The Cost of Eating Well: How to Eat Better for Less Money

The Cost of Eating Well: How to Eat Better for Less Money

by David A. Kessler, Ph.D., M.S., R.D.

How much does it cost to eat well? Is it possible to live healthier on a low income? What are some tips for living a healthier life?

These questions have been asked many times before, but I believe they deserve new answers.

I am not going to try to convince you that eating well is expensive; you will decide if it’s worth your money. However, I want to offer my perspective on what it costs me every day to eat better and why I think that it is worthwhile.

My goal is to provide you with practical information so that you can make informed decisions about your health and the health of those around you. If you’re already eating well, then great!

You don’t need any additional motivation to do it again. But if not, here are some ideas on how to start.

What Does It Cost Me Every Day To Eat Healthily?

Let’s say I spend $100 per month on food (which would be enough for one person). This is probably a little low, but we’ll go with it for the sake of simplicity and to keep the math easy:

Groceries: $100 / month

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Total: $1.67 per day

That’s it! That’s how much I spend on food every day.

Now this is assuming that I’m not buying any meat, fish, or fresh produce. If you eat any of those things, it will obviously increase the cost. If I do buy them, then I’ll probably spend closer to $3 per day as shown below:

Groceries: $100 / month

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Total: $4.33 per day

Still not bad, but let’s go with the lower figure for now because I buy a lot of frozen and canned foods (which are usually very cheap).

If you’re single like me, then this really isn’t a big deal. However, if you’re a family of four, then the cost goes up to around $10 per day (which is still reasonable).

A family of six would spend around $15 per day. You get the idea – a family of ten would spend around $20 per day.

Personally, I wouldn’t consider any amount over $25 per day to be affordable. So while you can certainly add healthy food to your diet if you’re spending more than that, you may have to reconsider some of your other expenses.

What Are The Benefits?

In addition to the low cost, there are many other benefits to eating healthy. Chief among them are:

improved energy levels

better ability to handle stress

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improved appearance (eg. skin, hair, nails)

better general health (ie. fewer illnesses and less serious ones when they occur)

better tolerance for exercise

Better Looks – Improved skin, hair and nail quality are benefits that are not often discussed but should not be ignored.

Have you ever noticed how beautiful people age?

It’s not just good genetics either; a large part of it is how they take care of themselves. A healthy diet will improve the condition of your skin, hair and nails.

Take care of the exterior and you’ll have better marks for your interior as well. In other words, people will perceive you as being more vibrant and attractive.

This can pay real dividends in both your personal and professional lives.

Better Health – The thing that most people think of when they hear the words healthy diet is the impact on your heart and blood pressure. And while this is important, there are other aspects of improved health as well.

A healthy diet will reduce your risk of some cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes and even Alzheimers.

Better Energy – It should come as no surprise that you have more energy when you’re getting all the necessary nutrients your body needs. Less time is spent fighting off illnesses and you’ll find that you have more reserve in the tank when you need it.

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Better Sports Performance – Most professional and elite amateur athletes pay very close attention to what they eat. Athletes are in the unique position where winning and losing hinges on a split second and they won’t succeed if their body isn’t performing at its peak.

On the flip side, most “normal” people don’t need to be as concerned with enhancing their performance. However, if you do any type of physical activity on a regular basis (whether it’s sports or not), you’ll find that your endurance will increase along with your ability to recover between efforts.

More Money – One of the biggest benefits of a healthy diet is that you’ll be reducing your medical expenses. Not to mention you’re more likely to stick to it and stay on it on a more permanent basis.

This is important because most people can’t maintain a diet in the long term because life gets in the way and accidents happen. By decreasing your medical expenses, this will allow you to increase your food budget or allocate it elsewhere.

How To Eat Healthy On A Budget

The first thing you need to do is throw away all of your junk food. I’m not talking about the stuff that’s bad for you but isn’t really that unhealthy like chocolate or potato chips.

I mean the stuff that is so obviously bad for you like candy, soda and anything that comes in a bag or a box. No, I don’t care if it’s “natural” or has some obscure organic ingredient. If it has a ton of sugar or corn syrup and doesn’t offer much in the way of nutrition then you need to throw it out or give it away.

Now that you’ve gotten rid of all the junk, let’s look at what you can keep. Nutrition Facts labels were designed to help us make informed decisions about what we eat.

Unfortunately, they’re pretty appalling because companies are only required to include “the big three” (fat, carbs and protein) along with the amounts. Fortunately, you can still get a good idea of what’s in the food if you look at the ingredients.

If you see any of the following ingredients (or things with a long list of words that you can’t pronounce), then it’s best to put it down. Some people actually keep a running grocery list of banned items just to make it easier.

Sugar – One of the worst things you can eat. It has no nutritional value and will only cause your blood sugar to spike and drop, leading to a whole host of physical and mental problems.

