Posted by: Hil | September 19, 2008

Healthy Eating on a Budget

A reader emailed me a really great question this week about budgeting for expensive healthy items.  I had so much to say that I ended up deciding to just reply in post form.  Here was her question:

I’m in law school too, and I was just wondering how in the world you can afford to eat like you do. Maybe it is just where I live, but food is so expensive and I am so destitute I can’t afford things like organic, whole wheat pasta, and ezekiel bread. Is there something I am missing?

I really relate to this struggle.  The Lemonator is also a graduate student, and because I’m strongly considering pursuing a low-paying public interest career when I graduate, we’re trying to take out as few student loans as possible.  It’s a constant tension, because while healthy food can be pretty expensive, I really think that eating well and taking care of myself is part of what is keeping me healthy and sane though the stressors of law school.  So I’ve had to figure out ways to try to fit healthy foods into a student budget.  Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Eat more beans.  This is my number one tip.  Beans are dirt cheap, filling food.  If you use beans as the base of your meal several times a week, you will cut down on your budget enough to be able to afford some more fun things.  If we’re going over on our food budget, the first thing we do is make a huge pot of lentil soup and eat that for dinner several times over the next week.  (A pound of lentils costs about $1, and that will make you two huge batches of lentil soup.)  Other always cheap basics include dark leafy greens, cabbage, root vegetables, eggs, pasta, oatmeal, oranges and apples.
  • Shop sales aggressively.  You would be amazed at the prices you can find if you just keep an eye out for them. 
  • Buy in bulk.  If you are cooking for more than one person, Costco is a lifesaver.  I buy almost all of my meat there…I get it fresh and then freeze it in individual freezer bags.  And Costco’s produce section is surprisingly good.  Even if you aren’t shopping at Costco, if you see a great deal on something non-perishable, stock up!
  • Eat seasonal produce–it’s usually cheaper.
  • If you can’t afford organic, don’t buy it.  Organic is not  requirement for eating healthily. 
  • Cook from scratch as often as possible.
  • Use a Crockpot–it will let you get away with using cheaper, tougher cuts of meat.
  • Use moderate portions of the expensive stuff.  Good cheese is one of my expensive downfalls in life, so I pick really high flavor varieties that I can use in small amounts as garnishes.  Similarly, a good way to stretch out something expensive like fish is to use a small amount of it in a pasta dish.
  • Remember that it’s all relative.  If you base your diet around inexpensive, filling items, you will have more room for the fun stuff.  And if you are eating an “expensive” item in the place of something more expensive, you are still saving money.  Ezekiel bread and whole wheat pasta are expensive compared to white flour versions, but a whole wheat pasta dinner is probably much less expensive than a meat based dinner.  You just have to think about whether you are getting value out of what you are buying.  And I personally find the whole grain versions of these products so much more filling that I really get my value out of them.  I can eat through a loaf of white bread in no time, but a slice or two of good quality whole grain stuff really fills me up.  Same thing with my omega-3 eggs.  Eggs are cheap protein, so I don’t mind paying a little extra for a healthier version and then eating them more often for dinner instead of meat.

In the end, I know that I could spend less on my food if I needed to.  Fresh vegetables aren’t cheap.  Whole grain products are more expensive than refined ones.  That’s just a fact you can’t get away from.  And, yes, I’m a bit of a foodie and I love having gourmet touches to my food.  But my body feels better when I eat healthily and both the husband and I are happier when we eat good quality food.  So we budget and we balance and we cut back on other expenses in our lives so that we can afford to eat this way.  I will note that we tend to spend more money on food over summers, when the heat drives us to light, fresh meals focused around fish or white meat chicken with lots of fresh vegetables.  Winter foods (bean soup, slow-cooked meat, pasta, cabbage, broccoli, dark leafy greens) tend to be cheaper.  But in the end, I really do think it is possible to eat well, even if you are on a budget.  It’s just a matter of strategy and priorities.

I think this was a really great question, so I’ll try to make note of budget considerations a bit more often in my posts.  And at some point, I will try to pare down my answer enough to put a version of this in the FAQs.  Thanks for asking!

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Responses

  1. This was a great post! Thanks for the insight 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for that. I am a college student now with plans to go to law school and I am always looking for ways to save money on food and still eat healthy! Great tips =]

  3. Wonderful tips!

  4. Great tips!

    I was just thinking about the bean vs. meat savings on my way home from the market. One downfall is that I can get chicken breast for $1.77 – $1.99/lb. The dried chickpeas that I just bought were $2.19/lb. Not a huge price difference, but not a savings either. I know other beans are the same or cheaper than my chicken price, but I’m contemplating going meatless, so that’s what sparked this for me.

  5. Good post, I do alot of these things too 🙂

  6. …and although I wasn’t the intelligent one who asked the question… Thanks for answering! 🙂

  7. Awesome post!

  8. Im a first time reader of your blog and Im so glad I found it as I think everybody can relate to this problem especially with the crazy price increases that seem to be happening daily thanks for your post, I will take your advice on board.

  9. Excellent point about the meatless meals. Usually much cheaper.

  10. Excellent post, Hil. I couldn’t agree more about it all being relative. A year ago, I wouldn’t believe you if I told you I would be buying Ezekiel bread that costs $4.00 for a loaf, Greek yogurt, or agave nectar. Now, I can’t imagine living without those things! At the end of the day, I would rather make sure I am putting the best possible food into my body, and make up for these more expensive items by doing exactly what you recommend- eating tons of beans, buying only seasonal produce, and shopping sales.

    Might I offer one other tip? I stay totally away from anything “convenience” packaged. I find it costs more to have the companies do the prep work for you, and I prefer doing this stuff myself- that way I am truly eaitng foods I have prepared myself. Some examples: baby carrots vs. carrots in bulk, prepared oatmeal packets vs. oats in bulk, trail mixes vs. mixes you make on your own (again, purchasing nuts and dried fruits in bulk), shredded broccoli or cole slaw vs. the whole veggies, precut fruit vs. doing it yourself, bagged spinach vs. the stuff you have to wash yourself.

    Taking this a step further, I also highly recommend making my own things like hummus, salad dressing, marinades, sauces, etc. THey are cheaper this way and I love saving myself the calories and sodium when I have control over the ingredients!

  11. Shawna–that’s a good point, although you have to remember that a pound of chickpeas (I’m assuming yours were dried) is a lot more food than a pound of meat because chickpeas increase in volume and weight quite a bit when you cook them. But I was definitely speaking in generalitites–thanks for pointing that out. If you shop sales on meats, you can sometimes find great values. And while dried beans, tofu and grains are among the cheapest foods you can get, the same isn’t necessarily true of things like cheese, soy-based faux meats and prepared vegetarian entrees. Vegetarian doesn’t automatically mean inexpensive.

  12. Anna–I couldn’t agree more. As a general rule, convenience foods are a lot more expensive. Cooking from real ingredients and from scratch is wonderful is a great way to save money, and as you said, it’s often healthier and tastier, too.

  13. […] Try to eat healthy. It’s hard, but well worth the effort.  Here are some tips on eating healthy on a budget. […]


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