Eating Healthy on a Budget

Editors Note: This post originally appeared at Power Athlete HQ. We've republished this article with their permission.

Hi John,

Currently I am in college and this August begin a new job. For the first time ever, I will also have to budget my food. 

How would you recommend I plan my food purchases? For instance, is grass fed beef more important than organic chicken? Where should I go organic? For the Paleo-ish diet, where should I place the priority?

I am thinking of budgeting $80-100 per month for food so I am looking to maximize my value.

Thanks,

J.S. 

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I heard my mom once talk about setting lofty goals and hoping you land among the stars; this might be what she was talking about.

Just to be honest, when the question hit my inbox, my initial response was, “Hell no!” but after some thought, it peaked my curiosity. So instead of putting this on Talk To Me Johnnie, I decided to post it on Power Athlete for a more broad audience.

Could a person eat an organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed, paleo-esk diet for around $5 bucks a day?

*Just for the sake of this exercise, I increased your budget to $5 a day for ease of calculations...$35 a week or $140 a month.

How would a person plan their meals around the most costly of macro’s, animal protein?

The carbohydrates and fats are easier to source and a diet of beans for protein would be extremely inexpensive. So lets start with a macronutrient breakdown and daily caloric load and go from there.

I have not attached your email but the extension came from a school in Columbia, South Carolina. I thought that was promising as there are several farms and Co-Ops in rural areas that could be used to source local and organic foods. So I contacted a few local farms and CSAs to get pricing to see if grass-fed and organic were an option.

I set your body weight at 175 pounds (also not included) as this is probably the average weight for most 18-22 year old males asking this question.

You didn’t say if you were trying to gain muscle or lose fat, so I will give you just over 14 calories per pound of body weight or 2500 calories a day. This is a good amount of calories for someone to maintain their body weight assuming they aren’t training 2+ hours a day.

I will break the macros down to 50% carbohydrates, 22% protein and 28% fat since this is a ratio someone could use to met your financial goals - remember CHO is less expensive than PRO.

This gives you a daily calorie breakdown of:

312 grams - CHO
140 grams - PRO
70 grams – FAT

Divided evenly into three meals a day will result in:

104 grams – CHO
47 grams – PRO
23 grams – FAT

When I was in college, my scholarship check was $740 a month. My rent was $475, which left me $265 to live on. My parents were generous enough to kick me an extra $300 a month to cover food costs. That came out to $565 a month to spend on food and incidentals like toothpaste and the occasional meal out.

The way I extended my dollar was my shopping in bulk at Costco and hunting down the bargain aisle at the grocery store and looking for day old meats.

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I would buy a massive sack of white rice at the beginning of each month, a few bags of frozen chicken breasts, two big bottles of olive oil, 3 dozen eggs and three gallons of whole milk. I would hit the bulk bins at the grocery store and get puff rice cereal for breakfast and then head over to the meat counter. Every Tuesday at 9 AM the butcher would package up all the day old meats and put them in the bargain bin. I could get ground beef for under 2 bucks a pound and whatever other meat that was in there is what we ate.

As cool as it was in those days, I want to take this to the new millennium and see if we can find your solution as there was no Internet or Amazon to take advantage for price saving.

Lets start with carbohydrates – white rice has always been my favorite carb. It is easy to prepare, can be bought in bulk and doesn’t spoil in the fridge if left over night.

Walmart sells a 28-pound pail of white rice for $27.45. This will provide you about a pound of uncooked rice a day. One pound of uncooked rice will yield 6 cups of cooked rice. 6 cups cut into three meals, is 2 cups of cooked rice providing 90 grams of carbohydrates and 9 grams of protein.

I called the local Publix market in Columbia to check pricing and they were reasonable. For example, they sell fresh kale for under $2 a pound; kale yields 1:2, so 2 pounds of kale will cook down to 1 pound. They sell broccoli and any other green veggie you can fit into your budget at reasonable prices. Stay away from fruit and berries, they are budget breakers.

My other source of carbs is tubers. Sweet potatoes and yams are preferred but white potatoes will be the most economical. While many people out there hate the white potato, I have never seen a problem with it.

You can buy a 5-pound bag of white potatoes for $1.97. Each pound of potato contains 71 grams of CHO and 7.5 grams of PRO. That translates to $.40 per pound and at just over 1 1/4 pounds of potato will meet your per meal requirement.

The other thing I would add to my list is honey. I don’t want you to have to eat that much white rice without some flavor. You can purchase a 12 oz. bottle of honey for $4.19 a bottle.

Each $.34 ounce of honey contains 23 grams of carbohydrate and is excellent on steamed white rice.

