Busting the Cheap Food Myth – Eating Healthy Food for $2 A Day

by Chris Tecmire

Apples

This is the first update of the weight loss version of Experiments in Frugality.  If you remember, I’m trying to lose 10 pounds in 2 months without spending more than $2 per day, and without the aid of any costly exercise gadgets, DVDs, or gyms.

So, how am I doing?  It’s been almost one month and I’ve lost just over 6 pounds thus far, so I’m right on track to reach my goal.  However, I’m not letting up any time soon, because, as we all know, it’s always the last few pounds that are the toughest.

 

Now that you know that I’m losing weight so far, let’s examine HOW I’m doing it.

There are 2 mystical components to weight loss…two secrets of the industry that superhuman ninjas all over the world are paid to protect.  And yet, I’m going to reveal them once and for all right here on Simple Family Finance.  Drum roll please…

1.  Eat less

2.  Move more

I’ll wait while you pick yourself up off the floor.

Of course, I’m kidding.  You already know what you need to do to lose weight.  Besides, the superhuman ninjas already have their hands full with protecting the secrets of Scientology and how Justin Bieber’s hair got its own Facebook page.

 

So, those are the two aspects that I’m focusing on while I attempt to lose my jelly belly.  For this article, we’re going to focus on the eating portion of the experiment.

 

The Cheap Food Myth

 

I hear it all the time.  “If you’re only spending $2 per day on food, you must be eating nothing but processed foods and Ramen noodles.”

Or… ”Eating cheap food will always end up costing you much more in medical bills.”

While I understand the logic behind these statements, cheese doodles don’t have a monopoly on “cheap” food.  In fact, the irony behind all of this is that quite often the processed foods that most people consider cheap, aren’t really all that cheap to begin with.  Let’s take a look at a couple quick examples.

 

  • Hamburger Helper spaghetti (with the meat added) – $1.42 per serving
  • Homemade “Spaghetti with Meat Sauce” – $0.66 per serving

 

  • Del Monte can of fruit cocktail with heavy syrup - $1.47/lb
  • Peaches, pears, nectarines, plums – all on sale somewhere for $0.99/lb just about every week of the summer

 

  • 1 cup of Cocoa Puffs – $0.32 (and that’s without the milk)
  • 1 cup of Oatmeal with a spoonful of brown sugar and some cinnamon – $0.13

 

  • 2 oz. of Cheetos – $0.50
  • 2 oz. of peanuts – $0.41

 

  • 8 oz. of Pepsi – $0.15
  • 8 oz. of tap water - essentially free

 

  • 3 oz. of store-brand frozen tater tots – $0.19
  • 3 oz. of frozen green beans – $0.18

 

  • 2 oz. of Doritos – $0.47
  • A banana - $0.18 – $0.25

 

  • 2 sleeves of Hot Pockets – $2.18
  • An entire day’s worth of healthy food – $2.00 or less

 

I could go on, and on, and on, and on…

 

Inexpensive Healthy Ingredients

Whole grains, vegetables, fruit, and lean meats sound expensive, but they don’t have to be.  Here are some examples of healthy food that is actually quite thrifty.

Whole Grains – This is the easiest category to find deals.  There are actually few whole grains that aren’t inexpensive per serving.  Simply do a little price checking between stores to find the best deals.  Often buying in bulk is the way to go since they store so well.

Brown Rice, Oatmeal, and Whole Wheat Flour are staples in my diet.  They show up nearly every day and make great main dishes or side dishes alike.  Millet, Quinoa, and Barley also find the spotlight occasionally.  Popcorn makes for a great snack and is super cheap if you don’t buy the microwave stuff.

Fruit – Fruit is a tricky one unless you’re using sales and price matching wisely.  Fruit can be quite expensive or rather reasonable depending on the sale and the season.  We always plan our weeks around the sales we find.  Wal-Mart’s price matching policy allows us to take advantage of ALL of the sales in our area, so plenty of options abound.

Bananas are one of the few options that are always cheap even at regular price.  They’re your friend.  Nearly everything else can be found for the right price at the right time.  We regularly enjoy apples, oranges, mangos, nectarines, plums, peaches, grapes, watermelon, canteloupe, and pears on a $2 a day budget.

