52 ways to save money on a healthy diet: Know the true cost of your meal

It can be surprising what are truly “frugal” choices when eating healthy. (Read the rest of this series here). There are some meals that are surprisingly expensive to make when you actually sort through the cost of each ingredient, while others (that you’d been avoiding making often because of concern over the cost) really aren’t that expensive once you figure out the true cost of the meal.

Are my vegetarian meals always cheaper? 
For example, a general “rule” that is often paraded about is that a meat-free meal will save you money. A meat-free meal can be very frugal (and we like many vegetarian meals ourselves), but it certainly isn’t as clear-cut as that. And, wow, if I bought regular grocery store meat, I could really make some inexpensive meals!

I used to serve at least one vegetarian meal a week “to save money” for dinner. However, one week when grocery shopping (using my cash only system with a calculator on hand), I realized that the organic beans and nuts that my “vegetarian” dinner called for were actually more expensive then the grass-fed ground beef in my freezer and even the very high-quality ground beef found at the meat counter. I changed my meal plan. I can make some mean vegetarian meals, but they, to my surprise, aren’t always my cheapest meals.

Now, beans can make a wonderful, frugal protein-filled meal (if you handle them okay). We are real fans of lentils…and black beans…and chickpeas. To keep things truly frugal, I buy the non-specialty lentils (like red lentils or brown), rather then the fairly expensive French ones, and avoid other specialty beans, most of the time.

Is my oatmeal breakfast really cheaper than other options? 
A friend mentioned that when she actually figured out which breakfasts were cheaper for her to make at home, she found that her oatmeal breakfast (with pure maple syrup, a dab of pastured butter, and raw milk, Nourishing Traditions-style) was actually more expensive then her homemade whole grain soaked muffins. She had assumed that her muffins were more expensive since they seemed more decadent, but in reality her oatmeal was one of the most expensive things on her breakfast menu plan!

Cost of Kerrygold butter compared to coconut oil 
Another example is the cost of pantry/refrigerator items. I have always assumed that my pastured, Kerrygold butter was one of the more expensive fat or oil items in my pantry, so would choose to melt coconut oil rather than butter for muffins, pancakes, and other projects. However, that’s not always true!

Here is some of the cost per ounce of the fats/oils I like to use:

  • Kerrygold from Costco at $2.33 for 8 oz.: $.29 an ounce (best price I’ve ever found)
  • From Trader Jo’s at $2.99 for 8 oz.: $.37 an ounce
  • Organic Olive Oil: I try to buy from US olive oil farms and I feel like I am getting a STEAL when I get it for less than $.40 an ounce. I see many brands of olive oil for over $1.00 an ounce.
  • Nutiva Coconut oil from my Costco (the very best price I’ve found): $ .28 an ounce
  • Nutiva coconut oil from Amazon.com: When bought at the current price for the 54-ounce container, $ .49 an ounce
  • Tropical Traditions Organic Gold Label Coconut oil bought at current price in gallon size: $.58 an ounce

As you can see, my Kerrygold butter and coconut oil are very similar in price when bought at my Costco (here is my current Costco Price List, prices and availability vary), but other choices, like the Tropical Traditions coconut oil, can make a significant different in cost, making even my Trader Jo butter much cheaper in cost.

What is the leftover potential of that meal? 
One more point that could be valuable when considering the true cost of a meal is this: What is the leftover potential of a meal? One night I might make rice, a vegetable, and a slab of wild salmon. That salmon was expensive, pushing this meal into the more expensive category. However, when I can make a second dinner using leftover rice, flaked leftover salmon, bacon bits, green onions and peas, I am cutting the cost of the meal almost in half, because I don’t have to buy much for dinner the next day. Organic/free-range chickens are expensive, but the extra meat can be stretched into other meals, and the carcass made into nourishing broth, making more meals possible. Using leftovers effectively is something that deserves its own post, but the point is this, the true cost of a meal also takes into account leftover potential of a meal.

Of course, frugality isn’t the only thing we are considering when meal planning. There are many lovely reasons to consider having coconut oil a part of your diet, even if pastured butter can be just as cheap, if not cheaper. But when considering how to cut corners between equally nourishing meals, taking the time to really figure out the true cost of a meal can make a big difference in your budget in the end.

