“Sorry dude, eating healthy is too expensive!”
First of all, don’t call me dude. Second of all, no it isn’t!
If you’ve followed my Nerd Fitness blog at all, you’ll no doubt know that I’m a big fan of the Paleo Diet – it worked like a charm for Saint. It makes logical sense, it absolutely works, it’s easy to remember what to eat and what not to eat, and there’s no counting calories involved.
However, whenever I bring up the Paleo Diet (or some variant of it), the usual push-back I get is “but it’s too expensive to eat healthy!”
Now, unless you’re living on Cosco bags of Puffed Rice, Ramen Noodles, and Spaghettios, I bet healthy eating isn’t too far off from your normal spending habits.
Here’s how to dominate the grocery store and minimize the impact on your wallet.
Make it a priority
First and foremost, healthy eating needs to become a priority for you.
In most cases, people are just too lazy or stubborn to make changes to their diet, and don’t feel like putting forth the necessary effort. After all, it’s certainly easier to roll up to a drive-through window and say “I’ll take everything on the dollar menu” or place an order for Pizza Hut while playing Everquest II (yeah you can seriously do that) than it is go to a grocery store and prepare your own meals.
I could tell you ’til I’m blue in the face that your diet will be 80-90% of your success or failure when it comes to weight loss and healthy living. That no amount of exercise can undo a poor diet, and that changing even a few small habits can cause drastic changes (just ask Optimus Prime). That spending a little bit more money up front now on healthier food can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in health care savings over the remainder of your life. That cleaning up your diet can add years to your life, remove inches from your waistline, make you sleep better, feel better, look better, and live better.
However, unless you have that desire, making the decision to eat healthy will be a constant uphill battle. So first and foremost: make a commitment to start eating better, and back it up with a damn good reason. Whether you’re doing it for you, your family, to win a weight-loss competition at work, whatever, DO IT.
You’re going to need to give up some things you don’t think you can live without (SPOILER ALERT – you can). You’re going to need to learn how to cook a few basic meals instead of ordering pizza every afternoon. You’ll probably be eating a lot of the same things on a regular basis. You might even need to make an investment in…gasp….Tupperware.
However, once you’ve made the commitment to healthier eating, all of these decisions get much easier to make and eventually can become habit.
Cut out the crap
If you’re on a tight budget and “can’t afford healthy food”, do you buy coffee at Starbucks every morning to get you through the work day? How many cans of Mountain Dew do you go through in the afternoon? How often do you visit the vending machine for a bag of Doritos because lunch is still two hours away? Do you bring your lunch or eat out every day?
These small $1-2 purchases on a daily basis that provide no nutritional value whatsoever are what’s eating away your food budget.
“But Steve, I need MORE CAFFEINE!” Okay, if you REALLY need the caffeine (psst…you probably have a caffeine addiction), I might start scaling that back to a more reasonable amount on a daily basis. But that’s beside the point – if you’re still in need of that caffeine, bring in homemade coffee from home, drink the crappy coffee at work, or better yet, switch to green tea – leave some bag in your desk at work and brew it when needed. Stop spending $2.50 for Monster Energy Drinks or $2.00 for that 20 oz. Coke. Your money is better spent elsewhere.
Want to know the best part about healthy eating? Once your body makes the adjustment from constantly expecting empty calories (which can certainly take a few weeks), these cravings that you’re used to having will gradually start to disappear – instead, the healthy meals that you prepare (which we’ll get to in a minute) and the healthy snacks that you bring from home (which we’ll also get to) will keep you full and satisfied and you won’t even think about trips to the vending machine or snack bar.
So please stop spending unnecessary money on empty calories that leave you unfulfilled – you’re already on the path to winning.
Prepare your own meals
This is the motherload. If you can learn to cook two or three basic healthy meals, along with a healthy breakfast option that you’re cool with having on a regular basis, you can absolutely dominate a week of healthy living on a cheap budget.
