Healthy eating – how to get started on a budget
January 6, 2018
I write this post following a question that I was asked at one of my recent ‘Conversations with an Audience’ events. Actually, it was Henry, my wonderful 20 year old nephew who asked the question. And he was asking the question from the point of view of being a student with not much budget to play with.
Thank you to my son Harry for helping me with the following answers. He too is a student and has travelled much of my nutrition journey with me over the last 2 years. I am so proud of the daily effort and choices that he is making in what he puts in this body. It will serve him well over the long-term. I feel that I can be sure of this because of the results that I have measured scientifically on my own body having started my nutrition journey aged 51. Harry started age 18!
Changing to a healthier lifestyle requires significant effort in the face of often conflicting advice. Hence I thought that I should write this article to help anyone who is wanting to make that very commendable change in their lives, but is struggling with where to start when on a very limited budget.
You might know other people who have to cope with life on a limited budget. Students and young adults come to mind.They might appreciate you sharing this article with them. You can share and comment at the end of this article.
(I draw your attention to the caveat at the end of this article: I am not a doctor or practitioner and therefore am not qualified to give health advice; I am, however, an unsophisticated bloke hoping that you can benefit if I share my experiences and beliefs; and all that jazz.)
- Healthy thinking
- Doing the doing, wherever you are
- Doing the doing, when out and about
- Doing the doing, when in
- Specific healthy meals and foods on a limited budget
- Equipment to buy when eating on a limited budget
1. Healthy thinking
Before we even start worrying about new things to eat and drink, and what it might cost, there is some changed thinking that I feel we should do first. And a new mindset does not cost us a dime.
I try not to talk ‘diet’ as it sounds like a denial, a change that is temporary in nature and something with negative overtones. Instead, I try to talk ‘nutrition’, which to me conveys vibrancy, a choice for life and has positive attributes.
B: What is healthier and cheaper: omnivore, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, or something else?
This is a discussion bigger than we have the space for in this quick overview. Save to say that generally speaking we eat too much meat, especially red meat (beef, pork, sausages, bacon, lamb). Meat can be very expensive, particularly if we want to eat healthy (well reared) meat.
So, as a collective society we should generally eat
- more fruit and vegetables
- less meat.
And all in the knowledge that eating good quality plants are cheaper and healthier than eating good quality meat.
And don’t listen to others who say we need to eat lots of animal protein for health. It is bunkum. We can be nutritionally deplete when following any regimen: to avoid this we all need to know the make up of our foods (see below).
B. It’s just as much about what we don’t eat
What we choose to omit from our nutrition (eg processed sugar) is as important as what we actually eat and drink. Omitting something costs us nothing. In fact, quite the opposite – learning to live without sugar saves us the cost of the sugar. It might be small beer, but you get my point because, we could (!!!) learn to live without coffee, dairy milk, canned drinks, wine, beer and replace all these fluids with water. I drink a minimum of 2 litres of Aldi spring water every day, at a cost of 17p (8.5 pence per litre). We can’t get much cheaper drinking than this and water (with some green tea bags perhaps) is all we really need. I accept that life (as a student) could be more enjoyable with a few glasses of wine or beer, but this could be an infrequent exception to the rule. The cheapest alcohol (cider) I could find on a recent supermarket trip was 99.5p per litre, nearly 12 times the cost of spring water.
C. A healthy eating mindset
Of course it is easy to conclude that fresh food costs more than processed food, pasta, white industrial bread and other horrors. But the truth is that this really is not food, from the point of view that it is not putting nutrients into our bodies. It might be putting calories in, but our bodies need less calories than we think and umpteen more nutrients than we think. We might kid ourselves that our bodies can tolerate this over the short-term (and who is to be the judge of what short-term is). However, we are just storing problems up for the future if we deny the nutrients our bodies need on a daily basis.
So the message is:
- is there anything really more important than our health?
- if we agree this is the case, what daily choices should we be making in forgoing spending on some things (the latest fashion wear; an iPhone; cans of Coke; etc) and investing this into our daily nutrition instead? If we lived in rural France (say) or non-Westernised societies generally, we would not be having this debate.
1) Time and effort
I am the first to admit that good nutrition takes time and effort. But many of the best things in life take time. We have lost sight of this in a society that tries to beat time, the whole time.
D. Share your intentions with others
There is lots of research that proves that, for any individual wishing to change some aspect of their life, we are so much more successful in our endeavours if we share our intentions with others. Sharing creates commitment, excitement, deeper understanding and support.
