As we gear up towards Christmas (46 days and counting…), thoughts begin to turn towards roast turkey and mince pies (or is that just me?), not to mention the inevitable shopping list of presents!
Which brings me nicely onto the subject of money. Or lack of it. A common misconception is that eating well is expensive and perhaps spending all that money on so-called ‘healthy’ foods a bit unnecessary… especially when it involves big bags of overpriced kale. Because what’s wrong with a good old cheese sandwich, anyway? A trip to your local Whole Foods may confirm this point of view, with a gourmet salad and a packet of herbal tea bags leaving you £20 lighter.
But eating healthily needn’t be expensive! The fundamental aspect is knowing what to buy, where to make valuable savings and why splashing a bit more cash on certain ingredients will ultimately lead to balancing those all-important finances.
Personally, I think that having food as the third most important financial priority after 1) settling your rent/mortgage and 2) paying your bills, is about right. Because if food has slipped down the priority list, then the question is – what is coming before it?
It could be that corners are being cut on the food shop to make way for a few of life’s other pleasures, such as nights out, clothes shopping or holidays…but it is important to remember that none of these can ever really be enjoyed to their fullest if you do not have your health first and foremost. What we eat on a daily basis, even if a direct correlation may seem unclear at first, affects our overall wellbeing on a base level.
Common occurrences when trying to save money on food is either eating less of it, or eating what is seemingly the most cost-effective (i.e. largest) portion for the price, perhaps a carbohydrate-heavy staple such as bread, pasta, rice or potato. All of these ingredients are perfectly acceptable as part of a balanced diet, but issues can arise when these basic ingredients start to dominate your daily diet, allowing quality fats and proteins to fall by the wayside. Herein lies a macronutrient imbalance that can slowly but surely lead to chronic symptoms such as consistently low energy, hormonal irregularity, skin complaints, digestive discomfort, weight issues or mood disorders.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it can be really helpful to keep a log of your diet for a couple of weeks to gain more clarity on which foods you are relying on the most to sustain your daily activity. In a clinical setting, I would then use this information from my clients to calculate macronutrient intake and reassess key areas of imbalance.
Quality fats and proteins such as meat, fish, avocados, nuts and seeds are generally more expensive products on the grocery list. However, as the old saying goes, ‘you get what you pay for!’ Their more nutrient-dense nature is vital for many processes including energy, tissue repair, hormones, immunity and brain function.
By the same token, convenience foods are cheap for a reason. The amount of processing a food has gone through generally equates to a lower nutrient content. And when our body is continually trying to function in an undernourished state, this can lead to chronic health implications that can sneak up with no obvious cause.
So you’re on a budget, but you also want to eat properly to sustain and improve your health – where to start?
A few tweaks here and there will make it much easier to implement a manageable food plan – below are a few guidelines to help you on your way:
Meat, Fish, Eggs & Dairy – you get out what you put in
Even if animal welfare is not one of your top priorities (but hopefully it is), there are other important reasons why it is a good idea to buy the best products in this category you can afford.
Not only will buying organic or grass-fed when possible reduce your exposure to the antibiotics and artificial growth hormones often relied upon in the intensive farming industry, but you will also be consuming more nutrients for your pound. Studies have shown grass-fed beef to have less inflammatory components and higher levels of beneficial antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids in comparison with conventionally reared grain-fed beef.
Studies have also shown free range and organic eggs to have a higher micronutrient level due to the more varied diet of the birds, with increased amounts of vitamin A and lutein being characterised within a darker coloured yolk. I recommend Clarence Court eggs for the best orange yolks around!
It may seem contradictory that I am recommending more expensive products as part of a post on managing your food budget – but shifting the focus onto quality rather than quantity is a workable way of incorporating this modified eating philosophy into your lifestyle.
