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Eating Healthily for $3 a Day

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no-foie-gras

A few weeks ago I challenged myself to go from microwaving corndogs and boiling pasta to cooking a fancy meal in a weekend. Sixteen hours of work later, I emerged successful.

Are my food problems all solved? Not yet. Though being able to cook fancy is great for special occasions, it’s not something I can do every day. It’s time-consuming, expensive, and, unless I watch carefully, not very healthy. On a day-to-day basis, I want food that’s cheap, healthy, and quick to prepare. (Oh, and tasty — but let’s ignore that little detail for now.)

Preparation speed isn’t such a big issue — I can always reheat leftovers. But what about the other two? How cheap do I want my food? And how healthy?

I want it to be as cheap and as healthy as possible, of course. But those goals seem opposed. After all, I could heat up Ramen noodles and live — at least for a little while — on about a dollar a day. But that’s a terrible idea: I want to save money, but I don’t want scurvy.

Healthy food is more expensive than Ramen. But just how much more expensive is it? A week ago I issued a new challenge to myself:

I want to find the cheapest daily diet that meets all common nutritional recommendations.

Now, nutrition is tricky business. Nutritional guidelines change often. New nutrients are found. “Good” nutrients are discovered to be bad, and vice-versa.

For this reason, some experts — Michael Pollan comes to mind — recommend ignoring complex nutrition advice altogether. Instead, they suggest keeping it simple: Eat a variety of fresh, unprocessed foods. Focus mostly on produce and, if you’re an omnivore, choose high-quality meats.

I don’t want to stray too far from that advice. Besides the health arguments, I’m drawn toward unprocessed food on an aesthetic level. I want to keep things simple. But at the same time, I want to make sure I’m not straying too far from standard nutrition advice — stuff about fat percentages, vitamins, minerals, and so on. I’m not a nutrition expert, after all.

So I’m making sure my hypothetical cheap and healthy diet meets the following requirements, which come mostly from the standard USDA recommendations:

  1. Provides 2000 calories per day
  2. Maintains the standard caloric ratios: 20-30% of calories from fat, about 10% from protein, and the rest from carbohydrates
  3. Meets standard vitamin recommendations for A, C, E, K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, B12, Pantothenic acid
  4. Meets standard mineral recommendations for Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Selenium
  5. Meets standard fiber recommendation
  6. Keeps saturated fat to a minimum
  7. Keeps cholesterol to a minimum

Sounds complicated, right? Fortunately I’ve found a handy website that gives me nutritional breakdowns for lists of foods and quantities.

Of course, I could really geek out and write a computer program that solves a constraint optimization problem given nutrition data and prices for a variety of foods. But let’s not get carried away. Nutrition isn’t an exact science and prices vary, anyway. (But if anyone else wants to do that, let me know the result!)

I decided early on that I want the staples of my theoretical diet to be rice and beans.

Both are extremely cheap by calorie. Beans are high-protein and filled with vitamins and minerals. Together they contain all essential amino acids, which forms a complete protein. (I don’t really understand what that means, but it sure sounds good, right?)

i-beans-pintoIt turns out that beans — kidney, pinto, black, white, etc. — are pretty equivalent as far as nutrition goes. They’re cheapest when bought dry. The best deal I found was on pinto beans at Safeway, where you can get a 20-pound bag for $15.19 — or $0.76 / lb. That equates to 2042 calories and 126 grams of protein per dollar!

brown-riceBrown rice has more fiber and other nutrients than white rice, so I chose it. I wasn’t able to find any great deals in local grocery stores, but you can buy 50-pound bags of the stuff online for $61.48 (including shipping), or $1.23 / lb. That equates to a still-impressive 1364 calories per dollar.

Unfortunately — or perhaps for variety’s sake, fortunately — rice and beans form a very incomplete diet. Both contain almost zero fat, and it’s important to get a substantial portion of calories from fat. Their combination is also low in a number of vitamins and minerals — most notably vitamins A, C, E, K, and B12, riboflavin (gotta have it!), and calcium.

broccoliI turned next to fruits and vegetables. Of the two, vegetables seem most nutrient rich for the money. After looking at a lot of vegetables, I decided that broccoli and sweet potatoes looked most promising. Both are reasonably priced by the pound and packed with nutrients. They’re both often called “superfoods.” They’re also both in season right now.

0411p30c-sweet_potato-mThe lowest price I could find on broccoli was at Golden Produce, a local shop, where it was about $1.33 / lb. Sweet potatoes sell for $0.99 / lb at KJ Produce, another local shop.

At this point, the major holes remaining in the diet were fat — there was still almost none — calcium, and vitamin B12. For fat, I decided to use a combination of oil and seeds or nuts. I couldn’t use only oil, as way too much would be necessary.

how-olive-oil-works-31222748225I chose olive oil, which seems universally regarded as healthy and is quite reasonably priced. At Safeway, I found a 44 oz (88 tablespoon) bottle for $15.99. That equates to $0.18 per tablespoon.

