In our Healthy & Whole series, we’ve been talking about barriers to embracing healthy eating: no timefearlack of inspirationguilt, and judgement. We’ve also talked about practices like mindful eating and how to create a recipe. One big barrier to healthy eating we haven’t talked about yet? Money.

When we asked you what holds you back from eating healthy, most people we heard from said things like “time”, “lack of energy / creativity”, or even “don’t know how”. But we know one other important practical factor that also stands in the way of a lot of good eating: money.

It’s a common excuse: whole / organic / healthy foods are just too expensive. We also know from research that lower-income families in our country have poor access to nourishing food, living in “food deserts” with ready access only to processed, packaged foods devoid of many nutrients.

Here’s the part where we should do the whole “Eating healthy is actually cheaper  / here are 10 budget-friendly meals” thing. But first, we to you with a challenge. Here’s the thing: Eating healthy costs money.

Since the 1950’s, our country has been working to make food as cheap as possible. At this time in history,we’re spending less as a percentage of our income on food than we ever have. As a side effect, our food has become gradually more processed and less nourishing than it has ever been.

As a culture, we need to decide: is our health worth a little less in the pocket book? Is it worth it to spend a few more dollars on groceries — and perhaps eventually a few thousand less on diabetes or heart disease treatments?

OK, we’ll hop off the soap box. But, we wanted to mention this since it was a big turning-point for us in our eating habits. We had to make the conscious choice to sacrifice our income to the goal of eating healthy. And it was hard. It’s hard to spend $50 and only end up with a bag full of items at the grocery or farmer’s market. However, the way we feel about our health (and the incredible difference in the taste of quality whole foods) makes it worth the pain.

That said, it’s actually not that painful on the checkbook to eat healthy, especially if you try eating “mainly meatless at home” like we do. Here are a few of our tips for spending a little less on a whole foods diet:

1. Eat a few meatless meals per week. This helps drive down the cost, and is good for your overall health as well.

2. Cook dried beans and grains from scratch. Beans and rice are incredible budget foods. See this tutorial from Annie’s Eats on how to cook dried beans.

3. Shop in bulk for dry goods, nuts, and spices. We love bulk bins, especially for things like grains above.

4. Find deals at your local markets. If you look hard enough, you can find things like cucumbers or eggplants for 50 cents each. In general, fresh foods are tastiest and cheapest when they are at their peak.

5. Plan ahead!  This is one is probably the most difficult for us, but planning out your meals, taking advantage of leftovers and minimizing waste can provide big results. Giving a bit of your time can result in saving a fair amount of money.

Keep in mind, it’s not as easy as 1, 2, 3. (That’s the hard part about this Healthy & Whole series — nothing is a set of easy steps.) However, once you’ve committed yourself to spending a little more time and dollars on your diet, you’ll actually find the difference in your health is worth it – and you just might start falling love with the joy of cooking in the process.

What are your favorite ways to save money and eat whole, fresh, healthy foods? We’d love to hear your tips!

About the authors

Sonja & Alex

Meet Sonja and Alex Overhiser: Husband and wife. Expert home cooks. Authors of recipes you'll want to make again and again.

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  1. This post could not come at a better time! I feel that I have this conversation daily with my patients. I agree 100% with everything you have shared above so I thank you!

    One of my favorite ways to save? Never throw away fruit that’s about to be mush. If you pick up that super soft peach or spotted banana, that box of blueberries you forgot about in the back of your fridge and it’s a situation of eat-it-now or throw-it-away I turn to Ziplocs….and my freezer. Creating your own frozen fruit means easy smoothies and they also make for great additions into yogurt and oatmeal too.

    I find it’s most convenient to slice up the peach first and certainly peel and slice the banana prior to bagging it.

    1. This is a great idea, Brooke! We actually have never tried this out, but it’s a perfect way to make use of produce that might otherwise not be used. Thanks for this! Are you a nutritionist?

  2. I appreciate that you approached this honestly. I get frustrated when people quip that if you’d just stop eating out or buying packaged goods or soda that you’d find eating healthy is cheaper. I’ve always been conscientious of our grocery budget and have never bought highly processed food items and with 4 boys, eating out is a once in a blue moon affair (half because it costs so much and half because who wants to take four boys to a restaurant!).
    But when I started cutting out the cheap carbs, like white rice and noodles and replaced them with veggies and whole grains, our grocery bill went up dramatically. I’ve tried all the steps you listed and the thing that I think makes the biggest difference is planning ahead. I used to just buy what looked good and the try to figure out how to use it. So much produce would go to waste. Now I write out a menu for the week and make my grocery list. I hardly ever throw out produce this way.
    Again – thanks for honest look at this.

    1. Thank you, Natalie! We really appreciate your honest feedback too — especially that planning ahead is a huge help in cutting costs. It may be a bit painful (especially for spontaneous eaters), but it can really help the pocketbook. Thanks for this insight!

  3. Agree 100% with this. I can easily drop $40 at the Farmer’s market on a Saturday morning and everything is gone in just a few days. We do subscribe to a CSA and while the up front cost is high, I find I get value for my money. Last week alone I brought home 12 peppers, kale, beets, corn, watermelon, lettuce mix, tomatoes, okra (okay so I left that behind…but it was in the share), onions, potatoes, cucumbers and summer squash. Way more produce than $25 would have bought at the local market…which is the average weekly cost of our share.

    1. Great point about CSA’s, Julie! That’s a great amount of produce for the price. CSA’s are a wonderful option for local fresh produce that’s economical – and they force you to get creative with the foods that come in the basket!

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I am always so frustrated by the groups who complain that eating healthily and locally is “too expensive”, only to turn around and spend money on Starbucks, video games, cable television, the latest iPhone, or multiple meals out. It’s all about priorities.

    I echo Julie’s comment about the CSA! My fiance` and I subscribe to a two-person CSA for $32 a week. It’s not the traditional American way of shopping, since we get our food and THEN figure out how to eat it (as opposed to deciding what we want and then shopping for certain items), but we’ve been overwhelmed with the quality and taste of our veggies.

    Again, thank you for having the courage to tell it like it is – food is important, and we should spend our money accordingly.

  5. I’m a bit late to the game, but can I say THANK YOU for speaking honestly about cost! It is really comforting. I’ll echo the above comments that iphones/cable/Starbucks are expensive—but we don’t have those things anyway, and it doesn’t really relieve the burn of a $100 per week grocery bill. I’m always disheartened to hear people brag that they only spend $45 per week to feed a family of six. (Although you usually find out that they serve meals with no produce to accomplish the savings…)

    We’re always looking for ways to save, and dried beans and lentils are our best friends. As for the rest? I’m trying to come to terms with the idea that fresh fruit & veg, and good quality dairy is always going to be expensive, but it is an investment in health down the road. Right?