For decades, doctors have been telling us that eating a healthy diet, rich in vitamins and nutrients, can prevent conditions such as type 2 diabetes and obesity, which can lead to more serious medical conditions like cardiovascular disease. But with the constantly rising price of healthy food, a healthy diet can be costly and, for some, seem financially unviable.
However, healthy eating doesn't have to cost as much as people think. Lesser still are the changes needed in order to eat a healthier diet. From preserving food to making pre-packaged food from scratch, we detail the ways you can improve your diet and save money.
The Cost Of Diet Plans
Ready-made diet plans sacrifice price for convenience. Whether they offer pre-made dishes à la 'meals on wheels', or provide the raw ingredients themselves with simple-to-follow recipes, the price of these services for one person can cost as much as a weekly shop for the average family.
We looked at two popular diet plans in the UK which deliver ready-made meals to your door and evaluated their value for money. As a baseline, the average UK household of 2.4 persons spends £60.60 on food per week. This equates to approximately £25 per person per week. We found the median price of the two most popular diet plans came to £57 for one person per week - more than double the average spend per person.
Of course, diet plans are not the only way of eating healthy, and while they offer convenience (at a cost), there are many ways you can cook the same nutritious meals at home for less.
The Price Gap Between Healthy and Unhealthy Food
It may come as a surprise to you that the price of healthy food has been rising consistently for more than a decade. The price has risen so drastically that a report by the Food Foundation states that around a quarter of families in the UK cannot afford to meet the nutritional recommendations set out by the government. The price of convenience food is lower than that of fresh produce. At the same time, the income of the poorest households declined by 7.1% between 2002 and 2016, while food prices rose by 7.7%. According to The Guardian, in order for the poorest families in the UK to meet the guidelines set out in the Eatwell guidelines, they would need to spend 74% of their disposable income on food - which for some families is unaffordable.
How To Eat Healthily and Save Money
Families on a low food budget can still meet the guidelines, but they need to be making conscious choices. It might be a convenient option, but buying processed, chopped, pre-washed, and canned fruit and vegetables can make you pay more at the checkout. When planning a family meal, compare the price of ready-made produce vs the raw ingredients, and you may find you'd be saving money by spending time cutting and preparing the meals.
We compared the price of some popular processed foods against their raw ingredients and found that, on average, the cost of the raw ingredients was cheaper and, depending on how you prepare and cook the ingredients, healthier. A 900g bag of oven chips (£1.50), which are essentially sliced and peeled potatoes, cost more than a 2.5kg bag of potatoes (~£1) on their own. A pack of 4 burgers (with a net weight of 454g) costs about £2.50 on average, while 500g of mincemeat, which can be turned into burgers at home, can cost £1.50. Additionally, the minced meat alone contained about ~5% less fat than the pre-packaged burgers, making them a healthier alternative, depending on how you cook them.
Consider pasta cooking sauce. A popular UK brand costs £1.50 per 500g jar, but it contains an unnecessary 6 grams of sugar. By reading the label, we worked out the measurements for each ingredient (omitting sugar and mushrooms, which aren't necessary). Then, we compared and averaged the price of the ingredients and calculated the cost for the same amount of pre-made sauce using the raw ingredients, and the results will undoubtedly shock you.
The average cost of the raw ingredients:
- Tinned tomatoes (400g) = 35p
- Tomato Purée (200g) = £1
- Mixed herbs = ~£1
- Onion = 20p (per onion)
- Water = Free from the tap
For our healthier 500g of cooking sauce:
- 300g tomato = 26p
- 85g paste = 42p
- half an onion = 10p
- mixed herbs = 10p
- water = free
Our price came to 88p for 500g, which is about 60p (~40%) cheaper than the pre-made sauce and contains no added sugar, making it both lighter on your diet and your wallet.
(Prices were taken by comparing popular UK supermarkets on mysupermarket.co.uk on 05/06/19)
Some food retailers have also recently introduced discounted wonky food. They might not look perfect, but they taste the same. You can use them in salads, stir fry, or soup. Look for these items next time you go shopping and see how much you can save.
If you would like to make fruit and vegetables more exciting for the family, you might want to learn a trick or two. Making a stir fry is not as difficult as you might think. Making soup will help you use up all the vegetables you have left over from cooking a roast dinner, so you are wasting less and are still making the most out of your diet.
While saving money on your weekly shop, you also open up a number of healthier possibilities in the kitchen as you have control over how the food is prepared and cooked. If you have allergies or don't like a particular ingredient, you have the choice to remove it or substitute it for something else. You know what goes into it and can control the number of ingredients which might be considered unhealthy, such as high quantities of salt, sugar and fats.
In most cases, buying the raw ingredients and preparing the food yourself is an effective way of saving money and allows you to control the ingredients to create healthier dishes the whole family will enjoy.
The Problem With Sugary Cereals
There are some food items claimed to be healthy, but they are not. Let's look at cereals, for example. You just have to look for the colour-coded guide at the back. Unless you buy plain oats and cereals, the sugar content on popular cereals will be red or orange, denoting a high amount of sugar. The same applies to cereal bars. To make them more appealing, manufacturers add loads of sugar and flavourings. You might want to reconsider your breakfast choice before reaching for a quick cereal bar to get you going in the morning.
