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Eating Well on a Budget

Is it really necessary to buy organic? What about frozen vegetables instead of fresh? How can a family prioritize?

With our abundance of modern information about healthy nutrition, factoring budgetary considerations in may sometimes seem to add a layer of complexity, but it doesn't have to. Let’s look at a few simple guiding principles that can be used by almost everyone to achieve a healthier diet.

No time to read the blog? Download our 1-page Eating on a Budget guide here.

Topics covered below:

  • Plant versus Animal Nutrition

  • Eating Close to the Source

  • Perimeter Shopping

  • Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen

  • Do the Math

Plant versus Animal Nutrition

No, I am not going to try to convince you to be a vegetarian. Here we are talking about more of a “nutritarian” approach, that is, which foods provide the most nutrition for the least amount of calories. This is almost the same information as which foods provide the most nutrition for the least dollars, literally maximizing your nutrition bang for the buck. Reduced to its most basic concept, all life forms get their energy from the sun. Plants are the only technological wizards that have figured out how to do turn the energy of the sun into life. With our giant human brains, we, and all other animals, are still completely dependent on plants for life. Once an animal eats the plant, it processes some of that nutrition out of it to sustain its own life, so animal products cannot be as nutritionally dense as plant sources. (And, most plant sources of protein, such as dried beans and mushrooms, are significantly less expensive than animal sources.)

Eating the “satellite dish” of the plant, that is, the leaves which collect the sunlight have significantly more nutrition than the stems or roots. Many people are unaware that much of what we call “vegetables” are actually fruits: tomatoes, green beans, squash, eggplant, cucumbers, etc. are the “fruit” of the plant. The plant has already expended considerable energy creating this offspring, so it cannot contain as much nutrition as the leaves. Consider that cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower are actually the solar collection system of the plant, as well as our much-lauded “dark green leafies” like kale and spinach.

Hundreds of studies show focusing on getting more plant foods into your diet provides many health benefits. Only 7% of Americans get the recommended five servings of veggies per day. And six to nine servings is probably optimum. Start with a plate ¾ covered with veggies and then add some lean protein. What is a serving of veggies? Of course it varies with the actual plant but for most, 1 cup raw is approximately ½ cup cooked. Try loading up on the colored things before adding any grains or root vegetables such as potatoes. The colors have significant nutritional benefits.

Eating Close to the Source

The Earth is the ultimate source of all our nutrition. The quality of the soil and growing practices in part determine how many vitamins and minerals a plant can extract. Factory farming methods take the fruits, vegetables and animal foundations of our diet farther away from the way nature intended them to grow. This is where the debates about eating organic, free-range, and non-genetically modified (non-GMO) come in. While it certainly makes sense to put less chemical pesticides in our bodies, the budget-minded may question the value of increased prices for these options. As you make your decisions about these issues, first make sure to get more veggies and less grains, as discussed above. Whether or not they are organic, the research clearly says simply eating more veggies reduces the risk of many diseases, including heart disease, stroke, dementia and cancer.

Perimeter Shopping

The outer shelves of the grocery store, containing fresh produce and minimally processed animal proteins should be your first choice for the budget-minded healthy eater. These are where to find minimally processed nutrient-dense foundation foods. Anything that comes in a box, bag, or can has likely had much of the nutrition removed before it gets to you. It may also contain more preservatives and other non-natural additives to extend shelf-life. If you don’t know how to pick or prepare produce for flavor and convenience, check out the various YouTube sites about this, or consider a Real Simple guide. Blogs, websites, classes and books abound about how to prepare healthy food. Knowing how to feed ourselves for a long and healthy life is a fundamental skill. You owe it to yourself to master this basic task of all mammals.

One place it may make budget and time sense to choose minimally processed is with flash-frozen vegetables and fruits. Research shows that modern methods in which freezing occurs soon after picking preserve much of the original nutrition, and in some cases more than fresh (blueberries anyone?)

Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen

When considering what organic foods may be worth your hard-earned dollars, consider that FDA regulations permit up to 1000 times as much pesticides on animal feed than that which is intended to be consumed by humans. Then the animal concentrates these chemicals in their flesh. This makes it much more important to chose free-range and organically grown animal products rather than factory farmed components. Consider that factory-farmed fish (most salmon, tilapia, catfish, etc.) have been shown to have ten times the carcinogens of wild-caught seafood. You may want to avoid seafood unless it is clearly labeled as wild-caught.

Some websites provide valuable information to help you make better decisions. The Environmental Working Group consists of independent scientists who research these issues then give you helpful data to consider. They have a calculator to determine mercury content in seafood, and are well-known for providing data on which fruits and veggies contain the most pesticides (“Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen”.) The Organic Consumers Association also has much data on these topics.

Do the Math

What is the true value of your health? Most of us don’t know that until we lose it. While we eat for many reasons other than simply sustaining our lives, we certainly have more choices today than ever before in history. Each day, we get to choose whether it is more important to spend money on healthy food, or on drugs and medical care, for, in the big picture, this is what the science has clearly shown us. Making the decision to have a bigger helping of processed grains, or loading up on more colored veggies often seems tempting in the short run, but is it truly worth the cost to the length and quality of your life in the long run?

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