In generations past, before the rise of high-end supermarkets like Whole Foods, healthy food was once accessible to all. Before the days of large-scale corporate farms, most food was organic by default. But sadly, with organic foods deemed a luxury item in many countries, numerous people have given up hope on maintaining a healthy diet. But while we can’t change the system overnight, it’s also not necessarily true that only the rich can afford healthy foods. In the following guide to eating healthy on a budget, we’ll cover the various ways you can eat well without breaking the bank.
What We Mean by Healthy Eating:
Eating healthy on a budget does not mean looking for the cheapest pre-made meals at the supermarket that have the words ‘healthy’ and ‘natural’ printed on the label.
For the sake of this article, we’re going to define ‘healthy eating’ as a largely plant-based diet with an emphasis on fresh, organic, chemical-free produce. Of course, implementing fish, eggs and a little bit of meat is fine for most people, too.
1. Focus on Superfoods
While there’s no such thing as a magical food that will instantaneously make you healthy, superfoods are called “super” for a reason. Simply put, they’re foods that are packed with more vital nutrients and other beneficial compounds than others.
Modern-day consumers have been tricked into thinking that good value means getting more calories for less money. While, of course, we do need calories to survive, we should really be thinking about our food’s value in terms of its nutritional benefits.
From that perspective, superfoods clearly give us the biggest bang for our buck, even if they sometimes come in small packages.
Affordable Superfoods That Won’t Break the Bank
The following list is just a brief sample of all the affordable superfoods available at your local supermarket. While there’s a lot more out there, here are a few suggestions to help you get started:
- Kale: contains about 80mg of vitamin C and 94mg of calcium per cup.
- Black beans: Half a cup of boiled beans contain around 400mg of potassium and roughly 120 grams of magnesium. They’re also rich in other nutrients like iron, protein and fiber.
- Chia seeds: 2 tablespoons contain about 177mg of calcium. Chia seeds are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, magnesium and more.
- Pumpkin seeds: a great source of magnesium and one of the best plant sources of zinc and ALA.
- Broccoli: Just a half a cup of cooked broccoli contains 51mg of vitamin C, and is also a decent source of iron.
- Quinoa: Rich in fiber, magnesium, potassium and iron. The grain has also become considerably cheaper as of late.
- Sweet potatoes: Contain around 450 mg of potassium per cup. Also high in beta-carotene and vitamin A.
- Green tea: Highly effective antioxidant that also helps boost brain power.
- Apple cider vinegar: Highly beneficial for heart and gut health and is also an antibacterial.
2. Buy Local & Seasonal
Buying local and seasonal produce isn’t just healthier, it’s also cheaper. Sadly, however, more and more corporate supermarket chains are selling identical selections of items, regardless of where their store is located. That means that many of the items on sale are coming from far, far away – even if the same product is commonly grown in your area!
Ideally, you live near a supermarket which at least lets people know which products are sourced from nearby. If not, seek out some farmers markets, where you can often get some really good deals on produce that’s in season.
By getting the chance to meet your local food producers in person, you can learn more about how the food was grown. As we’ll go over below, there are plenty of farms using clean and organic methods, even if their products aren’t always labeled as such.
Seasonal and local produce is pretty much always going to be tastier than the alternative. And it’s also healthier, too.
When food manufacturers intend to send their product half-way across the world, they often pick it before its properly ripened, diminishing both its flavor and nutritional content.
Furthermore, longer storage times can also cause a reduction in nutritional value. According to naturopath Claire Georgiou “Vitamin C, folate and carotenes will rapidly decline when stored for periods of time.” (2)
Buying local and seasonal produce is one example of how eating cheaply can even sometimes be the much healthier option!
3. Learn Which Foods to Buy Organic
Nowadays, the question of whether to buy organic or nonorganic is the one which plagues many health-conscious shoppers. In many parts of the world like North America, Western Europe or Japan, organic foods can be incredibly expensive. And buying everything organic is just not always an option for everyday people.
Organic food is more expensive because without the help from chemical additives and pesticides, farmers require more time and human labor to produce their food. Furthermore, the cost of getting the food to be officially certified as organic can be very expensive, further raising prices.
With that in mind, true organic produce is sometimes left unlabelled because the certification process is just too costly for the farmers. That’s one reason it helps to get to know your local food producers (see above).
In any case, the problem remains: If buying 100% organic is untenable, which fruits and vegetables should be focused on? Thankfully, the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, has created some useful lists like the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’ to help us out.
