like $30 per weekly grocery bill. That is because I cook lots of veg and meat is only to add on some flavor !

When I told people we lived on $20 weekly grocery bill for 2, my coworker asked me " How ? ". I said easy if you cut down your red meat and process package food !


Philip Brewer's picture

I'm not really advocating a vegetarian diet, just one that's cheap and healthy.

There are hardly any known essential nutrients that you can't get from vegetarian sources.  Really, B-12 is about it.  That doesn't mean that there aren't some unknown ones--but if there are, they're either not very important, or else they sneak into people's diets some other way, because there are too many people eating too many different versions of vegetarian diets, and so many of them are prefectly healthy

Having said that, though, meat, fish, eggs, milk, etc. are all very nutrient dense.  If you can afford them and like them, by all means include them in your diet.  Personally, I like them, and I do.  The typical American diet, though, has foods like that in huge quantities--way more than is healthy.  If you're very, very poor, then it might make sense to eat all you can afford.  Otherwise, eat less than you can afford.  You'll save money and be healthier.

Guest's picture
Christopher Smith

Another way to help keep food costs down is to grow your own. While gardening does take some effort and has some startup costs, it can be highly cost-effective (also keeping in mind savings in storage and travel costs) in addition to personally rewarding. Also, having fruits or vegetables ready to eat helps keep them in the front of your mind when you're deciding what to have for lunch.

Guest's picture

I am surprised that the USDA and HHS have not gotten together on some sort of healthy cheap eating program or small cook book or something.

There are so few people that have any understanding of what to do with a lentil or a bag of rice. I wish the food stamp program came with a recipe book, rice cooker and crock pot. It might be enough to help some people who are in the working poor to tackle that curve.

Philip Brewer's picture


You'd be surprised.  There's all kinds of government information of just the sort you're looking for.  For example, this cooking page has information on recepies for adding more vegetables to your diet, using spices and herbs, preparing and cooking game and fish....  Really, there's lots out there.

The thing is, the little book you're talking about is really hard to write, simply because you don't know where people are starting from.  That information on game and fish might be very useful to rural poor, but not so much to urban poor.  Somebody living in a transient hotel might need a book specifically written for people who had a microwave, but no stove or oven.

Even people who are drastically cut off from their own cultural background come with something, and your little book gets so much shorter if you can build on that.  But, especially in the United States, everyone's cultural traditions are different.  That rice cooker wouldn't be worth nearly as much to someone whose default starch course is potatoes (or bread or pasta or corn tortillas ...).

Guest's picture

I just got back from the store and your info. cheered me up a lot! I had gotten two apples, a leafy green that I thought was a tough bibb lettuce (?), but the grocer told me is great steamed with garlic and oil and tomatoes. I had oatmean with raisins topped with peanut butter for breakfast. I made chickpea hummous for lunch. I'm not livin large - but I am not going hungry, thank G-d. Gotta get work...

But thank you. I don't know how my longago ancestors ate but grandparents ate too much sour cream and butter and died of strokes. And my dad had his arteries unclogged with a bottle brush (whatever that operations called!) So I know to watch my cholesterol and eat canned fish on sale for the omega 3s and watch the funfoods with trans fats. But your rundown is a great diet.

thank you for being here and posting, Philip.

Guest's picture

As a personal trainer I get the excuse that eating healthy is too expensive. I just wrote about how to eat healthy for about $30 a week. It is not a perfect diet but it shows how much good food you can have for a couple of dollars a day. Most people spend a couple of dollars in the vending machines everyday. People also think healthy means it comes in a reduced fat or fat free variety. This is far from the truth and these items should be avoided.

Guest's picture

I'm confused. At least where I live, eating processed crap is incredibly cheap. It's way cheaper than buying fresh produce. Buying fresh, whole foods is expensive, particularly if they are local and/or organic. I love my Farmers Market, but they sell green beans for $4 a pound when they are 99 cents a pound at the grocery store (that's not an exaggeration). That's not an option for a lot of people. It's no wonder folks eat junk--it's cheap, it's easy, it doesn't require time or planning (as has been pointed out, time to cook is a privilege), and it's also what a lot of people grew up with and consider normal (and that last part is particularly problematic). I mean, if one does buy the cheaper produce from the grocery store, in a lot of cases, one has to know what to do with it. There are lots of wonderful, easy choices, of course, but honestly, lots of people aren't familiar with those choices--they didn't grow up eating vegetables regularly, for instance. And if one didn't grow up eating something, isn't used to it, has to figure out what to do with it, has to pay too much for it, etc., it's no wonder he or she would choose a cheeseburger.

