The Challenge of Frugality and Good Nutrition

The other day, I went through a local grocery store flyer and marked items as either being “healthy” or “unhealthy.” I was curious as to whether items on sale were items that provided good long-term nutrition for people or not.

Of course, the first problem is defining what “healthy” and “unhealthy” means. Part of the challenge that people have when figuring out what foods are “good” for them and “bad” for them is that there is so much contrasting information out there.

For example, what’s better for you, skim milk or whole milk? There are reasonable arguments on both sides of that coin. In truth, it has a lot to do with what makes up the rest of your diet.

Does something have to be organic or treated in certain ways in order to be “healthy” and provide “good nutrition”? What about GMOs? You’re simply opening the door to endless arguments that simply aren’t resolvable in any satisfying way.

I think it’s generally easy to identify at least a few things that are clearly “healthy.” Fresh fruits and vegetables are pretty much healthy by anyone’s standards, as are flash-frozen fruits and vegetables.

It gets a bit harder to clearly identify which foods are “unhealthy,” because every time you make a broad statement about a category of items in the grocery store, you can find an item that can be a significant part of a healthy diet, at least by some acceptable standard.

Given all of this, it’s no wonder that people are often confused about what to eat. It gets even worse when you start looking at price as a significant factor. If money is no object, you can obviously make different dietary choices than some, but that’s not the reality for most of us.

Not surprisingly, I gave up on my grocery flyer “experiment.” It was too hard to identify each item as clearly “healthy” and “not healthy” once I got past the small number of fresh produce and frozen items that were clearly healthy.

So, how do you eat a diet that’s both nutritious and frugal? I’ve figured out five rules that, if you follow them, should point you toward a healthier diet.

Rule #1: At least half of your plate at each meal should be fruits and vegetables, minimally seasoned.

It’s pretty hard to argue that fruits and vegetables aren’t good for you, so just make them a larger part of your diet. That’s pretty easy.

This can still be cheap. Watch your grocery flyer for what’s on sale in the produce department each week and get plenty of those items. Figure out new ways to use them throughout the week.

Rule #2: Drink a big glass of water before each meal and make water your usual beverage.

If you do this, you’re not going to be as hungry during the meal because your stomach will have a bunch of water in it already. This helps tackling the big problem of portion control, which is actually the biggest enemy of all both for your health and for your wallet.

So, just before each meal, gulp down some water. You’ll find that you get full faster. That means you eat less food, which means that you have lowered food expenses.

At the same time, cut out extra beverages like soda from your diet. Get used to drinking water as your primary beverage. Water is extremely inexpensive from the tap; even if you don’t like the tap water, a water filter still makes it way cheaper than buying soda. The habit of just having something to drink on your desk easily works with water – trust me.

Rule #3: Put less food on your plate and eat it slowly.

You don’t need to put a ton of food on your plate. Try putting about half as much on your plate as you usually do. If you find that you want more when your plate is clean, get more (while sticking to the “fruit and vegetable balance”).

At the same time, eat a little slower. For me, I found it useful to start putting my silverware down on the table while chewing each bite. If I’m eating a sandwich, I put it on the plate and remove my hands while chewing. The whole purpose is to allow your body more time to signal when it’s full, which generally means you eat a little less, which generally reduces food costs.

Rule #4: Avoid any completely prepackaged meals.

If there’s one food item I would call “unhealthy,” it would be the completely prepackaged meals. If you can pop it out of the container, mix everything together, and just throw it straight in the oven, then there’s likely a bunch of junk in there that isn’t good for you. There are exceptions to this, but they’re exceptions, not the rule.

If you want the convenience of these kinds of meals, make them in advance – in fact, here’s my ultimate guide for making meals in advance. You can prepare them from basic ingredients, which makes them cheaper, and you can control what’s actually in there, which makes them (usually) healthier.

If you’re tempted by fast food, make your own versions of your favorite items. Stick them in the freezer so you can just grab them when you get home or before you leave. They’ll usually be cheaper and they’ll certainly be healthier without sacrificing taste.

Rule #5: If you’re unsure about what to buy, get the simpler version and jazz it up yourself.

If you have the option of getting seasoned or unseasoned meat, get the unseasoned meat and flavor it yourself. Buy the plain yogurt and add fruit yourself (this lets you buy one big container instead of several small ones, too). Buy plain bread and add garlic yourself.

This way, you have more control over what goes into the product. You never have perfect control, of course, but simply choosing to add things yourself instead of trusting food additives is almost always a good idea. Plus, it’s usually cheaper – compare the prices of an ordinary loaf of bread and a loaf of garlic bread in the bakery sometime, for example.

If you manage to follow the ideas here, you’re probably eating a reasonably frugal and reasonably healthy diet. You’re doing good, so don’t stress out about finding the “perfect” food or the “perfect” diet. Don’t cut out all of the foods you like. Don’t get obsessed with nuances.

These little changes will almost always reduce your food spending while also improving the quality of your diet.

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