Here are some fruits and vegetables that contain more pesticide residue than others. Therefore you should always buy these organic:
- Tomatoes (3)
Fortunately, according to EWG, there’s also comparatively clean produce out there as well. If you’re concerned with eating healthy on a budget, buying the nonorganic versions of these items is often OK.
Note that some other items on EWG’s ‘Clean Fifteen’ list are papayas and corn. Depending on where you live, there might be a high chance of these fruits being GMO, which certainly shouldn’t be considered ‘clean.’ EWG also acknowledges this, though their lists are primarily concerned with pesticides. (4)
When you can’t buy organic, be sure to peel and wash thoroughly. The peel is oftentimes the most nutritious part of a fruit, but it can also hold onto lots of the chemical residue. You can also focus on thick-skinned fruits like grapefruits and oranges that you’re going to peel anyway.
When out shopping, you may notice that the price difference between organic and inorganic doesn’t always change that much. Organic bananas, for example, are typically just a little bit pricier than the less healthy alternative.
However, according to Dr. Mercola, going 100% organic is a must when it comes to animal products. “Non-organic meats can have up to five times more pesticides than non-organic vegetables!” he writes. (5)
That’s one reason (of many) that non-vegetarians should start substituting more of their meat with eggs. Thankfully, organic, free-range eggs can be purchased rather affordably nowadays – at least compared to meat.
4. Grow Your Own Food
Growing your own food is one way to ensure that your food is organic, in season and of course, local. While more labor-intensive, it’s also a fantastic idea for people eating healthy on a budget.
Rachel Arsenault of Grow a Good Life writes that “A package of organic salad greens cost at least $5 . . . If you grow your own from a package of good-quality organic seeds, it costs half that and produces for a longer period of time yielding about 6 pounds of salad greens.” (6)
Even if you don’t have land, you can still do some growing on your balcony. Tomatoes and peppers can be grown in pots, while you can also grow sprouts at home in a mason jar.
Furthermore, there are plenty of herbs which you can grow easily and cheaply. Herbs aren’t just a great way to add flavor to your cooking, but they can also serve as alternatives to many over-the-counter medications!
This list by EatingWell provides some great ideas for growing your own food and herbs.
5. Change Locations
This is the most drastic action on this list, but it’s still something you may want to consider. As mentioned above, there are plenty of things you can grow yourself indoors. But if you want to take gardening more seriously and even try out homesteading, then moving to a more rural area with more land might be in order.
And again, as mentioned above, there are certainly ways to cut costs when it comes to buying organic. But if you have a family and feel like organic food prices are really spiraling out of control, you may want to move to a place where locally grown, organic produce is cheap and abundant.
Believe it or not, there are still many countries out there that don’t utilize organic labeling. Not because they’re unconcerned about healthy eating, but because most of their produce is organic by default. Therefore, moving abroad may be the easiest way to eat healthy on a budget.
There are plenty of affordable countries with tropical climates that produce lots of exotic fruits that you just can’t buy fresh elsewhere. When I travel, I love visiting outdoor produce markets. Oftentimes, the cheap and delicious fruits I buy were grown in a nearby village, or maybe just down the road!
And there are also plenty of colder places that rely on seasonal and organic produce as well. Whatever your thoughts are on the current Russian regime, the world’s largest nation is a major proponent of organic foods and healthy eating. The country has outright rejected GMO and is trying to make a name for itself as a major exporter of organic foods. (7)
As the safety and quality of the food and soil in Western countries continue to degrade, Russia’s stance gives us a glimmer of hope in regards to the future of the world’s food supply. And it also seems like numerous other Eastern European countries follow a similar mindset.
- Plan meals for the week before you go shopping. This way you won’t buy more than you need.
- Eat before you go grocery shopping. Going shopping while hungry will tempt you to buy extra food that may eventually go to waste.
- Eat less meat. High quality, organic meat is not easy on the wallet. As mentioned above, eggs are a great alternative. Also consider cheaper vegetarian protein sources like peanuts, chickpeas and broccoli.
- Buy in bulk for things that won’t rot quickly, like nuts and rice.
- Make your own healthier alternatives to products like sunscreen and soap.
- Water is also essential to our health. Rather than constantly spend money on expensive and harmful plastic bottles, use a water filter and drink from reusable glass jars.
Hopefully, you’ve realized by now the eating healthy on a budget isn’t as challenging as many people think. Of course, there are lots of problems with our current system that needs changing. But until the day comes that chemical-laden, genetically modified foods are off our supermarket shelves for good, there are numerous ways to avoid them. And if you have any more ideas that weren’t covered here, please let us know in the comments below!