Healthy eating is possible on a tight budget! You don't have to be a college student to benefit from cost-saving tips either. Here are three basic tips for cutting costs while still choosing nutritious protein foods (that is, your main entrée foods): choose less processed foods, buy in bulk, and buy store brands over name brands. Eating healthfully on a very tight budget requires time to plan, shop, and cook.
Sometimes, though, it helps to look at cost in a different way to help you make decisions about which foods to purchase. If you consider choosing foods by cost per gram of protein, then you can save a lot of money. Be sure to account for handling and cooking losses when you make your comparisons!
A difference of pennies per gram of protein might not seem like much, but if you consume that food consistently for a year, then the savings become dollars. Think about that the next time you feel like you have to choose between paying for your groceries and paying your electric/gas bill.
For the sake of comparison, I have used prices from my local King Soopers (Kroger) chain grocery store located in Boulder County, Colorado. King Soopers and Kroger are the "store brands" (that is, no-brand versions). I have chosen less expensive yet nutritious protein choices for comparison.
Eggs. 1 large egg provides about 6 grams of protein regardless of brand.
- 2.3 cents/g protein for Kroger large white egg (13.5 cents per egg if buying a dozen)
- 3.4 cents/g protein for Eggland's Best large white egg (20.1 cents per egg if buying a dozen)
Savings over the course of one year if you purchase Kroger vs. Eggland's Best and eat 1 egg every day = $24.
Dried beans/peas (legumes). Legumes work double duty for you - in addition to protein, you also get high-fiber carbs. For reference: 1/2 cup of cooked beans is about 4.6 oz and provides about 7 grams of protein. Dry beans expand about 2.5 - 3 times their size, so just under 3 tablespoons of dry beans will make about 1/2 cup of cooked beans.
- < 1 cent/g protein for Kroger's dry bag of kidney beans ($0.99/lb)
- 6.4 cents/g protein for Kuner's "No added salt" canned kidney beans ($1.29/15oz can). Drained weight is 68% of total weight so the true cost is $1.29/10oz drained beans. Price/g protein accounts for drained bean weight.
Savings over the course of one year if you purchase dry beans vs. brand name canned and eat 1/2 cup of cooked beans every day = $20.
Chicken. Buying a whole chicken and cooking it yourself saves a lot of money compared to buying a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, or even buying raw chicken in pieces (e.g. breast meat or thighs). Buying small packages of raw skinless chicken breasts is the most expensive way to buy chicken, even after accounting for handling and cooking losses. Note that 1 lb is 16 oz (or 454 grams). One ounce of chicken provides about 8 grams of protein.
- 1.5 cents/g protein: King Soopers Raw Whole Broiler/Fryer Chicken ($0.98/lb). The yield of edible cooked meat is only half the raw weight of a whole chicken, so the true cost is actually $1.96/lb cooked, deboned, skinless meat. The price/g protein accounts for these losses.
- 2.3 cents/g protein: King Soopers Raw Chicken Skinless Breasts Super Value Pack 10 count ($1.99/lb). 1 lb of raw breasts yields about 11 oz of cooked chicken meat, so the true cost of cooked meat is $2.89/lb. Price/g protein accounts for these cooking losses.
- 4 cents/g protein: King Soopers Colossal Rotisserie Chicken 48oz ($7.99/bird or $2.66/lb). Edible meat is 52% of the total cooked bird weight, so the true cost is $5.12/lb of edible meat. Price/g protein accounts for these losses.
- 6.8 cents/g protein: King Soopers Raw Skinless Chicken Breasts 4 count ($5.99/lb). 1 lb raw breasts yields about 11 oz of cooked chicken meat so the true cost is $8.71/lb cooked meat. Price/g protein accounts for these losses.
Savings over the course of one year if you eat 6 oz of cooked chicken every week starting with a raw whole chicken vs. buying a small pack of raw skinless chicken breasts = $132.
Canned Light Tuna. Just because the money is tight doesn't mean you have to go without fish. You will get a good amount of omega-3 fats (DHA) with less cost and mercury than fancy albacore tuna. One ounce of fish contains about 7 grams of protein.
- 16.0 cents/g protein: Kroger Canned Light Tuna in Water $0.69/5oz can (4.3oz drained)
- 33.2 cents/g protein: Kroger Light Tuna in Water Pouch ($1.99/6oz pouch)
- 48.3 cents/g protein: Starkist Chunk Light Tuna in Water Pouch ($3.09/6.4oz pouch)
- 71.6 cents/g protein: Bumble Bee Light Tuna in Water Pouch ($1.79/2.5oz pouch).
Savings over the course of one year if you purchase Kroger canned tuna vs. a brand name small pouch of tuna and eat 6 oz every week for one year = $173.
Over the course of the year, changing just these 4 food items will save you $349. Imagine how much money you would save if you switched out every food item you purchased with a store-brand, less processed, and in bulk version. The total savings would run well into thousands of dollars. Now that kind of savings would go a long way in paying your utility bills!
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Agriculture Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture. Food Yields: Summarized by Different Stages of Preparation. Agriculture Handbook No. 102. 1975.
Barbara Struempler. Alabama Cooperative Extension. 101+ Ways to Save Food Dollars. HE 757. 2008.