How to Stay on Budget While Eating Paleo


Let's admit this upfront: It is calorically impossible to eat paleo as cheaply as you can eat a frugal version of the standard American diet. It's a simple fact that non-paleo foods like grains, potatoes, and legumes are vastly cheaper per calorie than the meat and fresh veggies that one associates with paleo eating.

But here's the thing: Nobody living in a rich country has any trouble getting enough calories. What's in desperately short supply are things like flavor, nutrition, and variety. A paleo-style diet gives you those things, and can do so at quite a frugal price, if you're prepared to be strategic about it.

Wise Bread writer Max Wong offers a list of 20 Ways to Eat Paleo for Super Cheap, and that's an excellent place to go for some specific tips. What I want to offer is a model for thinking about how to design a diet that's nutritious, paleo, and frugal.

Why Paleo?

Let's start with why you're eating paleo, which I'm going to speculate is for health benefits. I'm guessing that because you're calling it paleo (or primal or ancestral). If you had more social, environmental, or political motivations you'd probably use other terms — whole food, slow food, locavore.

It almost doesn't matter what you call it, because all these terms refer to ways of eating that solve the same problem: It's unhealthy to build your diet around eating large quantities of a small number of foods that mechanized farming and government subsidies have made super cheap.

Half the problem is that industrial agriculture tends to produce foods that are cheap, but less nutritious.

The other half is that those cheap foods are processed into ingredients for the industrial production of edible foodlike substances that are all the same. They may seem different from one another, but when you dig down, they're really all just sugar, fat, and starch from corn, soybeans, wheat, and potatoes. (Plus a little salt.)

And that sameness is the biggest problem, even bigger than the individual foods having lower quantities of important nutrients. We know from the historic and prehistoric record of agricultural people all over the world that it is possible for agricultural people to eat a healthy diet. But when agricultural people end up eating large quantities of just a few things, their skeletons show signs (such as stunted growth) of ill health. This brings us to rule one.

Rule One: Eat a Wide Variety of Nutritious Foods

Paleolithic people got variety automatically. It was a different kind of variety than modern people think of. We think of eating a wide variety of foods every day (because that's easy if you have a supermarket). Paleolithic people, on the other hand, ate a wide variety of foods every year — but many days they probably ate a whole lot of the same thing. On a day that they killed a large animal, it's likely everybody ate mostly meat. On a day that some kind of fruit was ripe, everybody ate mostly fruit. On a day that someone found a patch of tubers, I bet everybody ate a lot of tubers.

It turns out that's okay. Eat a wide variety of foods every year, and your body can handle a few days now and then when you eat a whole lot of the same thing. (It probably helps if there are also days when you can't find a lot of anything, and end up trying to fill your stomach with tiny amounts of a dozen different things scrounged up wherever you can find them.)

Nutritious foods are easy: just eat food, and not industrially produced edible foodlike substances. Yes, you can upgrade to organic (or local, or free-range, or pasture-raised), but just eating food gets you most of the way there.

Wide variety is trickier for us non-paleo people, because we do have a supermarket, so we have the option of just eating our favorite foods every day.

The rule "eat food" turns out to be a great guide to getting nutritious foods. My efforts to come up with a similar rule to guide us to getting a wide variety have not yet produced anything as simple or pithy. The best I've come up with so far is based on the fact the reason Paleolithic people got their wide variety was seasonality.

Rule Two: Respect Seasonality

Seasonality provides two great clues for anyone who wants to eat paleo on the cheap, but who is getting most food from the supermarket:

  1. If it's always cheap regardless of season, eat it rarely.
  2. If it's only cheap during a season, eat it in large quantities while it's cheap.

Taken together, these two rules solve most of the problems with the standard American diet. By rarely eating the stuff that's cheap all the time, you avoid the things that Paleolithic people rarely ate. By eating the good stuff in quantity when it's cheap, you get the wide variety you need without breaking your budget.

Finally, if you want to keep your overall diet under budget, we also need rule three.

Rule Three: Reject No Foods

Paleo is often described in terms of what not to eat, such as no legumes and no grains. But that's crazy. We know Paleolithic people ate both grains and legumes. (How do we know this? Because neolithic people domesticated both grains and legumes, and there's no way they'd have done that if they weren't already eating tasty peas and seeds of ancient grasses when they found them in the wild.)

Dairy is a special case. Paleo people probably never had access to milk, but lactose tolerance has evolved in humans at least twice (once in Europe and once in Africa). If you're descended from either of those populations, go ahead and consider that dairy may be a healthy food for you.

Of course, if you know that grains, or lentils, or dairy, or potatoes cause problems for you, then don't eat whatever it is. But, if you don't have specific issues with this or that particular food, go ahead and include it among the great variety of things you eat. Just don't turn foods like that into a major source of calories — or if you do, only make them a major source of calories for a few days, a few times a year.

What About Those Calories?

As I said earlier, it is calorically impossible to eat paleo as cheaply as eating a grain, potato, and legume diet. However, you didn't decide to eat a paleo diet because you thought it would be cheaper; you decided to eat it because you thought it would be healthier. If you have implicitly accepted the idea that it's going to cost more, the issue is how much more? And that brings us back to the title of this post. It's called "How to Stay on Budget While Eating Paleo," because the budget is the key.

Of course answering the question "How to eat paleo on a budget" with "Make sure the budget is big enough," is not what Wise Bread is all about, and that's why I started with rule one above. Following that rule, more than following anyone's fantasy rules about what Paleolithic people ate, is what's going to give you your best chance at good health.

Having said that, let me point you again to Max Wong's article, which is packed with ideas for getting paleo food for less. There are the obvious ways: gardening, fishing, gathering, gleaning, bartering, etc. There are the adventurous ways: eating organ meats, insects, or even roadkill. (See "snout to tail" cooking and eating.) There are the leftist ways, like joining a CSA, and the right-wing ways, like hunting your own meat. There are the simple ways, like buying more eggs, and the complicated ways, like raising chickens for your own eggs.

Even if you do all those things, it remains true that getting most of your calories from grains and legumes is going to be cheaper than any alternative. I actually have a post Healthy, Frugal Eating that walks you through creating a menu on that basis — but note that even it starts with vegetables.

If switching to paleo eating means skipping most of the grains and legumes, where do you get your calories? First, by eating even more fresh vegetables. Second by eating plenty of meat and nuts.

"But all those things are expensive!" you are no doubt saying, and yes, on a per-calorie basis, they are, and that's what your budget is for. You will get enough calories either way. How much money you're willing to spend will have a great influence on what form those calories take.

Following rule two (eat large amounts of whatever is cheap when it's in season) costs nothing and does not compromise your efforts to go paleo. You can get a bunch of cheap calories that way, and the seasonal variety comes along for free.

Once you're eating paleo, following rule three (allow limited quantities of less paleo foods) lets you upgrade the quality of your more paleo foods without seriously compromising the paleo-nature of your overall diet. A meal where you get half your protein from a legume might save enough money to upgrade the meat that provides the other half of your protein: grass-fed, pasture-raised, local, organic, or whatever upgrade means the most to you.

Paleolithic people followed rule one — eat a wide variety of nutritious foods — automatically. You're at a disadvantage — you have a supermarket — so it's less automatic for you, but you can follow rule one as well. If you do, you can eat paleo on a budget.

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