While food assistance varies from state to state, a typical family using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for food stamps, will have about $3.37 per person, per day, with which to buy food.1
Many families run out of food stamps after the first two weeks of the month and rely on food banks to fill in the gaps. On a budget this tight, fruits and vegetables are often purchased only if there’s money to spare, and often there isn’t.
In the documentary film Food Stamped, in which the filmmakers attempt to eat a healthy diet on a food-stamp budget, they visit food stamp enrollment clinics and tag along with low-income shoppers who tend to opt for the cheapest, most filling foods, such as white bread, factory-farmed ground beef, and ramen noodles.
In interviews with members of Congress who also took the food stamp challenge, even the elected officials – when forced to eat on meager budgets themselves – likewise fell prey to the allure of cheap convenience foods.
But while cost is one of the most often-cited obstacles to eating a healthy diet, there are low-cost superfoods available that contribute priceless benefits to your health. Further, research from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found that eating a healthy diet costs only $1.50 more per day…
Healthiest Diets Cost About $1.50 More a Day Than Least Healthy Diets
Researchers from HSPH conducted a meta-analysis of 27 studies, evaluating the differences in prices per serving and prices per calorie for different types of food. Eating a healthier diet (defined as rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts) was found to be significantly more expensive than an unhealthy diet (rich in processed foods, meats, and refined grains).
However, the difference between buying food for the most healthy diet pattern or the least healthy diet pattern came out to about $1.50 per day.2 Part of what makes the processed food diet cheaper is the fact that the US government is actively supporting a diet that consists of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, corn oil, and grain-fed cattle, a direct result of their flawed farm subsidy system.
The junk foods are made even cheaper through the use of unhealthy filler ingredients and preservatives that prevent spoiling, with the end result being that the very worst foods for your health are often significantly cheaper to buy. The HSPH researchers reported that US food policies focus on:3
“‘Inexpensive, high volume’ commodities, which has led to ‘a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.'”
Adding to the problem, many on the most limited food budgets, such as those who receive food assistance dollars, live in “food deserts” – areas without grocery stores, and perhaps only a convenience store or a fast-food restaurant where they can purchase their food.
So while it’s certainly possible to eat healthy on a limited budget, this first requires that you understand what constitutes a healthy meal, and then that you have access to such foods, which is not always the case.
And as for cost, an extra $1.50 a day is a major hurdle for many, but for others for whom the cost can be readily absorbed, the extra investment will yield great returns for your family’s health. The researchers explained:4
“While healthier diets did cost more, the difference was smaller than many people might have expected. Over the course of a year, $1.50/day more for eating a healthy diet would increase food costs for one person by about $550 per year.
This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs. On the other hand, this price difference is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets.”
Bone Broth: Some of the Most Affordable Foods are Also the Healthiest
If you’re on a strict budget, you may need to start to think outside the box of what constitutes a “square” meal. Let’s say you have $2 for dinner. You might be tempted buy a burger and fries from a dollar menu.
This will fill you up for the time being, but will not give your body the nutrition it craves. With that $2 you could instead buy an avocado and cage-free organic eggs, with which to make a variation of this Rise and Shine Baked Avocado recipe.
This might not be a meal you’re accustomed to, but it will ultimately be far more satisfying and make you feel leaps and bounds better than the fast-food burger meal. Other phenomenal foods are also very inexpensive, making them ideal for budget shopping (although they do require some preparation at home, as most healthy foods do).
Bone broth is one such example. Making your own bone broth is extremely cost effective, as you can make use of leftover carcass bones that would otherwise be thrown away. And while the thought of making your own broth may seem intimidating at first, it’s actually quite easy.
It can also save you money by reducing your need for dietary supplements, as bone broth provides you with a variety of important nutrients—such as calcium, magnesium, chondroitin, glucosamine, and arginine—that you may otherwise be spending a good deal of money on in the form of supplements.
Simmering bones over low heat for an entire day will create one of the most nutritious and healing foods there is. You can use this broth for soups, stews, or drink it straight. The broth can also be frozen for future use. Keep in mind that the “skin” that forms on the top is the best part. It contains valuable nutrients, such as sulfur, along with healthful fats, so just stir it back into the broth.
There are lots of different ways to make bone broth, and there really isn’t a wrong way. You can find different variations online, but in the video above I offer some basic directions. If you’re starting out with a whole chicken, you’ll of course have plenty of meat as well, which can be added back into the broth later with extra herbs and spices to make a chicken soup, or you can use it as a separate meal.
