Eat Clean -But Cheap?
How To Eat Clean Without Cleaning Out Your Wallet
CrossFit West Santa Cruz and Shane Skowron, a CrossFitter out of New York
Let us start with the truism that eating a healthy diet will inevitably be more expensive than eating a diet of junk, empty calories, and monotony. In theory, it is possible to survive on cheap foods for a few dollars each week. In fact, that’s how millions of people live every day. Most grains, sweeteners, and mystery meats are available at dirt cheap prices, for various political and agricultural reasons that need not be explored here. If you’ve spent enough time on the CF nutrition forum, you will agree that the improvements in your performance and your appearance are worth the extra expense. You should also consider that a healthy diet might save lots of money in medical and dental expenses further down the road.
The point of this document is to show you how you can minimize the costs you spend on a quality diet with proper planning, research, and storage space. It is tailored toward people who follow a paleo or mostly-paleo diet, but the same principles apply to people who choose to eat modern agricultural foods too.
Before you start considering how to save money on a particular diet, you should figure out what sort of diet suits you best. The most important considerations will be your estimated caloric intake, your approximate macronutrient ratio, an idea of foods that you choose not to eat, and your available storage space.
For people who have caloric intakes that are high (I’m arbitrarily declaring this to be 3000 calories and more), your goal should be to maximize your calories per dollar ratio without resorting to processed foods or ruining your macronutrient ratios.
To this end, I find it helpful to divide my shopping into macronutrients: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Of course, most foods contain a mix of macronutrients, but we can still place them into categories based on which nutrient they provide the quantity of. I’ve discovered two key generalizations that have helped me plan my shopping:
1. Calorie-for-calorie, proteins are the most expensive foods. Fats are second, and carbs are the least expensive.
2. Proteins are almost always perishable. Fats and carbs can come in perishable and non-perishable forms.
These two generalizations lend us some insights on where, what, when, and how much to buy.
Where To Buy
Most people have a single supermarket where they do their shopping. If you live in a town with one supermarket, you might not have much of a choice. However if you live in an urban or suburban area, you’ll have a few choices. If so, don’t make the mistake of buying everything you eat at a single store.
Look to see if there is an ethnic supermarket in your area, especially one that caters towards Asian, African, or Latino populations. The best foods bought here are carbs in the form of fruits and vegetables. If you are lucky, you can get fresh produce for less than $1/lb. In addition, you may be able to get healthy foods in ethnic supermarkets that you’ve never had before, such as coconuts, yu choy, or duck eggs. What other savings you get here will depend on the specific market, so be sure to look in every aisle when you go here. Avoid buying brand names at an ethnic or low-income supermarket, as they will be likely more expensive than at mega supermarkets. Ethnic stores are hands-down the best places to buy spices and seasonings.
For bulk, non-perishable items, the best places to save are the large department stores like [Costco]. This is where you can get most of your fats, and some of your carbs. Department stores will often sell bags of almonds and walnuts for prices that cannot be beaten by any other type of store. Strive to buy no less than 1 lb at a time. While not a paleo food, peanut butter has some of the highest calorie to dollar ratios of any food – often close to 1000 calories per dollar. If you choose to eat peanut butter, try to avoid the peanut butters that contain some of the “bad” oils. Instead try to get all-natural peanut butter or the ones that have flaxseed or palm oils added. Buying oils is an economic choice at department stores, as many will sell large containers of olive oil, canola oil, and coconut oil. In the canned and boxed goods aisle you can find deals on packaged fruits like raisins, cranberries, pineapples, peaches, and pears. Be aware that many of these products contain added sugar or corn syrup. You can drain and wash canned fruits to eliminate most of the sugar. Trail mixes can be very cheap, although they will mostly contain peanuts and raisins – foods that can be bought more cheaply separately.
Specialty health-conscious stores like Whole Foods are a mixed bag. In general, they are not places to shop for the person who is keen on saving money. However, there are some things worth buying here, such as bulk nuts and nut butters. The prices on seafood are often fairly reasonable, but also consider that many of the seafood products were frozen and then thawed. In other words, you might be better off buying frozen seafood if it’s cheaper.
Solid protein sources are going to be the hardest thing to find, because they are the most expensive and the quickest to perish. If there is a seafood market in your area, that may be the best place to save money on protein sources. Ethnic supermarkets may have seafood sections at excellent prices. In the absence of a dedicated seafood department, many places will sell bags of frozen seafood that will be cheaper than fresh seafood, yet similar in quality.
Meat is a tricky subject, because generally speaking, the cheaper the meat, the lower quality it is. A standalone butcher may sell meat at competitive prices, but they are not as popular as they once were. Mega-supermarkets will generally sell the same type of meat at prices that are cheaper than at smaller supermarkets, although some independent and ethnic supermarkets will sell prices that are even better. When comparing prices be sure to notice the fat content and the specific cut of each package. Generally speaking, ground pork or 73% lean ground beef will be the cheapest meat you can get, but it also contains a significant amount of fat.
If you’re interested in buying grass-fed beef, the most economical choice would be to buy in bulk (hundreds of pounds at a time) from a local farmer. Some organic supermarkets will sell it in small cuts, but it will be prohibitively expensive.
I’ve yet to find a consistent trend with purchasing gallons of milk. Believe it or not, some convenience stores sell milk cheaper than grocery stores. Your best bet is to check the prices on all the stores around you. If you’re like me and drink almost a gallon of milk a day, a 50 cent per gallon difference between two stores makes a difference. Eggs, too, vary in price depending on the location.
Whey protein doesn’t exactly count as quality food. However, it can actually be cheaper than most natural sources of protein. Department stores, pharmacies, and online retailers are the best places to buy plain whey powder.
What To Buy
These are calorie-for-calorie, the cheapest foods to buy for someone who is looking for quality foods.
Proteins: whole squid, whole octopus, canned tuna, canned mackerel, ground turkey, ground beef, milk, whey protein, anything that’s on sale
Fats: almonds, walnuts, olive oil, coconut oil, canola oil, coconuts, cheese
Carbohydrates: bananas, raisins, apples, grapes, spinach, canned fruits, sweet potatoes, and any fruit or vegetable on sale
Buying animal products not butchered and not cleaned will always be cheaper. Get whole chickens, whole turkeys, whole squids, whole octopi, and whole fish whenever possible. The preparation and cooking time will increase, but it will be worth the savings. Organ meats are generally cheaper than muscle meats.
Frozen vegetables may or may not be cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Whole vegetables will be cheaper than chopped vegetables or vegetable pieces (e.g. broccoli florets). Specialty packages of mixed items like fruit salads put together by the grocer are likely to be more far expensive than buying the fruits individually.
As a general rule, if it looks convenient to prepare, store, or cook, then you can probably get it cheaper in a more inconvenient form.
When and How Much To Buy
Generally speaking, most foods that come in a package will be cheaper when bought in bulk. This includes meats, nuts, oils, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, spices, and condiments.
It is always to your advantage to buy non-perishable foods in the largest possible packages.
Most fresh produce is charged by the pound, so there is usually no advantage in buying 1 oz of spinach versus 2 lbs. Some fruits, like blueberries and strawberries, will be cheaper and more readily available when they are in season.
One way to shop is to buy your non-perishable goods once per month, and buy your perishable goods at the beginning of each week.
If there is a sale at your local market, take advantage of it by stocking up on the good. If it’s a perishable item, you can freeze it for up to 6 months. Some supermarkets will lower their prices on a shipment if it fails to sell in time for its expiration date, so be on the lookout for things that have been sitting on the shelf for awhile.
Please post your shopping advice and best deals to Comments.