When I was 11, I stopped eating meat. I was the lone vegetarian among my friends. I also avoid dairy because of an allergy, so I was misunderstood, but tolerated.
I have distinct memories of high school where a friend would always implore me to eat meat. “I’ll give you $5 to eat this beef jerky,” he would say. “What about $100?” Each time, I adamantly refused.
At the time, I just thought he was being an annoying kid. I happily took out my peanut butter sandwich and ate that instead.
Only a few years later, the alternative meat and organic industry exploded. When I could start buying soy slices to put in sandwiches, I was ecstatic! I ate a lot of mock chicken nuggets, hickory BBQ riblets, soy burgers, and more. Little did I realize that the cost of healthy food was increasing my spending!
When I began to live on my own in graduate school and noticed how much pressure food was putting on my budget, I wanted to cut down on grocery costs. The first thing I cut was the soy products. How could I justify spending nearly $5 on a packet of faux buffalo wings?
Instead of soy protein crumbles ($3.49 a pack), I purchased black beans ($0.99 per can). Instead of fake deli meat ($3.50 a pack), I began making mock chicken salad from scratch with chickpeas ($0.99 per can plus mayonnaise and bell pepper).
My spending began to fall, and I knew that those items would be designated only as special purchases in the future.
Another way to decrease the cost of healthy food is to use online couponing tools, which can save you hundreds every year.
The Cost of Eating Healthy Organic Food
For those who don’t have access to a farmers market or garden, eating healthy, organic food can be expensive. It means that you need to seek out food that was not made with pesticides, genetic modification, or herbicides. This can be difficult, given that organic food makes up a small percentage of the total food market and consumer demand for organic foods has increased greatly, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Thanks to the limited supply, organic food costs an average of 24 cents more than similar non-organic food, according to a survey released by Nielsen, which might not seem like much, but that can add up.
In the chart given here, I compared prices at Kroger to determine just how much more expensive it is to attempt a diet consisting of healthy, organic food, and it definitely added up.
So why do people bother with organic food? The answer’s simple: It’s much healthier.
“Organic foods are the food manufacturing industry’s answer to increased toxins and pesticides in the food products they create,” says Trista Best, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements.
“Food ‘products’ are created in a lab and manufactured in a factory with ingredients that are processed and inflammatory,” Best adds. “All of this leads to products that are commonly associated with increased risk of chronic disease in the consumer.”
Organic eating is also associated with reduced instances of infertility, birth defects, sensitivity to allergies, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and more, according to a Nutrients study. The amount you save on medical costs alone could more than make up for the cost of eating organic food.
Still, it isn’t a perfect solution. “While the items may be clear of pesticides and toxins, to an acceptable level (never entirely), not all immediately be considered safe or healthy,” Best adds. “While organic products, especially produce, can be beneficial to health, it does not always equal better health.”
Thankfully, it isn’t the only way to stay healthy.
Vegan or Vegetarian: Which Saves More?
Eating vegetarian can be good on your wallet as well as your body. But vegetarians don’t have the monopoly on saving money. The vegan diet is another lifestyle that can help cut the costs of healthy food, keep your wallet full and your budget balanced.
As a vegetarian, I’m someone who eats eggs and dairy, but not meat. A vegan, on the other hand, is someone who doesn’t eat meat or any food that is produced by an animal, including dairy, eggs, and even honey.
Both of these diets are excellent ways to stay healthy. Vegetarians, in particular, have been found to have a lower risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, chronic illnesses, and bad cholesterol, according to Harvard Health. These benefits also apply to vegans who maintain a well-balanced diet.
For the 8 percent of Americans who identify as either vegetarian or vegan, according to a recent Gallup poll, these lifestyles are a great way to stay healthy and financially secure. Though the health benefits are easily understandable, to those on the outside, it might seem strange to imagine that limiting your options could help you protect your budget.
With that in mind, I created a daily menu for a meat eater, a vegetarian, and a vegan to see the cost of eating healthy food.
That friend in high school was just being annoying, but what he didn’t know was that being a meat eater is more expensive. You can see that it is, indeed, cheaper to eat vegan.
These prices came from the Walmart near me. Of course, the cost will go up or down depending on whether or not you buy organic, and whether you’re cooking for a family of four or just for one. This meal list specifically was designed for a single person based on nonorganic food.
Of course, you can be a vegetarian, a vegan, or an omnivore and eat expensively or poorly. It’s all about making good choices.
How to Lower the Cost of Eating Healthy Food
Planning meals, buying in season, and buying in bulk can save a lot. Rather than changing your diet completely, consider following these quick tips to decrease spending and still eat healthy:
1. Shop Around
Doing all of your grocery shopping at one store might be more convenient, but visiting multiple locations and franchises can be a great way to compare costs and save money. In my case, I was surprised to find that Whole Foods is less expensive and has a greater selection of organic foods than the Sprouts in my area.
Sometimes, it’s hard to justify buying organic avocados or sweet corn, given the extra cost and limited gain. The Environmental Working Group put out a list of the Clean 15, those fruits and vegetables that are least likely to retain pesticides, and the Dirty Dozen, which you should avoid buying when they are conventionally grown.
Given that avocados and sweet corn are members of the Clean 15, it might be worth buying the nonorganic versions and using those savings to buy organic strawberries and kale, which are included in the Dirty Dozen. This might seem like a small change, but the savings will add up and ensure you can afford the costs of eating healthy food.
3. Buy in Bulk
The Whole Foods near me has a great bulk foods section where you can buy organic lentils, oatmeal, and more at cheaper prices. They have spices, too! We often buy just the little bits of organic spices we need, and it costs mere cents. Depending on your location, Costco also sells a variety of organic produce and other foods.
4. Buy Only What You Need
When buying fruits and vegetables, people often run the risk of purchasing more than they can reasonably eat. Though this works just fine for canned food and dried goods, produce is not meant to sit around. It’s meant to be eaten soon after picking. This could mean that you could end up throwing out much of the healthy food you’re spending your hard-earned dollars on.
We end up going to the grocery store about twice each week because our vegetables and fruits go bad quickly, even in the fridge, so we buy only what we need for a few days.
An easy way to find out how much you need is to write down how many fruits and vegetables you eat over a three-day span. Once that’s done, take the list to the grocery store, and don’t buy any more produce than seems necessary.
If you ever want more than that, stores tend to have huge bags of organic frozen veggies that can help when you can’t make it to the grocery store and need vegetables.
The Bottom Line on the Cost of Eating Healthy Food
Saving money and eating healthy food aren’t mutually exclusive. Careful shopping and meal-planning can ensure that you can maintain a healthy lifestyle without ruining your financial security. And by choosing certain organic vegetarian or vegan foods, you can ensure lasting benefits to both your body and your budget.
Additional reporting by Lauren Shayo.