Inflation is often felt most intensely in the kitchen. By the end of 2022, we had all witnessed grocery prices rise by an average of about 12 percent over the previous 12 months, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And some staple foods rose even higher: The price of milk climbed 12.5 percent; flour, 23.4 percent; and eggs, 59.9 percent.
This can leave those of us committed to healthy eating with plenty of questions: Will we need to give up healthy grocery options, which are often pricey? Or can healthy also be affordable? What nutritional value are we getting when we buy a given food at a given price? Can we adjust our expectations about what food should cost?
Paul Kriegler, RDN, LDN, Life Time’s director of nutritional products, has some suggestions, along with tips for inflation-proofing your healthy-eating goals.
- Grocery money just doesn’t go as far as it used to. We may be accustomed to buying relatively inexpensive groceries, and the fact that food is now eating up more of our budget may cause feelings of resentment and anxiety.
- It feels like healthy food has become a luxury we can’t justify. Healthier food has the reputation of being pricey. Because organic produce is usually more expensive than nonorganic, for example, should we buy conventional for the sake of saving some money? What about high-quality protein, like grassfed beef or free-range chicken?
- Trying to balance health and cost is confusing. There must be ways, we think, to keep from “surrendering” to cheap, filling, unhealthy meal options while still keeping our grocery costs reasonable. But what are these solutions, and are they realistic?
Strategies for Success
1. Experiment. It’s easy to think of rising grocery costs as a struggle, Kriegler admits. But he suggests that we instead choose to see inflationary pressure as an interesting opportunity to try out new strategies in the kitchen, like meal planning, trying new foods, and being more mindful about food waste.
2. Reconsider other expenses. “When I coach someone on improving their nutrition,” Kriegler says, “I ask them to write down the three things they spend the most on that are making it harder to reach their goals.” Is it possible for you to reallocate that money?
Even small shifts can make a difference over time, he notes. “How about that daily $5 latte at the coffee shop? Letting it go or brewing coffee at home can add money to your healthy-grocery fund.”
3. Prioritize protein. Accept the fact that healthy eating involves purchasing some relatively expensive foods. So, where should we direct our dollars to make the most of what we can afford?
“It makes sense to center your meals around what’s going to do the best job of keeping you full,” Kriegler says. “That’s protein, which is also the highest-cost component of the meal.”
Organic, pasture-raised meat and eggs are some of the pricier selections at the supermarket, “but they’re some of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat,” he explains. “They’re highly satiating, so they manage your hunger better than almost anything else in the grocery store.”
Plant-based proteins — think beans, lentils, and whole grains — are often less expensive than animal products. And aside from saving you dough, they can confer a host of other health benefits. (Learn more about the protein power of plants at “How to Get Enough Protein From a Plant-Based Diet.”)
4. Fill up on produce. You can make healthy, frugal meals with high-quality protein, especially if you round out the meal with less-expensive vegetables and fruits. “You could have three eggs with salsa for breakfast, along with a banana,” Kriegler says. “That’s going to come in under $2.50, even if you’re buying pasture-raised eggs for $7 a carton. The nutrient density and the satiety of your meals can be very high, even at a relatively low cost.”
Many vegetables and fruits are also excellent sources of dietary fiber, which helps you feel full longer and is crucial for healthy digestion. (For more on why to focus on fiber in your diet, see “Why You Need to Eat Fiber.”)
5. Buy in bulk — and avoid highly processed foods. Buy nutrient-dense foods in greater bulk and stay away from overly processed or precut options whenever possible. “With poultry, for example, you can buy skin-on, bone-in,” he says. “That will make much more delicious meals than boneless and skinless, which is convenient but always more expensive.”
Plus, you can use the chicken bones to make your own bone broth, providing the base for your next meal for much less than you would pay for a carton of bone broth at the store. (Never made bone broth? Try our recipe at “How to Make Bone Broth“.)
6. Buy frozen. Many who value healthy eating assume that they should only consume fresh produce, but Kriegler gives a thumbs-up to the typically less expensive frozen options, which are often equally nutritious. “Out-of-season produce in the fresh-produce section may have been grown in California or Mexico or even Chile, then trucked or flown thousands of miles, all the while losing nutrients,” he explains. “But frozen produce is flash-frozen at the peak of ripeness.” (Try one of these meals where frozen food is the centerpiece.)
7. Get smart about organic foods. You don’t have to buy everything organic to eat healthy. Picking and choosing which organic items make your list will shave some dollars off your grocery bill. Kriegler recommends consulting the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list (the 12 types of produce you should always buy organic).
Also check the Clean Fifteen, which includes items like avocados, sweet potatoes, and pineapples. “This is produce that doesn’t have to be sprayed as often, has thicker skins, or has skin we don’t consume,” he explains, making them good choices if you choose to buy conventional. (For a complete list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, see “EWG Releases 2022 “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” Lists.”)
8. Shop outside the store. “For grassfed or grass-finished beef, you’re going to pay $12 to $14 a pound in the grocery store,” says Kriegler, “whereas if you go directly to a farm, you’ll pay much less. If you buy beef from one of the mail-order grassfed, grass-finished companies, you’ll save money and it’ll be delivered to your door. These are great ways to get high-quality, nutritious food in a rising market.” And community-supported agriculture has the same advantages of price and convenience for fresh, organic produce.
9. Plan ahead. Because you need to manage your buying and consumption to stay satiated and nourished, Kriegler emphasizes the importance of meal planning — and sticking to the list once you’re in the store. “It’s going to require real effort and thought to buffer ourselves against inflationary pressure, but I think doing that periodically is very healthy,” he says. (For more ideas on meal planning, see “How to Simplify Meal Planning.’)
10. Reframe the cost as an investment in your health. Even if you’re able to implement all these strategies, eating fresh, high-quality whole foods is going to cost some money in the short term. One great way to get around that mental block is to think of the reduced healthcare costs — and improved quality of life — that all those healthy choices will bring in the long term.
This article originally appeared as “Reframing Your Grocery Budget” in the May 2023 issue of Experience Life.
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