The Truly Frugal Diet

Food takes up a major part of a family’s monthly budget. Depending on the size of the family and their food choices, this can range from hundreds of dollars a month to well over a thousand dollars a month. It’s also an area of spending where frugal tactics can really cut that cost significantly.

However, there’s another aspect of food spending that’s often overlooked: Your dietary choices today can either increase or decrease your health care costs in the future. Making bad dietary choices can increase your long-term health care costs; making good dietary choices can decrease those very same costs.

This has several important implications when it comes to thinking about minimizing your costs.

First, “unhealthy” food is more expensive than you think over the long term. An unhealthy meal that adds to your long-term health care costs has an extra cost hidden inside, one that you don’t see on the initial sticker.

Second, “healthy” food is less expensive than you think over the long term. A healthy meal is likely to reduce your long-term health care costs, thus the actual cost of that meal is lower than you might initially think.

Third, “healthy” food is often perceived as being not very tasty and inconvenient to prepare. This isn’t entirely true, but it is true that the most convenient foods are laden with ingredients that amp up the convenience but aren’t exactly good for long-term health.

Finally, it is really hard to find a consensus on what “healthy” and “unhealthy” means in terms of food. There are some very different ideas of what constitutes healthy eating out there, so it can be hard to figure out what actually is and isn’t healthy.

So, how do we puzzle all of this out? A good place to start is to figure out what the consensus is on “healthy” foods.

What’s ‘Healthy’? (And What Isn’t?)

As I noted earlier, there are a lot of different diets out there and a lot of different ideas of what constitutes healthy eating. Without going into a comparison of 15 different ideas of “healthy eating,” we’ll simply look at the things that these diets have in common.

In this article in The Atlantic, the author, James Hamblin, performed a meta-analysis of a lot of different diets and concluded that almost all of them had a handful of general food principles in common. In summary:

A diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants, is decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention.

Let’s be clear: Following a diet that’s “decisively associated with health promotion and disease prevention” is going to save you significant money on long-term health costs. That diet, in Hamblin’s words, consists of “a diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants.”

In general, these five principles seem to apply.

One, most of the food you eat should consist of plants, not meat and dairy products. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes – you get the idea. This doesn’t need to be all of your diet, but it should be most of it and it should make up most of the food you eat.

Two, most of the food you eat should be minimally processed. Basically, the fewer the ingredients in the items you buy, the better. Stick to the produce section as much as possible and you’re probably in good shape.

Three, “plants” doesn’t just mean fruits and vegetables – it means nuts, grains, legumes, seeds, and basically anything that directly comes from a plant. You don’t have to live on a steady diet of oranges and okra here. There’s a wide variety of foods that fall under the umbrella of “plants” and mixing and matching that variety is not only healthy, but provides a lot of culinary variety to your diet.

Four, make your own meals as much as possible so you can control the ingredients. Quite honestly, almost anything you get at a restaurant is full of a bunch of stuff you don’t really want in your diet. Often, you have no idea what it is you’re actually eating. The more you prepare your own food, the more you know what’s going into your body and the easier it becomes to follow all of these steps.

Finally, if you do buy a premade food, choose the one with the fewest ingredients that aren’t directly plants. Just grab the item, read the ingredient label, and choose the one that seems to have the highest proportion of pure plant products. If you’re looking at two pasta sauces and one of them has high fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient, you should probably choose the other one.

Taken together, these steps will improve your long-term health care outcomes. They’re guiding principles, of course, and not absolute rules, but the closer you stick to those principles, the lower your long-term health costs will be on average.

The “on average” part is important here. Some people who eat super healthy do get sick, and some people who eat really badly seem to never get sick. However, on average, the people who eat a diet closer to those principles have better health outcomes, and those better health outcomes add up to a higher quality of life and lower health care costs.

Thus, from both a financial standpoint and a long-term quality of life standpoint, following these principles is a frugal choice. You’re going to spend less over the long term on health care costs if you follow these principles.

However, it’s often hard to really translate these principles into pure dollars and cents in your grocery bill and monthly budget. If you choose to follow these dietary principles, you’re somewhat restricting the food choices you can make at the grocery store, which is potentially going to result in at least a small bump in your food expenses. That bump, on average, will be more than repaid down the road, but that reality isn’t captured in this month’s budget.

Following These Principles Frugally

So, how do you follow these principles and still keep your food costs low? Here are some strategies for doing just that.

Don’t radically change your diet to center it around foods you don’t like. A radical diet change can work if you move entirely to foods you enjoy, but most of the time, radical diet changes center around diving into foods you don’t entirely like or foods you’re familiar with. That’s usually a bad approach.

Instead, just start adding more fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains, and seeds that you happen to like into your diet. If you like oranges, start keeping oranges around and snack on them. If you like black beans, start planning more meals that involve black beans. If you like grilled zucchini, start grilling it more often.

Get into a routine of designing a meal plan and buying ingredients for that plan. One sure way to start nudging yourself in that direction is to start planning your meals in advance with more care, consciously choosing meals and snacks that are closer to the principles listed above (basically, more fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains, and seeds and less meat, dairy, and processed foods).

Our family uses a roughly weekly meal planning cycle that starts with grabbing the grocery store flyer, seeing what’s on sale, deciding on the meals we’re going to have for the week, penciling them in, figuring out what ingredients we need for those meals, making a list, and heading to the store with that list. This actually saves us a lot of time in the store because we can purely trust the list and just look for those items instead of wandering the aisles, plus we spend less while there. We end up recouping the time spent planning meals by being much faster in the store, and it saves money, too.