Vegetables – These puppies are the core of a healthy diet, as you know.  Everyone has differing opinions on what constitutes “healthy” – meat or no meat, organic or not, plenty of fruit or limited fruit, etc.  However, every nutrition expert on God’s green Earth believes that vegetables should be consumed as often as possible.

Vegetables are very similar to fruit in the fact that your best buys are usually due to sales and price matching.  However, veggies have a very affordable backup plan.  Frozen, storebrand vegetables are actually quite cheap.  We can buy peas, greenbeans, corn, broccoli, cauliflower, and spinach every week for between $0.12 and $0.17 per serving.  Also, fresh carrots, celery, potatoes, onions, and kale are good deals nearly year ’round.

The rest of the veggies can be purchased with the right deal, and there’s almost always a few of those every week.  In the last month, I’ve enjoyed sweet potatoes, green beans, celery, carrots, eggplant, red potatoes, tomatoes, onions, spinach, corn, lettuce, green pepper, beets, zucchini, summer squash, cucumber, cabbage, and mushrooms.  This week we found a good deal on butternut squash, so you can be sure that butternut squash soup will be on the menu.  There’s plenty of inexpensive veggies out there if you’ll just take the time to look.

Lean Meats – We tend to eat chicken quite often.  There’s an expensive way to buy chicken and an inexpensive way.  The expensive way is to simply go to the store and grab the first chicken product you see.  You can save yourself a lot of money by simply analyzing all your options before you buy.  If we buy boneless, skinless breasts (our favorite), we buy them in bulk and on sale.  We bought about 5 pounds two weeks ago for $1.69/lb.  Then we just split them into serving size portions and freeze them for later.  Whole chickens are also a good buy since you can save the carcass for stock.

Sometimes frozen fish and ground turkey can also be snagged for a good price.  Fish is the toughest category, but I can find frozen Pollock at Wal-Mart for about $2.50/lb (without sales) and Whiting for not much more.

 

What I’ve Been Eating Over the Last Month

 

For my weight loss experiment, I wanted to make sure that I was eating foods that I could continue eating long after I had lost the weight.  I’m not a fan of the Atkins diet even though I personally know many people who have lost incredible amounts of blubber while adhering to it.  My reasoning is simple.  It’s not something you can keep up long-term, and even if you could, it doesn’t seem like a very balanced and healthy way of life.  Plus, I like carbohydrates and don’t believe they’re at the root of all of society’s problems.  So, the same thing goes for the new “Paleo” diet, the South Beach diet, any diet with the word “Hollywood” in it, the grapefruit diet, and the tapeworm diet.  Although, the tapeworm thing sounds promising.

In other words, I’m not looking for a temporary diet, I’m looking for a lifestyle diet.  So, I’m looking to consume mostly whole grains, vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, some dairy, and lean meats.  This isn’t all that far off what I normally eat with 3 exceptions.

1.  I’m eating a little less of the high-calorie food like pizza and cheesy casseroles

2.  I’m cutting back ever so slightly on the amount of wheat I consume - just for a while

3.  Very little sugar (except for a little in my oatmeal in the morning) and no desserts

 

The last exception is the BIG one.  Sugar is my pal.  Or at least I thought it was, but if I spend too much time with it, my “pal” tends to turn on me and stab me in the back.  Sugar, along with a lack of exercise, is the main reason for my recent weight gain.  So, it had to go for now.  Once I reach my goal, it’ll come back now and then to visit, but no more stay-overs.  I’m putting my foot down.

 

Examples of what I ate

I considered posting everything I ate over the last month (I’ve kept track of every morsel), but decided that it wouldn’t exactly be a page-turner.  However, if that sounds like something you’d like to see, you can find the full list of meals and snacks here.  And you can see our grocery lists here along with the prices we paid for each item.

For those who just want a quick synopsis, here’s a brief rundown.  The quoted meals are recipes from my book.

