Food Budget Strategies that Help Avoid the High Cost of Illness


Eating healthy shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Eat healthy! How do you do this with the rising costs of food, gas and everything else? This is a question often asked by people when considering how to improve their diets. However, the real question should be “How can you afford not to eat healthy with the high costs of being ill?”

Eating healthy means different things to different people. The many cultures that Weston A. Price studied had vastly different diets, but they all were remarkably healthy. The current media-recommended diets found in magazines, on television, in advertisements, and in top-sellers are usually not diets to build and sustain healthy individuals. Eating healthy means selecting foods that are nutrient-dense and readily available to the individual.

Healthy diets therefore depend on what is accessible. An individual in Florida would obviously eat more local citrus than someone in Michigan who has access to other fruits, such as apples, peaches and cherries. No matter where you live, however, it is possible to consume a healthy diet for reasonable cost. This is one of the wonders of Dr. Price’s research and recommendations. He did not dictate exact foods and consumption amounts as is often seen in present day media-driven diets. Dr. Price presented overall guidelines leaving individuals able to determine a healthy diet for themselves.

A big factor in determining what sort of healthy diet to consume is the amount one can afford to spend on food; however, modest finances need not force anyone to eat an unhealthy diet. There are healthy nutrient-dense foods that are not costly. When Weston Price traveled the world conducting his seminal research, he did not encounter cultures that were wealthy in ways recognized by materially inspired moderns. Nevertheless, food was important to these cultures, and they worked hard to ensure its high quality. The effort they expended to achieve this high standard was understood to be worth the benefits such expenditures of time, labor and skill reliably produced. These cultures universally recognized that what they could not afford was sickly children or weak individuals who were not productive members of their society. Understanding the link between health and nutrition, they paid close attention to obtaining foods that sustained a healthy culture.

Costs Of Not Eating Nutritious Foods

The financial cost of a nutritionally deficient diet can be staggering. Western culture has the luxury of being able to support ill people and therefore has gotten lazy about the importance of consuming high quality food. However, as a society we cannot continue to let our bodies deteriorate. The financial burden on society is tremendous.

In a December 16, 2007 article, The Washington Post reported that as a society, the US spends over $14,000 per family per year on medical costs. It would be far better to spend this money improving people’s lives and health. The personal burden of illness is also great. Many people suffer significantly, both financially and personally, because of poor health.

Eating nutritious foods does not have to be costly and can actually be a cost savings in the long-run. There are many things people can do to control food costs while still consuming a health-promoting diet. When budgeting, most people separate medical costs from food costs. However, these two are linked. As one eats more nutritious foods, medical problems and costs can be mitigated or eliminated, thus reducing overall spending. And actually, for the typical family, an increase in food costs is not even necessary for improving the diet.

Improving one’s diet does mean spending more time finding more nutritious foods and food sources. But costs do not necessarily have to rise. Not everyone may be able to afford wild salmon for dinner, but they can afford beans and brown rice, both very high in nutrients, especially if served with a little meat, cheese or raw milk. Even the poorest of the poor can choose to eat nutrient-dense foods.


1. Know Your Costs

Computing costs of food is not difficult but most people do not do it. To determine which food is a better value compute (1) cost per calorie, (2) cost per gram protein, (3) cost per pound, and (4) cost per meal. Knowing the cost per meal will help in meal planning and budgeting.

To compute the cost per calorie, simply take the cost of the package and divide it by the total calories in the package. The total calories are the number of servings times the calories per serving. Likewise, cost per gram protein is computed by dividing the total cost by the grams of protein per serving times the number of servings. Some foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are best compared using cost per pound. Shopping with a calculator and taking notes will greatly facilitate this process. Do not spend too much time being extremely precise, the rough estimate will speak for itself. The biggest difficulty will be finding cost data for food that does not come with a nutritional label or a barcode. Here cost per pound will be most effective.

As you gather more and more data, your general understanding of various food costs will increase, and some foods that seemed expensive to you before will no longer appear to be so costly. For example, pre-made hamburger patties of good quality cost about $1.00 per quarter pound patty or $4.00 per pound. Grass-fed ground beef can be purchased for $3.00 per pound and made into patties. Raw-milk which costs $5.00-$6.00 per gallon can be made into yogurt for much less than the cost of good-quality whole-milk plain yogurt. Typically, processed foods will be much more expensive. Dry beans cost about half as much as canned beans. Making hamburger patties, yogurt and beans does not take a great deal of handson- time, it just requires advance planning.

2. Plan Meals

Planning meals is a necessary part of developing a healthy diet and also controlling costs. A little time spent regularly planning meals produces great rewards both financially and operationally. Each person needs to determine how long a planning horizon to use. Most often, a weekly schedule is used but some do it for a month and others for three days. The point is that it is necessary. Without a plan, one can not hope to operate efficiently. For us, Sunday evening is the time to plan the meals for the week and to take meat needed for the next few days out of the freezer. Mondays and Thursdays as I make dinner, I also prepare for meals later in the week.