Try swapping sugary cereals for a bag of plain oats or unsweetened muesli. There are ways of sweetening oats without the need for tonnes of sugar. Agave is a great alternative to sugary syrup and can be found in most supermarkets. Alternatively, fruit such as bananas, blueberries, strawberries (at room temperature) and raspberries can add some flavour to a bowl of porridge. If you really want sugar, try granulated sweetener, which contains fewer calories per teaspoon.
Check out our list of 6 healthy breakfast ideas to help you kick-start your morning.
The Weekly Shop
The best way to cut the cost of healthy eating is to be conscious about what to buy and when you buy it. Before going shopping, take stock of what you have in your cupboards, fridge and freezer. This can help to prevent you from buying things you already have but haven't used. Make a shopping list of the things you need.
Identifying where most of your shopping budget goes can be eye-opening, but it can also be an opportunity to try new things. For example, you may find you regularly buy a certain item, such as cabbage, lamb mince or a particular flavour of yoghurt. Instead of removing these, consider substituting them for something you may not have tried. For example, cabbage can be swapped for kale, lamb mince (which is high in fat) can be swapped for turkey mince, and flavoured yoghurt (which may contain a lot of sugar) can be swapped for another flavour or even plain yoghurt, which you can add flavour to yourself with fresh fruit.
One tip, which is commonly found on many money-saving blogs, is to plan your meals for the coming week. They often cite this as a way to prevent buying things you don't need or won't use. However, this offers another overlooked benefit. If you take a little extra time, you can calculate the number of calories each meal will have. This can help prevent you from consuming too many calories. There are plenty of apps and websites which make it easy for you to work out the calorie content of each meal.
Wasted Food Is Wasted Money
Us Brits waste far too much food because we don't use it by the time it expires, or we think it's unusable and so we throw it out. You can greatly reduce your food waste by simply freezing them. Most food items - fresh or cooked - can be frozen, though it is best to freeze them when they are at their best. A common recommendation is to freeze slices or loaves of bread to make them last longer. Many other perishable food items, such as berries, cooked rice and pasta, cooked and uncooked meat, butter, peeled bananas, herbs and stock, can be sealed and frozen to extend their lifespan and reduce waste.
A brilliant tip is to use ice cube trays when freezing. Mix some herbs with olive oil and some water and freeze them in ice cubes to use in dishes when cooking. You can also make ice cubes from wine to cool down your drink without diluting it, or use them during cooking.
Make a habit of visiting your supermarket after 6 pm, when all the fresh produce gets reduced. Pick up food that is going off the next day and blend it up at home into a deliciously rich smoothie and refrigerate or freeze it for the next day. You can use bananas that are brown on the outside but perfectly healthy inside. Use bruised apples and just-in-date berries to make breakfasts more healthy.
Cutting Alcohol and Junk Food Can Pay for Organic Produce
While we all like a cheeky takeaway every now and then, the price we pay can impact our wallets and our health. According to research from takeaway company Deliveroo, the average Brit spends up to £1,000 per year on takeaways, which equates to about £20 per week, or a third of the average weekly food spend. All this junk food can contribute to coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and even breast and bowel cancer. Like most treats, takeaways are fine in moderation.
But many studies have concluded that Britons are eating too many takeaways, and many promoters of healthy eating blame the growing high-street takeaway industry, citing that it's easier, more convenient and cheaper to buy an unhealthy meal from a local takeaway than to buy fresh produce from the supermarket. There have been clear correlations made between the number of fast food places in an area and the rate of obesity in the local population, meaning the more takeaways there are in one small area, the higher the likeliness that the people who live around the area will be obese.
The NHS has a great resource for making healthier takeaway choices.
Alcohol is often overlooked in regard to its calorie content. What might be surprising is that a single pint of lager contains 180 calories - the same amount as a slice of pizza or more than 11 teaspoons of sugar. A 5 fl oz glass of wine contains 123 calories or the equivalent of about 7 or 8 teaspoons of sugar.
To add insult to injury, the calorie content of alcoholic drinks comes almost exclusively from the alcohol itself; beer and wine have very little nutritional value.
The average UK household spends ~£18 per week on alcohol, which totals up to a sobering £860 per annum.
The Bottom Line
While it's easy to say that simply cutting out junk food and alcohol is a surefire way to save money and be healthy, the rising price of healthy food makes it a financial challenge for many families. Additionally, the widening gap between the price of convenience food and healthy food is so great that the cost cut from unhealthy options isn't enough to cover the price of healthy food.
But this isn't to say it's impossible or that families shouldn't try to live healthier. Planning meals, freezing leftovers, and using up food which looks wonky but is perfectly edible and useable can save money and help you live a healthy lifestyle.
Preparing food yourself, rather than relying on packaged food, can save you money and allow you to cut out unhealthy ingredients. You may be surprised at how quickly you can whip up sauces, meatballs, burgers, chips, soups and other food you might have otherwise bought ready-made.