This is what we’re up against for a “cheap meal” (rough pricing, will depend on your area):
- McDonald’s Quarter Pounder w/Cheese Meal – $5.25
- Wendy’s Dollar Menu Meal (two burgers, small fry, small soda) – $3.96
- Burger King’s Double Whopper Meal – $4.89
Now, this is assuming that the meal listed above is enough food for you – it’s possible that you might be eating other snacks throughout the day, along with the soda breaks, and more.
So, we need to try and keep our healthy meals to a price at or below roughly $4.00 per meal.
Sounds impossible, right? Wrong! I enlisted the help of my friend, Staci, to show you how she eats super healthy on the cheap. Let’s do this.
What’s in a healthy meal? A few key things: protein, vegetables or fruit, and some healthy fats.
- Protein – eggs, chicken, fish, pork, or steak
- Your choice of vegetables and/or fruits
- Healthy fats – almonds, walnuts, almond butter, cooking with things like olive oil or coconut oil
Pick your meat, fire up some veggies…cook em in some healthy oils – BOOM Roasted. Earlier this year over on my Nerd Fitness blog, I provided an overview of a super quick and easy chicken stir-fry meal that I prepared. It fed a group of four and probably cost a total of $15 in ingredients.
“But Steve, that sounds like too much effort on a daily basis!” Fair enough…we’ll get to that in a second – let’s get to the shopping.
How to dominate the grocery store
Staci holds a PhD in “Cheap Paleo Eating,” so I asked her to put together some quick advice on how to have a kickass, cheap, healthy eating experience:
Look at different flyers, but only go to one store. Spend about three minutes looking at the grocery ads when they come in each week , and check to see which meats are on sale. Whatever grocery store has the cheapest meat is the one you’re going to. It’s your protein source, and generally the main component of each of your meals, so base your shopping experience around that. Don’t go to four different stores to save fifty cents on apples, you’ll waste time and money. Pick one store for the meat that’s on sale, and then…
Buy your fruits and veggies that are on sale at that store. This will go against traditional diet advice (which we tend to avoid around these parts anyway), but never go in with a list! As Staci will tell you, “If I go in with a plan of what I want to eat for the week, I’ll spend so much money getting every item for that plan. Instead, I just pick out the meat and then wander to the fruits/veggies section and buy what’s on sale.” Now because you don’t have the week planned out, you’ll need to…
Get creative. What if a recipe calls for red peppers but yellow are on sale? It looks like you’ll be trying something new this week. What if you get home and realize you forgot to buy something? Check to see if you have any close substitutes or if there’s another recipe you can try. Sure it might not be optimal, but you’ll certainly save money by NOT going back to the store (where you’ll probably end up buying other things). Now, because the price is our limiting factor here, you’ll have to…
Compromise. Staci LOVES granny smith apples, but this week McIntosh apples were a dollar a pound cheaper ($1.99 vs. $0.99). Guess what she’s eating this week? Caviar! Oh wait, I mean McIntosh apples. The same goes for the type of meat she’s cooking and the different cuts that are available. Try new stuff if it’s on sale – it’s GOOD for you to try new things and experiment with new foods.
Prepare in advance! On Sunday night while watching Family Guy or Breaking Bad (I really wish Season 5 started immediately), cook ALL of your lunches and portion things out. It’s super easy to chop up chicken into 3oz sections, cook them on a tray in the oven, and then stick them into individual plastic bags in your fridge. Grab one of those and a bag of frozen veggies and bring them with you to work – BAM. Lunch.
Buy in bulk and freeze – It’s possible to never pay more than $1.99 a pound for boneless chicken breast or $5.99 for a pound of steak. If you can find it on sale, buy a WHOLE BUNCH of it (a few pounds), cut it up into smaller pieces and separate into separate bags if you so choose, and freeze it!
Need a funky snack? – Think differently! Instead of bags of chips that cost a buck (which don’t fill you up), Staci eats 3oz bags of chicken snacks. At $1.99/lb – that’s a pretty cheap snack, no? Sure it’s weird…but who cares? Normal these days is “out of shape and overweight.” We don’t like normal around here!