Keep your plans simple. Plans that are too complicated are difficult to follow. Meals do not have to be different every day. As a time and stress saver, we always have baked chicken on Mondays for dinner. This frees me from having to think of a meal for that day. I know we will go through fifty chickens in a year and therefore we buy those from a local farmer once a year. Simple meals require fewer specialty ingredients, which allows more room in the cupboards and refrigerator for more nutritious items, and also saves money. Although Mondays are simple and repetitive, weekends are planned as time for elaborate fancy new culinary delights. This gives us the opportunity to try new recipes and look forward to something special.

Modify your meal plan as you go. If you find that week after week you have extra leftovers, then plan meals composed of leftovers with a backup if the leftovers are gone. Our leftover Monday chicken is planned to go into a soup Wednesday or Thursday. Soups are excellent places to utilize leftovers. If you find that week after week you are eating out one particular day of the week, then try to plan something simple for that meal, or else build going out into your plan by including less expensive foods in other meals. After a few months of planning, it will become an easy routine.

3. Make a Budget

Budget can be a nasty word, but instead of being confining, a budget can actually be liberating. When determining a budget, start by tracking all food costs, including eating out, for a couple of months to get a good understanding of what you are already spending. Try not to change your supply of food on hand. Once you know how much you spend, see how this fits into your overall budget. Is this amount realistic?

Recently, a friend asked me to help her plan food purchases given that she had $60 per week to feed a family of seven. This is an example of an unrealistic food budget. She could not provide enough calories for her family even if she spent the $60 per week entirely on dried lentils and rice. Fortunately, she was able to decrease spending in other areas to increase her family food budget, and they are also raising their own grass-fed beef and some other food.

The budgeting time period will depend on the specific family economic situation. Some people shop weekly and would benefit from a weekly budget allowance, assuming that they are also putting money away for the large food purchases that come up occasionally. Others who receive a bi-monthly paycheck may want to operate with a two-week budget. In our family we must set aside money each paycheck for big annual purchases such as chickens, beef and pork, which tend to all arrive in the late summer and fall. We have a second budget for monthly purchases such as raw milk, cheese, and food co-op purchases, and a third budget for weekly purchases from a local market and egg farmer. This is probably more elaborate than need be when just starting out, but it works for us.

To balance a budget, expensive meals need to be offset by inexpensive meals. This is where knowing the true cost of your foods is helpful. We typically plan a couple meals per week of lentils and brown rice, refried brown rice with egg, bean burritos, soup or pasta as our inexpensive meals. These offset the more expensive meals that include raw cheese, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and wild fish. Remember that in the traditional cultures Price studied, there were sacred foods for which the people sacrificed dearly.

Record keeping is critical for good budgeting. One can plan forever but if spending is not stopped when the money runs out, budgets will not work. There are many ways to keep track of spending. Some people use an envelope system where money is regularly put into an envelope for a certain purpose, with a rule that expenditures can only be made from that envelope. Others keep track on paper or on a spreadsheet. Using this system requires setting a dollar figure for each period and then expenses are recorded and subtracted from the total. I have seen people keep their food budget on the refrigerator door. It can also be kept in the back of the checkbook. What is important is keeping track somewhere so it works for you.

Like meal planning, budgeting is a cyclical process. If you find you are constantly overspending in one area, try to reduce another area to make up for it. Try adding more inexpensive meals and reducing the frequency of expensive meals. It may be that you must eat inexpensive meals six days a week allowing for something special only once a week. You will enjoy it much more if it truly is something special.

Making a budget is easier than sticking to it. Through trial and error you will learn to refine your budget over time into something that works best for you.

4. Buy Nutrient-Dense Foods

A healthy diet consists of eating foods that are high in nutrition. Nutritional needs will vary for each individual but getting a good “bang for the buck” is important. In general, more nutritious foods are going to be grown by farmers interested in nutrition and healthy sustainable agricultural methods. These foods will not have nutritional information or barcodes attached to them!

Identify the top half-dozen most nutritious foods you want in your diet. Buy these first before considering other foods. In our house, cod liver oil, butter oil, raw milk, raw cheese, butter, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and eggs, and wild fish are top priorities. These are foods we are willing to spend a lot of money on and do not opt for cheaper alternatives. These are similar to the sacred foods that traditional cultures valued highly.

If most of your food is nutrient dense and your family is basically healthy, some of what you eat can be a compromise. At other times for health reasons, one needs to be 100 percent vigilant. A friend of mine with severe multiple chemical sensitivities must, for her own health, be constantly aware of everything she consumes. But most of us can satisfactorily operate using an 80-20 rule. If 80 percent of our diet is good, 20 percent can be less nutritious. However, there are absolutes that should not be violated.

