Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
I hear it all the time. You know that fast food isn’t healthy. But it’s cheap and fast. And to an extent, they’re right. Fast food is cheap. If you look at the cost per calorie.
However, most of us don’t eat to a calorie number; we eat until we’re full. Or we should be anyway. When we eat healthier foods, we generally are consuming fewer calories.
And when we look at the cost per VOLUME of food, we can see that it is not expensive to eat healthily.
A brief cost comparison
I’m going to use Taco Bell as an example here because they have a pretty extensive vegetarian-friendly menu.
A black bean crunchwrap is $3.69. It is 510 calories, 13 g of protein, with 17 g of fat.
This is $0.07 per calorie and $0.28 per gram of protein.
Check out this recipe for black bean quesadillas. It takes ~$6.61 to make 10 quesadillas, that’s $0.66 per quesadilla. You could spice it up with some pico and still come out cheaper.
And honestly, I would leave out the corn; you already have enough starch in the tortilla.
The recipe as written contains 268 calories, 12 g of protein, and 7 g of fat. That’s a much better nutrient profile and comes out to $0.002 (not a typo) per calorie and $0.06 per gram of protein.
And best yet, you can freeze the extra quesadillas to have “fast food” on hand those days you just DO NOT want to cook!
You can make similar comparisons for yourself by looking at fast food veggie burgers vs. making them at home. Look at sit-down restaurants as well. The results will be similar or worse.
We have a problem with our perception of healthy food
Social media influencers take great pictures, right? They have lots of pretty colors, talk about exotic berries, use tiny little seeds, and so on. They expound on the importance of organic foods and avoiding GMOs.
They shop at expensive specialty grocery stores.
But the thing is, you don’t need all that crap.
Organic foods can be cost-prohibitive for many of us and don’t really do much in terms of nutrition. GMOs are actually more extensively tested than products that aren’t modified (and they’re not as common as social media would lead you to believe).
Sure, chia seeds are full of protein, but so are beans, lentils, eggs, cheese, other nuts and seeds, and soy products. And chia seeds are way more expensive.
Sure, acai and goji berries are full of antioxidants, but so are all the other fruits and vegetables. An apple and peanut butter or cheddar cheese cubes are just fine!
Vegetarian protein sources are cheaper
Dried beans and lentils, cheese, eggs, tofu, tempeh, and nuts and seeds are all cheaper than meat. And most even offer some fiber and/or healthy fats as well!
A study published by the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition compared an omnivore diet to a vegetarian diet showed that the vegetarian diet costs approximately $14 less per week than a diet with meat.
And that’s after choosing olive oil for the vegetarian diet instead of the cheaper cooking oil they used in the omnivore diet. Furthermore, the vegetarian diet had more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
It did have less protein, though still above average recommendations.
And it looks like the cost of meat is going to continue to get more expensive.
Keep in mind, mock meats may up your food costs.
Another cost to consider
Following a healthy diet pattern can help the budget in other ways as well.
Managing your own healthy weight, blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol with diet prevents the need for expensive medications.
Fewer health problems mean less frequent trips to the doctor, avoidance of certain procedures, and better health outcome if you do get sick.
A study in Taiwan showed that vegetarian monks have 15% lower medical costs than omnivorous monks, and a whopping 25% lower medical costs than the general Taiwanese population.
Basically, your medical costs go way down.
Tips for reducing your expensive (healthy) food cost
There are many ways to reduce your food costs without sacrificing your healthy diet pattern.
Cook at home
This one is major!
According to Money under 30, the average meal made at home costs about $4. In contrast, the average meal out (at a restaurant, not fast food) is $13.
Obviously, this depends on where you are, but a reduction of $9 per meal is nothing to sneeze at!
Save even more by utilizing leftovers!
Here are some of my recipe ideas:
Batch cook items and freeze
Slow cookers are fabulous for this. Prepare a large batch of soup while you’re at work. When you get home, you’ll have (a cheap) dinner ready to go—portion out the leftovers and freeze.
You can do this with many other foods as well; casseroles, breakfast sandwiches, egg muffins, and the above-mentioned quesadillas could all be made in large amounts and frozen for later use.
Use fruits and vegetables near the end of their freshness.
So many possibilities here.
You can wilt spinach into pasta or blend it into a smoothie.
Many vegetables (think yellowing broccoli or softening carrots) can be roasted without much of a difference in the final dish.