1) With Family
I am so delighted that Harry is on a health mission. I love hearing the energy in his voice when he tells of a new food aspect to his life. He sends me pictures and videos. And guess what? I am delighted to try to help and encourage him further, whether this is food as presents or the odd tenner for the food budget.
And of course, when Harry comes home, his mum and I would be delighted to think that we can:
- ensure our house is full of wonderful food and cooking;
- buy a goodie bag to restock his larder when it is time for him to go back to uni.
2) With Friends
There is something so uniquely special about ‘doing food’ together. In my experience it is so creative, social, humanising and brilliant for our state of mind.
We all need to eat and prepare food together more often.
E. The Aggregation of Marginal Gains
I so love this philosophy and apply it to so much of my life. Dr Paddi Lund, the Australian dentist who first proposed it as a way of thinking, should in my book, be given a knighthood for services to humanity.
In short, it basically says that in trying to improve anything in life, we simply need to break things down into their smallest components and then seek to make 1% improvements in every area. It is easier to make, and find, one hundred 1% improvements than it is to make one 100% improvement.
This thinking can be used to tackle the difficult matter of simply getting started (on any project; a nutrition project such as this). Rather than worrying about which is the first area to focus on, the one that warrants our first attention, we can just get started on a handful of things, not trying to over-think or perfect any of them. Just keep on a whole of life journey of improving everything in small steps. No pressure.
2. Doing the doing, wherever you are
A. Are we sure that we are not thirsty, rather than hungry?
Science shows that we often confuse feeling hungry when we are, in fact, thirsty. So the next time we feel peckish and reach for snack, lets drink a glass of water first. This saves money as well as stopping us over-eat (typically we reach for snack food that is calorie rich and nutrient poor – so it really is not doing us any good at all).
B. Wanting to cut down on alcohol as a means of managing money?
We often chug down the first few glasses of alcohol just as a thirst quencher. It hardly hits the sides. By drinking a glass of water first we can drink less of the more costly alcohol.
C. Mindful eating
Eating more slowly, chewing more and really appreciating every mouthful, is all part of healthier eating.
This all adds up to us feeling fuller, satisfying our hunger better, eating less and getting more nutrients out of our food. All of which equates to a reduced cost of eating.
This should form a part of most people’s eating regimen. And I hope I am not misleading you: fasting does not necessarily mean consuming less calories (though it is true that many of us tend to over eat).
For example, there is a form of fasting referred to as ‘restricted time eating’, where the same amount of calories are eaten in just 8 hours. This leaves our bodies with 16 hours to perform vital non-digestion functions. This length of break is thought to be hugely beneficial for us.
I subscribe to the belief that we are descended from primates over the course of 55 million years. In most of our ancestral history we had long periods of not eating. This is what our bodies are built to accommodate, not the perpetual influx of food and drink, especially when it is the fast release, high energy stuff of modern life.
I have been following this restricted time eating practice for 12 months now.
E. Knowing our foods
One of the best things we can do in our early days of changing to a healthy eating lifestyle is to learn about the nutritional makeup of the foods we are eating now. And the foods that we hear about as being good for us.
www.cronometer.com is an awesome, free, online database of all the main foods. We just enter in:
- our personal details (weight, height, health aspirations, daily exercise, etc)
- our food intake for a typical day.
Then we can play around with daily meal plans. By swapping specific foods in, or out, of our plans we can improve the nutrition we are putting into your bodies.
This exercise is highly illuminating and fun. I love learning about different foods this way. It is the fastest way I have come across as a basis on which to make food and drink choices. It is also nutrition learning for free.
1) Not all potatoes are equal
Removing cost from the equation, for a moment, it is worth bearing in mind that all potatoes are not the same. A sweet potato is better for us than a ‘white’ potato. (This is due to the sweet potato having
- increased polyphenols (see below for the implication of this);
- higher fibre content, meaning that they release their energy at a slower rate).
The same is true of red onions versus white onions, red grapes versus white grapes. The darker the fruit or vegetable, the better, having up to 100 times more polyphenols.
- are the things that give fruits and vegetables their colour
- act as as antioxidants, scavenging free radicals and reducing inflammation in our bodies.
2) Cooked versus Raw
Eating cooked or raw vegetables costs the same (other than the cost of energy needed for the cooking). However, the healthy eating benefit needs to reflect whether specific foods are better eaten cooked or raw. For example, the nutrients of tomatoes (eg lycopene) are more bio-available when cooked; for onions, when raw.
