Prioritizing Money Spent on Healthy Food

One of the biggest dilemmas facing someone who wants to live as frugally as possible and as healthily as possible is how to make the two meet up. Healthy food can be expensive; frugal foods can be decidedly unhealthy to eat. Switching over to 100% healthy and ideal foods may be just that- healthy and ideal- but its not realistic for a good chunk of people living on a limited budget. Because of that, unfortunately, some prioritizing needs to be done.

You can't spend money that you don't have on food (going into debt is never a good idea); a proper budget should be established, making food, shelter, and clothing a priority, and eliminating whatever is not absolutely necessary to be able to afford these three basic needs. If even then money is too tight, shelter can be scaled down (downsizing to a really small home in a really cheap place, for example), clothing can be minimized (a few basic outfits bought from thrift stores is all anyone truly needs), so that one can afford adequate nutrition, because nutritional deficiencies will likely cause both short term and long term health affects, which isn't something you should mess around with. Basic health comes before creature comforts, and proper nutrition is crucial to maintaining basic health.

Order of Priorities in Food

The First Three Steps in Feeding Your Family Healthily

1) Everyone needs to have their basic needs met, and one of these are to have enough food to fill their bellies and the bellies of their family, the exact foods they eat less important than the fact they don't starve.
If a family is so destitute that all they can afford is unhealthy, nutritionless garbage, they should not be made to feel guilty for doing what they can, because at least they and their children are able to go to bed without their bellies growling.
However, someone in such a dire situation should do whatever possible to earn enough extra money, or cut back enough on anything less important, so they can go the next step up on the order of priorities.

2) People should make sure that they are consuming enough calories, and that they regularly consume protein, carbohydrates, and at least minimal fruits and vegetables to supply their necessary fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
This is cheaper than it sounds. Protein doesn't need to be meat or even dairy. There are various protein sources from plant products. If someone can't afford anything more, they can get adequate nutrition by consuming legumes, cheap grains, and frozen, canned, or seasonal vegetables. If someone can afford these basic foods but doesn't have any extra money to spend on anything more than this, they should do some financial juggling, trying to earn extra money or free up some cash somehow, so that they can feed their family even better food, the next step up on the order of food priorities.

3) People should try to have a well rounded diet, including a variety of fruits and vegetables, various different grains and seeds, and various different protein sources, including some animal proteins once in a while, because while a strictly vegan diet can provide adequate nutrition- with effort- in some cases, there are some nutritional requirements that are much more easily absorbed when received from an animal source. (I follow a traditional foods diet type of thinking that maintains that ingesting animal products regularly is imperative to achieving maximum health.) If there is any money available, people should try to at least get some form of animal protein at least a few times a week. This can be anything from fish to eggs to dairy to poultry to meat.

Different Choices, Different Priorities
Once these first three priorities have been paid for, the rest is more flexible. How you choose to spend your money is your choice. You may decide that no more money needs to be allocated for food, that once you have basic adequate nutrition, as achieved in step 3, you've done enough and that money is better spent on other things. This is a perfectly valid choice, as some can argue that anything beyond basic nutrition is a luxury, and that there are other needs and even luxuries that are more important than getting the best nutrition possible.
Personally, I feel that getting decent nutrition is very important, and that getting even better nutrition, eating as healthily as your budget can afford, is more important than, say, going on vacation, hiring cleaning help, having a car, having fancy clothing, living in a large home, etc...
But not at the price of living above your means.

I know a family who was struggling to make ends meet. No matter how hard they tried, each month they were sinking more and more into the quagmire of debt. And yet, all the food that they bought for their large family was organic. Spending money on organic food is an admirable thing, but even so, I couldn't help but feel that they had their priorities mixed up, that first they should make it through the month, cut back where they could, and only once they were living within their means should they spend money on "extras" like organic. But hey, that's just me. Perhaps you think that what they did is just fine and you would do the same... but even so, its a choice that I would never make and never endorse, no matter how much I am a proponent of healthy eating.

When we were struggling to float financially, when we weren't making it through the month because our income was so low and expenses too high in comparison (even though we weren't spending on anything extravagant), what we did was cut corners in every way.
Whatever wasn't a dire need to spend on didn't get  purchased. Yes, I made sure that we had a protein, starch, and vegetable at every meal, and that we had animal products a few times a week, but more than that? Nope. We used white flour, white rice, white flour pasta, white sugar, soy bean oil. Basically whatever was cheapest, we'd eat.
First priority was cutting our spending so that we weren't spending more than we were making, and only once we managed to live within our means was there even any talk of switching to healthier alternatives. But spending money we didn't have to eat more healthily wasn't even a consideration for us.
One important thing to note- if someone doesn't have extra money because they spend it on things that are not needs, like cable TV, eating out, fancy clothing, entertainment, etc... then I would recommend cutting out those extras first and putting the money towards healthier foods, but again, someone else may disagree with me.

Now that we do have some extra money available, we do spend it on eating healthier and do have meals that are a bit healthier than baked beans on white bread rolls with a side of cucumbers. But when we didn't have the money, you betcha that's what we ate; and I don't regret it, not one little bit.

