A healthy diet is not more expensive
Which snack food costs more – a packet of chips or raw unsalted nuts? You’d expect chips to be the cheaper buy but when you compare prices per kilo there’s not much difference. At my local supermarket last week almonds cost $22.50 per kilo and potato chips $20.60 to $27.50 per kilo, depending on the brand. Not far apart in dollars but a big gap in health benefits – nuts streak ahead with their healthy fats, protein and range of important nutrients.
We often hear that healthy foods cost much more than junk but that’s not always the case – research by the Queensland University of Technology reported earlier this year found that a diet based on foods recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines cost around $40 a week less for a family of four than a junk food diet.
But we’re not born knowing how to eat better for less. It’s an acquired skill that can become a lost art in the face of marketing that, on one hand, promotes cheap but crappy food (chicken nuggets, anyone?) or, on the other, says the path to good health is paved with overpriced superfoods like goji berries.
So how can you get healthier foods into the shopping trolley without breaking the bank?
Don’t be seduced by superfoods
Foods like quinoa, muesli and chia have an especially healthy glow – but a pack of each can chew up $30 of the food budget, while the same amount of barley, flax seed or plain rolled oats costs around $8.00. That’s not to say quinoa and chia aren’t good but there are other nutrient dense foods with a lower price tag. Low GI barley – great for risotto and grain based salads – contains protein, is high in beta glucan, the fibre that helps sweep ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol out of the body and is a good source of minerals like selenium and magnesium.
A pack of home brand traditional oats ($1.45 for 900g) delivers a lot of low GI porridge, along with B vitamins and more beta-glucan. These oats can be the base for homemade muesli or, soaked overnight in apple juice and topped with yoghurt and fruit, they’re a portable breakfast. Like chia, whole flaxseeds contain healthy omega-3 fats but are a fraction of the cost of chia. (Flax seed is best bought whole, freshly ground in a coffee grinder and stored in the fridge to add to muesli or oats.)
Improve your veggie IQ
“Ask people why they don’t eat vegetables and they often say ‘they’re too expensive’, but that can mean they’re not sure how to cook them or that the vegetables go off before they’ve been used,” says Dr Clare Collins Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle. Her advice: buy vegetables in season, take advantage of specials on vegetables like pumpkin, zucchini, capsicum or beetroot to make a casserole or soup in multiple serves to freeze; look for shops selling discounted ‘imperfect’ veg and supplement your cooking with frozen or canned vegetables.
My tip: know the vegetables that are especially good value – ripe cooking tomatoes that often taste better and make a good base for pasta sauce; sweet potato, packed with beta carotene, is a filling staple with a long shelf life that’s rarely more than 4.95 a kilo – and a better buy than frozen chips for the same price; leafy Asian veg – not only for stir fries but a low cost way to add greens to dishes like curries and soups just by stirring them in.
Mix up plant and animal protein
“Protein sources like lean meat and seafood are the most expensive food items but you can cut costs by following Meatless Mondays example and have one or two meatless meals each week or you can ‘dilute’ lean cuts of meat with pulses like beans and lentils which are also good sources of protein,” says Clare Collins. “Eggs are a good alternative to meat and canned fish like tuna, salmon and sardines are cheaper than fresh fish.”
Pulses, either canned or the dried kind that need soaking, are budget superstars and a staple in my own pantry. A kilo of dried cannellini beans ($5.00 per kilo), pre-soaked and cooked with vegetables, delivers 14 (yes 14) main meal serves of fibre-rich Italian soup – that ‘s a lot of healthy dinners for the price of a frozen pizza.
Rethink how much you spend on ‘discretionary food’
“Discretionary foods include biscuits, cake, ice cream, sweets, snack foods, soft drink, pies, pasties and alcohol – these are not the foods that love us back yet they make up around 35 per cent of the average Australian’s kilojoule intake,” says Collins. “At the same time only seven per cent of us eat enough vegetables, yet these foods are to our bodies what spark plugs are to a car – they keep the body firing up and working efficiently.”
Liked this? Read these!
Got something to say? Get it off your chest here
The Juice Daily is a Fairfax Media owned website