This Sunday, I read a very interesting article in the New York Times about the reason that processed “energy dense” foods are less expensive than fresh foods: the farm bill. Government subsidies to corn farmers encourage them to grow as much corn as possible instead of supporting prices and limiting production, and with that much corn out there meat, milk, and added sugars become extremely cheap.
What does this mean for you? Junk food is dirt cheap and healthy food is not. That’s why a two liter of Coca Cola can be had for less than a dollar, but two liters of freshly squeezed orange juice costs several dollars. That’s why you can get a finished skillet meal in a bag far more cheaply than you can get the raw materials to make that same meal. That’s also why there’s an obesity epidemic in the working class – the junk food is cheap and tasty and provides the necessary calories, but those cheap calories come from excessive fats and processed sugars. Unsurprisingly, most Americans have an unhealthy diet and suffer the consequences in many ways.
So how do you get around this situation and eat healthy without spending a great deal more on food? Here are ten ways to eat healthy on the cheap.
Making your own meals This is the biggest step you can make to eat healthier and cheaper. Prepare your own meals from scratch. For many people, this is a real challenge – I know that once upon a time, I was basically scared to boil water. The best way to start is to get a good cooking instruction book; I highly recommend Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. Also, an appropriately stocked kitchen with appropriate equipment is essential – if you don’t have the tools to do basic cooking, it becomes much harder to learn.
Farmer’s markets Once you’re confident with the foods, you’ll discover that the local farmer’s market is an incredible resource for getting very fresh food at a very nice rate. During the summer and fall here in Iowa, the farmer’s market is the backbone of our entire diet.
Buying foods in season Hand in hand with the farmer’s market is the idea of generally buying food in season. Use this site (if you’re in the northern hemisphere) or this site (if you’re in the southern hemisphere) as a reference for which fruits and vegetables are in season during each month and use that information to consistently find good values at your food source of choice.
Food exchanges This is something that my parents did all the time. They would exchange their own produce for stuff others would grow, or exchange other goods and services for produce. I have done this myself on occasion: I fixed a computer in exchange for a box full of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and okra – I suggested the trade because the family was obviously having money issues and they were utterly panicking about how to pay me for making their computer operable again, while their deck was covered in tons of picked fresh produce.
Growing your own garden You can start a simple garden anywhere, even in an apartment, and you can get started with as little as a single plant. What’s the benefit? The freshest fruits and vegetables you can possibly get – and the cost is almost nonexistent.
Freezing and canning If you find a great deal on a certain food, don’t be afraid of freezing or canning it for later. It’s quite easy to take tomatoes (which you might have an abundance of if you plant them yourself), make sauce out of them, and freeze Ziploc bags full of it for use in the winter.
Spices One big problem with preparing “healthy” foods is that they often don’t taste as good as other foods. One big reason for this is that most people have no idea how to properly spice their foods, even though it’s really simple. You can start a really effective spice collection for just a few dollars, and with just ten spices, you can bring out incredible flavors in almost any dish.
The crock pot Some people (myself included) are often incredibly busy and simply lack the needed time to continually make homemade meals. The crock pot can be a savior in this environment. Never mind the reputation it has for making bland foods, because it simply isn’t true – you can easily make very tasty and healthy foods in a crock pot. Here are five great recipes to get you started, including my beef burgundy recipe that I dearly love.
Leftovers If you prepare a healthy meal, it’s often hard to judge exactly how much you should make. Around here, we make plenty and eat the leftovers for lunch the following day or for supper in a few nights. The real key is to know how to make leftovers more than just nasty reheated food: rethink the meal a bit and change up the spices, for starters. Eating leftovers drastically reduces the cost per meal of eating healthy foods.
“Instameals” One major advantage that unhealthy foods have is convenience, and one very effective way to combat convenience is by making your own “fast food” in the form of what we’ve begun to call “instameals.” In essence, they’re foods that are ready to go straight out of the freezer that can be microwaved and eaten quickly, like breakfast burritos and such. You can make appropriate ones in bulk when the ingredients are in season and then eat them at your convenience over time.
The possibilities and options of eating healthy and inexpensively are endless, and many of the options are quite convenient, so what’s keeping you from eating a healthier diet?