Healthier, Not More Expensive
But eating healthier doesn't need to cost more money always. There are some way that you can make your food healthier while spending the same amount of money as before, or possibly even less.

Make things from scratch. By making things from scratch, even if you don't use perfect ingredients, you're still eliminating many of the chemicals found in the store bought type, and its usually much cheaper as well. You can nearly always make a loaf of whole wheat bread at home for cheaper than you can buy a loaf of white bread in the store. Healthy cookies can be made at home more cheaply than buying unhealthy store bought cookies. Homemade vegetable soup (especially if made from scratch with vegetable scraps) is cheaper and healthier than buying chemical filled soup mixes. Homemade jam (made in season) is both cheaper and healthier than store bought jam. Homemade chocolate syrup and mayonnaise are healthier and cheaper than the store bought variety.
Yes, these all take a time commitment, but the more you do them, the more practice you get, the more efficient you become and the less time it takes you to make them, until the time investment is very negligible compared to what you save and gain healthwise.

Buy Bulk. If you buy large quantities of healthy items from a wholesaler instead of buying them at the supermarket, you're able to get healthier food often for cheaper than you can buy the less healthy variety, or at least come very close. I switched to using whole wheat flour (back when I wasn't gluten free) instead of refined white flour once I started buying it in bulk. By buying it in bulk, it only cost me 20 cents more per pound instead of nearly a dollar more per pound, making switching to whole grains just a little bit easier in that case.

Forage. I'd love to buy organic produce, but locally organic produce is generally at least 5 or 10 times the price I currently pay for produce on sale, so it's really hard to justify buying organic. What I do instead is try to forage as much produce as possible, because all the foraged food I pick is organic, and not only does it not cost me a cent extra, by using these organics, it cuts my costs of grocery shopping. So healthier and cheaper at the same time. I love it!
If you're unsure about foraging wild edibles, see if any of your neighbors have trees or plants that are loaded with extra organic produce that they'd be happy to share. That's how I ended up with a few hundred pounds of organic grapes that I was able to use for various projects, from wine making to grape juice making to compotes and eating fresh. Organic and free!

Mini Homesteading. If you have the space or the time, plant a vegetable garden and grow your own organic produce. Buy chickens for egg laying, and if legal in your area, raise chickens or rabbits or other animals for meat, and buy a goat for milk. These will have an initial outlay, but the savings and the health benefits will make it worthwhile.

Cut Back on Unhealthy Ingredients. If you can't afford to switch to healthier oils, healthier sweeteners, etc... cut back on the amount of the unhealthy ingredient that you use, even without replacing it with anything else. Cut back on the amount of sugar in your cakes, cut the amount of sugar in your lemonade, try to make non sweet things more often, etc... Yes, its better to have no white sugar at all, but having lemonade with sugar 2 times per week is still healthier than lemonade with sugar 10 times per week, and it doesn't cost anything extra.

If There's a Little Extra Cash
If you can free up a little extra money to spend on healthier foods, what is the order of priorities to spend the money on then?
This, again, is a personal decision, and I can't make that decision for anyone else, but this is how I would do it:

1) Deal with any immediate situations that need specific foods. When I was having terrible morning sickness and could only stomach certain foods, the priority was that I be able to eat food and get nutrition. Everything else healthwise fell by the wayside. I didn't buy any organic produce or extra special health foods; I spent money on the foods I could eat right then, knowing it was temporary.

2) Non negotiables first. If you have a food allergy or food sensitivity or whatever, there's no games to be played. Those are non negotiables, and any spare money that you can find should go to make sure that you have the foods that you or your kids are actually able to eat without getting sick. Right now, being gluten free and dairy free, I am spending more money on more expensive grains and certain gluten free products. I can't rely on pasta and breads and semolina porridge and oats as cheap fillers anymore, so I need to spend some more money on replacements for those foods, other foods that fill me up that I can eat. No, I haven't bought any organic foods now, even though I had started to buy some before, because right now, my priority is to get gluten free foods, because that is something I need, whereas organic foods is a nice thing, but an extra I can't fit into my budget right now together with gluten free cooking.
If you're allergic to dairy, eggs, fish, and beans (I know someone like that), obviously you'll need to be getting much more meat than you would otherwise. Allergies are not something to mess around with!

3) Most bang for your buck. Before I went gluten free, I was buying organic potatoes and carrots and occasionally organic grains and such. Why? Because the price difference between organic and non organic for those specific items was very minimal, so I felt I was getting a good deal for the extra money I was spending.
On the other hand, organic chickens are more than twice the price that I pay now, closer to three times the price. If I'd spend the same amount I was paying extra for organic veggies and grains and spent that to buy organic chickens, I'd probably be able to buy 1 or 2 organic chickens that month with the same money I'd be able to buy 50 pounds of organic produce. If there isn't much money to spend, try to figure out what gives you the most bang for your buck, the biggest health benefit for the least amount of extra money spent.
I also feel I get a lot of bang for my buck by getting raw honey. My husband suffers from seasonal allergies, but when he ate raw honey on a regular basis during allergy season, he was able to tolerate the pollen much better than in other years. Because of that, I'll occasionally splurge on expensive raw honey, because in our case, I feel it gives lots of bang for our buck.