What about “normal” snacks? Nuts – learn to love ‘em. Buy your nuts/seeds/spices at the bulk area of the grocery store. The kind that you can pick the amount you want – and only get the amount you need. Don’t waste your money on the “individually packaged” snacks – you can do better.
Frozen vegetables are amazing – Especially the steam-fresh bags of veggies. They’re a buck each! Sure, maybe not as delicious as fresh veggies, but they won’t go bad, they’re so freaking easy to prepare (step 1: stick in microwave. step 2: eat), and they’re cheap! Let’s say you eat half a pound of chicken (which is a ton of chicken and TWO bags of steam-fresh veggies, which will certainly fill you up. $2.99 – take that BURGER KING!
EAT EVERYTHING YOU BUY - This is what Staci’s fridge looks like on grocery shopping day – some chicken sausage, two onions, and some eggs. That’s all that’s left. The point is, EAT EVERYTHING YOU BUY. Throwing away food is throwing away money.
But I don’t know how to cook!
It’s not that scary, it doesn’t need to be time consuming, and it can actually be fun.
You just need to suck it up and learn to make ONE thing. And then once you can make ONE thing, you can mix it up with a small variation. I’ve already highlighted “how to make chicken stir-fry”, but lets say even that is too tough.
Here’s a simple example:
- Buy a bunch of chicken breasts. Cut them into smaller pieces, and place them on a cookie tray lined with tinfoil.
- Coat the chicken with olive oil on both sides.
- Add salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
- Cook in the oven at 375 for 12 minutes, then flip the chicken over and stick it back in for another 12 minutes.
- Stick a bag of veggies in the microwave.
Open bag of veggies and dump onto plate. Put some chicken on plate. Stick rest of chicken in plastic baggies and put in fridge. Use fork to consume chicken and vegetables. Chew. Swallow. You’re welcome!
HOLY CRAP YOU JUST MADE A HEALTHY MEAL!
Now, I’m not a great cook, but I’m damn good at following directions – seriously, you should have seen the Lego sets I used to build as a kid! Now, if only there were directions to follow like that, but for food preparation. Oh wait they’re called recipes…
Don’t get overwhelmed. Pick ONE recipe, and get good at it. And then pick another, and get good at it. I challenge you to cook ONE new meal per week.
What else do I need to know?
A big question I get is whether or not you need to buy organic. In my opinion, if you’re on a tight budget, you can avoid buying organic – just make sure you wash all fruits and vegetables (if you bought them fresh).
If you have a little bit more money, you can start buying some organic fruits and veggies, but don’t be too hard on yourself – pick organic for soft fruits and veggies, but you should be fine with anything that has a more durable outer “peel” or shell. If you wanna go Organic, these are your best choices to start, and these fruits and veggies you can survive with just regular.
Grass fed beef? This is a tough one, as grass fed beef is often WAY more expensive than regular beef, but generally a much healthier option as grains can have the same effect on cows’ stomachs as they do our own. I’d probably put this as the last change to make as your income increases and you get more serious about a full-on healthy lifestyle. If you are hardcore no-grain paleo but still have a tight budget, treat yourself once every two weeks to a grass-fed steak while sticking to chicken and fish on the other days.
Avoid supplements – You don’t need to be buying supplements if you’re on a tight budget. The ONLY time I might recommend it is if you’re coming up short on protein or don’t like eggs for breakfast – buy a GIANT tub of protein powder online (each serving comes out to less than 50 cents) for a quick protein shake breakfast or post workout meal. If you’re worried about your Omega 3s, cheap fish oil supplements. Other than that, spend your money on higher quality food if you have some to spare.
Try farmers’ markets! There’s no better option for healthy and awesome food than locally grown produce! Google [your town name + farmer's market] and see what pops up. Not only will the food be super healthy and local, but depending on what’s in season you can score some amazing deals on fruits and veggies. Just make sure you don’t buy more than you can eat or you’ll be wasting food and money.
What else do you need to know about cheap healthy eating?
What other objections or questions do you have?
Do you have any tips or tricks for folks out there who need to live on the cheap?
Leave it in the comments and chime in!