It can take a little time to figure out the cost of each of your ingredients (but if you keep a master list of them, it will be fast in the end to figure out the cost of a recipe), so I’d suggest figuring out some of your basic, most frequently used ingredients, and then your favorite, weekly used recipes. You might find some surprises in what is truly frugal on your menu!

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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  1. Ellen says

    Such a good point.

    Produce where we live is very expensive. We love to eat a lot of it, but I have definitely found that meals which have us filling up on produce are more pricey than those which involve a big chunk of meat to help with the ‘filling’. Eating meatless meals doesn’t make much of a difference in our grocery budget… except to sometimes push it up!

    The takeaway? Be aware. And I appreciate that reminder!

  2. Karen says

    Have you been able to find coconut oil online for less then 40 cents per oz? My son is allergic to dairy so I use coconut oil in everything. Amazon has the best price as far as I can tell.

    • KimiHarris says

      The above prices are pretty typical of Amazon. I find that the prices vary from month to month, though. 🙂

    • Stacy says

      Try Vitacost.com. I order my coconut oil from there in 54oz jars (Vitacost brand, extra-virgin certified organic, it has GREAT ratings). There are usually deals (right now it’s save 15%). The cost of 54oz is $21.49, or .40/oz right now, and that is pretty typical. Vitacost is my source of great prices on a lot of gluten-free food and supplements as well. Sometimes sales in local stores bring the price of things lower than Vitacost, but in general Vitacost saves me a lot of money and has good availability. Shipping is free over $49, which is an easy target to reach if you purchase supplements or food items.

      • Jean Bowman says

        Check Drvita.com for 54 oz. Nutiva coconut oil. Free shipping. Don’t forget the Nutiva Coconut Manna for a tasty treat. I purchase oil directly from Nutiva in 5 gallon buckets.

  3. Pippi says

    Great point about the chicken! I gulp every time I spend $25 on a chicken (food is WAY more expensive in Canada!) but then I remember it feeds 4 of us for dinner one night, 4 of us for dinner the next night, and makes soup for at least one more night. That’s 12 meals! And only about $2 of meat per meal. That’s really not that bad.

  4. Candace says

    Pippi, I would love to hear how you stretch a chicken that far. How wonderful! I feel like my husband and I demolish a whole chicken at one dinner, maybe with a bit leftover for lunch, then it becomes broth/soup.

    • Brittany says

      I’m not sure how Pippi does it, but I can tell you how it goes at our house. The biggest savings is that I don’t actually serve the whole roast chicken for a meal. (We have a family of 6, and I’m the only female. 🙂 My carnivores would take out a whole chicken in a heartbeat!) Instead, I roast it in the crockpot, then pull the meat from the bones all at once. This shredded chicken goes into soups, salads, casseroles, stir fries, etc. in 1-2 cup increments. This usually makes 4-6 dinners for us, depending on what I’m making. Plus I like to make enough for dinner that we can eat leftovers for lunch. The bones go into the stockpot to make chicken broth, which accounts for even more meals. Hopefully that helps!

  5. Mrs. Nancy Bowman says

    Hi, Candace,
    I’m from Canada, too, so can relate all too well to the price differences between us neighbours. Our family of eight eats most of an 8 lb chicken (give or take a pound) for supper, then I save one (plump) breast for a lunch, which may be fried rice, or chicken salad and cheese on naan, and we still have the carcass for soup, to which I often add whatever bits I’ve hoarded in the freezer. It can be done! Granted, we don’t have any really big eaters, and we are aware that we’re not going to be able to eat it like it’s a bucket of KFC. Figure in two drumsticks, two thighs (sometimes it’s very meaty, so I remove the meat from the bones to share better), and a cut-up breast, and by the time you’ve factored in that this bird is practically a small turkey, we have sufficient. Really!

  6. says

    I agree that vegetarian meals aren’t always cheaper. We eat meatless on Mondays and/or Fridays but I usually want to make something interesting or exotic so we don’t miss the meat and those ingredients are often more expensive. You mentioned some varieties of lentils that are more expensive and I guess that’s one way I’ve saved money. It doesn’t matter what type of lentil or bean or nut is called for in the recipe, I’m going to use whichever one I have on hand subbing green lentils or pinto beans or pecans for french lentils, whatever exotic bean and pine nuts.

