Picture this: you’re shopping in your go-to grocery store, picking up ingredients for a nice, affordable dinner. After choosing a box of your preferred pasta, you start looking for your favorite sauce. Instead, you encounter a new organic pasta sauce that costs almost 50% more than the one you usually buy.

"No surprise there," you think, "The healthy stuff always costs more."

Why does healthy food seem to cost so much more than unhealthy or just plain regular food? The fact is that the organic sauce's price tag only tells part of the story.

Just like the regular conveniently processed foods you normally buy, prepared organic foods usually cost more than the fresh ingredients would. Certain organic fresh ingredients cost more than others because they grow more slowly without growth hormones (so farmers have fewer chickens to sell to cover the costs of breeding them), organic crop fertilizers cost more, and crops are harder to keep safe from pests without harsh pesticides, so farmers lose more of their crops to nature.

This brings up an important point: instead of asking why organic foods cost more, we should really be asking, "Why is the price of unhealthy food so low?" The answer is that the producers of these cheaper foods are able to save a lot of money on production because they tend to cut corners and use chemicals to twist natural processes to work in their favor.

Regular fresh produce is sold at lower prices than organic because producers use pesticides to kill pests that would eat the fruit and veg. These producers are then able to sell many more apples, lettuces, and cucumbers at lower prices to customers, who wash the lettuce but are probably still ingesting the pesticides.

Packaged food producers take this a few steps further by replacing real, more expensive ingredients with cheap fillers, sodium, and sugar that appeal to our taste buds — but that also causes our waistlines to expand. They sell these industrialized foods at rock bottom prices — which is why often families who cannot afford to buy anything other than these cheap high-sodium, sugar-filled foods become overweight and develop health issues.

A major roadblock to overcome when beginning to shop healthy is the false thinking that healthy foods are always more expensive. According to research by the Washington Post, most people simply expect healthy foods to be more expensive. In their study, participants were shown two breakfast bars and were asked to choose which one was healthier. They could not see any of the ingredients; they were just told that one bar was more expensive than the other. Without fail, participants assumed that the more expensive bar was healthier. For the next group of participants, they switched the bars — and the result was still the same. The majority of people guessed that the more expensive bar was healthier.

The point is that this idea that all healthy foods are expensive is just an assumption. In fact, there are always healthy food choices that you can afford.

An article from organics.org points out another way to think about the price of "healthy" versus "unhealthy" foods: with healthy food, you're actually getting more bang for your buck. A package of healthy, organic granola bars made with fruits, nuts, and less processed sugars may cost more than a box of cheap cookies, but which item will give your body more healthy nutrients? The cookies may taste good, but those yummy sugar and flour rounds won't keep you full for very long. If food is "any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink […] in order to maintain life and growth," then paying more for healthier food is simply paying more...for more food.

By the same token, buying cheaper food really doesn't save you money in the long run. Consuming food that's loaded with empty calories and artificial sweeteners won't keep you full, so you have to spend more money to eat more food, sooner. Then, the more weight you pack on thanks to a diet of processed foods, the more money you'll have to pay for a gym membership to lose the weight and for doctor's visits and medication to deal with obesity-related health issues. In other words, buying "expensive" healthy food is actually cheaper in the long run!

Now this doesn't change the day-to-day pricing of organic foods in the grocery store, but the good news is that there are LOTS of ways to get around the higher price tags on some of those healthier foods.

Eating healthy on the cheap

A drawing of a person hugging a giant carrot
Image by Anastasia Yevtushenko for MoneyWise © 2576250 Ontario Inc. 2017
The good news is that there are LOTS of ways to get around the higher price tags on some of those healthier foods

The first thing you should know is that not all organic foods are priced the same way. Some foods are easier to grow than others or are naturally pest-resistant, so farmers can produce more of them at a lower cost. This translates to lower costs for consumers. At the same time, some regular foods are grown using such a high level of pesticides that it's really, truly worth it to buy the organic versions.

According to Eat This, Not That!, some of the cheapest (and best) organic products you can buy to avoid ingesting pesticides are:

  • Beans
  • Tea
  • Corn tortillas
  • Frozen fruit
  • Potatoes
  • Spices
  • Apples
  • Canned soups

Plus, The Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides tells us that if you can't afford to buy organic food all the time, you can go ahead and buy the "regular" versions of the products below. These "Clean 15" items have significantly less pesticides than other foods, even when they're not organic:

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Mango
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe (domestic)
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

Get into the healthy groove

Selection of healthy foods
margouillat photo/Shutterstock
Eating healthy is definitely possible without breaking your wallet

Eating healthy is definitely possible without breaking your wallet. All it takes is making a couple of tweaks to your meal planning and shopping routines.

1. Make a grocery list

Keeping — and sticking — to a grocery list serves a two-fold function. It helps you make sure that you buy only what you need — whatever is written on that list. This keeps you from grabbing unhealthy choices like chips and bars of chocolate off the shelf. And because you're only buying what you need, you can also control your spending.

It's difficult to resist the lure of shelves of chocolate bars, bags of Cheetos, and processed cookies. But with a grocery list in hand, you'll be less likely to wander and more likely to stick to the aisles where the items you listed are located.

2. Stop ordering take-out

Dining out and take-out are double trouble. You spend more money than if you cooked at home and are more likely to end up eating unhealthy, processed foods.

