The last question completely threw me off guard. A frustrated middle-aged woman, sitting in a back row, stood up just as the moderator told my audience, "One more question."
Her initial sigh signaled hesitancy. "I work two jobs and raise three kids pretty much by myself," she began. "My husband is unemployed, but he spends most days looking for work. I come home most days after 6 p.m. drained. How can you expect me to not only get a healthy meal on the table every night, but also buy these expensive foods?"
She pointed to the nearby meat counter at the store where I was promoting my shakes.
I had a thought-out speech well-rehearsed for such questions: How healthy food becomes inexpensive health care, how a value meal isn't such a great value when you factor in sick days and other obstacles, and how that grass-fed steak might cost $15.99 a pound but being lean and healthy is priceless.
Yet as I saw her frustration, I forgot my reasoning and simply sympathized.
You see, I'm a single mom juggling two businesses and raising two teenage boys. I get it: Folks can't always afford $3.99-a-pound organic broccoli. They don't have time to scout out arcane ingredients for healthy meals. And after a particularly brutal day, I understand how backseat begging can override even the most determined insistence on a healthy meal.
Does Eating Healthy Really Cost More?
When readers tell me they can't afford to eat healthy, I ask them to tally up their bills. While grass-fed beef or wild-caught salmon might seem pricy, overall folks discover they save money eating healthier and bypassing overpriced processed and convenience foods. I had one woman who dropped nearly seven dollars every weekday morning on a coffee-shop latte and low-fat muffin.
Studies prove eating healthy ultimately saves money. One found "convenient sources are less healthy and more expensive than a well-planned menu from budget foods available from large supermarket chains."
In her book What to Eat, Dr. Marion Nestle said the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) determined you could get your full day's allotment of three fruits and four vegetables for just 64 cents in 1999 dollars.
Nestle didn't believe eating healthy could be so inexpensive, so she tried it herself and discovered a serving of green vegetables -- in this case, green beans -- cost a measly 11 cents per serving.
You might be surprised too how you can stretch your food dollar. Here are 10 ways.
1. Buy locally and in season. Buying in season means fresher, more delicious, nutrient-denser, probably local, and most likely less expensive foods. Asparagus peaks in spring, while blueberries are ripest in summer. Learn which foods match with the season to boost your health, support local growers, and save a few bucks in the bargain.
2. Buy frozen and stock up. I simply forgot about it: I bought several heads of organic cauliflower, had a change in dinner plans, and the poor things just wilted in my fridge crisper drawer. Darn it: Seven bucks down the drain! Frozen foods eliminate that problem and save you money. You can buy weeks' -- months' -- worth of frozen kale, raspberries, and other favorites to store in your freezer, so you always have essentials for soups, shakes, stews and side dishes.
3. Skip convenience foods. Knowing you're short on time, supermarkets cash in on pre-sliced veggies, trimmed-and-cleaned chicken breasts, and pre-cooked -- well, just about everything. Once I realized pre-prepped broccoli florets cost twice as much as organic broccoli heads and I could buy a whole bird for the same cost as four tiny chicken breasts, I decided saving a little time wasn't worth spending a lot more money. What making foods from scratch demands in time often saves you in money.
4. Less meat, more plant-based foods. Loaded with nutrients, high-quality protein and essential fatty acids, grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon are among your best food bargains. They often aren't cheap, especially if you're trying to feed a family of four or more. Stretch your food dollar by loading more of your plate with inexpensive, filling leafy and cruciferous veggies, good fats like avocado, and slow-release high-fiber carbs like quinoa and legumes.
5. Start your day with a protein shake. Time and lack of appetite are two excuses people sometimes use to either skip breakfast or order a cheese Danish with their gargantuan dark roast. One meta-analysis of six studies found a nutrient-fortified meal replacement shake could "safely and effectively produce significant sustainable weight loss and improve weight-related risk factors of disease." For less than a designer coffee, you can create a filling, fat-burning non-soy plant-based shake with frozen raspberries, freshly ground flaxseed, kale or other leafy greens in unsweetened coconut or almond milk.
6. Join a farmers collective or co-op. More cities now have food co-ops where you volunteer your time for reduced-cost produce as well as other locally grown and raised foods. Maybe you have no extra time or co-ops aren't really for you. Farmers collectives provide similar opportunities with grass-fed beef and other pasture-raised foods. Your city probably has a farmers market during the warmer months. Palm Springs (where I live) and other warmer climates have farmers markets nearly year round, although some cities now conveniently have indoor farmers markets during colder seasons.
7. Load your plate with high-fiber foods. My number one nutrient for eating less: fiber, which delays gastric emptying, balances blood sugar, curbs cravings and makes you full faster. What's not to love? Aim for two or three inexpensive, high-fiber foods at every meal. Excellent choices include avocado, legumes, nuts, seeds and leafy greens. My secret weapon to bypass seconds and reduce your dessert hankering: Stir a scoop of freshly ground flaxseed or a fiber-blend supplement powder into a tall glass of water 30 to 60 minutes before meals.
8. Prepare ahead of time. You know the saying: Fail to plan, plan to fail. Whether your goal is fast fat loss or getting a healthy meal on the table for your family, thinking ahead can save you time, money, and effort. If you know you'll be stuck late at work tomorrow, prep dinner ingredients and you'll be far less tempted to spike your credit card bill ordering in or grabbing take-out. Many clients make Sunday "prep day" for the week ahead.
9. Learn the dirty dozen. In a perfect world, every food would be organic. Realistically, sometimes it becomes hard to justify spending three times for organic produce. That's why you want to know the Dirty Dozen: you always want to buy these 12 most-contaminated foods organic. The "Clean 15" are your least contaminated foods, with few or no contaminants. If you're going to buy non-organic, these are your best bets.
10. Brew your own. Coffee and tea, that is! (Although come to think of it, you could also save big money making your own pinot noir or gluten-free beer.) Like my client who unknowingly spent $35 a week on sugary lattes and stale pastries, your caffeine habit can take its toll on your pocketbook and even your waistline. Become your own barista and brew a cup of organic coffee or green tea for far less than what you'd spend at a coffee shop.
Remember to Look at the Big, Big Picture:
While I wrote this blog with your budget in mind, I want you to also think beyond money. I love a good bargain as much as anyone, and know the euphoric rush of getting a great deal on something you love.
Here's the thing: You can always earn more money, but you can't put a price on your health. You can't put a price on setting a healthy example for your kids. Look at spending those extra dollars on locally grown, organic produce or grass-fed beef as an investment in your long-term health and future generations.
During my nearly three decades as a nutrition and fitness expert, I've had folks share interesting ways they save money choosing inexpensive, nutrient-rich foods. What are your strategies to stay lean and healthy on a budget?
Marion Nestle. What to Eat. (New York: North Point Press, 2010.)