It’s in almost every form and name under the sun so it pays to be vigilant. Sugar is often disguised as names like high fructose corn syrup, fruit concentrate or anything ending in “ose”.

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Partially Hydrogenated Oils and Trans Fats – Anything that has these are also not good for you. These oils don’t exist in nature so the body doesn’t know what to do with them.

The best way to avoid trans fats is to look at the ingredients list and make sure you don’t see “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” anywhere.

Wheat – Unless you have a diagnosed gluten intolerance you should try to avoid wheat. It’s not the protein that’s the problem, it’s the glutens.

You can still eat things with wheat in them like pasta and bread as long as you get the gluten free ones instead.

Packaged and Processed Foods – This is the main reason why people have such a hard time eating right. Most of the stuff in the center aisles of the store have a ton of preservatives, additives and anything else that will extend it’s shelf life or make it look good.

It’s really just “food-like” substances that don’t do your body any good. Processed foods also have a lot of added sugars, oils and other things you’re trying to avoid. Always read the Nutrition Facts labels and avoid anything that has more than 1/4 of the daily limit of anything.

Grains – Yes, I’m mentioning it again. Grains have a lot of gluten which can cause all sorts of digestive or autoimmune problems.

If you get rid of them you’ll feel a lot better (and look a lot better too).

With these guidelines in mind, let’s move on to some actual foods.

Breakfast

Oatmeal – Not only is oatmeal inexpensive, it’s also very nutritious and healthy. You can get flavored oatmeal packets to make it taste better.

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Be sure not to add any sugar, honey, brown sugar or anything like that though. You can add fruits (apples and bananas work well) or nuts on top.

Eggs – Eggs are a great source of protein and there are so many ways you can prepare them. Of course, you should stay away from frying them in butter.

Poaching is a good and cheap way of preparing them. Another cheap way of preparing them is to add them to a bowl of hot soup. If you have the money, you can also get special egg rings that you can crack the eggs into so you can make neat round eggs.

Cereal – A lot of cereals are very high in sugars so be sure to pick the right ones. There are a few that have very little sugar in them such as Grape-Nuts.

Other good ones are Chex (but only the original ones, not the special flavors), Bran Flakes and Shredded Wheat. You can always add fresh fruit to boost the nutrition and cancel out the sugars.

Lunch

Salad – You really can’t go wrong with a big bowl of salad. Vegetables are good for you so the more variety the better.

But you probably know that. You can get a bag of pre-cut mixed salad to cut down on preparation time.

Turkey Sandwich – Same as a regular sandwich except use thin slices of turkey instead of the usual lunch meat slices. Peanut butter is a great choice for the bread and jelly is usually sugar free (but check just in case).

Hamburger – Cook the meat until it’s well done and top it with lettuce, onions, and tomatoes (safe veggies). You can also add ketchup, mustard or mayo as a topping but avoid BBQ sauce since that usually has sugar.

Tuna Sandwich – Get the kind in water, not oil. You can also get flavoured ones that come in different tastes so you’re not eating tuna every day.

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Same safe veggies as the hamburger.

Chicken Strips – These are safe and you can also get the chicken nugget kind too. Be careful with these though since some fast food places tend to bread these in unsafe grains (usually wheat or both wheat and corn).

Rice Cakes – They come in a lot of different flavors so you’re bound to like something. Great as a base for a sandwich or just eat them by themselves.

Frozen Entrees – There are a lot of safe ones that you can get. They usually taste pretty good too.

Just be sure to read the labels and avoid any with sugars or other unsafe ingredients.

Dinner

Salmon – A great source of protein and very nutritious. You can either cook it yourself or you can buy the prepackaged, pre-cooked kind (just make sure there’s no sugar in the ingredients).

Sardines -Very nutritious, inexpensive and last a long time. You can feed it to yourself with crackers or bread or you can put it in a salad.

Chicken -Just like the tuna, get the kind in water, not oil. Also get the plain chicken, not the flavored kind (as long as they don’t have sugar in them).

Cook the chicken thoroughly and be sure to eat the skin too (it’s where most of the nutrients are).

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Eggs – You can cook these in a variety of different ways. The yolks are very nutritious so don’t throw those away.

Just make sure you cook them thoroughly, especially the yolks.

Steak – One of the more expensive but more nutritious choices. Make sure you cook it thoroughly too.

Pasta – With sauce or cheese or even just butter, pasta is a quick and easy way to get energy. However, you’re probably getting tired of just pasta so treat yourself once in a while.

Bread – Very cheap and lasts a long time. You can always open a can of tuna and put that on the bread too for more protein.

Just make sure you have some kind of spread to put on it or else it’s pretty boring to eat. Plus, you need the fat to help your body absorb all the nutrients in the bread.

