Buying food is one of the few spending areas that is a necessity. Many other expenses are at best a comfort and at worst frivolous or harmful. So we know that no matter how much we flex our frugal muscles, we will still need to buy food, but how can we minimize this expense while maintaining good health?
The first inefficiency is buying food at restaurants. Buying food at restaurants is often both less healthy and more expensive. For example, french fries at a fancy burger restaurant cost $11 + tax and tip = $14. But what if you buy at a fast food restaurant, that amount of fries would require two orders of large fries for 2 x (1.89 + tax) = $4.11. That is pretty cheap. Wouldn’t that be cheaper than making it at home? Well, first of all, we would need to drive to pick up the fries so that would be an additional expense, but even if we don’t take that into account, let’s see what it might cost to make fries at home. French fries are basically potatoes fried in fat/oil. You can get potatoes at about $0.50/ lb. Ideally, you can reuse the fat that has drained out of some ground beef or bacon that you used for another meal so your total cost would be about $0.50 for a plate full of french fries including tax at 0% for grocery food (I live in Phoenix). Worst case, you would need to buy some olive oil to fry the potatoes in which would increase the cost at most to $1.00.
The lowest hanging fruit is to start preparing more food at home. Each additional meal you can make at home will save you money. My wife and I rarely go out to eat. In addition to saving money, it is just easier for us to eat at home than to bring the kid(s) to a restaurant. One thing that has helped me to eat more food at home is intermittent fasting. In addition to the health benefits of intermittent fasting, I have also trained my body to run off of my fat stores so that I don’t get hangry after a couple hours of not eating. This allows me to be active all day without planning ahead and worrying about packing tons of food. I simply eat when I get home even if I had been gone all day. I can go days (3) without eating while continuing to work out so going 24 hours without food is not a big deal. You can ease into this by moving to a more ketogenic diet (more fats, almost no carbs), or by slowly extending your fasting period from 8 hours up to eating once a day.
Once I started preparing most of my meals at home, I felt that I had maxed out my savings in this area, but I have realized that I had much more gains that I was missing. My main inefficiency with eating at home was that I was eating prepackaged foods at home which had similar health profiles and costs as fast food. They generally have more preservatives and cost considerably more than foods in their natural state.
In Season and On Sale
The second additional gain was buying foods while they were in season and on sale. Foods that are in season have a high supply which can significantly reduce the price and also increases the quality because it isn’t necessary to alter the food to be transported across the globe or to preserve the appearance of freshness. When produce is in season in your area, the prices can drop to practically free. Sprouts regularly had deals for 8 ears of corn for $1 when corn was in season. Out of season those same ears of corn might cost $8 or more. We have a discount rack at my local grocery store for produce that is close to expiration where I can get a large bag of bananas, apples, or avocados for $1. It seems that each week there is some type of meat that is heavily discounted with prices well below 50% of normal price. Planning meals around the discounted foods can provide huge additional savings.
Do I need So Much Meat?
My third gain was to decrease the amount of high priced foods I was eating. My diet used to consist mostly of meats with occasional sides to pair with meats. As someone that is sympathetic to the benefits of the ketogenic diet, I know the benefits of eating meats. I know eating an adequate amount of protein (usually in the form of meat) is important for muscle growth. My main reason for eating so much meat was because I thought I needed much more meat than I do to maintain my muscles. However, even the ketogenic diet avoids eating too much meat because once you start eating too much protein, that protein starts to get converted to carbs and your body exits its state of ketosis. What this means is that most of the meat I was eating was just being converted to carbs in a less efficient way. By shifting more of my diet from meats to fruits and complex carbs, I not only am able to meet my carbohydrate needs cheaper, but I am also able to take advantage of the insulin hormone response to intaking sugar that tells my body to store glycogen in my muscles which allows me to work out harder and recover quicker.
The other downside of too much meat is that getting fiber from eating plants is extremely important to your microbiome health which supports your immune system among many other health benefits. Your body will process sugars, protein, and fat too efficiently so that food is absorbed before it gets down to your gut bacteria. This creates a microbiome environment where bad bacteria can thrive and make you sick. Eating cheaper foods such as potatoes, beans, and in season fruits and vegetables is not only much cheaper but also better for your health. And let’s be honest, good health will probably save you far more than your food savings. The good thing for us is that we get both cheaper food and better health by being more mindful of the foods we purchase and eat.
What are your strategies for reducing your food costs or eating more healthy? How often do you go out to eat? What is your go-to meal?