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:
- Provides 2000 calories per day
- Maintains the standard caloric ratios: 20-30% of calories from fat, about 10% from protein, and the rest from carbohydrates
- Meets standard vitamin recommendations for A, C, E, K, Thiamin, Riboflavin, Niacin, Folate, B12, Pantothenic acid
- Meets standard mineral recommendations for Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium, Zinc, Copper, Manganese, Selenium
- Meets standard fiber recommendation
- Keeps saturated fat to a minimum
- 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?)
It 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 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.
I 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.
The 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.
I 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.
I 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.
The 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:
- 3 cups cooked brown rice ($0.53)
- 2 cups cooked pinto beans ($0.23)
- 2 stalks cooked broccoli (360g) ($1.06)
- 1 baked sweet potato (180g) ($0.40)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil ($0.18)
- 1/2 cup sunflower seeds, shelled ($0.22)
- 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:
(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?
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.