- Fill up a large stockpot (or large crockpot) with pure, filtered water. (A crockpot is recommended for safety reasons if you have to leave home while it’s cooking.)
- Add vinegar and all vegetables except parsley to the water.
- Place the whole chicken or chicken carcass into the pot.
- Bring to a boil, and remove any scum that rises to the top.
- Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and let simmer.
- If cooking a whole chicken, the meat should start separating from the bone after about 2 hours. Simply remove the chicken from the pot and separate the meat from the bones. Place the carcass back into the pot and continue simmering the bones for another 12-24 hours and follow with step 8 and 9.
- If cooking bones only, simply let them simmer for about 24 hours.
- You may want to add fresh parsley about 10 minutes before finishing the stock, as this will add healthy mineral ions to your broth, but this is optional.
- Remove remaining bones from the broth with a slotted spoon and strain the rest through a strainer to remove any bone fragments.
Fermented Foods: The Inexpensive Ultimate Superfood
When you consume junk foods, certain bacteria flourish and produce endotoxins, which your immune system detects and, interpreting these endotoxins as an attack, responds with inflammation. Your body changes its metabolism to redirect energy for “battle.” The result is overproduction of insulin, increased fat storage, dampening of your appetite control signals, and eventually obesity.
The best way to reverse this inflammation and restore a healthy metabolism is by eliminating excess sugar and processed food, and adding more friendly, beneficial bacteria from naturally fermented foods. Almost everyone has damaged gut flora these days, unless you’re part of the minority that eats a strict organic whole foods diet and avoids antibiotics. Fermented vegetables are one of the most palatable fermented foods that can provide you with a robust dose of beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, for a fraction of the cost of buying a supplement (and with far more beneficial bacteria).
Fermented foods are very potent detoxifiers, capable of drawing out a wide range of toxins and heavy metals, including some pesticides, from your body, and the beneficial bacteria they contain may also help prevent diabetes, digestive issues, neurological problems, cardiovascular disease, and even acne. You only need a small amount of fermented vegetables to boost your health; one-quarter to one-half cup of fermented veggies with each meal is ideal. The investment is small, as cabbage comprises 80 percent of the recipe. Even better, it’s easy to make fermented veggies at home in six simple steps. If you can, make a large batch at once, as the finished product will keep for many months in your refrigerator, offering you a medicinal superfood whenever you want it.
Cut Down on Your Protein Intake to Stretch Your Food Budget (and Improve Your Health)
Protein is one of the most expensive parts of most people’s diets. The featured study found, for instance, that price differences per serving for healthier versus less healthy foods were largest among meats/proteins. As far as inexpensive, high-quality protein goes, organic free-range eggs are one of your best options. Wild Alaskan salmon is another, and though it can be pricey, you only need to eat a few ounces two or three times a week.
There’s no doubt that high-quality protein is an important part of any diet, including an anti-aging one. However, you do need to be careful to not consume too much. Please understand that the average American consumes anywhere from three to five times as much protein as they need. Protein is generally encouraged as being a healthy choice, especially if you are swapping it for refined carbs, but I believe it is the rare person who really needs more than one-half gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. Those that are aggressively exercising or competing and pregnant women should have about 25% more, but most people rarely need more than 40-70 grams of protein a day.
To determine your lean body mass, find out your percent body fat and subtract from 100. So if you are 20% body fat you would have 80% lean body mass. Just multiply that by your current weight to get lean body mass. For most people, this means restricting protein intake from 35 to 75 grams a day. As mentioned, pregnant women and those working out extensively need about 25% more protein though. When you consume protein in levels higher than recommended above, you tend to activate the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) pathway, which can help you get large muscles but may also increase your risk of cancer.
There is some research that suggests the “mTOR gene” is a significant regulator of the aging process, and suppressing this gene may be linked to longer life. Generally speaking, as far as eating for optimal health goes, most people consume too much low-quality protein and carbohydrates, and not enough healthy fat. This is good news if you’re on a tight budget, as cutting down on the protein you consume will help to slash your food bill.
Grow Your Own Vegetables (Including Sprouts)
Growing your own vegetables is one of the best ways to include organic produce in your diet at a very low cost. When factoring in startup and maintenance costs, a well-maintained food garden yields a $500 average return each year compared to the market price of produce, according to the National Gardening Association. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need a lot of space to grow vegetables.