5. Keep a Short List Of Absolutes

Typically the list of absolutes are absolute no’s but can include some absolute yes’s. For example, in our house we operate with an absolute no to diet pop and an absolute yes to daily cod liver oil. Keep your list short (two or three items), otherwise it is difficult to remember and act on your absolutes. As one item is weeded out, another can be targeted. It is important to focus on an absolute no for at least three to six months for it to be truly weeded out. Some absolutes may take years to uproot entirely. So choose absolutes wisely. For many people, I advise starting with soft drinks if that is a problem in their family. Sodas are a big “budget buster” as well as providing no nutrition and causing the body harm. Water works!

6. Know Your “Budget Busters”

Budget busters are things that you find over time cause you to overspend. Each person will have his own particular budget busters and will need to be creative with ways to avoid them. Some common budget busters include eating out, packaged or processed foods, cold breakfast cereals, beverages that add little nutritional value, and impulse purchases made in the store.

Eating out is a common budget buster. To fight this, I keep some food in the house that is easily and quickly prepared, and which stores well. For us, it used to be packaged macaroni and cheese, and we called it “emergency food.” Although this was not the greatest choice, I rarely used it but enjoyed knowing it was there. It was part of the 20 percent solution. After a while of it sitting idly on the shelf, the kids started begging for “emergency.” I now use cans of organic beans that are heated in a pot with spices from the cupboard. This can be on the table in five minutes and is nutritious and cheap.

Packaged foods, like eating out, can cause significant damage to a budget. Dry beans are half the cost of canned beans. Commercial barbeque sauce is more expensive per pound than the freerange chicken it goes on. The more food that can be purchased in its whole form and cooked at home, the less expensive eating will be. Breakfast cereal, although easy for kids to manage, is far, far more expensive than eggs which have far, far more nutrition. Does it take all that much more time to make thirty hamburger patties and store them in the freezer for later use than to buy premade patties of lower quality? Having a good plan will reduce the need for packaged foods.

Beverages are often overlooked budget busters because we habitually spend money for them without questioning their nutritional value. As mentioned earlier, soft drinks are extremely expensive for their nutritional value, and so are alcoholic drinks and coffee. Beverages should provide nutrition and not be empty calories. This does not mean that these can never be consumed, unless they are on your absolute list. Wine is a nice addition to a special meal and does add some nutrition although it is not a good nutritional value for the money. Coffee can have some nutrition if raw cream is used, but it too has little nutritional value for the cost. Occasionally (less than once a year) we will have commercial root beer with home-made vanilla ice cream. The key is that these are not on the forbidden list for us, and we choose these as treats and consume them very rarely. There are wonderful nutritious beverages that can be substituted instead, such as raw milk, beet kvas, kombucha, and others found in Nourishing Traditions.

Impulse purchases will blow any budget. When you visit any store (grocery, clothing, hardware, anywhere) bring a list with a dollar figure that can be spent. At least then you start with a plan. Sticking to it is easier if you know what you are allowed. Purchases over the budget can be evaluated for just what they are: “special purchases.”

Each person will have her own specific budget busters. Our two greatest budget busters are entertaining and eating out. I will buy things for company that I would not normally purchase for the family. To combat this, I prepare a budget for specific entertaining activities and plan for it just like regular meals. We do add some special items because it is a special night, but not hundreds of dollars of special items.

I have to resist the temptation to eat out. Fortunately, if I am diligent about planning meals the temptation is greatly reduced. It is when I am stressed that I am most likely to want to eat out, but it is then that I most need the good nutrition of a home-cooked meal. With a plan, I am far better about avoiding the budget busters.

7. Make Some Improvements

Life is constant growth. We need to continue to make new improvements in our diet. Decide what is most important. It should be something doable. Then act on it. Focus on that thing specifically until it is reasonably mastered. Usually this will take three months or more. Then choose something else. Changes can be small, like changing the kind of salt used, or big, like cutting out all soy products. Pick good times of the year to make changes. If Christmas is a weak point, start something new in January, not November. Keep a list of what you hope to change in the future. We are planning on buying more milk to make all of our butter and at some point removing coffee from our diet. The key is to keep working at it and to be kind to yourself.

8. Practice Forgiveness

To accomplish anything in the present that will benefit us in the future, we must forgive our past. Act in the present so that you can gain in the future. We have all made mistakes in our past, mistakes that have lasting consequences. We were acting with a limited set of information. Now that we know better, we can act differently. The future is glorious.

*This article is written by Anne M.A. Sergeant. Anne M.A. Sergeant, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Accounting at Grand Valley State University. She is a former board member for Nourishing Traditions of West Michigan and has given talks on practicalities of getting started on a Weston A. Price diet, cheese-making, canning and preserving foods.
To read the full article and her sources, please visit: Healthy Eating Budgets (Weston A. Price)


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