Peanuts are the cheapest nut, but I didn’t pick them. They’re pretty high in saturated fat and less nutrient-rich than many other types of nuts. Almonds are a lot better, but they’re also a lot more expensive.

sunflower-seedsI settled on sunflower seeds, which are somewhere in the middle nutritionally. They’re a good source of vitamin E, niacin, and zinc, which were still lacking. They sell at Safeway for $1.59 / lb (unshelled) in bulk.

milk-organic-FD-lgThe remaining nutrients needed were calcium and vitamin B12. Calcium is easy — milk is the best source, and it’s pretty cheap. It costs $2.99 per gallon at Safeway.

Vitamin B12 is tricky. There’s some in milk but none in any of the other foods I’ve chosen so far. It’s the one vitamin that’s missing in vegan diets, and all the foods I’ve selected (other than milk) are vegan. It’s recommended that vegans supplement their diets with B12, either in fortified health foods or as a separate pill.

Why not just include meat in the diet? Well, first, it’s not very cheap. But more importantly, I’d rather buy the cheapest grains and vegetables than buy the cheapest meat. Bargain basement meat is likely produced in atrocious factory farming conditions and pumped up with hormones.

So … B12. I’m copping out. Take a supplement! It’s only a few extra cents a day. This diet provides adequate quantities of all other vitamins and minerals.

Time to wrap up.

I settled on the following daily quantities of each of the foods listed above, with prices listed:

  1. 3 cups cooked brown rice ($0.53)
  2. 2 cups cooked pinto beans ($0.23)
  3. 2 stalks cooked broccoli (360g) ($1.06)
  4. 1 baked sweet potato (180g) ($0.40)
  5. 1 tablespoon olive oil ($0.18)
  6. 1/2 cup sunflower seeds, shelled ($0.22)
  7. 2 cups nonfat milk ($0.37)

The total cost per day is $2.99.

This diet supplies 2090 calories and all essential vitamins and minerals (with the exception of B12; see the discussion above). Fiber is high. Saturated fat and cholesterol are very low. 23% of calories come from fat, 15% from protein, and the rest from carbohydrates.

This diet is quite high in protein (at 174% the daily recommended value). I don’t think there are any problems with that, but it’s something to keep in mind. (And it’s interesting to note, since many think vegetarian diets are low in protein.)

See the vitamin and mineral charts below, courtesy of NutritionData.com:

vitamins   minerals

(Notes: add salt to taste if you want more sodium. Vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight!)

Am I recommending eating exactly the foods listed above every day?

No.

And would you do that even if I were recommending it? Didn’t think so. My goal here isn’t to suggest an exact diet. It’s only to see how cheap it’s possible to go while remaining healthy.

The diet above is very nutritious. I’m sure, in fact, that it’s quite a bit more nutritious than what I’m currently eating. And it’s only $2.99 per day.

I’ll definitely be looking more closely at what I’m eating. With substitutions for variety, spices, and interesting recipes, the basic diet listed above is actually very workable. Of course, I’m not planning to adhere strictly to any diet. I’m too lazy, and exceptions make life interesting.

But for run-of-the-mill daily meals, it’s nice to make sure I’m eating healthily and cheaply. And clearly it is possible to do both.

Written by miketuritzin

November 2nd, 2009 at 11:50 am

Posted in Articles

72 Responses to 'Eating Healthily for $3 a Day'

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  1. Interesting experiment.

    Overall, we either pay slightly more for eating healthful foods on the front end, OR we pay much more in medical expenses and health care on the back end.

    Natalie Mann

    28 Apr 11 at 4:17 pm

  2. Funny, I do think I could eat that every day if I got creative about preparing it one way one day and another way the next!

    The BabbyMama

    28 Apr 11 at 4:48 pm

  3. costco lamb comes from NZ, supposedly grass fed/free range. might be a good source for meat if you can ignore that it is not local

    sm

    28 Apr 11 at 6:11 pm

  4. B12 can be found in nutritional yeast, which is tasty and not too expensive in bulk.

    Alex

    28 Apr 11 at 8:56 pm

  5. Nutritional yeast is high in Vitamin B12, and cheap. You can sprinkle it on pretty much anything; it has a nice nutty cheesy flavor to it.

    Andy Mesa

    28 Apr 11 at 11:52 pm

  6. In five years of being the “kitchen manager” wherever I’ve lived, I’ve learned two things:
    * buying in volume and sharing costs with housemates, family, etc. is a great way to minimize costs
    * cooking for yourself is absolutely essential if you want to save money

    Thanks for the post, Mike. Like most of us, I’m just discovering it now. Fortuitous reposting timing, actually.. I’ll be posting the food purchasing data I’ve collected over the past 3 years at our own blog early next week: foodia.com/blog

    Max

    29 Apr 11 at 8:00 am

  7. lose the milk for better health.

    terry

    29 Apr 11 at 8:20 am

  8. […] Eating Healthily for $3 a Day <<It’s a common misunderstanding that healthy eating is expensive. It certainly doesn’t have to be. (Mike Turitzin) […]

  9. […] Eating Healthily for $3 a DayBad eating habits are quite common in the hacker community, so I decided to include this link. For me the main problem when it comes to healthy eating is having to work, but even there you can manage without too much overhead. […]

  10. @Priit Raag – some vegetarians (like me) consider eggs to be problematic for the same reason as we think milk is problematic: the needless slaughter of tens of millions of male chicks, and the slaughter of hundreds of millions of chickens for no reason other than a drop in egg-laying productivity. The same holds for cows (and male dairy calves).