#1 TOP TIPS:
- Organic chicken breast is expensive – substitute for cheaper cuts such as wings or thighs, which have a fuller flavour and higher fatty acid profile
- Even better – buy a whole organic chicken! You’ll get two breasts, thighs, drumsticks and wings out of it – plus a carcass for making bone broth
- Buy meat products in bulk and store in the freezer – this minimises waste and means less impromptu trips to the supermarket and its various temptations
- Buy the best quality bacon you can afford for more nutrients per pound – a common practice with cheap bacon is to pump it full of water to increase its size, which soon evaporates in the pan, unfortunately
- Buy a slow cooker – this will be one of the best investments you make, especially as we approach Winter. The slow cooking method is perfect for breaking down cheaper cuts of meat such as braising steak, shin or shoulder, giving great taste at a lower cost. Simply throw into the pot with a bowl of vegetables and stock and voila! A cheap and convenient meal ready for when you get home
- Cooking extra in the evenings means you can take leftovers for lunch the next day – Pret won’t thank you for it, but your bank balance will
- I purchase all of my grass-fed meat online from pipersfarm.com, a family-run smallholding based in Devon
Tinned Food – not just for a Rainy Day
I fully appreciate that tinned fish is not to everyone’s taste, but there is no better way to quickly and conveniently top up your protein, vitamin D, calcium and omega 3 levels – all for less than £2! Stock up on tinned sardines, mackerel, salmon and anchovies – these tiny fish are also very low in toxic mercury levels, more prevalent in larger fish (and why tuna is best avoided).
Most people already have these in their cupboard, but the nutritional profile of tinned tomatoes is not to be sniffed at. Tomatoes are unusual in that their levels of antioxidants actually increase during the cooking process, making tinned tomatoes essentially higher in nutrients than fresh ones.
Coconut milk is another tinned staple that I have at home – it’s an extremely cheap source of medium-chain triglycerides, a beneficial fat that boosts energy processes. It also has good levels of iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc and is incredibly versatile for a multitude of dishes.
#2 TOP TIPS:
- Buy tinned sardines or mackerel in tomato sauce as a quick and convenient alternative to traditional Bolognese sauce – just mix into courgetti, rice or pasta and it’s ready to go!
- Buy tinned sardines or mackerel in Dijon mustard sauce as an easy salad topping (with dressing included) 🙂
- Add a tablespoon of coconut milk into smoothies, stir-fries, sauces and yoghurts – or use as a dairy substitute in baking and hot drinks
Fruit & Vegetables – do they have to be Organic?
The main argument for buying organic fruit and vegetables is to reduce consumption of residual pesticides used in conventional farming. However, the Environmental Working Group have acknowledged that not all fruits and vegetables are affected by contamination in the same way, and it pays (literally) to know your ‘clean fifteen’ from your ‘dirty dozen’ as per below:
#3 TOP TIPS:
- Avocados are high in vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and fibre. But they cost a small fortune at the supermarket! Buy them from street vendors (usually outside tube stations), where you can pick them up for less than half the price
- When it comes to fruit and veg, don’t worry too much about expiry dates and think twice before chucking uneaten food – use your common sense to gauge whether something has gone off instead (you’ll know immediately!) I just cooked up some spring greens this week that were three weeks off their sell-by date….and I have lived to tell the tale! They were absolutely FINE – waste not want not, and all that
- Frozen fruit and vegetables are cheaper and arguably fresher, since they are frozen at source rather than transported fresh – frozen berries and green vegetables are readily available
- Fresh olives are more expensive than ones in tins and jars, but the long-life ones still retain much of their fatty acid ratio and are a good option when looking for something to add into salads or sauces. The only downside is that they are higher in sodium for preservation, so make sure to give them a quick rinse first
Don’t go too Nuts with Nuts!
Nuts are pricey! A standard packet of cashew nuts, for example, can cost almost £5. But they are full of fibre, fats and antioxidants, so I can see why you would want to buy some. However, the price of nut butters can vary surprisingly…with cashew nut butter often being cheaper than the nuts themselves, and ideal when trying to save a bit of money on the shopping. This is due to there being a premium on ‘perfect’ cashew nuts for the packets, but any old broken cashew nuts can be used for the butter, subsequently being reflected in the price.
Another mini tip is to purchase your nuts from the cookery aisle rather than the snack aisle, where they are often cheaper.
Cutting down on the little Luxuries…
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but those little luxuries can stack up! Whether it’s a takeaway latte every morning, or a fully-stocked snack cupboard at home, these are non-essential items that can also have detrimental effects on your health if consumed too regularly, as well as your bank balance.
A process that I have found helpful is to start viewing food in a different light. Once it is seen for what it is – a fuel needed to feed our vital processes – this can be the turning point to a happier and healthier you.
Let me know more about your daily diet and any other tips and suggestions you have!
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