Thoughts on the Food Budget

November 29, 2016 in Cooking & Baking Hints, Food Economics, Health, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

This is the time of year when many families are juggling gift buying and ordinary demands – like the food budget. Because of this challenge, I decided to write about a not so holiday-like issue – the food budget.

I guess that I should proclaim my bias from the get-go. I’m writing about how the food budget relates to nutritious food. My preconceived notion is that you’ll probably end up paying for sub-optimally nourishing yourself and/or your family by spending more at the doctor’s office. So I’m not offering thoughts like hot dogs and ramen for food budget ideas.

Have you read as many articles as I have that tell us how expensive eating healthily is? I know that I’ve read this concept in research and repeatedly written follow-up articles challenging this perception. But I have a little …… no, it’s a big problem with the basis of the data. This is my problem: It seems to me that at the base of designing the matrix to compare a healthy diet and an unhealthy diet by money is the fact that it is often based upon calories. On the face this seems fair; since calories (measurement of energy) are the one thing that all food has in common.

Why am I complaining? The fact is that fruits and vegetables don’t have a lot of calories; but they are loaded with nutrients. So to get enough calories to survive, you have to eat lots of them. But getting enough calories is not the pandemic scourge that we Americans are suffering. Most of us have enough calories – in fact, far too many. We have over weight, obesity, diabetes and other resulting diseases from too many and wrong kinds of calories.

Despite suffering from food insecurity many of our people are overweight. That is essentially because they can most afford processed junk food, and it has been designed to be palatable and cheap, not to be nutritious and healthy. Let’s face it; the food processors can buy the ingredients that we can buy inexpensively, for far less than it costs us. They can take the flour (that costs us about 2 cents per 100 calories), vegetable oil (2 cents/100 calories) and sugar (3 cents per/100 calories) that are relatively inexpensive and make a product for next to nothing; still making a huge profit for their stockholders. Unfortunately, living on ramen, hot dogs, chips, Kraft mac and cheese, pretzels, Cheetos and so on, supply calories, but not enough of the nutrients that keep us healthy in the long run.

If you have decided to try to reduce your reliance on processed foods and increase your fruits and vegetables, in order to have lower calories and more nutrients, you may want to consider some of the following:

  • Although this post is about budget, it has been found that necessary meal preparation skills and the time involved are also factors in diets chosen. As to skill – start by learning to make homemade soup; a simple stir-fry; and/or a beans and rice-based meal. If you learn just a few new cooking skills, you may be surprised how it has opened up an entirely new way of thinking about menu planning. Some easy ways to support the time and skills issue are to make batches. For example, I almost always have cooked brown rice in my refrigerator. It’s ready to pop in the microwave or add to a recipe without waiting for the cooking hour. It’s a routine to check the amount of cooked rice most every Wednesday. If it is needed, the rice cooker is fired up. Also, as related to beans, canned beans/legumes are an easy way to start. If you want to save even more money, cook up a pot of dried beans on the weekend, save some in the fridge and freeze surplus.
  • Have a taste for expensive meats? Try adding small bits of meat to recipes, like soup, stir-fry, and bean/rice recipe is a huge boon for the budget. In addition, it’s great for your goal of healthy eating. One of the easiest ways to find delicious recipes is to search the Internet for “bean recipe” or “chicken soup” or whatever ingredient you’re wanting to include.
  • As to shopping, if you buy all organic or like those fruits and vegetables that are out of season, or rarely available, the register receipt is going to be higher. But if you buy the in-season fruits and vegetables, you can bring your nutrition quotient up, while bringing down the calorie proportion of your meals.
  • Some great nutritional bargains this time of year are: sweet potatoes/yams; broccoli; fresh or frozen green beans; carrots, cabbage, and cauliflower. If you look at the grocery flyer, you can usually tell what’s in season, because there’s a picture of what’s their advertising leader.
  • I buy most of my vegetables at a local market, Sprouts, they call themselves a farmer’s market, but I don’t think it’s a farmer’s market in the traditional sense of the term. But they do specialize in providing a wide-range of fruit and vegetables at a generally excellent price. Because we usually eat quite a bit of fruit and vegetables; I notice the basket of vegetables and am astounded about how much food I’m getting for the relatively low number of dollars.
  • A few days ago, I found a very interesting article in the Washington Post, written by their columnist Tamar Haspel; who farms oysters on Cape Cod. Her article shares a broader look at purchasing healthy food than this post; it includes how much some budget foods cost per 100/calories.
  • Peanut butter (7 cents/100 calories)
  • Whole wheat pasta (7 cents)
  • Whole wheat flour (3 cents)
  • Brown rice (4 cents)
  • Dried black beans (10 cents)
  • Sweet potatoes (38 cents)
  • Carrots (30 cents)
  • Frozen corn (25 cents)
  • Walnuts (30 cents)
  • Yogurt (36 cents) Get plain yogurt and sweeten yourself.
  • Frozen broccoli (63 cents)
  • Mix some of the cheaper foods, like beans and rice, with some carrots and some diced chicken or turkey, for example.

If you’re filling up on nutrient-dense, low calorie fruit and vegetables, you may notice a gradual side effect – weight loss or less work maintaining your weight. That’s not such a bad side effect for tackling your food budget while increasing your total nutrient intake.