How to Eat Healthy when Times are Tough

The world has been on fire for a while… and now we’re seeing grocery prices shoot up. Eating healthy can be difficult even when everything most some things are going well. How can we afford to eat healthy now?

What is “Eating Healthy?”

This depends on who you ask. I recommend asking a registered dietitian – like me ;)! There’s so much information out there, much of it conflicting, and what works for one person may not work for another. So is there one right way to eat? No, of course not. Are there patterns of behavior that would work for most people? Yeah, I think so. Obviously, from the name of my business, you could deduce I believe plant-based diets are optimal for our health. In the oft-quoted words of Michael Pollan:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

-Eat food: as in eat whole, unprocessed foods. Things that don’t have good stuff taken away or not so good stuff added.

-Not too much: be intentional with your food. Think about how you think about food. Mindset matters.

-Mostly plants: the bulk of the diet should be whole, unprocessed plant foods. Beans, legumes, seeds, nuts, vegetables, grains, and fruit.

I’ve stated before and I’ll state it again: plants are essential to providing us a fiber-rich diet. Fiber not only promotes better digestion, but the proliferation of good gut bacteria. (Hello, microbiome.) Having a gut full of good guys helps us ward off infections, maintain general health, and prevent chronic disease. Studies have shown those following plant-based diets are healthier weights, have lower rates of cancer, and lower rates of diabetes, among many other things. However, most Americans do not meet the minimum fiber recommendations. We’ve got to eat more plants.

This all seems so simple, but it’s not. At least for a lot of people. And that makes sense. Animal foods dominate American culture. Food is more than food to most of us. It’s culture; it’s emotion; it’s comfort.

The Cost of Healthy Eating

If I’ve heard one thing more than anything else as a dietitian, is that it’s too expensive to eat healthy. And now we’re seeing a historic rise in grocery store prices- with no signs of stopping anytime soon. As established above, a diet rich in plant foods is a diet ideal for health. Let’s take a look at some of the top categories of common grocery items listed in order from highest price hikes to lowest, over the past year (courtesy of the USDA):

  1. Beef & veal
  2. Pork
  3. Poultry
  4. Fats & oils
  5. Eggs
  6. Fish & Seafood
  7. Cereals & bakery products
  8. Fresh fruits & veggies
  9. Sugar & Sweets
  10. Dairy products

Everything is more expensive now than a couple years ago- even historically low cost staple foods. And, full transparency, prices are going to continue to increase over this next year. But meat and eggs are getting more expensive at a faster rate than plant foods. This is related to pandemic-related meatpacking plant closures, worker shortages, shifting consumer demand, an outbreak of avian flu, as well as an increase in oil and gas prices.

7 Real Tips to Eat Healthy for Less

So how can you eat more plants and make your dollar stretch longer? Try some, or all of the following:

  1. Sub in or swap out more expensive ingredients. Add beans/legumes to your favorite ground meat dishes. Example: spaghetti and meat sauce- add in some lentils to up the fiber content. This will make the dish more filling and allow you to stretch your ground beef to other meals. Play with proportions- the more lentils you use- the better for you!
  2. Use meat/dairy for flavor, not foundation. Pastas, soups, stews, stir fries, and casseroles are all really great dishes to plantify. They are easy to fill with veggies, and get most of their flavor from sauces or broths. With just a fraction or your typical meat portion, you can have a dish that tastes just as great, but offers the fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that only plants contain.
  3. Add brown rice to your diet, or even just a 50-50 mix with your white rice. Brown rice is the same price, but has more fiber, magnesium, and other nutrients.
  4. Plan your meals and shop with a list. Oof– this one’s tough for me too. But, when I listen to my own advice and plan out what I’m going to make for the week, I end up spending less by buying less. This also really helps reduce food waste. (additional pro-tip: don’t shop when hungry!!)
  5. Plan your plantry. Stock up on nutrient-dense plant-based staples, that are still relatively low cost, and will last longer. Dried (& canned) beans, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, oatmeal, nuts/seeds & nut/seed butters, frozen fruits/veggies, dried fruit. Many meals can be made with these ingredients alone, or they can serve as the foundation for others.
  6. Buy in bulk*. Certain items can be bought in bulk for great savings- oats, coffee, dried beans, lentils. *One item that is not necessarily cheaper: nuts. Bummer. Pay attention to the per oz price on price tags at the store.
  7. Consider using a cash-back app. I personally use Ibotta. (Not sponsored or an affiliate). Others include: Fetch Rewards, CouponCabin, and Upside. These apps can offer discounts or rewards. But the amount will depend on how much time you’re willing to spend looking for deals.

Unfortunately, we will all have to be prepared to continue spending more money at the grocery store for the foreseeable future. But there are ways to be budget-conscious while improving our health through our food choices.