The healthiest food is that closest to its natural source and reorganising ourselves to move back to the freshest, prepared-at-home diet can also be cost-effective with a little extra awareness.
Cutting cost need not mean less healthy
In a world where convenience is emphasised and time seems short, it can feel like the economical choice is for pre-prepared food, but the packaged choices don’t just strain the environment – they also can also be the less nutritious choice. As society moved away from small ecosystems and growing and raising our own food locally with the Industrial Revolution, centralisation took over and we have become used to our food travelling great distances to reach us. This has meant that longer shelf lives create less waste for the suppliers and so we have become used to processing and preservation methods changing our perception of how cheap food should be. With more things to spend our money on now than ever, we need to remember that ‘cheap’ can also mean nutritionally low.
Some simple considerations are the benchmarks for good health and not for cost compromise:
- Never skimp on vegetables; find cheaper sources and another way to economise to aim for 5-8 portions daily for optimal health
- Quality proteins like eggs, nuts, meat, fish and goat’s cheese throughout the day are needed for good energy and food choices throughout the day
- Healthy fats regulate appetite, mood and metabolism so a decent olive oil, butter, nuts, coconut, Greek yoghurt and avocado help stave off cravings that cost us more
- Choose fresh fruit for sweet choices and snacks over more expensive treats, juices and smoothies
Avoid health false economies
Grains, beans and potatoes are often used as fillers when funds are tight but these cheaper ‘bulk’ starchy carbohydrates have shown to contribute towards mineral deficiencies like iron and zinc, especially when eaten in higher levels than vegetables (1,2,3). From hunter-gatherer principles, humans have only been eating these foods for a short time in our history and research links them to the rise in inflammatory and chronic degenerative disease in industrialised societies (4,5,6). As it is quality fats and protein that satisfy appetite, loading up on these starches can leave us feeling hungrier and buying more food later (7,8).
Buying cheap bread can be detrimental to health with modern breads proofed in as little as forty minutes. Traditional methods of leavening and sourdough processes take the time needed to break down anti-nutrients like lectins and phytic acid in grains, which are associated with digestive and immune issues (9,10). High levels of breads created with less artistry are believe to be a contributing factor to wheat and gluten intolerance (11). Making your own can help reduce cost and provide some enjoyable experiments along the way.
If you want to direct your money wisely for both health and animal welfare, source good value free-range and organic animal produce like eggs, meat and dairy (cow, sheep and goat). The nutritional composition of these foods reflects how the animal producing was treated; if it was able to run around, preferably on a grass not grain-fed diet, then it will have a nutrient content, fat profile and protein to fat ratio that is more likely to serve not damage your health (12,13). Such quality produce is more satisfying, shrinks less when cooking and you need less to provide the same amount of nutrients as cheaper and less tasty choices (14).
The healthy and convenient freezer and slow-cooking combo
Plan ahead and use a freezer to help ensure you always have food available. This works particularly well when you get out a portion before work to be defrosted and immediately available to heat up when you get in for dinner. Investing in a soup thermos also means you can take a healthy stew into work from your freezer store.
Long and slow cooking any grains, beans and roots like potatoes and parsnips is how traditional cultures would have handled these ‘new foods’ that were inedible before cooking, to break them down fully for easiest digestion. Investing in a slow cooker (around £20) can save both money and negative health consequences in the long run; you can make batches of stews, soups and curries and freeze portions for truly healthy convenience meals. This is a great way to include heaps of vegetables, including lots of green leaves like kale and the leaves and stalks of plants like broccoli and cauliflower that you might otherwise discard and are chock-full of minerals and carotenoid antioxidants.
Adding pulses to stews with garlic and onions makes them less likely to cause gas and can reduce the amount of meat you use in a dish whilst adding interest. Smaller beans like lentils, aduki beans and mung beans need little or no soaking to cook and so can be bought in packets rather than tins to avoid too much toxic metal exposure.
Using a budget to increase health choices
It is often our habits to buy that tub of ice cream or daily latte that redirect our money away from spending on quality food. Some simple changes can help us feel liberated from expensive cravings and the stress/guilt cycles that can keep them fuelled.
