Cheap Isn’t Always Healthy (More budget tips!)

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Oh what a conundrum. It’s the sad truth but unfortunately….cheap food isn’t always healthy and healthy food isn’t always cheap.

Hubs and I ran into this issue this week when on Tuesday we got a free dinner at Golden Corral because of his secret shopper job (free dinner=awesome. Open buffet=bad for us) and then on Wednesday we decided to join our church for the $2 meals before Bible studies (we’re taking Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University!). The meal was delicious!!! Chili dogs and chips. :-/ Yeah…not so healthy.

And then of course there’s the other issues out there that you’ve probably faced. Hamburger Helper is super quick in a pinch. Pasta and cheesy casseroles are super cheap and super quick. And drive-thru dollar menus? Oh boy! Oh boy!

Geesh! Then how can we be budget meal beasts when we also what to have our own healthy ever afters? In my last post about being budget meal savvy, I mentioned how you can still be healthy. But here’s some more tips for you.

While it is true that cheap food isn’t ALWAYS healthy and healthy food isn’t ALWAYS cheap that doesn’t mean that the two can’t ever coexist. They can! You just have to be smart about it.

Also, a lot of the quick and cheap UNHEALTHY options really aren’t as cheap as you think. Here are some tips to not fall victim to the traps of American eating

1) “Cheap” fast-food isn’t that cheap

For example, say you and your spouse go to a drive-thru for some dollar menu specialties. Say…. a burger, small fry and small drink and then  chicken nuggets, small fry and drink. That’s six bucks right there at $3 per serving, PLUS TAX (plus gas if you want to get extra nit picky). And let’s be honest….once we get to that drive-thru how many people actually stay with the dollar menu or only get three things? Most people spend between $5-7 per meal at a fast food restaurant.

But if you’re smart about your cooking, most meals are about $1-2 a serving. This is where buying in bulk and planning your meals ahead of time comes in handy. If you spend $10 bucks for 8-16 servings of chicken (depends on how you cut it) and then add some pasta or rice from the bigger bags/boxes (literally almost cuts the per unit price in half) plus your fresh ingredients like veggies and then sauces— you’re talking a mere couple of dollars for multiple delicious, home-cooked dinners that are not expensive at all. (One of these days I’ll do a weekly example plan I swear. I did one a long time ago for a NY friend living on her own and I seriously helped her plan a week’s worth of meals for $35).

2) “Cheap” fast-food isn’t that fast
If you argue the “fast” approach of going through a drive-thru, consider this: Say it takes you 10-15 minutes to drive to your fast food place, then 5-10 minutes in line, then 10-15 minutes back. That’s 25-35 minutes of driving time! Most meals I cook can be done in roughly 30 minutes or less (unless I get fancy or something). My favorite example of this truth is when Jamie Oliver did this on his own TV show a year or so ago. He had a father go pick up fast food for his family, and by the time he got home, Jamie and the man’s sons had cooked a healthy dinner and had it on the table.  Faster isn’t really that fast. AND it’s bad for you.

3) Fresh/healthy ingredients don’t HAVE to be expensive
Yes, if you decide to buy strawberries in December, it’s going to be crazy expensive. Buy produce when it’s in season, frequent farmers markets, and consider starting your own garden if you have the space (if limited on space, at least do fresh herbs. Basil can get pricey, but it’s inexpensive to grow). Also, frozen fruits and veggies hold a lot of the nutrients, so stock up on some of those too. In fact, you can even freeze your own (just remember to peel bananas first. They get nasty left in the peel). And if you’re really pinching pennies, just rinse your canned veggies under a faucet in a colander to remove the excess sodium.

And you don’t need to eat fresh duck and filet mignon to get the protein you need. Buy meats on sale and in bulk. If they’re REALLY close to the date, then just cook it the day you buy it or day after and then freeze it or eat it that week. Once, I got an amazing London Broil for 65% off. Fed me, Hubs and my brother for two days. Delicious.

And remember, not everything is better for you if it’s labeled organic. Don’t fall victim to marketing. Do your research (I promise I’ll do a post dedicated to the organic debate very soon).

4) “Cheap” food isn’t always cheap because you eat too much of it
I’m embarrassed to say it, but it’s true. If you get a big bag of chips for $3.50 because it’s cheap and goes great with your packed lunches, but then “unexpectedly” eat it in 3 days (cuz of snacking or packing too much or other people snacking, etc), so you end up having to buy two bags a week which is then $7 a week…you’re eating a lot of crap for stupid amounts of money. That’s $14 for two weeks worth of lunch chips. And then if you decide to buy portioned controlled snacks instead to be “healthy”, you’re paying extra for the packaging. Seriously, the high calorie foods don’t always fill you up so you eat more. My brother and I used to split hamburger helper dinners when we were kids— but it was supposed to serve 4! Same with frozen pizzas.

Put this into perspective with the $14 for 2 weeks worth of chips for lunch: I just bought Hubs’ and my stuff for lunches for two weeks and it came to $20. This included a loaf of wheat bread, sliced turkey, low-fat American cheese and lettuce and tomato and grapes (and I think I had a box of granola bars in there too). Assuming we both pack turkey sandwiches five days a week with a side of grapes or whatever fruit I bought that week, that’s $1 a lunch. You may think it’s boring (that’s why we have PB&J in the pantry for Hubs, or leftovers from dinner, or have salads instead), but there’s nothing boring about saving money to buy your first house. In fact, it tastes way better than your $5 footlong.

And healthy food can fill you up too! Like my gnocchi recipe. Man, that will fill you up in no time, especially if you add great veggies to it. Also drinking lots of water fills you up. Hubs even admitted to not being as hungry anymore, which boggles his mind because he’s eating way less. Ah, the magic of non-messed up digestive system.

Cheap may not always be healthy, but healthy can be affordable if you make the effort. More tips to come!

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