Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Real Food On a Budget --Jonathan Vaudreuil in Boston

Jonathan gives a detailed account of his last week's experience of paleo on a budget. Jonathan's write-up is noteworthy in that he did all his shopping at the local supermarket and he the week's budget to the SAD diet he was eating before--which would've cost 13 cents more.

Jonathan also posted this on his blog JV Gets in Shape.


For the past few months my diet has been more of a paleo/primal diet than Tim Ferriss’s slow-carb diet. The diets are all quite similar, and in both instances there’s a huge push towards grass-fed beef, seafood, and buying organic. If you follow all these suggestions you’ll see a skyrocketing food bill, which is a huge turnoff for a lot of people. While that might be ideal, if you’re on a budget you can easily have a reasonable food bill and still eat paleo.

I decided to see if I could put together a delicious paleo menu for a week without breaking the bank.

First off, I didn’t go to lots of local grocery stores, small markets, and the massive bulk-buying warehouses to determine how to save every penny possible. I did the easiest thing possible: I went to the local supermarket, determined a menu based on the full price of each food item, and came up with the best ways possible to lower the cost of food. If I can do it this way, then anyone can. I believe that’s the most important aspect of this challenge, making it something anyone can do, otherwise you might throw your hands up in the air and say, “I don’t have a Sam’s Club/local Greek market/supermarket discount chain near me, guess I can’t do this!”

I’m also going to point out how this compares cost-wise to the standard American diet (SAD) on a budget. The end result might surprise you.

Let’s start off with some background: I live in the greater Boston area and shop at Star Market on Mount Auburn St in Cambridge, MA. For those not familiar with the area, it’s about a mile and a half from Harvard University.

Star Market Cambridge Mount Auburn Street

The cost of living index for food here is about 20% higher than the national average, so keep that in mind when I list food prices. I’m also going to round food prices to the nearest dime.

Now, about me? I’m 6′ tall and I weigh around 175-180 lbs. This is based on a close approximation of what I’d eat in a given week if I were going to eat 3 meals a day. I’m not going to factor in eating more from working out, 16-24 hour fasts, or eating out, things I do every single week. We’re keeping it simple.

For breakfast let’s stick with simplicity: 5 egg omelet with spinach. Eggs looked like the cheapest source of protein and I usually aim for 30g+ of protein out of breakfast, so 5 eggs/day it is. I add spinach for it’s nutritional value, it’s deliciousness, and the fact that we’re going to buy leafy spinach instead of the frozen stuff so we can make a few salads and munch on greens for other meals.

The cheapest eggs I found were $2.20/dozen, which was actually less per egg than buying a carton of 18. Sometimes buying “bulk” isn’t the better option! A 10 oz bag of store-brand loose leaf spinach was $2, and we’re going to get a lot out of that single bag. Breakfast for the week just cost us $8.60, a mere $1.23 per day, and we’ll have lots of spinach for a few salads.

For lunch and dinner we’re going to create a few different meals so we don’t end up eating the same things every single day. That’s another thing I do – I eat the same lunch almost every day. Not for this experiment! Paleo has a lot of room for variety.

First thing we’re going to do is buy a 5 lb chicken and roast it in the oven. Store-brand chicken is the cheapest at $1.60/lb, so a 5 lb bird will be $8. We’ll get leftovers out of some of what we’re going to do with the chicken, and from this point on I’m going to start breaking costs down in terms of how much each meal would be.

When we’re done roasting the chicken we’ll have about 2.5 lbs of lean meat and 1.5 lbs of bones, so we’ll say each lb of chicken cost us $2. Let’s take the bones and make some chicken stock! Cook the bones in 4 quarts of water and add an onion ($1) and a pound of frozen vegetables ($1.50-1.80: we’ll call it $1.60 for simplicity’s sake). Out of this magical concoction we should get enough stock for 18 good-sized portions when we make our soup. Cost: $0.31 per serving.

To make the hearty soup, mix 1.5 lb of the cooked chicken and 1.5 lb of mixed frozen veggies in with 1/3 of the stock. We now have a hearty and delicious soup to eat any time for only $1.21 per bowl.