The choice or need to budget can help motivate you to leave behind less healthy choices; for instance prioritising your pennies towards a breakfast with protein like eggs, nuts and goat’s cheese has shown to curb tendencies to stress-buy quick-fix snacks and binge late at night (15,16). Whilst it may seem more expensive to eat ‘breakfast like a king’, a cheap cereal breakfast can actually send you spend-crazy towards the end of the day.
Stocking a larder of spices, herbs, condiments and flavours that you love and know can inspire you to use those left-overs to great effect in stir-fries and easy curries that keep well in the fridge for more than one meal. Garlic, onions, lemon juice, lemongrass, coconut milk, curry spice mix, soy sauce, Chinese five spice and mustard are all examples that instantly enhance food and all offer antioxidant action and other health benefits.
Fresh herbs freeze well and good quality ginger and garlic pastes all help avoid picking up the phone for a take-away. Invest in cookery books with ideas and recipes that both inspire you to use these flavourings and are within your realistic time-frame to start or even rekindle any lost connection with your kitchen skills.
Another money-saving investment is the thermos coffee cup. Saving that take-away coffee spend and either using a flask can save us around £500 a year (17). Of course there is always the option to cut back entirely and increase health by keeping caffeine to a minimum of two cups a day.
Shopping is an art form and can be an enjoyable modern equivalent of the hunter/gatherer experience – taking some time and care in the choices we make to nourish ourselves. But we very easily slip into narrow habits and convenience options when stress is high and time is tight. Our 21st century world bombards us with too much choice, resulting in the act of shopping taking over the experience of creatively considering what we could make from the things available to us and wasting less. A healthy focus for food budgeting is an opportunity for some enjoyable exploration and connection back to our food roots.
- Extend your range of meat cuts – talk to a butcher about cheaper cuts of meat eg beef brisket or shoulder of lamb taste delicious slow-cooked. Organ meats like liver, kidneys and offal are densely nutrient-rich and can be mixed in with other cuts. Minced meat can include these to make your own burgers and meatballs.
- Choose sustainable and better value fish – the website www.fishonline.org gives a clear guide eg buying non-Mediterranean mackerel or non-trawled pollock is less cost to both you and the environment. Buying frozen fish can be cheaper and even fresher as frozen immediately after being caught.
- Freezing good quality bread – slice or halve first to take as just as much as you need at a time and not feel compelled to finish the whole loaf in one sitting.
- Buying from the source – farmers’ markets and visits to local farm shops can both connect us to the food we eat and cut out the middle man to spend less.
- Foods that freeze well – berries, peas, fresh herbs and spinach can be bought frozen and stored as healthy back-up foods; even retaining more nutrients as frozen when fresh, although never as good as the fresh versions (18).
- Pick your organic fruit and veg wisely – www.foodnews.org provides an updated 2012 guide to the ‘Dirty Dozen’ top foods to buy organic that with the highest pesticide load (apples and celery are top) and those generally safe to buy non-organically such as onions and avocado.
- Buy loose leaf and real herb teas – bagged teas are not economical and creating your own is very simple; recreate your favourites from loose green tea, spices, camomile flowers and other herbs from shops like Neal’s Yard, licorice root flakes and fresh ginger and mint.
- Buy in bulk – online shopping means that some goods like nuts, beans and condiments can be bought in larger amounts for cheaper unit prices from companies like www.healthysupplies.co.uk. Share orders with friends to ensure easily spoiled produce like spices and nuts stay fresh.
- Growing your own – if you have a windowsill you can grow fresh herbs; if you have a little patch of soil you can grow some salad or vegetables.
- Cutting costs does not need to mean cutting corners on health or pleasure from food. When we’ve become caught in a bit of a shopping rut, certain restrictions can serve to bring out our dormant culinary imaginations. Until only recently we changed our menus according to what was in season and what was in supply, but a reliance on ready meals can leave us forgetting what might be ready and waiting at the back of the fridge for that quick stir-fry, omelette with vegetables or experimental dish….
An edited version of this article appeared in Optimum Nutrition Magazine
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