It is a common scene in every grocery store: carts filled with processed foods. These items are generally quick and easy to heat and serve, and appear to be the cheapest types of food to purchase. Processed foods were a staple for my family throughout my childhood and continued until my early adulthood. Then, a friend taught me to cook using Rachael Ray’s cookbooks. Five years later, another friend introduced me to the Weston A. Price Foundation, and now I take those same convenience-type meals and make them nourishing by cooking them from scratch using nutrient-dense foods.
With my large family, many people comment about how expensive my food budget must be because we choose to eat a Wise Traditions diet. My usual response is that processed foods are more expensive than homemade, nutrient-dense foods due to the direct negative impact on health. As food prices rise and more people try to cut costs, it seemed like the perfect time to assess the financial difference between processed foods and from-scratch meals. My goal was to create a monthly food plan, incorporating meals that could be made with either readymade processed-food or real-food ingredients, and compare the totals.
MAKING A MEAL PLAN
I selected meals from my YouTube channel so that anyone who wants to try to cook from scratch for thirty days can use my how-to videos to cook each meal. Each of the meals had an equivalent processed-food option, and all of the meals could be made ahead of time as freezer meals for busy families. I calculated the meals’ cost for a family of four, with breakfast, lunch and dinner all covered within the plan.
For breakfast options, the meals I chose were pumpkin oatmeal bake, pancakes, egg skillet and sourdough waffles. For dinners, the selected meals were pizza pockets, Rice-A-Roni, black bean quesadillas, old-fashioned scalloped potatoes, chicken wild rice soup, barbecue sourdough skillet and beef stroganoff.
CALCULATING THE TOTALS
For each recipe, I wrote down the needed ingredients and then created a complete grocery list for one month’s worth of meals for a family of four. Next, I used the current prices at Walmart to calculate the grocery list’s total cost for four different shopping categories: (1) 100 percent processed foods; (2) 100 percent unprocessed but non-organic foods; (3) 100 percent unprocessed foods but purchasing 50 percent organic ingredients; and (4) 100 percent unprocessed and fully organic. For the fourth category, Walmart did not offer all of the items on my shopping list in organic versions, so I also shopped at Azure Standard (azurestandard.com) and our local farmer’s market.
The total cost to make a month’s worth of meals using 100 percent processed foods came to $480.54, or around $120 per person per month. For budget comparison purposes, I tried to make sure the calculation was based on the number of boxes of processed food required to yield the same quantity as when making the equivalent recipe from scratch.
The next three categories all used the same ingredients, but differed in quality according to the proportion of non-organic versus organic. For these meals, I also used proper preparation methods, soaking or fermenting all grains and seeds. Learning how to prepare grains properly is one of the easiest steps you can add to your daily routine, no matter whether you are purchasing organic or non-organic grains. Meals made with properly prepared grains will fill up your family faster using less food, and they will be more nutrient-dense.
The total for the second category—from-scratch meals made from non-organic ingredients—came to $345.68, or around $86 per person per month. This number was the first big shocker because it proved that processed-food meals are more expensive than the same meals made from scratch.
When I calculated the cost of the same shopping list while buying 50 percent organic items, the results also were surprising, again adding up to less than the 100 percent processed-food shopping list. The total came to $455.73, or approximately $114 per person per month. This proved that meals made with 100 percent processed foods are more expensive than making the same meals using ingredients that are 50 percent organic. Of note, the cost difference between making the meals from scratch using 100 percent non-organic ingredients and making the meals from scratch with ingredients that were 50 percent organic was only $28 more per person per month.
Finally, when I took the same shopping list and shopped 100 percent organic—using a combination of ingredients purchased at Walmart, Azure Standard and a local farmer’s market—the total was $623.45 or around $156 per person per month. The difference between purchasing all organic versus 50 percent organic ingredients was around $42 per person per month.
The totals for each category and the financial differences between categories were eye-opening! These are great statistics to have in mind when speaking to individuals about choosing to cook from scratch versus using processed foods, and also if you know someone who is considering starting to purchase organic foods.
No matter which financial category your shopping habits fall into, there are some tips to keep in mind when incorporating homemade, nutrient-dense foods into your budget. First, one of the most effective budget savers is meal planning. Meal planning eliminates the urge to grab convenience foods or eat out at restaurants because you are unsure what to cook for dinner. The most cost-effective way to create a meal plan is to choose seven dinners and multiply all of the ingredients times four, which will create four weeks of dinner meals.
Another big budget saver is to take those recipes and make the serving count large enough to have leftovers for the next day’s lunch. This eliminates the need to purchase additional items to make things like sandwiches, wraps and other quick lunch items.
When choosing meals, try to select options that use some of the same ingredients—like sour cream, cheese or pantry staples like rice. This will allow you to buy these items in bulk, which is very cost-effective. Selecting breakfast meals like oatmeal bakes, pancakes, egg skillets and waffles are all great choices because they can be made ahead of time and stored in the freezer; then, you simply warm them up for a quick, convenient and nourishing breakfast.
Once you have completed your meal plan, you can create a detailed shopping list. Combining ingredient totals allows you to purchase ingredients in bulk and have on hand all of the ingredients needed to make the selected meals.
TRACKING FOOD COSTS
Saving your receipts can be an easy way to keep track of your current food costs. As you look through your saved receipts at the end of the month, take note of ingredients that could have been bought in bulk to save more money. Keeping a current price list will also help you select meals with more affordable ingredients to stay within your budget.
BUYING IN BULK
Great items to buy in bulk include things like spices, dairy products like cheese, flour and grains. Moreover, opting to swap pasta dishes out for rice can make those meals more cost-effective. For example, organic brown rice is usually around three to four dollars a pound, whereas sprouted noodles are typically five to six dollars per pound. You can properly prepare the rice and even ferment it for added nutrition!
STICK TO THE LIST
Before your first purchase, make sure to double-check your list. Last-minute and impulse items are the quickest way to blow a food budget. Spending just an extra fifteen dollars per week will add up to seven hundred eighty dollars per year of extra money spent on food items that were not necessary.
If you do buy extra snacks or make last-minute purchases, highlighting those items on your receipts can hold you accountable for the money you spend in excess of the budgeted amount.
If purchasing food from a grocery store or big-box store, one strategy to keep non-essential purchases to a minimum and only buy wat is on the list is to order online for curbside pickup.
Most food items in large grocery stores travel thousands of miles from the original farms where they were grown and harvested. These foods will be more expensive and less nutrient-dense than the same foods purchased fresh from local farmers. Another benefit to purchasing fresh, local food is that you will be consuming foods that are in season and, therefore, in abundance, which means better prices! If you need help finding real food, get in touch with your local Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader. In the meantime, I hope this article helps you achieve the best possible health.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2022🖨️ Print post