Mere seconds after searching the internet for any kind of clean-eating info or weight-loss plans, ads for meal delivery kits start following me. "Right," I think to myself. "That's how all the actors and models get into their (unrealistically) ideal shape — they pay for it." But how am I supposed to eat healthy on my tiny budget?
"I do believe that people use the cost of healthy eating as an excuse to not do it," registered dietitian Molly Devine, founder of Eat Your Keto, tells Greatist.
Sure, if you hired a private chef or shopped exclusively at Whole Foods and farmers markets for fresh foods every day, you'd wind up spending a lot more than the cost of fast food and cheap takeout. But with some careful planning and research, you can actually spend a lot less as you make your way on the path to weight loss and fitness. Here's how.
1. EAT IN, AND COOK ENOUGH FOR LEFTOVERS
Registered dietitian Rachel Fine acknowledges that when it comes to restaurants, highly nutritious foods can come at a premium. "Healthy salads at Chop'd or Just Salad are $13, whereas a McDonald's hamburger could be as low as $1," she says.
At the same time, Fine knows it's impractical to expect everyone to become Chrissy Teigen, especially given our busy schedules. Instead, she recommends meal prepping, particularly the sort where you can cook one element and incorporate it into a number of different meals throughout the week.
2. BUY GRAINS, NUTS AND LEGUMES IN BULK
You don't have to load up the station wagon and fill your underground bunker like a Cold War housewife to save money. But you will save some cash if you stock your kitchen with some foods that don't go bad quickly.
"A lot of the foods I buy in bulk are my pantry items like whole grains: quinoa, farro, barley, oats," Fine says.
Uncooked beans can also stretch your dollar and take the place of more expensive animal proteins. (Plus, if you eat legumes and whole grains, you can get all your essential amino acids.)
"We tend to put protein on a pedestal in our mind," Fine says. "If you really wanted to save money, you don't need to pack on the protein with meat and fish."
Nuts can also be a healthy eater's best friend, but not in excess. Rather than buy expensive portion-controlled packages, Devine says you can buy these in bulk and then pack a single serving in a reusable container to take with you.
3. BUY FATTIER MEATS
Your grocery store's meat department might be stuck in the "low fat is better" mentality of the '90s, which works in your favor when you're on a low-carb diet.
"Fattier cuts of meat that actually are tastier when you cook them are typically priced cheaper," Devine says. Skin-on chicken thighs are less than breasts, for instance, and fattier ground meat is cheaper than its low-fat counterpart. For even more savings per pound, buy the whole darn chicken and roast it.
4. DON'T BUY FRESH, ORGANIC EVERYTHING
Produce from fancy grocery stores and farmers markets often does taste fresher and better, but it also goes bad in the blink of an eye. Buy those gorgeous local tomatoes and organic kale when you have a plan to eat them soon, and for everything else, buy frozen.
Not only will they be there (already washed and chopped!) when you need them, you don't necessarily need to choose organic versions when they're not one of the Dirty Dozen pesticide-prone fruits and vegetables.
"When things are frozen, they're flash frozen at the time they're picked, so they don't need the same pesticides added to them as fresh fruits and veggies do when they're shipped," Fine says.
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5. AVOID WASTING FOOD
When you do spend your precious bucks on fresh produce, it's painful to relegate half of it to the compost bin. Devine says this is an ideal time to learn a new skill: Make your own vegetable stock from broccoli stems, carrot peels and wilted veggies.
That's intimidating for a lot of us, so at least we can take her advice on the stuff that's just a day or two past ripe. "Chop it all up, saute it, and make a veggie omelet, or roast everything and have it to eat throughout the rest of the week," she says.
6. DON'T FALL FOR BUZZWORD INGREDIENTS
Whatever the trendy diet or food of the moment is, you can bet there's a bunch of new prepackaged snacks and foods advertising them, and that hype comes at a cost.
"Whole, minimally processed foods don't have to boast about their nutrients," Fine reminds us. "You don't see a bag of apples saying 'high fiber.' You see the bars in the supermarket yelling 'high fiber!' They have to prove to you that all of their ingredients are really worth it."
7. CONSIDER KETO
While hiring a dietitian or buying into a meal plan is pricey, doing your homework by visiting professional sites such as Today's Dietitian can be almost as good if you're deciding on a strict regimen like the ketogenic diet. Devine says going keto can be a pretty cost-effective way of life.
"You're eating these very satiating high-fat foods which keep you fuller longer, so most people that I work with that do keto are only eating two to three times a day," she says. "You're not snacking in between meals, and you're cutting out all that processed stuff, which we pay a premium for."
8. JOIN THE YMCA
Unlike most other gyms, the Y is a nonprofit meant to better the community (beyond just making everyone look more chiseled). Some of its funds go toward subsidizing memberships for people with lower incomes, so you can check with your local branch to see if you qualify. If not, you may still get a discount for belonging to certain organizations.
9. MOVE AROUND MORE
Although some of us think that paying for a gym membership will force us to exercise more, Fine says that doesn't always work.
"Sometimes I tell clients to invest in a Fitbit and have their steps be their goals," she says. "It's much cheaper than the cost of a gym membership, and it does hold them accountable."
10. LOOK FORWARD TO LOWER MEDICAL (AND SPA) COSTS
Public health experts have estimated that health-care spending as a whole goes up when a population has an obesity problem. On an individual level, even if don't have diabetes or heart disease, excess weight can cause less serious problems that mean trips to the doctor, physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, and more.
"When we carry around too much weight, we tend to have joint issues, more inflammation in our body, and systemic pain," Devine says. "We're just uncomfortable a lot and tend to kind of seek out relief from that."
Eating right, by contrast, can help you cut down on all those medical expenses. And how much more pleasant is a trip to the grocery store than a trip to the doctor?