A family shopping for healthy food on a budget

Eating Healthy on a Budget, Part One: a Chef’s View

Amber Frazier Blog

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If you just looked at your monthly financial statement, the headline Eating Healthy on a Budget might be cringe-worthy.

It’s no longer news that food prices are rising. The USDA’s Economic Research Service report predicts all food prices to increase between 6.5 and 7.5 percent in 2022. The report predicts grocery store prices to increase between 7 and 8 percent, and restaurant prices to increase between 6 and 7 percent this year.

All meat and eggs are projected to increase in price the most, followed by fish, seafood, and dairy, then fresh fruits and vegetables.

This doesn’t take into account the price difference in organic or pasture-raised foods, which tend to be more expensive, yet highly valued for their nutritional content and lack of toxic pesticides in produce, and hormones in meat and dairy.

For many on a lower or single household income, it may seem daunting to buy high-quality, whole foods, when it’s becoming difficult to even get food on the table. Wherever you find yourself on the budget spectrum, there are ways to be able to use your resources to the best of your ability, making it possible to avoid breaking both the bank and your healthy habits. In this first part of our three-part series, we are going to dive into some tips from our Natural Food Chef Tracy for lower-income budgets, then hear some wisdom from a recent NTI graduate. Finally, we will provide a budget-friendly meal plan for you to put into practice.

Food Budgeting as a Chef

“Eating whole foods can be very budget-friendly,” said Chef Tracy Spalding, NFC, from the Natural Food Chef program at NTI School.

As restaurant prices continue to climb, the cook says…cook! In addition, she says making meat a condiment on the plate and focusing more on produce can help cut costs. Rice and properly prepared beans make a whole protein and can be a substitute for meat in a pinch.

Chef Tracy also volunteered with Cooking Matters, a national organization that offers parents and caregivers to cook and purchase healthy food on a budget. One program Chef Tracy taught was for people that utilize SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

In the NFC kitchen, “we teach to break down a chicken since it is a more economical way of purchasing chicken,” she said.

She also suggests using the Cooking Matters App, which provides recipes, tips, and other resources for choosing and preparing healthy food that meets the mark for your budget.

More Tricks to Lower Food Costs

To use up all vegetables that might be getting older, Cooking Matters suggests chopping and adding them to soups, and using them to dip in hummus. Broccoli and cauliflower tend to be less expensive vegetables and apples and bananas are some of the less expensive fruits.

To get healthy omega-3 fatty acids into your diet, buying nuts and seeds in bulk and soaking and sprouting them to neutralize phytates and oxalates can be more cost-effective. To get more of a bang for your precious avocado buck, you can freeze avocados. If olive oil is a staple for your cooking, consider buying it in bulk to save cost and storing it in a dark glass or tin container. For portion control, consider adding a pouring attachment. Use within 30-60 days of opening to prevent it from going rancid.

Organic, pasture-raised meat is taking the biggest toll on our pocketbooks lately. In addition to eating less meat (which will stretch your budget), consider buying from local farms, which often charge less. You can search LocalHarvest to find farms near your home. Subscribing to delivery services like Thrive Market can save money if you plan your meals well. Finally, shopping for store-brand organic foods can help cut costs.

Eating in season can cut costs by following the harvest – and slaughtering – times. Yes, meat has seasons too! Chickens and lamb tend to be more available in the spring, while beef is plentiful as the season turns to fall and they’ve grazed all the summer grass. Since pigs feed on fruits and nuts, they are slaughtered in the late fall. You can search for harvest times for produce by food item or by area using this Seasonal Food Guide.

If that’s not enough incentive, WIC programs offer “double bucks” for purchasing local produce. In Colorado, you will get $1 off local-grown fruits or vegetables for every $1 you spend on a SNAP-eligible item. Search your local WIC program to see if it applies to you.

When not eating in season, frozen and canned vegetables can be less expensive alternatives. Frozen produce is often picked at its peak when they are in season, so you are less likely to lose nutrients and flavor.

Buying store-brand items can significantly reduce the cost of food. To compare prices, look at the unit price of an item. Many stores offer a store brand that is natural or organic which is often much less than traditional organic brands. For example, King Soopers has Simple Truth, Natural Grocers and Whole Foods have their name brands, Safeway has O Organics, etc. Be sure to look for labels to indicate whether they are natural or organic.

Buying whole instead of prepared foods can significantly cut costs. Though convenience does have a price, it might be worth it to stretch your culinary capabilities to cut carrots yourself rather than buying them pre-sliced. Buying ingredients to prepare a meal rather than paying extra for a frozen meal will also ensure your food is free of preservatives, excess sodium, and artificial flavorings.

Learn to prioritize which foods are most important to buy organic by consulting the Environmental Working Group. The organization’s Dirty Dozen lists fruits and vegetables projected to have the greatest amount of pesticides used in the growing process from the top manufacturers within the year. On the flip side, the Clean Fifteen lists produce that is less likely to have high levels of pesticides. Though any level of pesticides is harmful and worth avoiding, it is helpful to be able to know how to prioritize when it’s not always within the budget to shop organic for every item.

Planning ahead is an excellent way to ensure that you’re buying only what’s necessary and using all the food you buy. MealBoard is an app that offers pantry management, a grocery list builder, recipes, ingredients, food categories, etc.

Proper storage of fresh produce goes a long way in preventing waste and stretching your budget.

So, if you were looking at your financial statement and cringed at this headline, rest assured that there are ways for next month’s bill to not look too red…while still having healthy meals on the table.

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About the author: Lisa Driscoll is a student at NTI’s Nutrition Therapist Master Program. Having studied journalism and vocal performance in undergrad, she enjoys using her voice to share the benefits of living a holistic, integrated lifestyle in writing. You can find more of her writing in the Baltimore Sun, Classical Singer MagazineCapital News Service, and FOCUS blog.

About Nutrition Therapy Institute’s Holistic Nutrition Certification

Nutrition Therapy Institute (NTI) is a leader in holistic nutrition education. Since 1999, NTI has provided students with the highest quality in nutrition training by offering comprehensive holistic nutrition courses.  Offering online and in-person nutrition course options to help students achieve thriving careers as nutrition therapists.  Interested in starting our science-based nutrition courses and earning your holistic nutrition certification? Attend an informational webinar to learn more by signing up HERE.

Image: Image by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

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