Eating cheap AND healthy: can it really be done?

The question that is so frequently thrown back and forth between food lovers and tastemakers – can you eat healthy food, but only spend minimal dosh? It seems fairly impossible, considering the fluctuating prices of fruit and vegetables in our local supermarkets, and after all, does anyone really feel full on a plate of salad?

There’s light at the end of the tunnel; I’m here to tell you, that you CAN enjoy nutritious, wholesome food on little $$$. I’m introducing a nine part series on the blog, spread out over the next few months, that sheds a little light on the ins and outs of eating well for less. The information provided will show you where, and what to buy to get the most for your dollar, simple recipes stretch for a couple of days, and sustainable living ideas that anyone can employ in their life. This, as well as a truckload of information to get your brains ticking, ready to improve your diet and save some money at the same time!

So for post #1, let’s look at:

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It’s a long title, but it covers all bases.

There are two well-known chain supermarkets about two minutes down the road for me, and while that screams convenience, spending one weekend morning at my local farmers markets cuts the amount of time I need to spend at said supermarkets. For the most of us, a market tends to be a little further away than your grocery store, however, the money you can save in food items, in comparison to your weekly shopping haul, makes up for that extra petrol. Plus, you can eat pretty darn delicious market food whilst you wander – that’s probably the most appealing part for me.

If you’ve never set foot in a fresh food marketplace before, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the quality of the produce. Everything is colourful and vibrant, often odd shaped, and very cheap. The type of produce changes with the season, so you’ve always got the best of the best right there for the buying.

Results from a survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011, estimated that the average household expenditure on food and beverages in Australia increased to around $255 a week in 2009-10. People were spending more on meals out, and takeaway food, with expenditure in these areas increasing over three different survey periods (1998-99, 2003-04, and 2009-10). You’ll see in the table below, that the shares of weekly household expenditure for fresh fruit and vegetables is significantly lower than takeaway food.

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Image from: Australian food statistics 2012-13 (Australian Government Department of Agriculture)

Now, back to buying market-fresh produce. If I’m cooking for myself, the most I’ve ever spent on fruit and vegetables at my local markets is $17. Yeah. A whole bag of real food for under $20? You’d be kidding yourself if you were to buy the same items in a store. As an added bonus, you are less likely to spend money on nutritionally inadequate, energy dense, “junk” food items, as these don’t happen to be present at a market.

So what should you buy? Well, my advice would be to start with the basics for vegetables. That is, items that can be used across a variety of meals. Examples include:

  • Potatoes and/or sweet potatoes
  • Pumpkin
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Carrots
  • Tomatoes
  • Baby spinach

Obviously, you can change or expand on these items, depending on your taste preferences, but the point is, these kinds of vegetables are great in a whole range of different recipes, from soups and stews, to curries and side dishes. Similarly, if you already have these things at home (I tend to buy 1kg bags of some of these things), there’s no point in buying more, so purchase, as you need.

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Image: Pinterest

From here, you can add on other things, depending on what you’re planning to cook for the week. Some of my grocery list regulars are:

  • Beetroot
  • Asparagus
  • Capsicum
  • Beans or snow peas
  • Corn on the cob
  • Leek
  • Mushrooms

I find that these items work well across a lot of dishes I tend to cook, and can also be eaten raw, as a snack or in a salad. It is important to think about what you like to cook, and how you like to cook it; there’s no point in getting potatoes, pumpkin and beetroot if you know you don’t have time to wash and peel these items, or you’re not a fan of roasting or boiling. Work with yourself. It may be worth spending a little bit more on pre-scrubbed potatoes even, so you don’t need to wash at all; instead you can just chop and add to the pot. Similarly, think about who you are cooking for. Just yourself? Or you and your family? It may be necessary to involve yourself in a little trial and error to establish the right amount of produce to buy. If you’ve got a bit left over at the end of the week though, don’t sweat it, I have plenty of ideas to make use of old veg, to be addressed in later posts. It’s also important to buy produce that is in season, to ensure you have excellent quality. The image below gives you and indication of what fruit and vegetables are in season now (in Australia), so you can purchase the best of the best.

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Image: Foodwise

A study by Story (2008), regarding the creation of healthy food and eating environments suggested that a potential strategy to introduce healthy, local foods into neighbourhoods is the introduction of cooperative food stores, community gardens and farmers markets.

So what about fruit? Fruit makes a great accompaniment to breakfast or dessert, as well as a nutritious snack for during the day. Again, think about what you’ll use – what are your taste preferences? What is in season? How much time do I have to prepare my food this week? My fruit choices are quite similar week to week; I usually purchase items that can be grabbed as I’m running out the door, or something that is easy to snack on mindlessly, without making a mess. These often include:

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Mandarins
  • Bananas
  • Strawberries/blueberries
  • Grapes

These fruits suit my lifestyle, freeze easily, and can be blended into smoothies well. These are all perks for me, so that’s why they’re my choice when I’m at the market.

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The markets are a great place to score meat, poultry and seafood from wholesalers or farmers at a cheaper price than what you would pay in store. Some markets also include bread and baked products (usually with different flavours that the regular white, wholemeal and multigrain), spices and herbs, as well as olives, cheeses and deli goods. Look around, check out what there is to buy and expand your ingredient repertoire without putting a massive dent in the budget.

And, as an added bonus, you can stuff your face while you shop. I tend to do this with cold press iced coffee, Hungarian garlic bread, homemade pumpkin puffs or salmon and cream cheese bagels…

This weekend, I urge you to visit your local markets for this week’s fruit and vegetable shopping, and see the money you save. Keep your eye out for post #2!

Illustrations by Keisha Love Creative
Check out her Instagram page at: @keishalove_creative

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