3) Food combining
It costs nothing more to combine the right foods together in the same meal, yet the health benefits can be very different. For example, adding black pepper to turmeric increases our bodies’ ability to absorb the useful compounds in turmeric by 1,000 times. Add an oily food (olives, olive oil, etc) too and we can increase this by another 1,000 times.
These are nature’s wonder foods, packed with amazing health properties. The wonders of turmeric are becoming increasingly evident to the western world, yet there are hundreds, if not thousands of other spices out there. Rather than use salt to flavour food, we should use more spices. With the tiny amounts needed, we will barely notice the cost.
For more insight into fascinating food preparation facts, see James Wong’s excellent book ‘How to Eat Better’.
F. Food as presents
Harry highly values us giving him food (usually dry goods) as presents. Food parcels sent in the post or bags of nuts & seeds as ad hoc gifts (or christmas stocking fillers) are so easily done. And what could be more important and loving than investing in our children’s health?
3. Doing the doing, when out and about
A. Eating out at a restaurant
We can be mindful and choose the healthier options. In pure cash terms it is difficult to find something cheaper than rice or pasta, but perhaps by chosing water to drink, rather than alcohol, we can use the cash savings to fund adding some vegetables or a salad. This way we win on 2 counts (the water plus the vegetables).
B. When shopping
We need to choose wisely – it is frightening how easily it is for us to to spend many times what we need to, for exactly the same thing.
1) Processed foods
We should avoid these and home make the foods if reasonably possible. By buying something that someone else has made we are not only paying money for the labour involved, but we are also likely paying for ingredients that are no part of a proper nutrition lifestyle. Double whammy.
2) Buy wonky fruit and veg
These have all the nutritional value, but are cheaper because they are aesthetically imperfect!
3) Know where to shop for best value
Generally, we should avoid shopping in the well-known high street supermarkets if we are looking for best value. Places that I have found to be cheaper are:
- Online, for larder items & dry goods (eg Buywholefoodsonline.co.uk)
- Aldi is cheaper for fresh meat and fruit and veg
- Local street markets
- Ethnic supermarkets
I was blown away when I first discovered an Indian supermarket (on the Cowley Road, Oxford). It was a real eye opener. In these amazing shops, typically:
- we can buy a 10 kg sack of basmati rice for £14. It sounds like a large weight of rice, but if you were one of a number of students clubbing together it means that a 100 gram portion of home cooked rice would cost you only 14p!! This is 4 times less costly than a normal high street supermarket;
- the story is the same for red lentils: a 100 gram portion would cost 20p versus 30p via the high street supermarket;
- the same principle applies to many of the foods that we will find in eastern cooking. Turmeric powder is 2.5 times cheaper through an Indian supermarket. As are other spices.
4. Doing the doing, when in
A. Practice home cooking
By learning to make our own food we are saving the money that we would otherwise be paying for labour in a restaurant or in the factory where the food was made.
Not only are we saving money by home cooking, we are learning a new life skill. In truth, I haven’t done enough cooking and food appreciation in my time: I am no one to preach. However, I am so excited just sitting here thinking about the money-making opportunities (a kind of money saving, in reverse?!) that come with having an increased ability in all things food: food writing, other food media (radio, TV, film, digital), restaurant reviews, catering, food production…..
The health and budget benefits of home cooking ignores all the other health benefits that come from the social aspects of being able to cook. Harry always talks so enthusiastically about his Sunday night ‘cook-ins’ that he and his university friends do together.
B. Remove the crap
I have to work bloody hard at changing any aspect of my life. This is likely to be the case for most of us, I’m sure. Therefore, let’s make it easier for ourselves by not bringing crap food & drink into the house.
That chocolate cake winking at me from the sideboard is torture!
5. Specific healthy meals and foods on a limited budget
A. Breakfast smoothie
Harry tells me that this is the cheapest way to get a nutritious start to the day. The following smoothie is packed full of nutrients and keeps him going all the way to lunch time:
- Oats (2.5 kilo bags costs a few pounds from Buywholefoodsonline.co.uk)
- Water (I recommend green tea if you can)
- Frozen berries (a bag will cost £3 from the supermarket and last a week)
- A banana
- Hemp seeds (Buywholefoodsonline.co.uk)
- Flax seeds (Buywholefoodsonline.co.uk)
- Almonds (Buywholefoodsonline.co.uk or Aldi (cheaper))
For the most healthy way to prepare a smoothie: soak the oats, nuts and seeds overnight in water or green tea.