4) What scares you most. There's lots of really scary pseudo-foods out on the market. If you think about it, much of it is pretty darn freaky. But if there isn't enough money to eliminate all of these unhealthy foods, try to pick the ones that you've researched, and personally scare you the most, and spend money to find replacements and cut out those foods.
For me, the things that scare me most are artificial sugars, artificial flavorings, artificial colorings, soy beans and canola oil, corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, msg, mineral oil (yes, I actually saw that listed in the ingredients of a processed food) and synthetic vinegar, so I've been spending extra money to replace those things (ok, just cut out the artificial sugars, flavorings and colorings and corn syrup, but switching to better quality oil and vinegar was an increase in price).

I've also lately noticed how much my children have sugar highs and crashes after eating things containing white sugar. This is something I'm in the process of cutting out, but its taken me a while to get to it because all the other healthier sweeteners are a fortune here. Date honey is the next cheapest healthy option, and it is literally 5 times the price of white sugar. Regular honey is 9 times the price of white sugar. Maple syrup is 10 times the price. Sucanat and coconut sugar aren't even available here as far as I know.
But even with the cost difference, I'm trying to work out something. I bought pureed dates today to use to sweeten things. They're not as expensive as the date honey, and they worked out to be cheaper than dried dates. I'm trying to cut back on sweeteners in general, and will try to use those pureed dates sparingly. I'm also trying to import honey that my friends are able to buy cheaper where they live. All these are much more expensive options than white sugar even so, but I'm getting scared by how the sugar is very obviously affecting my kids.

Other people might decide that hormones in milk or chicken scare them the most and will put an emphasis on eliminating that first, while others may decide that pesticides on non organic produce, especially the "dirty dozen" freaks them out the most, and will make sure to buy only organic produce.

It really is up to you.

5) Buy all healthy, all the time. Unless I suddenly, miraculously get filthy rich, I doubt I'll ever be able to afford to do this, but one day, hopefully I'll be able to eat completely healthy food and afford it.
By completely healthy food, I'm referring to all organic produce, all hormone free, pastured, grass fed animal products, raw milk and butter and cream, free range organic eggs, non factory farmed fish, minimal grain and whatever used, whole grain, all healthy sweeteners and they being used sparingly, raw honey, unrefined salt, etc...
But yea, that's so not realistic on a budget like mine. Instead, I can just dream that maybe one day I'll have enough money to truly get to step 5 on the list of prioritizing money on healthy foods. Or at least have the ability to make most of those myself on my own homestead and not need the money to buy them, just make them on my own.

But even if you don't have money to spend on healthier foods, you don't need to get discouraged. Do what you can, do what you can afford, and (if you're religious), pray that it'll work out and you and yours will all stay healthy.

How do you prioritize spending money on healthy foods? Do you buy all healthy foods, or are there some things you spend more money on to buy healthy, but other things you don't feel are worth it or as important? Which things are most important for you healthwise in terms of foods? Would you spend more than you can afford to buy healthy foods, or do you put living within your means to be more important than eating all 100% healthy?

Linking up to WFMW, Real Food Wednesday, Healthy 2day WednesdayWomen Living Well, Simple Lives Thursday, Pennywise Platter ThursdayDIY Thrifty ThursdayFrugal Food ThursdayFreaky FridayFight Back FridayFresh Bites FridayFrugal FridayFriday FoodsMake a Foodie Friend MondayMangia MondayMonday ManiaTraditional TuesdaysFat Tuesdays,

Penniless Parenting

Mommy, wife, writer, baker, chef, crafter, sewer, teacher, babysitter, cleaning lady, penny pincher, frugal gal


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  1. I'm reading your blog and I think you have some great material here.
    Have you considered or even just tried for 30 days or go without meat? If you went without meat you would have more money in your budget to buy a better sugar source/spend more money on organic produce.
    I would think non organic meat is one of the scariest things you could eat in the US with all the hormones, steroids and perticides in them. Let alone the fact that less than 1% of cows are tested for mad cow disease?

    1. I do not believe that meat is unhealthy. In fact, I think it is quite necessary in order to have a healthy diet. When I go without animal proteins/meat for a few days, my body starts feeling weaker. I do try to have vegan meals a few times a week, but can't cut out meat for long periods of time because of the health ramifications. I don't live in the US, so my meat isn't the same as US meat, but that doesn't mean it's problem free. But I think its more problematic to eat no meat than to eat non organic meat.

  2. Thanks for this list. We are on an elimination diet for my kids & had to cut our organics except when it's the only Option. It's been hard but necessary. Your post is a good reminder that living within our means is more important. I'll be excited to start some of the money saving gluten free tips you have given as well in other posts. :)

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