Pick your price tag!

Yes, that’s right. If you had to pick a price tag to measure the value of your health or athletic performance, what would you do? Would you go the cheapest route or would you consider your health a high dollar luxury? In my 10 years of working as a trainer and nutritionist, the excuse, “it costs too much to eat healthy” is one of the most frequently used when the topics of weight management or performance come up. This makes me cringe for two reasons: One, because investing in your health should be at the top of anyone’s priority list (much less a competitive athlete’s), and two, because eating healthy certainly does not have to cost more if you just put a little effort into things.

What is "healthy eating," anyway?

The terms “healthy eating” and “clean eating” get thrown around loosely. Before I even start with the basics of how to eat right on a budget, I think we need to define what “eating right” really is. Cleaning up your diet means different things to different people, and that can get really confusing to a newbie who doesn’t know where to start. To one person a totally natural, raw, organic vegan diet is the way to go. To another, high protein, high fat, and low carb is the ticket. There are many levels, varieties and opinions when it comes to what healthy is, or what will get you to your goals.

That being said, this article will cover the basics on a budget, the simple stuff that can be applied to anyone from the advanced athlete to the everyday person just looking to improve health. I’ll go over the fundamentals that various programs are built on: unprocessed, real food. You cannot go wrong by filling your diet with foods straight from nature. Whether your goal is weight loss, athletic performance, or over all health, it all starts here.

Bag of Groceries on WHite


Why Go “Healthy?”

As important as knowing what healthy eating is to you, to commit to a dedicated lifestyle of eating right you should probably know the reasons why you’re striving to eat right in the first place. To sum this up in simple language: if you put junk in, you’ll get junk out, not only physically, but mentally as well. The mental side of lifting and life is not one to negate. Everything in your body functions best off nutrient dense, real food. I’m not suggesting you swear off pizza for the rest of your life, (I wouldn’t expect anyone to do that since I sure wouldn’t) but I do want you to clarify your motives for becoming conscious about the food you’re putting in your body, and what you expect that food to do for you. If you are competitive with your lifting but don’t give an ounce of attention to how you’re fueling that lifting, you are cheating yourself.

Now that you know what to classify as “healthy," and why that is important to you, let’s talk dollars. Make no mistake about it, the media will bombard you with messages of how eating healthier is much more expensive. Most people jump on board with this for an easy way out of even trying. There is a popular meme circulating with a saying “Why is America obese? Because a cheeseburger is a dollar and a salad is five.” I laugh at this every time, because the last time I checked no adult cruises through the drive-through for a SINGLE dollar menu item. Aside from that, you can easily prep your own salads for a fraction of the cost of one bought eating out. Nobody forces you to eat from a drive-through. So, if you’ve ever bought into the idea that eating healthy is significantly more expensive, I’m here to show you otherwise.

Here are five tips for eating right and not breaking the bank. The fact you will be buying groceries and cooking them yourself is a given and this alone saves you a ton of money. You don’t have to be a chef to bake some chicken breasts or sauté some veggies. If “but I don’t know HOW to cook” just came to mind as an excuse, a five minute Google search will eliminate the issue.

1. Buy in Bulk

Sam’s, Costco, and Gordon Food Services are a few common places that are great for buying in bulk. Gordon Food Services doesn’t even require a membership fee. You want to buy in bulk because you’ll be cooking in bulk. Meats and veggies are awesome to get from these places and it makes bulk cooking easier with less packaging. You probably won’t find specialty items like omega-3 eggs, reduced sugar ketchup, or organic extra virgin coconut oil, but these stores provide the basic staples at a good discount.

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Of course, with every suggestion, many people have an immediate objection, so I’ll cover one I know might come up. If you can’t buy in bulk because of storage space, consider a spare freezer to store what you don’t cook right away. If that’s not an option, learn to cook one thing in various ways. For example, buy your bulk chicken and grill half, crockpot the other half. This also helps you not get burnt out by having to choke down so much of the same thing. You can purchase chicken and flank steak one week, turkey and salmon the next. By doing this, you don’t have to buy five different kinds of protein each week, and none of your meat will go to waste. That brings me to my next tip…

2. Don’t Waste It

Not wasting food is an obvious money saver, and most people probably don’t take into account the money they throw away through uneaten food. A minor downside to eating real food is that it doesn’t have a five-year shelf life and that means you will have to eat it on a schedule. If you’re taking your diet seriously in the first place, this usually isn’t a problem. However, if you get sloppy and start forgetting to pack meals, decide you’re not in the mood for chicken again, or choose to eat out with co-workers instead of out of Tupperware, it doesn’t take long before half of your food goes uneaten and in the trash. An additional element to this is that you will need to invest the time to do some calculations and take notes on exactly how much food you need each week.

