Sunday, June 24, 2012

Think Eating More Greens will Cost you More Green?

Think again! :) It's time to address the money issue because the prevailing myth today is that "healthy" foods (i.e. fruits and veggies) are too expensive to factor into our beloved budgets. And the alternative for many Americans is that of subsisting off of expensive meats, dairy items, coffee shops, packaged desserts, and fast food menus instead. I don't know how this myth came about, but it's pervasive and doesn't have much basis in reality.

Having "established my own household " over 9 months ago, I've had the chance to commandeer the grocery budget seat of adulthood for the first time. When Zach and I first got married, our food supply consisted of the typical array of American processed and fresh goods. After switching to a diet mostly compromised of whole fruits, vegetables, and grains about 6 months in, I've been able to compare and contrast some of the monetary differences. Thankfully, my husband also faithfully tracks and budgets our expenditures, so I have a nice little graph below to show that, for one reason or another, we have been spending less on our groceries since loading on the plants.

The first reason people misconstrue health food as being expensive is because they don't differentiate between "health" food and "healthy" food. Yes, those fancy, low-demand "hippie" items are going to be pretty pricey compared with the bare-bones store brand alternatives on the neighboring shelf. Nature's Marketplace, the usual haunt of my weekly Wegmans trips, never fails to give me sticker shock in some aisle or another.

Odd organic items that are not in mass demand; that take more time, resourcefulness, and skill to cultivate naturally; and that didn't cut corners with chemical concoctions and unfair trading policies, are going to require more of the green stuff (no, not kale). Things cost money. People deserve to get paid for their labor and products. Thus is life.

It is interesting to note, however, that the supply-and-demand concept has a lot of sway in the issue. Sometimes it makes me wonder if all these pro-plant people are scaring us into veganism to help lower their own grocery bills! Conspiracy! :) But no, I jest. I've heard that organic food in California, for instance, where there is more widespread demand, is apparently much more affordable and comparable to their conventionally grown products. Hmmm. Anyone feel like moving? 

And while "health" food has its place in providing us with more wholesome processed options - and I believe we can, and should, pick some important battles concerning High Fructose Corn Syrup, creepy GMO's, preservatives and additives, etc. - these special items do not have to be the majority of a healthy person's calorie consumption (and budget). In fact, they shouldn't be! A lot of those pricey "health" foods are not whole foods. They're processed to some degree or another, and should therefore be an accessory to one's diet, not the main crux of it.

Whole foods, meaning "healthy" foods, are thankfully not bank busters. I can usually walk out of the produce aisle with a mix of organic and conventional plant foods at about $50 (give or take $10). That's not a bad figure when you consider that those fruits and veggies will serve as the bulk of my calories for the week. That averages at less than $10 of plant food per diem.

And when you think about other countries that are plant-based, they are usually not affluent. Those Asian and African populations that subsist on leafy greens, grains, soups, fruits, and so on, are some of the poorest and yet healthiest people around ("healthy" here meaning insusceptible to "diseases of affluence"). Yes, they often grow or harvest those things themselves, but their food staples are not, in themselves, expensive... even for us. A head of cabbage, at $0.59 per pound, or a $1.00 bag of beans, cannot be considered extravagant purchases.

It's sad that most of us believe the health-food myth to one degree or another, but that our poor people (the ones who need quality food for their health the most) are the most indoctrinated on the subject. One of the documentaries I watched explained that poor people are particularly susceptible to the low-grade food addictions encouraged by the Westernized diet, and the fact that such foods appear "cheap" only compounds the problem. Those who are living hand-to-mouth need a lot of calories for a "little" money, and this is where our low-nutrient/high calorie food corporations take advantage. 

Working with a population of unemployed adults on temporary cash assistance, I see firsthand how the concept of food spending is profoundly distorted in American minds. My students tell me all the time, with a touch of indignant certainty, that they could NEVER afford carrots, apples, and avocados! But day after day, I see them lugging in 24oz Monsters, 7-11 pizzas, fast food fried meals, and of course, cigarettes. I can't imagine any of these processed, overpriced, name brand anti-health items could be cheaper than a $5.00 bag of a dozen organic apples that will last more than a week, but then what do I know...