Protein Bars – Gluten free and last a long time (even without refrigeration). They’re a little more expensive but worth it.

They taste pretty good too so you shouldn’t have any problems eating them. There’s many different flavors so you shouldn’t get sick of them either.

Fruit and Nuts -Another very nutritious choice. You can either get the prepackaged packs or you can get the individual fruits and nuts from a bulk bin (they’re cheaper that way).

Just don’t spend all your money on them, you need to save some for other stuff too.

Seeds – While these don’t have much nutritional value, they can help curb your hunger until you can find something else to eat. They’re also very lightweight so they’re good to take with you when you’re on the move.

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Dried Fruit – More expensive and higher in sugar but they’re very good to eat as well. Be sure you brush your teeth after though (sugary foods cause tooth decay).

Trail Mix – This is a mix of nuts, seeds, and dried fruits (and sometimes chocolate) that you can make yourself. It’s fairly nutritious and definitely fills the belly.

Canned Foods – Honestly, these are probably the least desirable foods to have in your food storage. They’re very heavy for the amount of nutrition they give and they typically cost more than other foods too.

Also, make sure you eat the soup or pasta ones ASAP since they have expiration dates. If you absolutely must have them, at least rotate them frequently so you’re not eating outdated food.

While it’s important to have a lot of food in your storage, you also want to make sure it isn’t just junk food. You need a good balance of nutrition and while that can come from having lots of variety, you still need to make sure everything is nutritious.

If you’re unsure about the nutrition in certain foods, look them up on the internet so you know what you’re putting into your body.

As for food preparation, it’s best if you can cook your own food because that’s typically more nutritious (and less likely to have bacteria in it). If you can’t cook it yourself, make sure you eat it immediately since leftovers go bad very quickly.

Also, throw away any food that’s been open for a long period of time (or otherwise not stored correctly).

Here is a list of some good foods for your survival storage:

Dried Beans and Peas – These are very inexpensive and have lots of nutrients. You can make them into chili, soup, or add them to your pasta.

(Beans have a VERY strong smell so you may want to store these away from your other food).

Ramen Noodles – These are very cheap, light, and have a long shelf life. Make sure you don’t eat them everyday though since they’re not exactly the healthiest thing (they’re pretty much just fried in oil).

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Rice – This is very easy to get and prepare. It has lots of nutrients and keeps your full, making it especially good for survival situations.

The only issue is it tends to be very sticky, making it harder to cook.

Cereal – Not much nutrition, but it’s easy to get and store. Just be sure you rotate it frequently and don’t let bugs get into the bag (another reason to keep it in an air tight container).

Powdered Milk – While this isn’t the greatest when it comes to nutrition (it has a lot of calcium but not much else), it still has nutrients and is very easy to get and store.

Peanut Butter – High in calories and full of nutrients, the only downfall is it goes bad relatively quickly. You’ll want to eat this within 6 months of opening the jar if you don’t refrigerate it (which will change the taste).

Jelly – Same as Peanut Butter

Dried Fruit – Very nutritious and good for snacking on, but the high sugar content makes it go bad relatively quickly (generally 1-2 months).

Dehydrated/Freeze Dried Food – Very expensive but has lots of nutrients and keeps a long time (generally 1-5 years, with some going up to 20). Just add water to re-hydrate.

Beef Jerky – High in protein and can keep for a long time if kept sealed from air and in a cool place. Only eat this in an extreme emergency since it’s very low in other nutrients.

Hardtack – Very high in calories and lasts a long time (if you can stand the taste), but is very dense and quite frankly, tastes horrible.

Sources & references used in this article:

Evaluation of the “eat better feel better” cooking programme to tackle barriers to healthy eating by AL Garcia, R Reardon, E Hammond, A Parrett… – International journal of …, 2017 – mdpi.com

The Mediterranean diet: the reasons for a success by M Bonaccio, L Iacoviello, G De Gaetano… – Thrombosis research, 2012 – Elsevier

Costs of a healthy diet: analysis from the UK Women’s Cohort Study by J Cade, H Upmeier, C Calvert, D Greenwood – Public health nutrition, 1999 – cambridge.org

The meaning of food in our lives: a cross-cultural perspective on eating and well-being by P Rozin – Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 2005 – Elsevier

Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook: A Guide to Eating Well and Saving Money By Wasting Less Food by D Gunders – 2015 – books.google.com

Contribution of food prices and diet cost to socioeconomic disparities in diet quality and health: a systematic review and analysis by N Darmon, A Drewnowski – Nutrition reviews, 2015 – academic.oup.com

Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options? A systematic review and meta-analysis by M Rao, A Afshin, G Singh, D Mozaffarian – BMJ open, 2013 – bmjopen.bmj.com