Whether you’ve got multiple mouths to feed or are scrounging on a student budget, eating well can be a challenge with limited funds. Though it may be tempting to stock up on processed convenience foods for their attractive price tag, it is a common misconception that healthy eating has to be pricey.
On average, Australians spend the greatest proportion of their weekly income on takeaway and fast food, amounting to almost double what is spent on both fruit and vegetables ($30.50, compared to $13.70 on vegetables, and $9.60 on fruit). Worryingly (yet perhaps unsurprisingly) very few of us are meeting fruit and vegetable targets, with results from the recent National Nutrition Survey indicating only 6% of adults are reaching their ‘2 and 5’ goals.
The way I see it, there are 6 simple steps to eating healthily on a budget:
Step 1: Shop seasonally.
Apologies for starting off with such a cliché-food-blogger statement, but when looking for the best value for money, buying fresh foods in season couldn’t be a smarter move. As well as being more cost effective, it means the food you’re consuming is fresher, having travelled far less ‘food miles’ to reach your supermarket shelves. Victorian farmers’ markets association has a guide here if you want to find out more. While you’re there, search for your local farmers market to take it a step further and buy your produce locally.
Step 2: Make friends with the frozen section.
No, I’m not advocating stocking up on Lean Cuisine or frozen pizzas, but purchasing frozen fruit and vegetables is a savvy way to stock up on essentials, and also avoid food waste. (It’s also a sneaky way to sideline step 1, as it means you can enjoy mangoes year round)! If you’re concerned that the freezing process may affect your frozen fruit/veg’s nutritional quality, rest easy; freezing arrests the break down and loss of quality, and being snap frozen at the time of harvest, (when produce is at its peak quality) frozen foods often retain more nutrients than those fresh on the shelves (think the shrivelled lettuce that’s been sitting around for days on end).
Step 3: Have one meat-free day each week.
‘Meat Free Monday,’ made popular by fashion mogul Stella McCartney, encourages us to eat one vegetarian meal a week, with the objective of preserving the environment, our health and saving money. The confusion around meat is understandable. While red meat in particular is an important source of many nutrients, like iron, protein and Vitamin B12, an overwhelming majority are consuming far too much, which has been associated with an increased risk of some cancers, particularly bowel. The Cancer Council recommends moderate consumption of unprocessed red meat (forget the ham, salami and sausages). This means around 65-100g – or around the size of your palm – of cooked red meat 3-4 times a week.
If going without meat entirely is daunting, try shifting the focus to vegetables. Using half the amount of meat and enriching the meal with additional vegetables is a smart way to reduce costs, and reach your recommended 5 serves a day of vegies without sacrificing taste. This works particularly well for Bolognese, casseroles and stir frys.
Step 4: Embrace beans.
They might not seem all that fancy, but beans and legumes are probably the most cost effective and nutritious pantry staple you can have on hand.
Kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, cannellini beans (and many more) are naturally low in fat, high in fibre and protein, as well as an array of other nutrients. They’re even grouped in with vegetables in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, with a serve consisting of ½ cup of cooked beans. Beans can make a meal, adding bulk to salads, soups casseroles and pasta sauces, and at around $1 per can, they’re a huge money saver.
Step 5: Know when to ignore the brands.
As much as it’s tempting to be swayed by pretty packaging and ‘reliable brands,’ generic versions of many staples are of very similar, if not exactly the same quality, but at a much more affordable price.
Take oats for example:
|Brand||Price per item||Price per 100g|
|Carman’s rolled oats 750g||$4.61||$0.61|
|Uncle Toby’s rolled oats 1kg||$5.50||$0.55|
|Lowan rolled oats 1kg||$4.40||$0.44|
|Coles rolled oats 1kg||$3.29||$0.33|
Minus the familiar packaging, most people would struggle to find any difference in their quality, let alone their nutritive value.
Similar savings can be found with other common foods like pasta, rice, milk, frozen and canned fruit and vegetables.
Step 6. Focus on whole foods.
This works both ways in terms of health and funds.
Ideally, our diet should consist mainly of whole foods like breads, cereals and other grains, fruit, vegetables and legumes, which all provide good quality energy and nutrients.
According to Foodcents; an education program focused on promoting healthy eating on a budget, these foods are often the cheapest, and will set you back only around $2-$6 per kilo.
Conversely, ‘extra’ foods like chips, soft drinks and other packaged foods cost on average $10-$40 a kilo, with the potential to cost you even more in the long term if their consumption is frequent.
For more great information and free education materials and resources, head to the Food cents website.