For fat you have two options, saturated fat in the meat you are eating or if you are eating very lean protein sources like chicken, you are going to need fat from monounsaturated and saturated sources like olive oil or coconut oil.

You can purchase a 2L (67 fl oz.) bottle of Kirkland Organic Olive Oil for $23.29. That comes out to be $0.34 an ounce, with each ounce of olive oil containing 29 grams of fat. You will need roughly an ounce with each meal. This bottle will last about 2 months.

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You can also substitute olive oil with coconut oil, which can be bought $3.69 for 32 oz. With each tablespoon of coconut oil having 14 grams of fat. That means you will need less than two tablespoons per meal - this jar will give you 64 servings or last around 10 days.

The most difficult part of this is going to be protein, but if you are smart with your meat choices you are make it work.

In this country, there is one cut of meat that is not prized as it is in other parts of the world. Through history one cut of meat was the coveted about all others - organ meats.

Organ meats are nutritional powerhouses and something everyone, just no those on a budget should eat. They are packed with vitamins and minerals and some of the healthiest cuts you can consume.

For me personally, I stick with tongue, heart and liver. While many people like kidneys, I have never been able to cook them where they don’t taste like urine, so you are on your own.

Beef tongue is about 70% fat and a very tender cut. Heart is a good source of iron, zinc, B vitamins and CoQ10. Heart is very lean and best to served in a slow cooker or ground up and added to ground beef. Liver is packed full of Vitamin A, folate, Vitamin B12 and choline.

Best part about organ meats is, they are packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients you need to be awesome, and they are very cheap at the local butcher.

Most people walk into the market looking for sirloins, tenderloins and rib steaks. Very few people walk in asking for tongue, liver and heart and this translates to cheap.

I routinely buy beef heart for under $2 a pound at the local market.

I took the liberty of calling Patrice at Butter Patch Jerseys, a local farm in Columbia, SC that raises GF beef, pork and sells eggs.

She sells GF liver, heart and tongue for $5 a pound, eggs for $4 a dozen and raw milk for $6 a gallon.

All her animals are 100% grass-fed and pasture raised. This would be best option but spending your whole daily budget on 80 grams of protein is not advisable as an ounce of beef heart has 5 grams of PRO.

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The other place you can make up your protein need is with chicken thighs. Tyson sells 32 oz. of chicken thighs for $3.52 or $.11/oz.

4 ounce of chicken thigh meat has 20 grams of protein and 16 grams of fat.

To meet your daily PRO requirement you will have to consume 9.5 ounces of chicken thigh meat, with a cost of $.11 per ounce that comes out to $1.04 per meal.

Winner, winner chicken dinner!

Also note, any of these macros can be offset with the purchase of a gallon of whole milk. A gallon of whole milk has 2400 calories with 128 grams of protein, 208 grams of carbs and 128 grams of fat. At a local cost of just under 3 bucks or 6 bucks for raw milk, this could be a way to offset the cost and offer some variety.

What about beverages?

You are on a budget so you are going to have to rely on free coffee on campus or look for extra tea bags near the office. Simple tap water will be your beverage of choice – if you read my most recent article about magnesium you will see that tap water and be very beneficial for making sure your mineral levels are solid.

So what does a regular meal look like?

Sample Meal

2 cups white rice ($.32)
90 grams of CHO
9 grams of PRO

½ oz. Honey ($.17)
12 grams of CHO

8 oz. chicken thigh meat ($.88)
40 grams of PRO
32 grams of FAT

16 oz. glass of tap water (free)

sample-meals.jpg

This meal contains 102 grams of carbohydrates, 49 grams of protein and 32 grams of fat which is just slightly over your per meal requirement with a price tag of:

$1.37 per meal or $4.11 per day.

White potatoes can be substituted for white rice and any meat out of the “day old” section can be substituted. I would check all the local markets for organ meats; they should cost about $2 a pound or $.125 per ounce and are a great source of protein.

Also thigh meat has more fat than beef heart, so take that into account for your calculations. Back fill the fat with olive oil as needed.

The goal was to feed you on $5 a day while hitting all your macros. While I am not confident you can hit your goal eating organic, free range, grass-fed without some up front costs and buying in bulk from a local CSA or farm like Patrice runs, you can eat a good amount of food and continue to train.

You must be proactive and bargain hunt. You have to know when the markets are putting their day old meats on sale and where the best deals are. You have the luxury on the Internet to find bargains on dry goods, but to find those great cuts of meat you will need to be become the proverbial hunter-gatherer and comb those markets for a deal.

John

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About The Author

John Welbourn is the founder of CrossFit Football and Power Athlete. He's a 10-year NFL vet turned strength and conditioning expert.

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