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Food and piggy bank

It’s true that prioritizing healthy eating can put a dent in your pocketbook. Vegetables and fruits are more expensive than many processed foods. Meat, poultry and eggs, dairy, and fish are also pricey — especially if you want the organic, pasture-raised, wild-caught, antibiotic-free stuff.

So what’s a healthy-minded person on a budget supposed to do?

Before you start trimming your grocery list, try to reframe the way you think about food cost. It’s not just a line item: What you spend at the market is an investment in your well-being as well as your family’s and our planet’s health.

This is an uncommon mindset in the United States, where we’re accustomed to inexpensive processed food made from government-subsidized commodity crops — and where we spend a smaller percentage of household income on groceries than any other country in the world.

You can offset some organic-food expenses by buying less processed fare, which offers comparatively low nutritional value and may also increase your healthcare costs, explains Paul Kriegler, RD, Life Time’s nutrition program manager.

“It might look cheap on the shelf, but if you do the math in terms of how well it nourishes you, it’s not worth it,” he says. “And if you consider the expenses for medications and doctor’s visits down the line, healthy eating becomes far less costly.”

Still, your dollar won’t stretch as far on nutritious fare in the short term. A 2013 Harvard School of Public Health study found that a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, and nuts costs about $1.50 more per day than a diet of processed foods and refined grains.  Though it may not seem like much, those expenses can add up over time.

The following strategies can help you make the most of the high-quality, nutritious food you invest in.

Simplify Your Kitchen

Cooking at home costs pennies on the dollar compared with eating out or ordering in. It may be one of the most cost-efficient healthy skills in which you can invest your time — and it doesn’t need to be complicated, says Tamar Adler, author of Something Old, Something New and host of the podcast Food Actually.

“There’s all this pressure to be perfect in the world of food,” she explains. “But you don’t need to be perfect. You already have everything you need to cook well.”

Much of Adler’s cooking philosophy comes from the Italian tradition of cucina povera, or peasant cooking, in which everything edible is eaten. This is inherently cost-saving, ­because every­thing that comes into your kitchen is used to make a meal, even (and perhaps especially) the bits you’d usually throw away. (For root-to-stem recipes, see “5 Root-to-Stem Recipes”.)

This logic also applies to leftovers. Adler devotes a chapter in her book An Everlasting Meal to “how to catch your tail” — using the ends of your last meal to build your next one, so you get the most out of every dollar you spend.

“You don’t need to get a dozen shrimp for Monday and marinate a pork shoulder for Tuesday,” she explains. “Just start with what you have. We all have so much value in our kitchens.”

Weekly meal planning can be cost-saving, too, because knowing what you’ll need and use means you’ll be less likely to buy extra ingredients — and you’ll get the most from what you do buy. (For meal-planning advice, see “How to Simplify Meal Planning”.)

In his own kitchen, nutritionist Kriegler keeps things simple. “You need a great pan, a sharp knife, quality salt and pepper, and good olive oil and butter,” he says. “Those can make anything taste awesome.”

Adler also keeps a short list of quality ingredients to simplify her cooking. “If I’m dealing with something cheap, like beans, that’s exactly when I pull out the good olive oil,” she says. “With a little extra attention, something humble can easily become something great.”

This, too, is an unconventional approach in a culinary culture brimming with trendy new foods, shiny pots and pans, and elaborate kitchen gadgets. You don’t need those things to become a competent home cook — you just need to build your skill and confidence in the kitchen. As cooking at home becomes easier and more enjoyable, you’ll become more adept at improvising and using what you have, which will ultimately reduce waste and save money.

Know Your Priorities

You don’t have to buy everything organic to eat healthy. Kriegler limits his organic-produce purchases to the Dirty Dozen, the Environmental Working Group’s annual guide to the most pesticide-laden conventionally grown veggies and fruits.

“Some thicker-skinned fruits, like bananas and avocados, don’t have to be sprayed with pesticides as often because they have better natural defenses,” he explains. And since you don’t eat the peel anyway, you won’t ingest the part that most likely contains residue.

Organic meat and dairy products are usually worth the higher price tag. Research shows that organic, grassfed dairy boasts higher levels of essential omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA.

As with produce, safety concerns can help determine when choosing organic meat is a better option for you. “If you’re buying meat, poultry, or fish with fat in it, that’s where any environmental contaminants will be concentrated,” Kriegler says. Buying organic isn’t always necessary with less-fatty cuts, like lean steak or boneless, skinless chicken breasts. (For more tips on saving money, see “8 Ways to Save Money on Organic Groceries”.)

Go Seasonal

You might also consider purchasing more seasonal produce. Veggies and fruits tend to be more affordable and more nutritious when they’ve been recently harvested. Take advantage of seasonal bounty by shopping at farmers’ markets, where produce tends to be fresh, local, and competitively priced.

At the supermarket, Kriegler looks for the country-of-origin tag to determine how far the produce has traveled. “Those grapes coming from Chile in the middle of winter had a really long journey,” he says. “How fresh could they really be?”

Adler agrees that buying in-season is preferable — and it may be to your advantage in the kitchen. “I think part of what makes cooking so hard right now is the limitlessness of choice,” she says. “But it’s easier if you hew more closely to the seasons. There’s less to think about. I don’t think it would be terrible if we started thinking of long-distance, out-of-season stuff as a special event.”

If you are looking for out-of-season veggies or fruits, Kriegler suggests shopping in the freezer aisle. Much of this produce is flash-frozen at peak ripeness, helping it retain its flavor and nutritional quality. It’s also usually cheaper than fresh varieties that are out of season.

“That’s another way to stretch a dollar,” Kriegler explains. “Pick a few frozen vegetables or fruits to keep on hand at all times so you’ll never have a meal that’s totally devoid of produce.”

In the end, knowing your personal shopping priorities will make you better equipped to buy in bulk and keep your kitchen stocked with essentials; this will help prevent unnecessary trips to the grocery store and reduce opportunities for impulse purchases. You may also find yourself less tempted to spend money on takeout or prepared foods, because you’ll always be just a few steps away from a satisfying meal at home.

This originally appeared as “Weighing the Costs of Eating Organic” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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