Switching from conventional foods to more whole foods is always a tradeoff — in terms of convenience, cost, and time.
Foods fall on a matrix in one or more of four categories:
You can have food that is one or more of these things:
Processed and packaged foods usually score high on convenience, and they might also hit the tasty and inexpensive marks (depending on what it is). But rarely do processed foods win out when it comes to nutrition.
So if you're transitioning to whole foods, you usually have to let one or more elements go. Some people might sacrifice convenience and prepare more meals from scratch, including taking the time to soak and cook dried beans and grains, for instance. Some people might sacrifice in terms of cost and pay a lot more for foods that are relatively healthful but still convenient, such as all the packaged organic and natural foods that line the shelves of places like Whole Foods. Some people might even sacrifice taste and consign themselves to foods they don't like that meet their other criteria.
But I'd say by far that in our transition to whole foods, we had to compromise on cost and convenience the most.
Foods with fewer ingredients cost more (once you factor in how much of them you need to cobble together a full meal), and it takes longer to prepare them.
At first glance, it might not seem like individual whole foods are that expensive or inconvenient. For instance, an apple (at least here in Washington state) can be all four things — only, its lack of expense is belied by the fact that you'd need to eat a lot of apples a day to fill you up, and eating so much of the same thing would compromise your nutritional component. So you'll want to combine that apple with other ingredients to make a fulfilling meal. Ideally, then, you're buying the apple plus other produce, protein sources, and perhaps further ingredients, and buying all of that fresh and local can really eat up a food budget.
The whole costs of whole foodsFirst, the bad news. If you're used to eating boxed pasta with jarred sauce or frozen chicken nuggets and frozen fries and store-bought ketchup, then definitely switching cold-turkey to eating only foods with six or fewer ingredients is going to be a shock.
For cost, those boxed and canned and frozen meals are more likely to go on sale and have coupons apply. If you start shopping the outer rim of the grocery store when you're used to the middle, your bill is almost certain to go up — substantially — particularly if you prioritize the most healthful items in that ring (such as if you're seeking out grass-fed beef, raw dairy, and organic produce). I know there are tips and tricks to get around the budget busters, but the fact remains: For us, it was a lot cheaper to eat processed foods, especially when we're factoring in shopping convenience — going to one store only, buying whatever was on sale, and not having to manage a garden, a co-op share, a trip to the natural foods store, a visit to a you-pick farm, a negotiation with a local farmer for meat, a trip to a neighbor's to score some eggs, etc.
For convenience, Sam's (and my) time in the kitchen skyrocketed the more we prioritized less processed foods. Especially when Sam was experimenting with recipes and trying to get just the right formula, he would spend several hours a day in the kitchen, taking away from whatever he would otherwise have been doing: hanging out with the kids, hanging out with me, working on projects, working on work. It was time-consuming, and anything that consumes time means saying no to something else. I've also already pointed out the lack of shopping convenience — all the research into what to buy now and where best to source it, and then scurrying around to obtain it all.
The long-term perspectiveBut now for the good news. The longer we've been at this, the more it's become second nature. Plus, we've created our own strategies to minimize the effects on our budget and our time.
Now that Sam isn't constantly experimenting, he's got some recipes down cold and can whip them up in a flash. Other things he makes in bulk to be doled out over several days from the fridge, or over a longer period of time in the freezer. For instance, he freezes our paleo cookie dough so he can bake up a batch when we need some, and he refrigerates taco meat to have cabbage-based taco salads that are easy to throw together for a quick meal. He often pre-chops the cabbage and other veggies that we like to have on hand and pre-shreds the cheese, so it requires more upfront effort than opening a bag of chips or shredded cheese, but then afterward is the same level of convenience at meal assembly. If he makes deviled eggs, he makes a lot, and we feast on them that week!
We've all adjusted to the time needed to prepare and shop for whole foods, and it doesn't seem as much like a burden now.
Budget-wise, there are still areas we could be a lot tighter, and I know there are a lot of tips out there. (Check out our recent writing prompt and linky on the subject.) But we're feeling our way and are in a position right now where we feel comfortable and able to spend more on higher quality food. This is a decision I don't make for anyone else, but one I recommend growing into if it's possible and if it feels right for your family and your finances. For us, it helped to change one element at a time rather than go whole hog into ALL TEH ORGANICZ! (Sorry, channeling lolcats there.) We first swapped out our milk for organic after watching a horrifying documentary about conventional practices. We switched back for awhile due to budget restraints, but it was a priority for us to go back to organic once we could afford to, and so we did. Concerned about chicken welfare, we went for cage-free eggs next, and much later to certified humane ones. (I want to give Eggzy a shot soon — I learned about it because it's one of our NPN sponsors.) We next moved to local, hormone-free cheese. Later, we occasionally bought organic thin-skinned fruit, and that became more consistent as we processed through the sticker shock. (It still pains me to see the price differences; it really does.) We even started buying other organic and local produce to support those businesses. Just recently we've been mixing in more and more grass-fed, local, and free-range meats, though not across the board because of the price. I'd love to have a share of a whole animal, but we have no room for a deep freeze.
My point is that if ten years ago (or even two years ago) you'd told me, Switch all your purchases from store-brand packaged foods plus supplemental conventional produce, meat, and dairy that's on sale over to all low-ingredient, whole, organic, and natural foods, I'd have recoiled from the idea. No way could I ever spend so much time and money on food! But when the changes happen gradually over time, you adapt your budget and kitchen time to meet the demands as you're able.
If you're in the mood to share, tell me where you're at in your whole-foods journey and a little about your process along the way.