Why Healthy Food Isn’t a Budget Item in our House


As I’ve written before, in our household, health and nutrition are not my departments. That’s not to say that I don’t take an interest in these things, but when we got this house and especially when Egg came along we had to streamline our division of labour for household responsibilities and the lady of the house had more enthusiasm and skill for meal planning, so that portfolio went to her. This means that I only cook once in a while (not as often as I’d like) and while I will pick up a few odds and ends from the market every once in a while, I very seldom go along for a major grocery shop anymore.

So a couple of weeks ago when the Mrs. asked me for a little inter-departmental cooperation in doing a good-sized shopping trip to Loblaws, I was happy to oblige. It may not be my department, but I know the ropes. Going back to the Mrs.’ enthusiasm for nutrition, it has always been a big priority that we consume nothing but the very best. This means that basically all the produce (or at the very least the Dirty Dozen highest pesticide-loaded foods) we eat is organic and that the animal products we use are ideally organic, hormone-free and from animals treated as humanely as possible. The closer this stuff is produced to our home, the better, and we will always choose a small business producer over a giant. While these were originally her priorities, they have become values that I am fully on board with and actually hold dear.

But holy shit, it’s expensive.

See, budgeting and financial planning are my departments, and my little field trip to Loblaws forced me to confront a major blindspot in my duties. Month-to-month we get by just fine, but there are always a number of items in the budget that we would like to get to or feel we ought to get to and don’t. I knew our food grocery costs were probably higher than they could be but holy shit. My partner had been operating off the books, like some kind of CIA black operation racking up huge costs in a jungle somewhere. Ten dollars for a bag of organic apples? A little box of mixed nuts for $15?! WTF! With every item that I picked up, my head spun faster and faster thinking that she was out spending this much money every week. I left the store much lighter in the pocket, feeling shell-shocked.

In a bit of very coincidental timing, that was the same afternoon that a friend shared this article from The Atlantic, titled “Why So Many Rich Kids Come to Enjoy the Taste of Healthier Foods.”  There’s lots of good stuff in the article, you should read it, but generally the piece looks at a few related studies that show that the tastes for food that small kids develop tend to carry over into adolescence and adulthood. Since it can be costly to give small kids good quality veggies which they’ll often refuse to eat (one study quoted says kids may need to be exposed to new foods 8 – 15 times before they will come to accept them), lots of lower-income families stick to foods they know their kid will eat. This avoids waste, but is linked to narrower tastes later in life including an inclination towards generally less healthy foods.

Reading this, I calmed down. I had gotten over the shock of the grocery bill, and my values came back into focus. Weirdly, I remembered a line Ronald Reagan supposedly gave advisers at the Pentagon: “Defense is not a budget item. Just spend what you need.” I wouldn’t often look to Reagan for wisdom, but I think there’s definitely something to be said for a single priority that supersedes all other concerns, including fiscal prudence. This is how we think of good food, budget be damned.

Yeah, our temperamental little tyrant sure wastes a lot of very good quality food. It sucks when he decides he’s not into whatever we’re serving and goes on hunger strike until a banana or sweet potatoes are served up. It sucks that he’s started taking an interest in sharing his dinner with the dog or tossing his food right up into the air to make it rain wholesome, costly produce over the floor. But here’s what doesn’t suck: we can also already see the benefits of his diverse and healthy menu manifesting. His little hunger strikes are becoming more and more rare. This kid pops buds of cauliflower or chopped-up olives like they were candy; he scarfs down smoked beet hummus and kimchi with more open-minded adventurousness than I could muster in my twenties. In a world packed with kid’s menus pitching chicken fingers and fries, I feel like every meal he eats is preparing him for a healthier and more interesting world.

We’ll never be rich, but at least when we’re at home we can eat like rich people. We’ll never have a gigantic house or send him to the finest private schools, but I can confidently say that in all of history no pharaoh’s or emperor’s baby has had a more balanced and healthy diet than my son. I’m wary of how costs will skyrocket as this kid gets bigger and bigger, but to hell with it. Food isn’t a budget item; we’ll spend what we need.

4 responses

  1. Amazing! We’re very similar in this approach to food, but I’ve been pushing hard for more ethically raised meats, even if that means eating less meat overall. My Japanese friend always serves herself a smaller portion and then eats whatever her two girls don’t finish. I thought this was smart too, though I’m not sure how polite it is to scarf down the mush your baby has squeezed through his fingers and spit up again. We’ve decided being rich has nothing to do with having stuff. It’s all about spirit and quality of life. You guys are awesome parents!

    • Thanks Cat!!
      Agreed – portion control is more than just a good form of cost control. I wrestle with the ethics of using animal products more and more lately, and while I’m a long ways away from giving up on them completely, I’m getting close to the point where I’m happier to not have at all if I can’t have the stuff I feel at least decent about consuming.

  2. so I wrote a long post yesterday but it didn’t take! maybe too long? Anyway, awesome article Mike. We have the same philosophy.
    Here are some cost savings ideas:
    – a deep freezer and vacuum pack allows you to buy bulk organic fruits veggies and store
    – Costco. Yeah it’s big. But they have a lot of great organic staples, like Nutiva cocunut oil, for waaaay cheaper than buying in smaller quantities at small stores. same brands often.
    – more small fruit veggies stores are offering organic items, often cheaper than all organic stores
    – grow sprouts! Super easy, super fun, super fresh, super nutritious, super cheap
    – grow veggies, not grass. You’ll never get fresher, never cheaper]
    – eat only mulberries when they are in season. You’ll turn purple, but your financials will turn to the black 🙂

    • Sorry Jamie! I had seen this comment back when you first wrote it but apparently didn’t “approve” it for release until just now.

      Thanks so much for your feedback. Natalie is all about bargain-hunting and a has a whole circuit of shops she visits to always get the best deal. I’m a big fan of growing food not lawns, too – we doubled out garden space last year and I’m thinking about expanding vertically this year. And yeah, I think the mulberry tree should produce enough fruit to keep the kid happy and bright purple all summer.

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