Admittedly the nuts are quite pricey but the nutrition content justifies it.
Our guts need probiotics to feed the health bacteria that reside there. There is nothing better than homemade sauerkraut. As this is nothing more than cabbage, water and salt, it is as cheap as chips. Our bodies will thank us for eating a small portion every day.
Harry says that this is the best way for him to get a cheap, complete and nutritious meal. Of course he has had to learn how to prepare foods and cook. But stir-fries are simple for us all to master. And by minimising the meat content we can maximise the nutritional content and minimise the cost.
He also says that if four (say) people cook together then further savings can be made. Buying and cooking for more mouths (or batch cooking for yourself) is cheaper than cooking for one. Furthermore, the social aspect of eating this way is brilliant too: being healthy in mind is just as important as being healthy in body.
D. The cheapest healthy proteins
The is a danger that I over simplify a quite complex subject. The solution is for us to monitor our nutrition and daily meals plans by using www.cronometer.com (see elsewhere in this article).
Having said this, the following is broadly the case, given prices as they exist at the time of writing. The key assumptions I am using here are that we can
- eat lentils, beans and pulses as direct gram for gram replacement for animal protein. (This is not strictly the case as these plant sources of protein typically contain 20 grams of protein per 100 grams of whole foodstuff, compared to unprocessed lean meat containing 30 grams of protein;
- in eating lentils, beans and pulses we can make up our additional protein requirements though vegetables. In truth we typically overeat on proteins anyway;
- a portion of animal or plant protein containing foods is 100 grams
On these assumptions a portion of protein containing foods would cost:
- Chickpeas (dry; requiring soaking and cooking) – 20p
- Lentils (dry; requiring soaking and cooking) – 30p
- Chicken breast – 60p
- Stewing steak – 90p
All above prices are high street supermarket. Yet cheaper prices for bulk items (the dry goods) can be found at ethnic supermarkets.
I have excluded:
- fish (due to expense). As fish tends to be high in healthy fats (eg omega 3) we need to ensure we get these somehow (seeds and nuts, typically);
- processed plant proteins, eg tempeh & tofu. Although great sources of protein, they are highly processed. I prefer to eat whole beans and pulses as more fibre is retained;
- Sausages (40p for a 100 gram portion), bacon and other processed meats.
E. Vegetable Curries
We can see that from the earlier discussion points in this article that vegetable curries are going to amount to some of the most nutritious and cheapest meals that we can make.
Some lentils, chickpeas, spices, water and a few cauliflower and broccoli florets are all that we need. Add some chillies if we want to zoom it up a bit. But of course, we can throw almost any vegetables in. And what I love about this type of cooking is that
- we can make big batches of it, which makes it cheaper per portion. Added to which curries are always better at the second or third time around, once the spices have had time to really get to work;
- we can separately cook some prawns, or fish, or chicken, or indeed any other another meat and create a separate batch if we are entertaining friends who can’t face an entirely vegetarian or vegan meal. (But animal protein will make things more expensive, of course).
Harry’s tip here is to buy tubs of houmous and bags of carrots. Both are as cheap, highly nutritious and keep well in the fridge.
My suggestion is that we might be able to go two better (cost and nutrition) and make the houmous.
Celery and cucumber are also other cheap options for variety.
6. Equipment to buy when health eating on a budget
A. Food blenders
Nutribullets are all the rage (£59), but you can get a Breville Blend Active for £25.
B. A carbon steel wok
Invest in a wok for making your stir-fries and curries. Make sure that this (or any other pan) is not chemically coated nonstick (i.e. it should be Teflon, PTFE, and PFOA-free).
A note of thanks
To both Henry and Harry for inspiring this article. You are both wonderful people. All power to you.
To learn more about what comprises a great nutritional lifestyle, why not come along to one of my ‘Conversation with an Audience’ events?
- I passionately believe that the most lasting, deepest and complete health comes from making constant health improvements in every aspect of our lives. This would include, but not be limited to: nutrition, spirituality, exercise, mind health, stress management, time management. There is no silver bullet in one area. So although I might write an article on one topic, this is in the need for brevity. For the single topic to have lasting and deepest effect for you, you need to make improvements in these other health areas too.
- I am not a doctor or qualified practitioner in any health area. I am therefore not qualified to give individual health advice. You are encouraged to do your own research and come to your own conclusions. And to experiment, responsibly, too.