  • Breakfast – Plenty of varieties of oatmeal, “multi-grain hot cereal”, “coffee cornmeal”, and an occasional bowl of Original Shredded Wheat.
  • Morning Snack – Usually some kind of fruit like grapes, oranges, nectarines, watermelon, and bananas and peanut butter.  Some almonds or cheese got thrown in there every once-in-a-while.
  • Lunches and Dinners – Plenty of soups like “Vegetarian Lentil Soup”, “Curried Zucchini Soup”, and “Tomato Rice Soup“.  Salads, chicken dishes, and plenty of meals that revolved around brown rice like “Curried Chicken & Rice” made their appearances.  “Garden Tacos”, baked fish, and omelettes were also consumed.  Vegetables were almost always paired with whatever we were having, and sometimes they even made up 90% of the meal.  Many of my meals over the last month have been very simple since we’ve been quite busy, but that’s ok with me because sometimes it’s the simple meals that are the most delicious.  One of my favorite meals is simply a homemade tortilla spread with homemade hummus, and plenty of fresh tomato and basil from our garden.  The cost per serving is around 7 cents due to the help from the garden.  Not bad.
  • Afternoon Snack – Often the afternoon snack consisted of a vegetable or two like carrots, celery, or green pepper.  The celery was paired with peanut butter and the other veggies were paired with homemade hummus.  I had cottage cheese a couple times with cucumber too.  Almonds and pistachios would occasionally sneak their way in.
  • Late Snack – I didn’t always partake, but when I did the stars were fruit, popcorn, or a cup of cereal.  Gotta go comfort food when it comes to bedtime.

 

Disclaimer - You’ll notice a few omissions from my menu.  Healthy options like wild salmon, large quantities of berries, greek yogurt, and baby spinach are difficult to squeeze into a $2 a day diet.  Yes, some sacrifices have to be made, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a healthy lifestyle.  I know it’s tough not to feel as though you can’t possibly be healthy without eating salmon once a week like the magazines and television are telling you, but you can.  Eating every kind of food from all over the world is only a recent development.  It used to be that entire civilizations thrived without the assistance of sushi or wheatgrass.  Only recently have we been made to feel as though we need to have a little of all of the “super foods” or our hearts will explode.

By the way, I really like salmon, berries, greek yogurt, and baby spinach salads, and no one is saying that you can’t splurge occasionally even if you want to stick to a more rigid food budget.  Make the less expensive healthy options your staple foods, and occasionally add in some extras when needed.  OR…just go catch some salmon, grow some berries and spinach, and make some homemade yogurt.  That works too.

 

My biggest food failures over the first month

1.  Too much high-calorie comfort food the weekend I re-roofed a section of my home.  My dad and brother were helping me out of the kindness of their hearts and neither is a big fan of anything green, so our 3 lunches consisted of pizza, salami sandwiches, and kielbasas.  I made sure I didn’t overindulge, but those choices were in stark contrast to what I was supposed to be eating.

2.  Too much breakfast cereal over the last week or so.  I think cereal has been my go-to comfort food over the last month.  I didn’t really indulge much until just recently when I started having it for a late-night snack more times than not.  I didn’t usually have a ton of it and it was always either Corn Flakes or Original Shredded Wheat, but still…it was a bit much for someone trying to lose weight.

Otherwise, I think it’s gone pretty well.  I suppose the saltines could be considered a problem too since they’re processed white flour, but everyone needs a vice and saltines are mine.  There are worse options out there.

 

How Much I’ve Spent Over the Last Month

 

In total Trisha and I have spent $88.09 on food for her and I over the last 28 days.  $88.09 split between 2 people over 28 days comes to $1.57 per person.  So, we actually had plenty of room to spare and could have went CRAZY and spent another $24 if we had felt so inclined.

One of the reasons that we ended up spending so much less than our already low $2 per day standard is because we were able to get some fresh green beans this month from our garden as well as a few tomotoes, zucchini, and cucumber.  Our garden is very simple and very small, but it still lends a hand to our food budget.

Also, you need to remember that each month varies a bit.  Just because our budget states that we’re going to spend $120 each and every month, doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen.  Some months we’re going to spend $100 and some months we’re going to spend $140.  It all evens out in the end.  This month we didn’t have to buy any oatmeal, cornmeal, or whole wheat flour because we tend to buy them in bulk from a local Amish store a few times a year.  So, that helps to lower the cost this month – although not much since each of those items are quite cheap anyway.

 

Before You Go

I know that not everyone desires to keep their budget under $2 per day.  However, I just want everyone to be aware that healthy food doesn’t have to be expensive.  It can be.  But it doesn’t HAVE to be if you stick to inexpensive staples and then buy the rest of your food the right way.