  7. Stacy says

    One thing to think about when purchasing beans is that they may be $2 or $2.50/lb for organic beans, but that is only 1/3 of the cooked weight. When you cook meat, and skim the fat, you actually LOSE food weight. When you cook beans and grains, you add water and double (rice/millet/quinoa) or triple (beans/lentils) the weight of the food. That $2.50 pound of beans creates up to 3 lbs. of consumable food, at a TRUE cost of only .83/lb. This is the way that I measure the cost of beans, rice, and other similar items that rehydrate during cooking. So unless you are getting your grassfed beef for truly rock-bottom prices, I beg to differ and think that beans are more economical.

    I do, however, agree with your leftovers thoughts. When I buy a chicken, I buy it with 3 meals in mind. Usually roasted chicken, then fajitas or similar, then stock for soups and such. In fact, I drew up a price list in Excel to see how much my meals were costing per serving (a true serving that we eat), and my homemade mac & cheese turned out to be the same price as grilled lamb with a fresh salad. My rock bottom meals are my bean dishes., including my favorite Italian white bean soup made with my chicken broth, cherry tomatoes, celery, olive oil, garlic and fresh baby spinach; and my Swahili beans in coconut milk over rice.

    Kimi, I’d like to note that after your recent post on sprouting lentils I have been using sprouted sprouts like crazy (I have gone through nearly 1/2C (dry) of mung bean sprouts, and just started red lentils today). I LOVE having a jar of sprouts in the fridge to throw into everything, they enhance almost all of my dinners and lunches for added protein and nutrition. It was a fun exercise with the kids too, seeing who would be the first to spy little tails on the beans. Thank you! I will only use sprouted beans and lentils in my kitchen now, though I did always use soaked-overnight in the past. I haven’t tried sprouting large beans yet, but I’ll try this week.

    • KimiHarris says

      Hey Stacy,

      Thanks for the comment! Perhaps I should have been more clear. My point wasn’t that beans aren’t more frugal, but rather that the specific dish I was going to make (with more expensive beans AND nuts – and let’s admit it, nuts are expensive), ended up being more costly then my less than $3.00 a pound ground beef. As others mentioned in this thread, sometimes we like to highly flavor our vegetarian dishes with unique spices, ingredients, etc. (which is great), but it can push the cost of them up higher than a simple meal using ground beef, rice and plain veggies.

      Like I said above, “Now, beans can make a wonderful, frugal protein-filled meal (if you handle them okay). We are real fans of lentils…and black beans…and chickpeas. To keep things truly frugal, I buy the non-specialty lentils (like red lentils or brown), rather then the fairly expensive French ones, and avoid other specialty beans, most of the time.”

      We love beans around here and I really appreciate how they can help my stretch out my meat too! They are a frugal mommy’s dream food.

      What I hope people take away from this post, is that just because a dish is “vegetarian” doesn’t mean it is cheaper. Our favorite vegetarian dishes aren’t always cheaper.

      • Stacy says

        Thanks Kimi! I agree, nuts (good nuts) are crazy expensive. I use them in moderation since I haven’t figured out the nut soaking thing and they tend to upset my stomach if I eat more than a few. I think you are right, some of my vegetarian dishes (like my mac & cheese and clam chowder – but those are my foundation “bulk cooking” dishes too that I make 4-5 meals of to freeze, so I forgive it for those two) are more expensive than my meat dishes. I’m one who needs to eat meat on a regular basis because I feel much better when I do, so I’m happy about this 🙂

  8. Liz T. says

    Thanks for the reminder! I just calculated the cost of each of our meals, and it was a huge eye-opener! Chicken always ends up being the most expensive meals, even when I can get it marked down when it’s about to expire for $1.69 a pound. Our cheapest meals, per serving, are always Mexican (mostly consisting of rice, beans, and ground beef). It’s also our favorite, so I think we’ll have to start eating it more than once a week!

  9. Terri says

    Here on the east coast we get Trader Joe’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil for $5.99 for 16 ounces. That works out to 37.5 cents per ounce. I love buying from them since they do their best to provide great products at great prices.

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