Of course I haven't been shopping, plant-based, or budgeting for very long. I'm still getting my bearings and trying to learn how to pick battles, substitute, or go without in the interest of our call to financial stewardship.

But I think we shouldn't lose sight of the legitimate investment that good food can be. We in America want everything fast, easy, and most of all cheap! (Especially something we quickly consume in abundance like food). But when you think about things big-picture-wise, and acknowledge that wise eating now could prevent and reverse expensive health complications later, it appears that things should balance out in the end. Some people would like to invest in health care, pharmaceuticals, surgeries, and co-pays all in big lump sums and still be chronically sick! I'd like to pay a dollar or two more for my healthy food items now, and avoid those unwanted consequences altogether.

It also comes down to priorities. We spend money on all sorts of stupid non-essentials, and yet quality food is often the least of our concerns. And so we put pitifully low-grade standards on something we put into our bodies 4 or more times a day, 28 or more times a week, and more than 112 times a month! In my view, if it's between the long-term health of me and my family and a magazine subscription, some manicures, monthly car washes, or a cable bill, I'd rather pick the food.

When prioritizing, it also helps to remember that as consumers and eaters, we should want to get the most nutrients for our money. We want to get the most for our dollar where everything else is concerned! And yet throwing down money on loads of low-nutrient foods that don't really fill us up or nourish our bodies, and actually cause us to crave more and buy more as a result, probably isn't the best use of our incomes in the grand scheme of things. However, allowing ourselves to invest in food that will keep us full, healthy, and nourished will return more than it has temporarily taken.

And so healthy plant-based foods are going to give you more bang for your literal and caloric buck (CNN). You will get more fiber and better satiety and therefore eat less over time. How much is a dirt-cheap banana? Can you down two of those in a sitting like you could a bag of irresistible potato chips? More nutrients, more satiety, less money. Sounds like a good deal to me!

So here are some tips for healthy eating on a budget. This is what I've been trying since the spring, although not perfectly. But so far a lot of them have been working for us.

I've found that to get the most for our money, it helps to apply these three general principles.

1. Learn to pick my battles
2. Decipher between wants vs. needs
3. Keep my eyes on the big picture: what I spend on food now will help to alleviate health-care costs down the road

1. Learn the dirty dozen/clean fifteen lists for produce and let them be your guide
You don't need to be dogmatic about it (I'm not), but learn which food items are the filthiest culprits and try to buy those organic as much as possible. If a certain item, like organic berries, are always too expensive (and sadly, they are), consider that it's better to eat conventional fruits and veggies than to abstain from eating them altogether. Studies in which people determined that fruits and veggies lowered cancer risks conducted them using conventional produce, not organic (Eat to live, 302). In other budget binds, substitute an organic "want" for a conventional "need" or simply go without that week.

2. Differentiate between "wants" and "needs"

We need a variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods to achieve excellent health. Try to hit the major nutrient groups that you'll need for your week (leafy greens, antioxidant-rich fruits, beans, grains, fiber, seeds, healthy fats (nuts/avocados) and so on) while you're still within your budget. If you have wiggle room at the end (and you likely will), throw on those other fun foods that you simply want to enjoy!

3. Keep a list - tally up your items as you go
This method that is not profound, but it works. I have a typed list of our frequent grocery purchases that I keep on the fridge. As things get used up, I circle them for my next shopping trip. The produce section of the list is a complete blank, so I can assess from week-to-week what we need in our fruit and veggie bin. 

When I hit the store, I jot down the dollar amount of every single item I put into the cart so I can track whether my load of goodies is still within our budget. If things are racking up too high, I can decide before I get to the counter if things need to be put back or exchanged. Also, I round every item up so that I always overshoot what my bill should be when I go to check out (it's always fun to find that you spent less than you anticipated instead of more!).

