There’s no doubt in my mind that whole food plant-based is the healthiest way to eat. It forms the basis of natural chronic disease prevention, treatment, and reversal. But there’s even more good news, it’s the most economical and accessible way of eating on the planet! :-)
In general, I’ve found that the most expensive foods are usually the most disease promoting foods. I’ll try to explain why this is the case, in the following paragraphs.
There’s a perception that fast-food, packaged meals, and multipack/jumbo size snack foods & drinks offer good value, largely because of special offers and clever marketing. After all you can go to any fast food outlet and buy what appears to be an entire meal (for example; burger, chips and a drink) for less than £5. You can go to any supermarket and buy two frozen pizzas for less than £5. You can go to almost any cafe in the UK (here I’m thinking of cafes in Salford as an example) and get a full English breakfast (sausage, eggs, beans and mushrooms) with toast, jam and a cup of tea for less than £5.
Do these types of ‘meals’ really offer good value? No, I don’t think so (in fact they definitely do not) for several reasons…
First of all none of these ‘meals’ are health promoting in fact just the opposite, they are proven to be disease promoting, and poor health and the treatment of disease is expensive.
Secondly, all of these ‘meals’ are made from the cheapest possible ingredients and therefore their value for money is extremely low. Using the example of a burger, chips and a drink: £5 buys you approximately 90p worth of ‘products’. I took this example from a well-known burger chain’s production cost list, which is widely available on the Internet – please see adjacent image (the prices are in Canadian dollars which I converted to UK pounds to produce the 90p figure above). On the other hand if I spend £1 on some broccoli, I get £1 worth of broccoli, I don’t get 20p worth of ingredients pretending to be some broccoli i.e. I get something of value not a piece of junk.
Finally, the nutrient value/content of these ‘meals’ is extremely low and therefore a diet based on these meals would fall well short of a person’s daily nutritional requirements, and I mean ‘seriously’ short! As a consequence, health would deteriorate unless additional, more nutritionally dense foods were purchased in addition to these junk foods – thus indirectly increasing the cost of consuming these not so good value fast/junk foods.
How to Eat the Healthiest Food for Less than the Cost of Junk Food
The healthiest food as I mentioned above is whole plant food. Central to a whole food plant-based diet are starchy carbohydrates such as; potatoes, sweet potatoes, rices, beans & other legumes, certain grains (oats and buckwheat for example), and seeds etc. These starchy foods provide energy, essential fibres, vitamins, minerals and many other important nutrients.
Vegetables are possibly the next most important part of a healthy (whole food plant-based) diet, particularly green leafy and flowering vegetables such as; broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, spinach, parsley, onions and garlic etc.
Fruits such as; apples, grapes, bananas oranges etc., provide additional energy and fibre as well as huge amounts of antioxidants and other health promoting nutrients.
Nuts and seeds provide essential fats, additional fibre, lots of energy, and fat soluble vitamins etc.
Herbs and spices improve the digestibility and absorption of whole plant foods and provide additional antioxidants and specific anti-inflammatory compounds, and of course – wonderful flavours :-)
Having identified the healthiest foods, how can they be obtained and made into whole food plant-based meals for less than the cost of junk food?
First of all, almost all of the starchy foods can be bought in bulk, many of them in large bags or sacks. Fresh starchy foods (potatoes and sweet potatoes for example) bought in this way can usually be stored for several weeks or even months by keeping them cool, dry and out of sunlight. Dried starchy foods (beans, grains and seeds for example) will keep for many months or even years as long as they are kept dry and cool.
Buying in larger quantities or in bulk significantly reduces the food cost and also reduces the number of shopping trips required since a bulk purchase can provide a great many meals. Also, when a handful of beans are grains are soaked and cooked, they absorb a lot of water which greatly increases the bulk/size of the meal thus making it more filling. Finally, most grains, seeds, and some legumes (mung beans and lentils for example) can be easily sprouted to provide fresh nutrient dense produce for salads and soups etc.
Fresh vegetables (including starchy vegetables) can provide amazing nutritional value for money if they are bought from farmers markets and especially when bought in season. Some of these fresh vegetables can be bought in larger quantities to obtain discounts, and then easily frozen to keep for up to a year or so. For example corn, peas, green beans, peppers, and beetroot.
Other green leafy and flowering vegetables can also be bought in larger quantities to obtain discounts on the day, and then prepared in ways which will allow them to be kept for several months. For example Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli can be washed, blanched, and then dipped in ice cold water for a few minutes before being placed in freezer bags and being frozen. Kale and cabbage can be prepared in the same way and then chopped before placing in the freezer bags. Cabbages can be made into large amounts of probiotic sauerkraut and stored in jars for several months. Many other vegetables can be fermented and preserved in a similar way to produce variations on sauerkraut such as kimchi (using the minimum amount of salt).
Fresh seasonal fruits can be bought in larger quantities for the discounts and then frozen to keep for up to a year. This works well with all kinds of berries including cherries. Apples can be washed, sliced and then dipped in a small bowl of water containing the juice of half a lemon, before being placed in freezer bags frozen. Oranges and grapefruits can be juiced and then the juice can be frozen. Other fruits can be made into jams and preserves for example. Dates, figs and many other fruits can also be bought dried and in bulk to provide further nutritional value for money. These are great for snacks and for adding to oatmeal for breakfast for example. The combination of all these methods, allows the purchase of large quantities of fruits (chosen based on seasonality and haggling for bulk discounts) at a time which then provide or contribute to nutritious meals for many months to come.
Nuts can provide excellent value for money when bought in season and in larger quantities. They should be bought in their shells where possible as this will allow them to be kept for many months as long as they are kept cool and dry.
Dried herbs and spices can be very economical when bought in larger quantities and can last an extremely long time if kept in sealed containers and kept dry.
As you can see, it’s very economical to purchase a wide range of whole plant foods which can then be made into a huge variety of delicious, nutrient dense, health promoting meals. Where the cost of each meal will be significantly less than the cost of a typical junk food ‘meal’. The value for money is high, the nutrient content is high, there’s a much greater variety of meals available, meals can be prepared in advance and in quantity, and I would argue that the flavours and textures of the meals created are far more enjoyable than those provided by fast/junk foods.
Budget image is public domain