3. Plan Ahead

To follow up on not wasting food, planning ahead goes a long way in cutting costs. Break your diet down, map it out, and stick to the plan! An example is:

"For my first meal I’m going to have eggs, steak, and oatmeal."

That’s great, but for a week time frame how many eggs and how much steak will you actually need? Don’t try to wing this, because chances are you’ll either not buy enough, or buy too much (which will of course go to waste). Take some notes each time you prep food and know how much it takes for the required number of meals. If you do not have the required amount of a chosen food, you’ll probably end up grabbing something fast and greasy which could not only damper your progress, but also your wallet.

Grocery List

The greatest benefit of having a plan prior to entering your chosen grocery store is that you don’t end up with a bunch of crap you don’t need. Every time I go into the store without a specific list, I end up with twenty items I don’t need, and an extra $50-$100 on my bill. If the extra items are perishable, it’s painful when I have to throw them out.

4. Supplement

Protein shakes are a very cost-effective, time-effective and taste-friendly way to stay consistent with your macronutrient requirements. If you mix with plain water, most shakes cost an average of a single dollar. Two shakes plugged into your day and you’ve easily filled in the gaps to get enough high-quality protein in your diet without eating an entire animal. I wouldn’t recommend going the cheapest route here, either. The cheapest brands of protein are generally very poor quality and can cause a lot of stomach issues as well. Hydrolyzed whey protein is my preference and recommendation. Shop for sales and compare prices, as this can save you a lot of money. Speaking of price comparisons….

5. Discount Grocery Stores

This is the most important and useful tip of all. All stores are NOT created equal. Every area has a discount grocery store offering no-frills, reduced-price foods. Aldi is my go-to, but Grocery Outlet, WinCo Foods, Discount Grocer and Save-A-Lot are also worth checking. My advice is take the time to visit each store and do some cost comparisons. You’ll be amazed by the differences. The good thing about most discount grocery stores is their prices are usually consistent—they are always low! Places like Kroger and Publix are all about coupons, sale items, and “10 for $” stuff (who needs TEN spicy mustards anyway?). Sometimes it feels like you’re saving money, but you end up spending the same because of the regular non-sale items you purchased as well. Personally, I just prefer a simple, “same-price-every-week” kind of thing. It ties in nicely with planning ahead.

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Most good discount grocery stores will have all of your basics, similar to the bulk stores mentioned earlier (steak, eggs, rice, veggies, potatoes, etc.). I’ve found myself with an entire week of food for exactly half the cost of the same items at the bigger chains. I do purchase things like specialty seasonings, gluten free products, natural peanut butter, and unsweetened almond milk at other places, simply because they have a broader variety. For the staples, though, you can’t go wrong with the prices these stores offer. When you start preparing your meals from the basics I’ve mentioned, you’ll probably even be coming out with a cheaper grocery bill than you had before.

A Few Bonus Tips

  • Keep it simple! Most healthy eating cookbooks and magazines offer elaborate recipes with 30 ingredients. Don’t get complicated in your cooking because it comes with a higher price tag!
  • Buy local. Farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) and small food stands are especially great places to pick up produce.
  • Hunt! There is nothing that is more free-range than wild game. If you don’t hunt yourself, you probably know someone who does. A lot of hunters do it for the sport and not for the meat source. Wild game is a great protein source and will provide variety to your menu.

Putting It into Practice

Just to illustrate the true cost of eating healthy, here is a listing of one week’s shopping for me. While I am a middleweight strongwoman competitor, you can adjust this based on your sport, metabolism, weight, and goals. I still plug in at least one protein shake a day, and a use few a condiments as well but this grocery list provides:

  • Four whole food protein servings a day for a week. Chicken, sirloin, ground beef and eggs.
  • Two servings of carbs, ricecakes and sweet potatoes. 1-2 servings each day.
  • 5-6 salads (mixed greens or spinach)
  • 5-6 servings of mixed steamed vegetables (Asparagus and Broccoli).
  • A side fat source, cashews.

The cost of all this food equals $67.34. This provides plenty of solid nutrition and, if prepared in advance, you have NO excuse to resort to drive-through or convenience foods. So, what is the cost of healthy eating? For me it ranges from $60-$100 a week, minus tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills from heart disease, obesity and other health risks that a healthy lifestyle frees me from. Follow these simple guidelines and see what solid nutrition can do to enhance every area of your life, especially your lifting!