I'm on a tight budget, but I really value fresh fruits and vegetables and so I shell out for them. But really, I'd save a lot more money if I converted to eating mac and cheese out of a box every night. Of course, my diet would suck and I'd gain 20 pounds, but there you are.

Philip Brewer's picture

Yeah, better food costs more than cheap crap.  It also costs more than ordinary good food.

Still, there are good choices out there.  Even if you can't afford fresh, locally grown, organic produce, you can still buy produce, rather than edible food-like products that come sealed in a plastic.

For me, the best strategy is to plan a diet built on the cheapest real food you can find, and then make strategic improvements to the extent that you can afford them. 

Around here, stuff at the farmers market is only rarely cheaper than stuff at the grocery store--but at the peak of the season, it's about as cheap.  When we can find cheap stuff, we buy it.  (For example, we just found some locally grown organic whole wheat flour that was cheaper than ordinary whole wheat flour.  We bought a big bag of the stuff.)

Once we've got our basic calories and nutrition covered--with local and organic stuff when it's about the same price, or supermarket stuff when it's cheaper--we go ahead and buy some superior food, shopping at that point for superior taste as much as for superior nutrition.

Guest's picture

Every week I go to the grocery store and spend a crazy amount of money on food for my family, every year it gets more expensive. We eat well, none of us are overweight etc.. but I still find that we have a lot of junk once I get home, and then during the week we actually stare into the full fridge and think there is nothing to eat. We have lost all creativity when it comes to creating a meal. I bet if we were back to the basics we would have a lot more ideas. To much convenience nowadays in the store, too much sodium etc.. This article is really going to make me think this week as i am shuffling thru the packed aisles of yuck.

Thanks for opening my brain this fine Friday morning.

Guest's picture

I recommend a cookbook called "More with Less Cookbook" It is an excellent menonite cookbook that shows you how to cook using less of the worlds resources, and make healthy affordable meals.. Pretty cool..


Guest's picture

Good article. I just finished "In Defense of Eating", an excellent book along the same lines. It is certainly possible to eat decently and frugally, though as you point out, the skills are not being taught. Part of it is simply the perception of what we 'need', like the lad with an apartment, a truck and still eating out. How poor is he really? It's all comparative, what everyone else in his circle is doing. I bet he felt pretty put-upon, rather than blessed for his abundance. All perception...

Guest's picture

Hunneebbee's post really reminded me of growing up in my parents house. I used to hate the fridge because it was crammed with stuff one cannot eat just so. I would get hungry, open the door and just stare in desperation at all of the stuff in there:
A huge jar of marachino cherries, large butter packages (lots of them for some reason), a jar of mayo, big jar of mustard, wheat fiber, A1 sauce, a collection of other sauces. etc...
The only thing real in there was the gallon of milk.
Luckily my mother suddenly went back to work one day and left me alone with nothing but a small asian cooking book with nice pictures (i was only 13 and needed the pics).
I had to learn my eating habits from books which turned out to be a much better education than my parents'.
To this day i still cannot stand seeing a crammed fridge.

Guest's picture

I learned to cook AFTER I left home because we had nothing either (and no oven at home). Very simple things. the MORE WITH LESS cookbook from the Mennonites is great, international cookbook, using simple ingrediants.

Guest's picture
Edward Swann

Someone else has already mentioned this but...

Best way i find to eat frugaly is to eat for free. Today i had nettles and wild garlic with beech leaves.... followed by a knotweed crumble.... very tasty...

I did cheat a bit and brought flour, sugar and olive oil mind....

Guest's picture

I doubt you've lived in an urban area if you are writing things like this. I live in inner city Philadelphia, right at the edge of a ghetto area, and a block away from one of the few grocery stores in about a 20-35 block radius. Yes, it's true that the poor in this country can afford to eat meat and drink juice, which would be impossible in other countries. But that still doesn't mean that fruits and vegetables and other healthy fare are any more affordable or convenient for these people.