4. Try to limit experimentation (as hard as it is!)

I struggle with this one. I usually aim to make one new recipe a week. Sometimes I really want do more, but then I try to select ones that mostly call for items that I already have in my pantry so that I'm not loading my cart with expensive, atypical ingredients. On weeks that I get too adventurous and curious with my culinary hobby, we usually end up with a pricier grocery bill.

5. Don't panic when building your pantry
I will say that switching to plant-based, whole foods can be expensive at the outset - at least it was for me. I had to build up a brand new store-house of no-nonsense condiments and spreads (meaning natural ones free of hfcs, preservatives, chemicals, etc), bulk nuts and seeds, plant milks, grains, and seasonings. This spikes the grocery bill at first. But once you establish your arsenal of healthy, rather long-lasting, plant-based staples, you will only need to replenish them individually from time-to-time. 

6. Shop around
There is this magical natural foods co-op right across the border from us in Newark, DE. When I step in there, I feel at health-haven-home. Every natural oddity I couldn't find high or low is probably right there, smiling conveniently at me from the shelf. The prices, however, will knock the budget-loving wind out of you. I could never, in good conscience, shop there regularly. I will only default to such specialty stores when some non-negotiable "need" has been impossible to find anywhere else (which is rare - logically we can talk ourselves into considering most anything a "want"). 

When we relocated in April, I went around pricing some of the local grocery stores in our area of MD (and there aren't many... Hello, boondocks!). But I found that Wal-Mart is practically the dollar store of food marts. I can get most of the things on my conventional list from there for a fraction of the price. They even carry organic items, like Amy's Soups, for an entire dollar less than other stores. I've also found that if I look for dried goods in's groceries, I can hunt down the lowest prices. It takes a little more time and leg work in the process, but your wallet, and spouse, will thank you for it.    

7. Make it a goal to eat all the food you buy and only buy what you need for the week
These little habits can make a big difference in our grocery expenses from week to week. When I draft my meal plans and grocery lists, I resist the urge to replenish something we haven't completely or almost completely exhausted. It's amazing how something as common sense as buying things more frequently will cause more spending over time. By holding out until we finish our last bit of popcorn, peanut butter, or onions, we end up with less waste and less frequent purchases. 

I also try to be conscientious about only buying the amount of produce we can eat in a week and to resist stock-piling by only buying items that are necessary for that week's menu. I may be low on rice when grocery day comes around, but if I'm not using rice that week, I will hold off buying more until it's on the immediate food queue.   

8. Buy frozen and start freezing
One source I saw tiered produce quality accordingly: 1. Frozen, 2. Fresh, 3. Canned. Surprised? When produce is "fresh," yet imported, it's usually been on a long and bumpy journey before reaching our produce stands. Frozen produce, however, is flash frozen at the peak of freshness with all the goodness sealed inside. It can also be cheaper than buying fresh. Price compare and you may find that you'll get more produce for less money in the freezer aisle. Plus, because it's a stored good, it becomes more of a staple that will last you over time than something to gobble up before it goes bad. Also, freeze your own leftovers before the 3-4 day mark for future on-hand meals.

This is a comparison of our food expenditures from April-June (plant-based) versus January-March (meat-and-dairy-based). As you can see, we've also been eating out less (cooking at home is always a penny-saver). I admit that there's not a huge difference, and I wonder if some factors like less visitors, Zach's business trips, etc. may have contributed to the decline in expenses. But it still proves that going plant-based has not been more expensive; perhaps without those other factors it would have stayed the same.

But don't just take all this from me! Explore the web and see for yourself. Here are just some of the links I found:

Is a Vegetarian Diet Actually Cheaper?

Healthy Food Doesn't Have to be Expensive, USDA insists

Becoming Vegetarian on the Cheap

5 Meat-Eater Myths That are Costing You Money

Comparing the Cost of a Vegan Diet to a Meat-Based Diet


  1. Lydia, this post was so helpful and encouraging! Thank you!

  2. Could you email me that shopping list some time? I remember checking it out last time we were there.