We still have 1 lb of chicken and enough spinach for about 3 salads. We’ll pick up 3 plum tomatoes ($0.50 apiece, estimated) and use some oil and vinegar we’d have in the kitchen for a simple dressing. Since we’ve already factored in the cost of the spinach with breakfast, the other ingredients cost a mere $1.17, and it’s the perfect lunch to take to work a few days this week.

For the rest of our meals the most reasonably priced meats we can get are boneless chicken thighs ($3/lb), chuck steak ($4/lb), or pork ($4/lb, variety of different cuts). Most of the time we could stock up on pork or steak when they’re on sale, but for this menu we won’t. We’re not going to buy any seafood, as the cheap stuff is often $7-8/lb unless we buy cans of tuna fish when they’re on sale for $1 apiece.

We’re also not going to buy any bacon, since it’s at least $5.50/lb and yields very little protein/lb compared to other meat.

Most of our veggies will be store-brand frozen ones, which range from $1.50 – $1.80/lb. As I said before, we’ll call it $1.60/lb to make things easier.

Our dinners will be quite simple: a 1/4 lb of meat and a 1/4 lb of veggies. It’s all about cooking them in interesting ways.

Mustard-crusted chicken, for example. A cheap paleo way to do this is to crush up some pork rinds for breadcrumbs, coat the chicken in mustard, then the rindcrumbs, and bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes on each side, along with roasting vegetables in the oven with a little olive oil and seasoning on them. Cost?

$0.75/lb of chicken, $0.25 per serving of rindcrumbs, and $0.40 per serving of veggies, totaling a mere $1.40 per meal.

Another favorite of mine: the fajita bowl! We’ll cook up 1/4 lb of steak and mix in a little diced onion and pepper (cost: $0.25) and either a few scoops of sugarless salsa ($0.25 for a double serving) or if you’re feeling like a moneybags add 1/4 of an avocado ($2/avocado). It ends up costing only $1.50 – $1.75 per fajita bowl.

Most anything else you cook within these basic ingredients will cost about $1.15 – $1.50 per meal.
I’m going to add one last thing to the week’s menu: a stick of butter for cooking, $1/stick. I use it for my eggs when I don’t have any animal fat to cook them in.

How much does eating this way cost? Let’s add it all up. Breakfast is $8.60 for the week with some leftover spinach. We’ll have soup 4 times, 3 salads, and mix up other meals that’ll cost around $1.40 each. And a stick of butter. Add it all up and you get… $27.75 for the week.

That’s right. Under $30.

How much would a week eating a SAD cost? We’ll base it on something very close to what I ate before I changed my diet.

Let’s say the person eats the following for breakfast: store-brand bran cereal, needing half a box each week ($1.20/wk), with some toast ($0.10/slice of store-brand bread), a glass of OJ ($2.50/wk) and milk for the cereal ($2.80/gal, 1% of course, the rest to be consumed as part of a “healthy” dinner).

Lunch: sandwiches, of course, and we’re buying the super-cheap bologna for $4/lb ($7 total since I’d eat about 1/4 lb per sandwich). Also need a healthy snack, so an inexpensive $3 bag of pretzels will do.

Dinner: pasta ($0.15/serving) with sauce ($0.25/serving) for 3 nights with small amounts of ground beef and veggies added in ($0.80 total) for $1.20 per meal. Breaded chicken and veggies 3 more nights at $1.40 per meal. One night we’ll splurge and have a 1/3 lb steak with a baked potato, clocking in at $1.83 for the ultimate in American cuisine.

Oh, and a stick of butter to cook stuff in.

The SAD for the week would cost… $27.83.

Absolutely no cost savings at all.

Remember, this is a comparison of how I eat now and how I used to eat, and I felt it would not be fair to cut out any food items just because I could save a few dollars. If I took something out I probably would replace calories with something else, and then it’s no longer an accurate comparison.

Paleo is not just for people making big bucks. It can be a simple and inexpensive way to eat better without a lot of extra effort.


Thanks, Jonathan, and keep 'em coming, folks!

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