We live in a remarkable era. Only 100 years ago, it took 43% of your income to pay for the food you eat, while today it takes just 10%. Isn’t that amazing? Couple that with the fact that we now have the best selection of foods year-round that we’ve ever had, and you can see this is the greatest time in the history of the world to make healthy food choices.
Have you ever heard someone say that “it’s expensive to eat healthy?” Well, it’s not. If you hear someone say those words to you, either educate them or walk away. They’ve got nothing to teach you except how to waste money and make poor, short-sighted excuses. (And I’m fully aware The New York Times said this, and my statement remains unchanged.)
Healthy foods are among the cheapest foods you can eat. Despite truly enormous subsidies to the meat and dairy industries, grains and legumes remain the cheapest foods on the planet according to both the National Institute of Health (NIH) and my calculator. This should come as no surprise, as they’ve been the staples of civilization around the globe for all of recorded history. Grains, legumes, and root vegetables are, pound for pound and and calorie by calorie, the cheapest foods you can eat.
Don’t believe me or the NIH? I’ll provide one quick example: One pound of dry brown rice costs $1, and one pound of lentils is $1.50. If you cook up a quarter pound of each for a nice meal of rice and lentils, it will have exactly the same number of calories as a Big Mac, but will cost only 63¢ instead of $4! That’s right. A meal of rice and lentils is 84% cheaper than a Big Mac by calorie. You’ll also be eating a half pound of food, so you’ll feel more full, and did I mention you even get more protein by calorie? Because you do.
So stop making excuses for not taking control of your life. It’s your life. Nobody is responsible for your choices except for you, so take pride in the choices you make.
Ready? Here are some tips to cut expenses further.
Learn to Cook your Own Meals
If you’re eating a whole-foods plant-based diet, you’re probably already making your own food. Restaurant options and prepared foods that don’t contain oil or other isolated ingredients are very scarce. However, if you are still eating at restaurants, you could be wasting thousands of dollars a year. You might imagine that cooking at home will take extra time, but in fact the difference in time is negligible. View eating out as a form of recreation and entertainment, and budget it for it accordingly. With fewer visits to restaurants and fewer prepared foods, you can improve your health, your finances, and your schedule all at once!
When it comes to cooking your own recipes, don’t start with the most complicated Thanksgiving feast. Our recipes are simple, and use generic ingredients available anywhere with an emphasis on delicious simplicity! One of our favorite authors who has a lot of beginner-friendly recipes is Lindsay Nixon, the creator of Happy Herbivore. However, Forks over Knives has many great recipes, as does Dr. McDougall. The How Not to Die Cookbook and countless others can provide you a swift, pleasant entry to the enriching world of cooking.
Buy a Sharp Knife and Learn to Use It
Using frozen food aids in preparation, but it isn’t everything. A sharp knife (such as this Victorinox 8″ chef knife) and the accompanying knife skills (such as An Edge in the Kitchen, by Chad Ward) leads to faster, more efficient food preparation and less waste. Cutting down on this waste in particular represents a small, but eventually considerable savings. If you cut your onions (or especially your pineapples) with a blunt cudgel, you won’t be as nimble separating all the parts you really want to eat from the parts you don’t.
You’ll benefit by pairing your knife with an enormous plastic cutting board, which saves on wear and gives you sufficient space to cook. You’ll often be cutting several pounds of vegetables, after all! Additionally, skillful use of a sharp knife replaces the need for a wide variety of kitchen gadgets.
Have a Budget and Keep to it
Know how much you’re going to spend on groceries. Discuss it, plan ahead, and stick to your plan. Budgeting apps like EveryDollar or You Need a Budget help. We find listening to Dave Ramsey provides inspiration.
Some people find it helpful to shop using only cash. If you’re struggling to rein in your spending at the grocery store, you might try bringing cash and restricting yourself to the cash amount. No matter how you budget, you’ll find you’ll pay more attention to what things cost automatically if you want to avoid the embarrassment of not having enough at the checkout.
Organic versus Conventional
Purchasing more produce is the best health decision you’ll ever make. You might have heard people say you shouldn’t buy conventional produce, and that you should only ever buy organic. Well, these people are probably judging you for all sorts of others things too, and you should just avoid them. You don’t need that kind of negativity.
The benefits of conventional fruit and vegetables so vastly exceed any potential risks that you should never feel a moment’s guilt for not eating organic food, or feeding it to your children. Known nutritional differences are negligible.
If you prefer organic food, that’s fine. At worst, it’s no better, and at best you’re potentially reducing exposure to pesticide residues. You’re probably not doing much for animals or the environment, so don’t be smug to people who are trying to spend money wisely.
No matter what, wash your vegetables. Salt water and vinegar solutions remove nearly all the pesticide residues, but even just rinsing with water helps dramatically. If you can use salt water, it’s an amazingly complete and inexpensive solution to the pesticide residue problem.
Fresh versus Frozen, Dry versus Canned
Frozen foods, contrary to popular opinion, are just as nutritious as fresh ones, if not more so. They also keep just about forever, so you risk less waste. It’s always worthwhile to compare the costs of fresh and frozen fruit and veggies. Pay attention, as the relative price of fresh and frozen produce varies seasonally. Additionally, frozen vegetables are much quicker to prepare, so you may want to purchase more of them in general if you’re often pressed for time.
Canned and dry beans are, when all the math is done, very similar in price. Generally we purchase beans that don’t have to be soaked (such as lentils) dry, and purchase the rest canned. However, do check both the canned vegetables section and the ethnic section at the grocery store, as there are often multiple displays of canned and dry beans and prices may vary.
Visit your local Asian Market
For some foods, the prices at your local Asian market will be significantly better than the local grocery store. Purchasing large quantities of soy sauce, for instance, can save you quite a bit in the long run. You’ll also have options for different varieties of rice (white, brown, red, and black are the most popular), and the costs will likely be lower for those as well. Make sure to stock up on curry paste, as the prices will likely be substantially lower than the grocery store.
Many Asian markets also carry spices, as do many country markets. Inexpensive spices are generally lower quality and less potent, and it’s better to buy the quality brands if you can afford them. If you can’t, throw some cheap spices in your cart and move on with your life.
Check out local Farm Stands and Farmer’s Markets
Produce is often much cheaper purchased directly from the farmer, who doesn’t have to worry about marketing and distribution costs. Find out what’s available in your area, and you might be able to add some interesting variety to your diet and save money at the same time! You can use the USDA’s Local Food Directory to get started.
Use that Microwave
We were writing this list, and we couldn’t remember who we hadn’t offended yet. But there was one group left! Using your microwave saves time, but in the context of this list it also substantially saves on fuel costs. Why waste all that energy heating your conventional oven when you can microwave? The microwave does not make a perfect replacement for the oven, but it can certainly cut down on use. Potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, and even spaghetti squash can be prepared for a fraction of the time and energy!