Whenever I hear someone claim that healthy foods don't cost more than unhealthy ones, I can only shake my head. And take a bite from the $1.50 organic honeycrisp apple that I accidentally bought at the farmer's market. I don't know about you, but the more I focus on buying fresh, minimally-processed foods, the more money I seem to spend.
Luckily there are people at Harvard to back me up. A 2013 study from Harvard School of Public Health found that eating a healthy diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts) cost about $1.50 more per day per person than eating an unhealthy diet (the kind full of processed foods and refined grains). Sounds like pocket change, but that's an extra $2,200 per year for a family of four.
Here's what gets me: I spend a lot more on a pound of fresh fish than I would for a box of fish sticks. I could easily pay $1 for a single orange. Organic chicken is $2-3 more per pound than conventional. Whole wheat spaghetti is more expensive than white. And the dyed, sugary kids' cereals seem to be the only ones that are ever on sale.
Maybe the problem isn't that healthy food is expensive—but that hyper-processed, sugary, salty, additive-laden food is so cheap. And of course, eating a healthy diet could mean lower health care costs down the road, so maybe a healthy diet is a money-saver after all.
In the meantime, though, I'm focused on our bottom line. And since feeding my family healthy food is important to me, I've accepted that I have to pay more for certain foods. But I still need to keep spending in check. If you're in the same boat, here are some ways to do that:
- Try not to get overwhelmed. I work hard to quiet the swirling worries in my head as I shop (is this organic? GMO-free? dye-free? local? fair trade? sustainable?) because it's enough to make me crazy. Instead, I focus on the big picture: Am I buying lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? Do fresh foods outnumber packaged? Read more about how I stopped stressing out about grocery shopping here.
- Pick and choose where you spend your organic dollars. I simply don't have the budget to buy all organic. So I compare prices for organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, especially the ones that tend to have higher pesticide residues (see the Environmental Working Group's lists here). I tend to go organic on spinach, lettuce, and berries when I can. I go conventional on fruits that have a thick rind I'll be discarding, like cantaloupe, pineapple, and watermelon.
- Prioritize. Buying local or organic meat, milk, and eggs is important to me. I have concerns about usage of hormones and antibiotics, as well as humane treatment of animals. But since organic and local are more expensive, I have a bunch of items that I DON'T prioritize, like spices, baking staples, and grains like pasta and rice, so I buy all of those at a discount grocery store. Everyone's priorities are different, and that's okay. The point is to decide what your priorities are, put your focus there, then find ways to save on the other stuff.
- Meal plan. This is by far the biggest way I stay on budget. I make my meal plan at the beginning of the week as I'm making my grocery list. My ultimate goal: No repeat trips back to the store. (Because how many times have I run in for "just an onion" and come out with $50 worth of groceries? Too many.) For a free, one-page meal planning worksheet that includes space for a shopping list and a week's worth of dinners, go here.
How to YOU save money on healthy foods?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
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Image: Grocery shopping via Shutterstock