You advise people to buy the cheapest vegetables they can find and eat them. At the closest store, most of the produce is fancy organic stuff, and what little produce is available that isn't organic is similarly pricey; this is the way with all innercity stores, for if I walk two blocks further to the rundown chain store, the prices are still about 50% more for the produce I buy in my homestate (NJ), but the quality of the fruits and vegetables is really poor. I am lucky enough that I am a student who lives fairly close to my parents' place, and I can go to my ethnic grocers and chainstores in Jersey to pick up all the produce I need. But for the people that live in the city and truly are the urban poor, the only grocery store option they have are the two within walkable distance, and the two stores have very similar pricepoints.

As for "unnecessary" things like eggs, milk, juice, and meats, I say for every diet, a certain amount of those things must be included. I'm a vegetarian so naturally, I don't need the meat. I drink very little juice, but what I drink is 100% juice. I don't begrudge children their daily juice, but those same stores always have HiC on sale (10% juice) instead of low-sodium V8. If I was on foodstamps or a limited budget, of course I'd go for whatever was cheapest; it's a poorly informed decision, but who says I'd have all this knowledge at that poverty level. Also, I'm vegetarian for religious reasons, and in my culture dairy is not only sacred, but essential. A purely vegetarian diet needs a little protein there somewhere, and since I see you aren't including tofu on your musthaves, I say milk is a perfectly acceptable way to get what you need.

Finally, many of those people are working jobs that require intense labor and long hours. Single moms working 16+ hours a day don't have leisure time to agonize over purchasing decisions, research/plan/test out recipes for fickle kids, etc. And if a person living that kind of life needs a MickeyD's every once in a while, I won't stand in judgement.

Philip Brewer's picture


I agree completely.   You'll note that I included fruit on my list of essentials (not in the list of unnecessary things).  As to tofu, you'll note that I included legumes as a category.

The infrastructure that we have in place to distribute food is flawed, and is often terrible in poor neighborhoods.  But I don't think that's the fundamental problem.  I think the root of the problem is people having been cut off from their own cultural traditions of healthy eating.

If you're drawing on a religious tradition for your diet, that gives you a huge leg up on people whose parents and grandparents eat some variation of the standard American diet.  My point is that almost any tradition of healthy eating will do the trick--and I was trying to provide a worked example.  If one tradition is impossible (because the foods aren't available or there's no kitchen, or the people simply don't know what it is), then perhaps another tradition can be pressed to serve.

Guest's picture

An interesting example of a culture that has actually _lost touch_ with its frugal, healthy roots is Greece. The Greeks traditionally ate mostly vegetables, including a lot of legumes, and also a lot of fish if they lived on the coast, while eating meat only occasionally, like on holidays; cheese and eggs would supplement the nutrients lacking in vegetables. Half the year they would abstain from all animal products except seafood for religious reasons. But as they became more affluent, they have started eating meat every day, and I think this is because there was never a principled objection to meat; rather, meat was associated with prosperity, so as people got more prosperous they ate more of it simply because they could.
That being said, the Greeks still have a strong tradition of good vegetarian and seafood dishes to fall back on when they decide to stop following the American trend of constant meat-eating.

Guest's picture

Unless you're drinking 2 glasses a milk or another fortified beverage you are not receiving the proper amount of Vitamin D in your diet. It is very difficult to eat enough Vitamin D "rich" foods in your diet alone. Also once in their 50's people need higher amounts of Vitamin D.

Philip Brewer's picture

Aside from fortified dairy, you've got two choices:  supplements or sunshine.

Personally, I go with sunshine from April through September, and go with supplements during the months of the year when the sunshine isn't intense enough for proper vitamin D production. 

(Skin cancer, of course, is a concern--but the research I've done suggests that the amount of sun exposure needed to produce adequate vitamin D (really quite little, for pale-skinned people) is safe.)

Guest's picture
Pale Face


As a non-milk drinker I am concerned with getting enough vitamin D. As I have had 9 basal cell cancers already, I am also concerned about getting too much sun. I do realize, however, that a certain amount of sun can be healthy. In your studies, just how much daily sun fulfills the vitamin D quotient for a pale face like me? I tend to go our before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. for 30-40 minutes at a time.

- Jenny

Philip Brewer's picture


I guess I'd hate to suggest that someone who has already been diagnosed with skin cancern get more sun.  It may well be that any amount of sun would be dangerous.  I'd defer to your doctor, in that case.

