Updated on 10.08.14

How to Eat Healthy on the Cheap

Trent Hamm

FarmThis 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?

9 Ways to Eat Healthy Affordably

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. 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.

9. “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?

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  1. John says:

    I think you’ve hit on the number one reason people don’t eat healthier in general: convenience.

    Most people’s lives are so busy that they can’t spend the time meticulously preparing meals every night (or two, depedning on leftovers), but can buy a nice frozen skillet meal, or crock-pot starter. I would contend that these meals (especially from Lean Cuisine or Healthy Choice, even Stouffers) are just as good a choice when convenience is to be prized, and not unhealthy (though I’ll agree the salt content is a little high on the Stouffers).

    It’s when you make your entire meal from frozen burritos and Hungry Man dinners that you are in for trouble.

  2. Brock says:

    Ah! No! Note the “.gov.au” suffix on the website you send people to for seasonal eating. Please do NOT tell people to use an Australian website to determine what veggies & fruits are in season in the US. The seasons are flipped in the southern hemisphere.

    Watermelon, for example, is a warm-weather fruit, but the Australian site tells people it’s in season in January through May. In the US, it’s May through September, with the peak in the mid-summer.

    Please fix this, or it will live on the Internet forever.

  3. Beth says:

    Another good tip? Take turns feeding each other. I’m in a lunch group with three coworkers, so I make lunch one day a week, and get fed three other days. It means just one night of cooking/planning transforms itself into four healthy lunches.

    I’ve heard of people doing this for evenings, as well – they form a group, take turns cooking, and just pick up a container with their dinner and cooking instructions at some point in the early evening. It’s a brilliant idea.

  4. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Brock: Fixed. I intended to have guides for both hemispheres, but I didn’t include the northern hemisphere guide at first. Good catch.

  5. Great post. I recommend Michael Pollan’s book “The Omnivore Dilemma” for those who want to learn more about food and agriculture in the US. It’s very readable.

  6. Eric says:

    Soda is cheap because it’s flavored sugar water. Although generally made with corn syrup in the US it’s made with cane sugar in many parts of the world without a serious impact on it’s price or profitability.

    To add a little balance there are legitimate reasons you don’t want growing of food staples, like corn, to be left “up to the market”. You can also get many healthy and less expensive items by getting frozen and concentrated items ( remember that shipping and spoilage can make a huge impact on price ). Most 100% juice is “from concentrate” anyways.

    That being said there is little reason besides laziness that people don’t grow a portion of their own produce. Leaf lettuce, green peppers, cucumbers, and carrots should be growable anywhere in the contential US.

    The idea that people need to eat meat daily is also a misnomer that will, more often than not, lead to poor eating decisions. At our household we have “rice and beans” at least once a week. A couple of bucks for the entree and you can throw many spices and toppings on for cheap. Leftovers usually go into a end-of-the-week chili made with ground turkey as the meat. Cobb salad and chicken caesar salad makings can be make ahead of time and sprinkled over fresh lettuce for a cheap and nutritious meal as well.

  7. Vincent says:

    John is right, part of it is convenience – why spend time making food when we can spend less than a dollar and have a steaming hot “hamburger” produced before our very eyes? But at the same time, I think part of the problems is lack of information (or worse, misinformation). People just don’t know how to do things anymore.

    One thing to keep in mind, though, is that it takes a lot of time and money for a kitchen to become well-stocked and well-equipped. It’s important to note that good kitchen equipment – like pots and pans and knives–is very expensive and can often only be bought one article at a time, while using cheaper stuff in the meantime. Grocery bills can be very high at first as well. But, once things are humming along, the experience is worth it, and you save money in the long run.

  8. Robert says:

    Living where I do, the deer population is overpopulated. I know there are some people who have a phobia when it comes to eating deer, but nothing could be better on your wallet:

    I do not hunt simply because I do not have a place to go. But I know many people who do. Shooting deer is environmentally friendly, and the hunters I know are more than happy to give me a deer they shot. Sometimes, they pay for the processing. If not, it costs less than $100 (~$60 where I last went) for a deer to be processed and it yields a wealth of meat.

    A few deer roasts – go great in the crockpot
    Deer tenderloin – Marinate then pan-fry and serve over rice
    Deer burger – Some with added beef fat for hamburgers and others with no added fat for pasta sauce

    Eating deer is cheap, healthy, and environmentally friendly way to get some meat into your diet. There is an abundance in the southeast and if you know a hunter, it doesn’t require any hunting skill at all.

  9. Suze says:

    Obesity is not a problem relegated to the working class. It’s everywhere.

  10. K says:

    thank you for the link to the seasonal veggie chart. i had been looking for a good one for a while now and the last link i saw rec was a dead link.

  11. Benji Gonzalez says:

    Holy smack! Again, you have wondered into the kook territory.

    Again, you of all people should realize that the work it takes to produce and transport (not to mention meet FDA regulations) are 10x more intensive for orange juice than for coke.

    Fast food is also cheaper and quicker because they have developed idiot-proof standards from the farm to the griddle. They have their own suppliers, in most cases that only supply, and meet theirs as well as the governments standards.

    The whole religiously philosophy around veganism and vegetarianism has been displayed time and time again. As though a plant is going to absorb more than it needs to grow, as you would absorb more calcium because you intook it in corral form.

    Make your own food because you know whats going into it. Make your own food because it means your more independent. Make your own food for many other reasons but that ‘ol “food from this farm is more nutrient rich than food from that farm” argument just isn’t scientific

  12. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Benji: the farm bill is responsible for the commoditization of high-fructose corn syrup, and that stuff is absolutely terrible for you.

  13. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Michelle: not sure what you mean. The article provides separate links for northern and southern hemisphere seasons.

  14. James says:

    Purely pedantic comment, but: “eat healthy” makes no sense. Eat is a verb, healthy is an adjective. It’s “eat healthily”.

  15. typome says:

    @Benji: I think the reason why fruits and veggies from smaller family farms with greater diversity tend to be more nutrient-packed than their factory-farm, single-veggie counterparts is because:

    1) fruits/veggies from farmers markets for instance are picked that day, so the fruit/veggie had way more time to ripen and absorb all of the nutrients than a fruit from the grocery, which had to be picked much earlier so that it wouldn’t over-ripen or bruise by the time it got trucked to the grocery store.

    2) fruits/veggies that are grown without pesticides are naturally “stronger” because they need to fend for themselves against elements like bugs and weather. The fruits/veggies plants that are sprayed get it easy and don’t have to work as hard and therefore don’t build the same defenses. So when you eat the one from the farmers market, you’re getting a fruit that’s going to pass its own defensive nutrients on to you.

  16. friendviola says:

    for a great documentary on the farm bill and industrialized corn production and processing, I recommend “King Corn”. we got it from netflix. it also has a good explaination of the changes made to the bill by the Nixon administration and how it affected family diversified farms and our diet.

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