Unfortunately, for now, the cheap food myth lives on.  But I plead with you – don’t be one of the people that continues to spread the lie.

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Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Rachel September 12, 2012 at 11:04 am

Congrats on the 6lbs! Thanks for sharing your meals and the cost – that is really impressive. I will agree with you on the more expensive “must-have” healthy options that are touted these days as not being totally necessary for healthy living and weight loss. I appreciate that you are doing this as a lifestyle change and allowing some treats now and then. I don’t even like salmon, spinach or greek yogurt so that’s always good news!

Reply

Chris Tecmire September 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Thanks Rachel! Oh yeah – I gotta have some treats (once I’ve lost what I want to lose). Depriving yourself of everything sweet, salty, or fattening might be good for your body, but it’s not good for your soul.

Reply

Kendra September 12, 2012 at 10:08 pm

So do you think when we come home in December you and Trish could do our grocery shopping for us!?!?! ;-)

Reply

Chris Tecmire September 13, 2012 at 7:45 am

Of course! Maybe we’ll start a shopping service :)

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Angi @ schneiderpeeps September 22, 2012 at 9:50 pm

I enjoyed your guest post over on Money Saving Mom. I made your recipe right after reading it with some frozen chickpeas and it was great! Thanks for sharing! I really appreciate your $2 a day post. We’re a family of 8 (but one is away in college right now) and I have $15 a day to feed us. It’s tough at times but very, very doable.

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Chris Tecmire September 22, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Thanks Angi! I’m glad you enjoyed the hummus.
Wow, a family of 8 – you have your hands full :)

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heather September 24, 2012 at 7:45 am

I really enjoyed this post. I have to admit, a few years ago I would have thought that the only way to eat that cheaply was to have alot of processed foods. But now we have eliminated almost all processed foods and eat mostly meals that are made from scratch. As far as meat goes, I stick to the $2 lb rule, except for a few things like bacon, which my husband loves. I stock up when I find it around $2.50-$3 lb. I also make things like greek yogurt myself when I find milk marked down, and it saves us a ton of money. I am going to check out your lists and prices. I love your blog and all of the great tips, way to go on losing 6 lbs!!

Reply

Chris Tecmire September 24, 2012 at 7:52 am

Thanks Heather! I’m so glad you’ve been able to figure out how to save money on unprocessed food. Your story is a great example of the cheap food myth that still exists out there in the media. However, with a little research you can quickly find out the truth. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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Laura September 26, 2012 at 7:15 pm

I just found your website today. What a breath of fresh air. Congrats on your weight-loss. I’ve been doing some of the same things (yes including increasing my movement!) and have lost too. I’m loving someone else telling the truth … shopping all that convenience food is expensive! And, when you actually read the labels … some of it’s not even really food unless your food has 3 to 4 syllables and a 3 word name (no, not the latin one). I really miss my garden and can’t wait until next summer. Also, having a decent size freezer really helps. Right now, I’m missing being near the grocery that catered to Asian/Ethnic markets; they had really good sales on fruits, vegetables & hard-to-find ingredients as well as on fish and meats. I could go there at the beginning of a month for the bulk basics and just load my cart for $40 to $75. I’d pop back in weekly for fresh fruits & vegetables. Really missing the little stuff like buying good soy sauce, fresh ginger, baby bok choy and asian noodles! Thanks.

Reply

Chris Tecmire September 26, 2012 at 7:32 pm

Yeah, I’ve always heard that the ethnic markets tend to have good deals. I shopped at them occasionally when I needed something specific in college (bigger city), but didn’t really appreciate that stuff at the time. Now I wish I had one close, but I live in a very rural area, so the ethnic aisle at Wal-mart is as good as it gets :) Thanks for the comment Laura!

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Karl B (The Frugal Berry) October 1, 2012 at 7:17 am

Unfortunately, we Americans are addicted to sugar. We don’t have any idea how much of it we actually eat because it has been put in almost EVERYTHING on the supermarket shelves. My wife and I were horrified a few weeks ago to find high fructose corn syrup listed as the top ingredient of a can of black beans. Seriously! A simple can of Black Beans!

Thanks for posting this story. I hope your next month has equal results!

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