Make dips and sauces. Pesto, red pepper hummus, baba ganoush, and tzatziki all make yummy dishes that don’t care if the original veggie wasn’t at its peak.
Soups and casseroles are fine with older produce. If it’s particularly dreary-looking, make a homemade vegetable stock instead. If still too yucky, through them in a compost heap and start a veggie or herb garden.
Some vegetables, such as greens, lettuce, celery, and asparagus, will perk back up if you soak them in cold water for a bit. Lettuce can actually be “re-grown.”
Make “clear the pantry” dishes. There’s not much that you can’t throw in scrambled eggs, omelets, or frittatas.
Got some tater tots or fries in the back of your freezer or some corn chips in your pantry? Make nachos.
Literally dump some chopped veggies, canned black beans, and some cheese on some tots or chips and put them under the broiler for a few minutes.
Super easy. And not nearly as expensive as a meal out. Actually, if it is food that would get thrown out otherwise, you actually made money!
We’ve already discussed freezing large batches, but there are other ways to use leftovers as well.
There’s usually enough leftover for 1 serving in our house, so I take it with me to work for lunch the next day. Or sometimes, Erik will snack on it later. This is obviously the easiest way to use leftovers.
If you had to buy more than you needed for a dish, plan your meals to use that item again later in the week.
Re-purpose your meal. Could last night’s dinner become a burrito or salad? I usually turn leftover taco fillings into taco salad the next day. I don’t even need dressing!
Last night’s pasta dish can become tonight’s side dish.
Consider ugly produce
Misshapen produce often gets trashed as grocery stores and restaurants want the best possible presentation for their customers.
Luckily there are subscription boxes that nab that ugly produce and sell it way cheaper than the pretty produce.
A CSA (community-sponsored agriculture) is another option, though possibly more time-consuming.
Avoid (expensive) convenience foods
Could you make that salad dressing, dip, or sauce? Probably, and it’ll most likely taste better and be healthier.
Cut up veggies in the produce section are great, but is it really that hard to dice an onion? Is it worth 2-3 bucks?
In the spirit of total honesty, I do buy minced garlic in a jar because I hate the sticky feeling on my hands.
And I occasionally utilize bagged salads.
Otherwise, I do it myself.
Reduce your intake of ultra-processed food
Sodas, chips, crackers, and baked goods don’t do much for us, nutritionally. And often, we’re eating them out of stress or boredom and not hunger.
Find something else to do.
And if you’re actually hungry, there are better options available.
Use beans, legumes, and eggs more and mock meats less
I’ll admit, we use mock meats in our house more often than I would like. It’s one of the compromises we’ve made in our multivore family. Admittedly, the mock meats are often cheaper than their real counterparts, but they are still more expensive than some other staples.
Black beans or crumbled tempeh are good as ground “beef.” You could even use lentils this way. A lot of people use eggs and chickpeas in place of chicken.
Utilize frozen or canned foods
These foods will last longer without much loss of nutrition than their fresh counterparts.
If using cans, look for the low sodium version whenever possible.
Shop the bulk bins
These foods are often just as good (or the same) as the products you can find on the shelves. However, they are cheaper per unit without the label.
Additionally, you can portion out exactly what you need, rather than buying a too-large container and having to figure out what to do with it.
Stick to a list
Come up with a weekly meal plan, create a shopping list, and stick to it. Go when you’re comfortably full so you’ll be less likely to load up on impulse items.
Food items that are typically inexpensive and healthy
- Dried lentils and beans beans
- Rice, oats, whole grain pasta, whole grain bread
- Most common fruits and vegetables (oranges vs. dragon fruit; zucchini vs. chayote squash)
- Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, milk
A few words on food deserts
Obviously, all of the above ideas assume that you have easy access to a decent grocery store. Unfortunately, not everyone does.
Consider donations of the above items to the local food bank.
If you live in a food desert, can you shop for some items near work instead? And make sure you are utilizing SNAP and WIC programs if you qualify and visit a food bank.
Are home delivery options feasible? More and more are popping up. Maybe you could split a box or shipment with a neighbor.
There are many ways to unnecessarily increase your food costs. The belief that all your meals have to be “gourmet” to be worth eating is probably the most damaging to your budget.
Remember that food should first be nourishing, then yummy, then pretty.
Obvs, we want to aim for all, but the extras (garnishes, fancy oils/vinegars/salts, exotic produce) can be eliminated without sacrificing our health.
Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.