Last week, my wife and I went to the supermarket to pick up a few things. It was hardly what we call "a big shopping." But the $200+ bill sure made it seem like it was, even though all we'd really picked up were a few staples missing from our pantry. It literally brought home some ugly food for thought: eating smart is getting expensive.
Our anecdotal experiences at the grocery are backed up by a study published in the journal Health Affairs, which found that following USDA dietary guidelines for healthy eating will give your wallet wicked indigestion.
Because while our food system is great at delivering sheer calories to the masses, it falls well short when it comes to supplying the specific nutrients everyone needs. In fact, the researchers say that it doesn't even produce enough fruits and vegetables to supply every American with the recommended minimum daily number of servings of these essentials. Put another way, there aren't enough whole foods to go around. No wonder the ingredients for a salad cost us a small fortune last week.
According to the study, meeting the government's recommendation for potassium alone costs an extra $380 per year. Getting enough fiber and vitamin D adds another $255. But for every 1% increase in calories obtained from saturated fat, food costs drop 28 cents, and for each 1% increase in calories gotten from sugar, you'll save seven cents. All of which helps at least partially explain why way too many people are eating junk, getting fat, and falling ill. It's a lot cheaper -- at least in the budgetary short term.
The good news is that there are ways to eat healthier without resorting to a life of crime. Here's how:
- Get a freezer. I think this is the single best thing you can do because it will let you shop sales and stock up on fruits and vegetables in season when they're a lot cheaper. Do that and it'll probably pay for itself in savings the first year you own it. Mine did.
- Shopping in season is key. Don't eat apples in the summer or strawberries in the winter. But when blueberries are $1.00 a pint come August, stuff your face and freeze the rest so you can eat them at that price all year long.
- Focus on so-called "super foods" that kill multiple dietary birds with a single stone. These are foods that have high levels of many nutrients. Broccoli, for example, delivers vitamins C and A plus fiber, folate, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and a wealth of antioxidant phytochemicals. Here's a list of some of my favorites though it's by no means complete.
- Grow your own. Whether it's in the ground, in a pot, a raised bed, or a community garden, home-grown food is as low-cost as it gets and as healthy as it comes. Even a small plot can produce a big bounty. Build meals around whatever's ripe at the moment, freeze the excess, and you'll save a bundle.
- Shop to order. Don't buy a week's worth of veggies unless you're sure you'll eat them before they go bad. Instead, just buy what you need for a few days to avoid waste, and stock back up when supplies run out.
- Plan menus, make a grocery list, and stick to it. Skipping impulse buys will leave more money for better food that's guaranteed to be eaten.
- Watch out for marketing trickery. If you see two of something for $1.00, but only need one, just buy one. Unless the signage says otherwise, you'll likely get it for 50 cents. And don't fall for buy-one-get-one-free or buy-two-get-the-third-free deals unless the item is on your list. You'll only save cash if you actually eat what you pay for.
- Practice the art of soup with your leftovers. You can make it from almost anything, and it can be a complete lunch or dinner unto itself, a virtually free bonus meal that prevents waste and stretches your food dollars even further.
These are my strategies. The only question is what I've overlooked and should be doing as well. Anybody have any other ideas?