We all know that apples, whole wheat bread and fresh fish are more nutritious than candy, potato chips and frozen pizza.
But many people complain that such healthful foods are harmful to their wallet. The high cost of nutritious whole foods – especially when compared to cheaper processed fare -- keeps many people from eating better.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. All families – even those living in low-income conditions – can eat more healthfully if they plan meals carefully and shop smartly, according to a new report.
University of California researchers joined forces with Northern Valley Indian Health Inc. and the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria to create two weeks of menu items that are both healthful and affordable.
And they succeeded. With these menus, the average cost of healthy meals for a family of four dropped to $25 a day, the researchers report.
How to eat healthfully on a budget
There are several keys to eating more healthfully on a budget, says Jen Bruning, a Chicago-based registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Bruning agrees with the researchers that buying in bulk can significantly reduce the cost of healthful foods.
“So many healthful beans, lentils, grains, nuts, seeds and dried fruits are available in bulk,” she says.
The word “bulk” intimidates some people who make the mistake of assuming it’s synonymous with “a lot,” Bruning says.
“Don’t let the term ‘bulk’ scare you -- you can buy just a little bit at a time,” she says.
Buying frozen healthful foods also can be cheaper than buying them fresh, Bruning says. She particularly lauds frozen produce.
“It’s frozen immediately after picking, so you get maximum nutrients,” she says. “And you only use the portions you need, which can save you money.”
Just be sure to buy products without added sugar or salt, she cautions.
Another way to cut the cost of healthful foods is to remain open-minded about your shopping preferences.
For example, some people love to buy groceries at trendy places like Whole Foods. But healthful foods at Kroger or Walmart are likely to cost much less.
Bruning also urges shoppers to look past organic foods and to consider standard versions of those foods.
“Some people feel that conventional fruits and vegetables aren’t as healthful as organic, and this simply isn’t the case,” she says.
Research backs up Bruning’s viewpoint. A 2012 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that while some organic products might be exposed to lower levels of pesticides than their conventional counterparts, they generally offer no extra nutritional benefit.
Eating less meat also can help you save. Bruning notes that meat typically is more expensive than alternatives such as beans, peas, lentils and soy products like tofu.
“You don’t have to avoid meat altogether, but trying some recipes where meat takes a back seat can help you and your wallet feel a little healthier,” she says.
More tips for cutting costs
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers additional tips for keeping healthful eating affordable. They include:
Shop for store brands. These products offer all the nutritional benefits of branded products, but at a lower price.
Beware the price of convenience. Buying cut pieces of watermelon is likely to be much more expensive than buying a whole watermelon and cutting it up yourself.
Shop for the cheapest healthful foods. Healthful fruits that are less expensive include apples, bananas and oranges.
Vegetables that pack a healthful punch for a modest cost include cabbage, carrots, dark-green leafy vegetables, green peppers and sweet potatoes.