If you use that process or something similar, consciously choose to plan more meals around the produce mentioned in the flyer than anything else. It’s that easy.

Shop more in the produce section. In general, if you’re shopping more in the produce section than you used to, you’re probably moving in the right direction regarding these principles. If your cart is half full before you leave the produce section when, in the past, you maybe grabbed one or two items there, then you’re heading in the right direction.

This doesn’t mean that everything has to come from the produce section – in fact, that’s a bad idea for most people as you’ll end up with a diet that leaves you unhappy and frustrated. Instead, you should just be eating the fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and grains that you like more often than before. That means a few more produce items in the cart and fewer processed foods in the cart, too.

Spend less time in the aisles. This is the counterbalance to shopping more in the produce section. If you’re putting more produce in your cart, that means you should be putting fewer items from other parts of the store in your cart. After all, you’re not eating more, just different, and if one type of food goes up, others should go down.

Again, this doesn’t mean never shop in any section other than produce – that’s just silly. It just means being aware of what you’re doing and choosing to buy fruits for some snacks rather than cookies, or buying fresh vegetables for a side rather than a prepackaged food kit. I’m not saying that fruits should be your only snack or that you should only have fresh vegetables as a side, just that those things should be increased in frequency a little bit.

Try new fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains, and seeds to find things that you really like. Just try new stuff. See if you like it. Prepare it a few different ways – steaming, grilling, different seasonings, on its own, as part of a dish, and so on. Give things that you may not have liked as a kid a fresh new chance.

Yes, you probably won’t like some of the things you try, but I’ll bet you find a few things that you do like, and the more fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, grains, and seeds that you like, the more variety you can have in your diet while still eating healthier foods.

It was through this very process that I discovered how much I loved things like tomatoes and fresh peaches, items I didn’t particularly like as a kid. I adore pears. I adore raspberries. Those are both things I didn’t buy ten or fifteen years ago.

Prioritize items with shorter ingredient lists. Even if you make some dietary changes, you’ll still be shopping for some items in the rest of the grocery store. Here’s a simple strategy for making good decisions throughout the store: compare similar items and choose the one with the shorter and more natural ingredient list.

For example, let’s say you’re buying some pasta sauce. Grab a few bottles of the less expensive options and start comparing the ingredients, then choose the one that is made up almost entirely of vegetables and put the one with lots of corn syrup and other junk back on the shelf. Do the same with pasta. Do the same with salsa. Do the same with snack foods. Do the same with everything.

Yes, this might mean that sometimes you’re not buying the cheapest version of an item, but you’ll likely still find a pretty low cost version that excises a lot of the preservatives and sweeteners and other junk that you simply don’t need in your diet.

When in doubt, choose the item with the fewest ingredients and you’ll generally be making the best choice.

Eat out less. Eating out is really convenient, but it’s also an unhealthy proposition. You have no control over – and often no idea – what’s on your plate. Restaurants will often toss every unhealthy preservative they can into food to make it last longer in the back, and they’ll add all kinds of unhealthy things to food to raise rather mediocre ingredients to a level of tasting quite good. While this might end up making for a tasty night out, it’s very rarely healthy unless you’re extremely careful.

The solution? It’s not that you should never eat out, but that you should just dial back your frequency of eating out. Hit restaurants and fast food places and takeout places less often. Instead, eat meals at home more often.

Make healthier eating convenient. One of the big arguments in favor of eating out is the convenience of it. It’s often intimidating to go home and prepare a meal for your family after a long day and when there’s a busy schedule for the evening. It’s easier to just grab takeout or order delivery or take everyone through a drive-thru or go to a restaurant, right?

That might be true, but there are lots of ways to make meals at home after busy days much more convenient. One of my favorites is to eat flash frozen vegetables that can be steamed in their bag in the microwave as a side dish – they cost a dollar or so and ensure more veggies on the plate. We often make meals in the slow cooker by putting ingredients in there in the morning and letting it cook all day. We also make meals in advance on the weekends and freeze them, pulling them out a day or two in advance so that they can just be tossed in the oven and cooked quickly at the end of the day.

Again, you don’t have to do those things every single day, but simply make them a more regular part of your life. Spend a weekend afternoon making a bunch of meals in advance and stick them in the freezer. Buy some flash-frozen vegetables that steam in the bag and serve them as a side dish at dinner with a bit of salt and pepper on them. Have a few slow cooker recipes around that just involve dumping in the ingredients and turning on the slow cooker in the morning.

Final Thoughts

The goal here is simple: you want to minimize the costs related to the food you eat over the length of your life. By choosing healthier foods now, you’re reducing your long term health care costs on average over the course of your life.

This doesn’t mean radically overhauling your diet and becoming a vegan. It means going to the grocery store more often and to the fast food joint less often. It means hitting the produce section hard when you’re at the grocery store. It means putting more fruits and vegetables on your plate. The thing is, those changes usually don’t cost too much at all – in fact, many of them will actually save you money now, let alone the savings from health care costs later on. Plus you’ll feel better, too.

You don’t have to give up your favorite foods. You can just choose to put more vegetables on the plate. You don’t have to give up your favorite snacks. You can just choose to eat an orange or an apple instead of a candy bar. You don’t have to stop eating out ever. Just make a slow cooker meal once in a while when you would have eaten at a restaurant.

Those things might cost you a little now or they might save you a little now, but what they will do is cut your long term health care costs and raise your long-term quality of life, and that’s well worth it.

Good luck.

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