Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cheap Healthy Eats: The Basic Tradeoff

Earlier today, I read a post in Chris Stocker's blog "The Life of a Diabetic" entitled  "Eating Healthy for Diabetes Doesn't Have to be Expensive." In it, he describes the changes he's made in buying some materials to make his lunch instead of eating out every day, at a nice little savings.  I want to expand out on that a bit with some thoughts of my own.

Disclaimer: Nobody knows better than me that food is complicated.  None of the below should be seen even necessarily a description of what I do (unless I say so) let alone a sermon on what you should do.

Over the last several decades, our culture has sought ways to spend money to save time.  All sorts of goods and services have been developed to allow us to trade some money to save some time.  This is very true of the food industry.  Thus, one way to save some money on our food is to make that essential trade the other way -- spending a little more time to save some money.

Our grocery stores are rife with opportunities to do this: whole chickens are cheaper per serving than boneless skinless chicken breasts, stalk celery is cheaper per crunch than bags of precut, "regular" oatmeal is cheaper per breakfast than instant, and bulk spinach is cheaper than bags of prewashed. Generally, the closer you can get to the food as it exists in nature, the less you'll spend, because you're not paying somebody else to do the prep. 

There are exceptions to this: it's my understanding that baking bread, for example, doesn't become economical until it's pretty high quality bread that you're replacing.  There are other cases where the savings only manifest if you compare items of similar quality: it's pretty cheap to make your own frozen burritos, but it's not as cheap as the low-end burritos, at least some of which are wrapped in TWO tortillas. (That means there's what, two tablespoons of actual filling?)

I'm not a home economist, but it's my impression that part of what we mean when we say that "eating healthy is more expensive" is that we want our healthy food to be as ready to eat as the less healthy food we want to replace.  If we can invest some time, we might find that it works better at the cash register.

Additionally, it's worth remembering that some foods are very cheap indeed if we're willing to do more of the prep.  I'm not sure there's a better protein bargain in the whole store than dried beans, a bargain we can take advantage of with a little advance planning.   And many frozen vegetables are quite inexpensive if we're willing to throw them in a bowl with a little water and some plastic wrap in order to microwave them rather than buy the steamer packs. 

So, as we look to replace unhealthy foods with healthier ones, we might think about where we can work a little more food prep time into our schedules.  That might not only save us some money but help us consume fewer of the additives found in most more highly-processed foods.  Plus, doing more of our own prep allows us to add our own flavorful touches.

Again, I'm not a home economist.  I don't know how much of your own cooking you'd need to do to make a healthy diet cheaper than one based in convenience foods.  But I'm certain that spending a little more time in the kitchen can soften the blow considerably.

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T Minus Two by Bob Pedersen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.