In her book The Edible Balcony, Alex Mitchell details how to grow fresh produce in small spaces. Filled with beautiful color photographs throughout, the book helps you determine what might work best for you, depending on your space and location, and guides you through the design basics of a bountiful small-space garden. For example, those who live in a high-rise apartment will undoubtedly have to contend with more wind than those who live on the bottom floor.
There are solutions for virtually every problem, and in this case, wind-tolerant plants can be used, or you could construct some sort of protective screening. You can use virtually every square foot of your space, including your lateral space. Hanging baskets are ideal for a wide variety of foods, such as strawberries, leafy greens, runner beans, pea shoots, tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. And instead of flowers, window boxes can hold herbs, greens, radishes, scallions, bush beans, strawberries, chard, and chilies, for example. Other creative solutions to take advantage of every nook and cranny, and recycle common household items for your garden, include:
- Attaching horizontal rows of gutters on a wall, which can hold your leafy greens and herbs
- A hanging bottle herb garden, using discarded plastic bottles
- Two or more stacked tires with a plastic bag to hold the soil can make for an excellent planter for plants that like warm soil, such as sweet potatoes and basil
Sprouts are another authentic “super food” that many overlook. In addition to their superior nutritional profile, sprouts are really easy to grow even if you’re an apartment dweller, as they don’t require an outdoor garden. A powerhouse of nutrition, sprouts can contain up to 30 times the nutrition of organic vegetables grown in your own garden, and allow your body to extract more vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fats from the foods you eat.
During sprouting, minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, bind to protein, making them more bioavailable. Furthermore, both the quality of the protein and the fiber content of beans, nuts, seeds, and grains improve when sprouted. The content of vitamins and essential fatty acids also increases dramatically during the sprouting process. You can find tips for planting and harvesting sprouts here.
I’ve assembled everything you need to grow delicious and nutritious sprouts here.
53 More Tips to Eat Organic on a Budget
Vani Hari, blogger and founder of FoodBabe.com, has compiled a long list of tips on how to save money while buying organic.5 In order to protect your health, I believe you should spend 90 percent of your food budget on whole foods, and only 10 percent on processed foods (unfortunately most Americans currently do the opposite). This requires some strategy, especially if you’re working with a tight budget, but Hari’s tips that follow will help considerably.
FIND AND USE ORGANIC COUPONS
- Check the websites of your favorite companies for coupons and special promotions; almost all of them have some.
- Join your favorite company’s social media pages for special coupons and deals.
- Check out various organic coupon sites online for organic food/natural living coupons, and money-savings ideas.
- Most stores take each other’s coupons, so don’t be afraid to use them all in one shopping trip at your most convenient or favorite store.
AT HOME AND IN THE KITCHEN
- Stay organized. Plan out your meals for the week according to organic foods that are on sale and/or that you have coupons for.
- Budget. Write out a weekly and monthly budget to help you keep track of both erratic spending and responsible spending. This will allow you to see your spending habits and help you prioritize purchasing organic food within your budget.
- Do it yourself, rather than buy it. Make your own kale chips, smoothies, and vegetable juices to replace store-bought with more overhead.
- Learn how to portion and prioritize – it is preferable to always buy organic meats and dairy products, and, therefore, learn to portion your consumption of these products each week. For example, keep meat to 4 ounces or less per serving.
USE YOUR FREEZER
- Nine times out of 10 the organic frozen produce at the store is cheaper than fresh, especially if the fruit or vegetable is out of season.
- Freeze all leftovers using inexpensive mason glass jars or silicone ice molds for smaller portions.
- Buy local produce when in season and freeze to save for out of season, for example in the spring and summer spread berries on a sheet pan and freeze overnight and then store in jars for the fall and winter.
- Double recipes and freeze leftovers; this works great with soups and stews.
- Freeze core kitchen staples like butter and cheese.
- Meat & dairy (animals products like chicken, eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, milk, etc.) are the most important to buy organic because of the combined risk of pesticide, antibiotic, and cancer-causing growth hormone exposure.
- Reduce meat and dairy consumption if you cannot afford organic.
- Buy a whole organic chicken for less per pound, vs. just the breast, legs or wings, which are more expensive per pound. You can use the carcass to make your own chicken broth, as described above.
- Use the “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” lists available on ewg.org to help you navigate which products to buy organic. For example, if you have a choice between more expensive organic red peppers and less expensive conventional asparagus – choose the asparagus. Asparagus naturally repels pests allowing it to be grown with minimal pesticides. Include red pepper in your diet when it is in season or you can find it cheaper at another grocery store.