    One thing that Mike might need to supplement on a quasi-vegan diet is IODINE – low iodine levels are a menace; it’s better to get it through a supplement than to use iodised salt (which has aluminium and processing residues in it). But I notice he has a couple glasses of nonfat milk, so that oughta do it – but the broccoli (being a brassica) will reduce iodine uptake – and that will already be compromised if you live in a fluoridated water area.

    I would also rotate some pulses through – red lentils, Puy lentils, Chickpeas, and Soybeans/Edamame; they’re all cheap. We’ve even made our own tofu at home (and it was sensational) and used the fibrous by-product to make burgers. We make Spicy Coconut Daal (red lentils, vege stock, coconut milk, green chillies, tomatoes and onions – takes 20 minutes to cook), Chickpea (Channa) Masala, Tofu Rendang (sometimes with ‘fake beef chunks’), Aloo Gobi (potato and Cauliflower curry), Tofu Panaeng (again, sometimes with fake beef chunks).

    Our main meals cost out at about $0.80-$1.60 per serve (excluding electricity), there is NOTHING ‘dull’ about them, and I can still bench my bodyweight (110kg) for 10 reps, easy. Can’t do pullups though… working on that this year.

    GT

    4 May 11 at 1:50 am

  11. […] recently came across a (kind of old) article about eating cheaply. Now I know I wrote about this rather recently, but while the premise is interesting, I find myself […]

  12. Vitamin B12? Eat Marmite. Has a bunch of other good stuff, and probably on par with the cost of a supplement.

    Swifty

    15 May 11 at 2:17 pm

  13. Good article overall! May i suggest the Fb page Vegan for 3.33 a Day if you want to avoid eggs and dairy for enviromental, ethical and health reasons. Namaste

    Jean

    31 May 11 at 7:14 am

  14. I’m a vegan and as much as I hate to admit it, I supplement with b12 (from http://products.mercola.com/vitamin-b12-spray/ ) to avoid health problems.

    Ylla

    13 Mar 12 at 9:59 pm

  15. This diet is pretty nice. Please be aware, though, that it exceeds the DRI’s upper limit for vitamin A and Manganese.

    abl;a asd

    26 Mar 13 at 6:27 am

  16. This is awesome! I am going on a 2 week camping trip and can only spend $3 a day, so this is perfect. I can bring all of the foods on my trip except for milk….. do you have any suggestions

    Kayla

    20 Jun 13 at 1:28 pm

  17. Great article and great work, even all these years later, as it looks to have been published in ’09?

    I think all the people saying X is better than Y food or macro this versus macro that are missing the point. It’s a starting point. This is a proof of concept that it is indeed possible to eat heathlyish on and survive on a very small food budget. Does it *need* to be exactly as outlined? No. But with all the resources these days, you can eat on a limited budget and know what you are eating. Thanks for this inspiration!

    Maria

    18 Aug 13 at 4:27 pm

  18. Hi,

    I think you will find this article interesting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler_diet

    It was the results of an optimization problem done on nutrients and food.

    Austin

    30 Sep 13 at 8:02 am

  19. Just wondered upon this and was happy to see another person saving on food…I have been eating dark and lite kidney beans ( i switch each week) 3x a day , For dinner I add brocoli and brown rice for almost 5 years now and yes, a 2 cusp of milk for breakfast and lunch as a snack. Once a month I have 3 eggs and waffles with syrup for my breakfast so I have something to motivate me all month. I also buy a bag of pretzel rods for the holidays and eat that as a snack once a year around this time. Im perfectly healthy and my grocery bill is aprrox. 2000 dollars a year because I have two cats.

    thrifty1

    22 Dec 13 at 5:58 am

  20. Uh, where’s breakfast? This doesn’t seem very palatable. I just can’t imagine it. It just seems like you overlooked some foods which are delicious and yet cheap like oatmeal, eggs, popcorn, cream of wheat, pancakes, veggie soup from scraps, etc. Also, adding a small amount of meat can add a tremendous amount of flavor. Same for a small scrap sharp cheese. Now, on the positive side, thanks for bringing up that a lot of people eat on the cheap. This article is a great jumping off point. I thought that a lot of your readers had some great suggestions. One thing I do is make muffins every week. They’re easy, cheap, and full of nutrition (I make them with flax and oatmeal). If you’re going to eat like this you need to plan and cook.

    Dodie

    11 Mar 14 at 8:21 pm

  21. My only question, why did you choose non-fat milk? I would’ve gone with 2% or whole milk.
    You said that you had a hard time getting enough fat anyway.

    Derek

    29 Apr 14 at 11:11 am

  22. […] – After searching around on Google for budget friendly meal plans I settled on this website: http://www.miketuritzin.com/writing/eating-healthily-for-3-a-day/ This person recommended the following […]

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