When you opt to eat in and cut down on take-out food, you are able to control the ingredients in your food and your portion sizes. You can make a double batch of dinner and have lunch left over for the next day, too- an easy way to cut down on your lunch spending. Even buying and brewing your own coffee at home is cheaper and healthier than buying a fancy coffee or drinking a sugar-laden bottle of cola.

This isn't to say you should completely do away with special dinners out or the occasional take-out food, but just make an effort to reserve these for special occasions. Doing this will save you money, ensure that you eat more healthy food more often, and will make you appreciate restaurant food a lot more, too!

3. Buy fresh produce in season

One way to score great deals on fruits and vegetables is to buy them when they're in season. If the fruit and veg are not in season, then go ahead and buy frozen versions!

Frozen greens and fruits are usually picked and then frozen at peak ripeness and are therefore very nutritionally dense. Even better, you can keep them for much longer and you won't accidentally let them turn to mush and have to throw them out. Savvy savings, indeed!

If you're looking for some variety in your weekly meals, then pick vegetables and fruits that are nutritious and that also allow for different ways of cooking or serving. Carrots, for example, are not only nutritionally dense and a good source of carbohydrates and vitamin A, but you can munch on them raw as a snack, add them to soup, or mix them with other ingredients for a salad. Fresh ginger is extremely flavorful, cheap, and it lasts a long time because you use only a bit at a time and because it keeps well in a dry, cool place. Beans, broccoli, peppers, sweet and regular potatoes, onions, and garlic are also incredibly affordable and versatile ingredients used in cooking across many different cultures.

4. Buy in bulk

Buying in bulk can go a long way to helping you save some money while still ensuring that you're getting lots of healthy options for your diet. Dried beans and lentils can be bought in large batches and easily stored in the pantry. Oats are cheaper alternatives to white bread and are high in fiber and are very filling. Whole grains can be bought in bulk and are therefore cheaper. They're nutritionally dense and can easily bulk up a meal, so you'll only need small servings.

5. Follow the cheap protein

Organic meat can be expensive, but you can save money on protein by going for cheaper cuts like chicken thighs or bone-in breast instead of deboned chicken breasts. Pork is also cheaper then chicken and beef. Canned and frozen fish is usually quite affordable; although salmon can be pricey, super cheap canned tuna is also an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.

Another way to cut down on the cost of filling, healthy proteins is to go for plant sources of protein instead of always choosing meat and animal products. For example, you may not realize that lentils are super cheap, are richer in protein than beef, and are packed with antioxidants.

Meat consumptions has increased rapidly in the last few decades, leaving massive environmental damage and increasing health problems in its wake. The fact is that it is absolutely unnecessary to eat meat at every single meal- and yet, many people live this way. Consider going down to one meaty meal a day, or one entirely meatless day per week. As you begin to replace your meat-based recipes with an arsenal of veg-based ones, you'll start to enjoy meat more (because it becomes a treat!), and you'll be saving money and cutting down on your waistline, too.

6. Plan and prepare meals in advance

It's easy to fall into the take-out trap when we know that there's nothing in the fridge or when we're too tired to prepare and cook up something quick. But if there's a container of leftovers in the fridge waiting to be heated, or at the very least, some eggs for an omelet, then you're less likely to call the pizza guy.

Meal planning is essential if your goal is to eat healthy and save money. Thinking ahead to what you want to cook for the next couple of days also makes drawing up a grocery list easier. If you have a meal plan for the week, then you know what ingredients to buy, the amount you'll be buying, and how much you'll be spending on groceries.

Preparing and cooking meals on a daily basis can be time-consuming, and it's not something that you necessarily want to do when you come home from work at 7:30pm. The solution is to prepare your meals in advance. Once you're done with your grocery shopping on the weekend, you can start making your lunches and dinners for the week, portioning them out and putting them in containers that you can just grab and reheat at work or when you get home from work. Even if you do this on Sunday night and you only prepare enough food up to the middle of the week, this habit makes a significant difference in ensuring you're eating healthy food during the week and reducing how much you're spending on food. Most importantly, a little planning ends up making your meals more convenient in a couple of days.

Get inspired with some of our fantastic, affordable recipes right here on MoneyWise, or check out allrecipes.com to get some great ideas for dinner this week.

7. Do away with supplements

If you're buying supplements and drinking protein powders and shakes, then eating healthy is expensive. A tub of protein powder, which can last you for a month, can cost you $50 or more, while a dozen organic eggs that you can eat for weeks costs about $5 (four dozen eggs for a month is still roughly $20!). So, unless you're allergic to dairy products or you're not getting as much protein or minerals as you should, stay away from supplements and stick to getting your protein from natural food sources. If you do have to take supplements, buy the large containers, as that's going to be cheaper in the long run.

Although the food industry seems to act in an unethical way, they will continue to do business this way because we keep buying their products. If everyone stopped buying the cheapest, highest-sodium canned tomato sauce, then the producers would have to change the recipe. The point is that you have a choice — we all do.

When it comes to eating healthy, the argument is not really about the price. Eating healthy on a tight budget is possible. The real trick to eating healthy on a budget is eating smart. With proper planning, a dash of strategy, and making the right food choices, healthy eating is absolutely within your reach!

Ready to start eating healthy on the cheap? Why don't you share this article and bring a friend along for the journey? Dinner's always better in good company.