Editorial Policy

How to make room in your budget for healthy food

Allie Johnson

August 27, 2013

I love fruits and veggies, and they’re the centerpiece of my diet – so they often also make up the bulk of my grocery bill.

And lately, because I’m trying to lose a few pounds, I’ve been relying on produce even more. Smoothies, salads and vegetable soups are low in calories and high in fiber, so they keep me full without pushing me over my daily calorie limit.

As I’ve searched for meal ideas that will keep both my weight and my budget in check, I’ve noticed that cheap meal ideas and tips posted by frugality bloggers often focus on high-calorie convenience foods, such as pasta, as well as dairy and meat purchased on sale. For example, this list of dirt-cheap meals published by The Simple Dollar features items like PB&J, spaghetti with marinara and eggs with black beans and tortillas.

In fact, many consumers say eating healthy costs too much. But is it really more expensive to eat lots of fruits and veggies?

That depends on how you measure the price, according to a 2012 study by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Researchers checked the price of more than 4,400 grocery items by calorie, weight and average portion. It was only when measuring by the calorie that many healthy foods actually cost more than unhealthy items.

“Foods low in calories for a given weight appear to have a higher price when the price is measured per calorie,” the report states, noting that convenience foods high in saturated fat and added sugar tend to be high-calorie, and thus have a lower price per calorie. That makes sense: You’d have to buy almost four heads of Romaine lettuce and spend maybe $4 to get as many calories as are in one 30 cent package of Ramen noodles.

But if, like me, you’re trying to cut calories, you might consider that a plus. Use these seven tips to eat more healthy foods without breaking the bank:

1) Put fruits and vegetables first. According to the USDA, the average family of four spends about $185 a week on food, including meals out, but fruits and veggies get squeezed out of the budget. The average American consumes 1.47 cups of vegetables a day, which is less than 60 percent of the recommended amount, and 0.84 cups of fruit, which is 42 percent of what they should be consuming. The Produce Marketing Association calculates that Americans could meet USDA guidelines, eating about 4.5 cups of fruits and veggies a day, for a little over $2 a person — or less than $60 a week for a family of four. That should leave plenty of room to buy other foods to round out the diet.

2) Stick to the basics. If you load your cart with organic arugula, kumquats and purple potatoes, you could spend a fortune. I’ve found it’s better to rely on less exotic produce for the bulk of my meals, buying fancy items sparingly to add occasional variety. According to the USDA, the least expensive veggies are  potatoes, lettuce, eggplant, greens, summer squash, carrots and – this is interesting — tomatillos. And the cheapest fruits are watermelon, bananas, apples, pears, pineapples and peaches.

3) Keep it simple. If you make a simple meal, using just a few ingredients, you will spend far less than if you cook from a complicated recipe. One of my favorite recipes for summer, a cold pea and spinach soup, costs less than $5 to make and provides about four meals total.

4) Cook extra and freeze some. You get more bang for your buck, and keep produce from going bad, by doubling or tripling recipes and freezing the leftovers. This works especially well with soup. I usually buy a head of cabbage and use the whole thing to make a big pot of veggie soup.

5) Consider frozen or canned. According to the USDA, it can sometimes be cheaper to eat frozen or canned vegetables instead of fresh ones. These also can be a time saver since they’re ready to eat. I use frozen fruits in smoothies and frozen veggies in soups and stews.

6) Join a CSA. We joined a CSA (community-supported agriculture) last summer. CSAs allow several people to pay membership fees to farmers in exchange for a share of the crop — usually a box of produce. It wasn’t exactly cheap. However, we found that volunteers got to take home the produce left by members who didn’t show up to get their shares. One day, we went home loaded down with pears, elephant garlic, onions and peppers. It took us weeks to use all of it. It’s definitely worth asking if you can trade labor for leftovers.