Having said that, the wikipedia article on vitamin D suggests that 10 to 15 minutes at least twice a week would do the trick.  That's in line with what I've read elsewhere.

Guest's picture

this is a brilliant article. you rock

Guest's picture

My personal staples are pasta, cheap meats (hunks of beef and some SPAM on the side), and lost and lots of fresh vegetables.

My number one trick is clememntines, peaches and pears. You can toss a couple into a paper bag on your way out the door; just as convenient as chips and a hell of a lot tastier (and healthier). Fruit rules!

Philip Brewer's picture

It was one of my commenters who suggested that she could eat for $25 a week; I don't think I tried to put a specific number on it--there are too many variables.

Having said that, I'd just point you to what I said in comment #25 above.

Guest's picture

The cost of a minimal healthy diet unfortunately goes up with inflation like everything else. In October 2009, following the USDA's 2006 Thrifty Food Plan would have cost an average of $38.50 per week for young adult men.

The goal of the TFP is to follow nutritional guidelines, minimize costs, and not deviate unnecessarily from the usual American diet. So if you are willing to follow an unusual diet, you may be able to eat healthy for less. But I suspect not much less.

Guest's picture

I like this article. It's frank and honest. That's my motto in life with everything, from food to life outlook: Keep it simple. All this other stuff, including preservatives and pesticides, push it aside. With processed foods, you may be trading convenience for poison. Learn how to cook using basic techniques, nothing fancy is necessary. Spices (which are cheap at places like Big Lots and Aldi's) make any simple meal a flavorful masterpiece. A little goes alot, and many spices contain abundant antioxidants, an easy tasteful boost to your health. Eat leftovers and buy a good quality slow cooker; they are cheap and an amazing kitchen appliance. You can find all kinds of cheap-to-nothing crock-pot cookbooks at your local bookstore. Use it, it's easy and you'll never look back!

Guest's picture

Income - $600/week, family of four, rent $800/month in a city without reliable public transportation and having two cars are necessary. After rent, utilities, things we need for school supplies and car related expenses, it leaves us with about $150/week to spend on groceries. We don't get food stamps because we don't qualify.

Someone mentioned in an earlier thread it is cheaper to buy fresh fruits rather than juice. A 59 oz. container of orange juice is $3.19. Oranges, in season, are $3.50 per 3 pound bag and it takes the whole bag to make half of the juice in the container. Frozen orange juice cost $1.25 to make 1 quart. Or one can buy the gallon jug of orange flavored drink for $1.25. Which goes further on a budget?

What about meat? Fish is recommended to eat 3 times a week. Salmon is $3.99 per 1/2 pound if fresh. In a can, I could get 1 pound for $6.00. Or I could get the cheap tuna, 4 cans, for $5.00.

Ramen noodles are cheap, but they are not healthy. Starchy foods are cheap, but not healthy.

We are talking about class wars here. The well-to-do can scoff all they want on how the poor "should be able to" eat healthy, but the truth is not that cut and dry.

Guest's picture

You are supposed to eat the orange whole, not juice them. Of course it will be expensive to make your own fresh squeezed orange juice. Eating fruits whole will provide fiber and it keep you full longer compared to drinking juice. Eat the fruit and drink water instead of juice.

And ramen is unhealthy because it is heavily processed and full of sodium. It's not unhealthy because it is starchy. Vegetarians and vegans eat starchy foods all the time. Most of the world subsists on starch for the bulk of their diet (rice, potato, corn, wheat). Americans are not fat because they eat too much starch. They are fat because they eat too much, period.

Guest's picture

Getting a sufficient amount of fresh, varied vegetables is *not* cheap. I can eat a diet that is mostly rice and beans, which is fine and cheap, but without the addition of vegetables (which quickly amount to much money) it's not sufficient in itself.

Philip Brewer's picture

Well, it's cheap (or can be) during part of the year. Even in those farmers markets where things are priced like yuppy specialty items, during the season there's so much of whatever's at its peak that those items are cheap.

And "varied" doesn't really mean that you need to eat three different vegetables each day. Varying your vegetables over the course of the seasons is good enough for good health. (After all, people evolved to eat whatever was available over the course of the year, and in lots of places where people lived successfully for thousands of years, there are only a few things available at any particular time.)