- Do not buy pre-washed and ready to eat fruits and veggies, as they can cost twice as much.
- Eat out only twice a week or less– eating organic at home is significantly less expensive than eating at organic restaurants.
BUY IN BULK
- Take advantage of the “buy one get one free” sales or buy one get the other for a discounted price. You never know when it will go on sale again, so make sure to take advantage of it and store for later use.
- Always buy packaged staples on sale.
- Buy unpackaged foods from bulk dispensers. Bring measuring cups with you to the grocery store if you are buying from bulk containers. That way you can get exactly the amount you need for a specific recipe and you won’t be paying for extra.
- Buy smaller organic spice packets or jars; old spices lose their medicinal qualities so it is smarter to buy in smaller quantities.
- Buy the whole animal and freeze the portions you don’t use. You can do this by contacting your local farmer and then splitting the cost with a group.
- Find out what foods are in season and buy those in bulk, as they are significantly cheaper.
- Join a buying club with your neighbors, friends or family and buy large quantities at a discount.
- Various services will deliver organic and non-GMO food directly to your doorstep, many with some of the lowest prices available for organic staples, meat, dairy, and other goods.
CHOOSE ORGANIC BRANDS THAT SAVE YOU MONEY
- Choose more inexpensive grocery store brand products. Regardless of the brand, they are all required to follow the same guidelines set forth by the USDA organic certification program if they contain the USDA organic seal and chances are that you won’t be able to tell the difference between a brand name and store brand.
- Join grocery store loyalty programs for discounts.
- Use your rewards cards always. Most convenient stores, grocery stores, and drug stores allow you to sign-up for a rewards or savings card that will help you save money on a few of your items at the checkout counter. Even if this time of purchase does not contain organic food, the extra money that you are saving on your items can be put towards buying it when need be.
- Always remember that if you are not satisfied with your organic product, most grocery stores and organic food companies offer you money back guarantee.
- Local food can be significantly cheaper than food shipped from miles away.
- Find a farmers market near you through LocalHarvest.org or the USDA – get to know your local farmers, create a personal relationship, and negotiate prices.
- Ask your farmer about his farming practices. Some farmers do not spray pesticides on their crops but do not seek USDA certification to keep prices lower.
- Be the last person to leave the farmer’s market. Farmers will likely cut their prices at the end of the day, so they do not have to take their produce back to the farm.
- Buy a share in a community-supported agriculture CSA program. It’s nice to contribute to a local farm’s operating expenses while getting a weekly box of fresh fruits and vegetables.
GROW YOUR OWN FOOD
- Plant an herb pot in your kitchen or somewhere convenient so you can always have fresh herbs on hand. Organic herbs are one of the most overpriced items at the grocery store.
- Once you start growing produce, give herbs, fruits and vegetables as gifts to family and friends (saving money on other material objects they might otherwise not use or collect).
- If you’re really adventurous, get a couple of chickens and hatch your own eggs.
STOP WASTING FOOD
- Raw nuts and flours should be kept in the refrigerator to last longer without going rancid.
- Line your refrigerator’s crisper drawer with paper towels to absorb excess moisture, which will help keep produce longer.
- To repel bugs, place a bay leaf in containers of rice, flour, and pastas.
- Buy and keep bananas separated from one another. They spoil slower.
- Turn almond butter, yogurt, sour cream, tahini, and cottage cheese containers upside down when stored in the fridge – this creates a vacuum seal, keeping them fresh longer
- Do not throw away nut meal from homemade nut milk – use it for smoothies or to make nut flours by placing the pulp on a baking sheet and drying it out in a 250 degree oven or dehydrator.
- Repurpose vegetable pulp from juicing to add fiber to soups, smoothies, or make crackers or bread.
- Placed limp celery, baby carrots, and radishes in water with a slice of potato to make them crunchy again.
- Keep all organic citrus fruits in the fridge – they will last up to 1-2 weeks longer.
- Do not wash organic dark leafy greens or berries until they are ready to consume.
- Store herbs, spring onions, and asparagus upright in a large glass filled with an inch of water.
- If you know you will not have a chance to eat it, freeze food before it goes bad.
- Choose to eat less, use a smaller plate to help you control the amount of food you might eat or end up wasting.
- Compost all food waste to put nutrients back in your garden (you will spend less on fertilizer).