Real Food: where to start

Welcome back to foodCOURT. If you haven't already, check out my first post about my approach to "real food". Hopefully something from my first post inspired you, sparked your curiosity, or at least made you think about food a bit differently.

Maybe you want to know more about how real food might work for you, or maybe you're convinced it never could. Either way, today's post gives you a place to start. Changing this aspect of your lifestyle is not always easy and my goal is to help you work through concerns you may have now and later on down the road. Today's is the first in a series of posts where I will address three common barriers to adapting a "real food" lifestyle.

First Barrier

"I can't afford to buy real food" or "Eating real food is too expensive."

So, you don't think you can afford to buy real food?

Have you heard the overused quote "If you don't make time for exercise, you must make time for illness"?

My version of this idea goes more like this: If you do not prioritize the incorporation of better quality/ real foods now, you will face sickness and chronic disease later. And between doctors visits, medications, hospital stays, and comorbidities (another condition or disease that occurs at the same time), chronic disease is not cheap.

The choices we make everyday and the consistent way in which we treat our body determines our health in the years to come. This is true at any age. Just because you are in your 20s and 30s does not mean you are immune to the physiological effects and metabolic damage of processed foods and sugar (why do you think we now see type 2 diabetes in kids?). 

If you feel unsure about your ability to purchase some higher quality real food items, complete the assignment below. We are going to work through some ways to make budget and habit adjustments.


Looking back to last Monday through Friday, write down the answers to these questions.

During those five days:

  • Did you go to happy hour? If yes, where did you go? Did you drink, eat, or both?
  • Did you purchase any alcohol at a liquor store? How many days?
  • Did you purchase coffee, tea, or a specialty coffee beverage? From where? How many days? How many times a day?
  • Did you pick up lunch on your lunch break at work/ school? From where? How many days?
  • Do you use a reusable water bottle?
  • Did you eat any meals out that were not your lunch break? How many meals? Did you order dessert?

Before we address some of your responses, here is a case study about how I analyzed and adjusted one of my habits to allow for a bigger budget towards real food.  

Case study: Courtney needs her coffee fix.

The scenario: Courtney is a graduate student and research assistant who works some really long days. She looks forward to having a coffee every morning to get her through the day. Courtney's apartment has a coffee maker but it really needs to be cleaned and that seems like too much work. She buys her coffee each morning at Wawa across the street. It is so cheap (<$2) and an easy stop as she drives to campus. Courtney is happy with her delicious, and cheap Wawa coffee. As 3:00 pm rolls around she is still hard at work, but losing focus quickly. What's the perfect afternoon pick me up? (She knows it's not something sugary :P ) Coffee! She takes a break and picks up a coffee at a local coffee shop. Some days, this drink is a cafe au lait (half coffee half steamed milk) and it will cost more than three dollars. But, it keeps her going so she doesn't feel guilty.

The facts: Courtney's coffee habit is costing roughly 20 dollars per week. That is not including the coffee she purchases on the weekend. Courtney can buy a coffee maker cleaner and a bag of ground coffee for about ten dollars. The cleaner is only needed once every few months, and the coffee will last for two to three weeks.

Coffee treat saved for a weekend walk with mom!

Coffee treat saved for a weekend walk with mom!

The results: Courtney crunches some numbers and realizes  her 20 weekly coffee dollars could be much better spent. She decides to start brewing coffee at her apartment while she gets ready and and takes it with her in her Tervis cup to keep it warm. She now has some extra money towards her grocery shopping. She saves buying coffee as a special treat when she goes out to study on the weekend. She also kicks her afternoon coffee habit; it was hurting her stomach anyway.

Brewing your own coffee and taking it on the go is a great way to save money!

Brewing your own coffee and taking it on the go is a great way to save money!

I think sometimes an honest look at our habits, that may not be bad habits at all, can be eye opening. My challenge to you is to analyze your habits. If you'd like, take your answers to the questions above and pull up your account statement in order to get a more concrete dollar amount of your weekly spending. If the cost of improving your food intake worries you, see where you might make adjustments based on your answers.


Money saving suggestions 

Here are my brief recommendations if you find that one or several habits are becoming a "money suck" :

  • Happy hour: It is great to catch up with friends and coworkers (not everyday of the week). When I go to happy hour I always look at the drink specials before I go. I also make it a point to eat a big snack or an early dinner beforehand. This allows me to focus on the conversation, rather than the three different appetizers I had to order because they were half price. Not spending on food is not a green light to spend more on drinks. Remember, this is a money saving tip.
I love trying a new cider but I limit my alcohol purchases to at most every other week.

I love trying a new cider but I limit my alcohol purchases to at most every other week.

  • Purchasing alcohol: Set a budget and don't spend more than that on alcohol each week. In this situation you're buying something that is bad for your body, so make your budget low. Don't let this habit get in the way of enjoying real food!
  • Lunch: Picking up lunch is an expensive undertaking. Pack a lunch (see a few of my packed lunches below). Perhaps treat yourself to buying lunch just one day a week (more to come when I address meal prep).
  • Water bottles: Plastic water bottles are SO expensive. Too expensive. Undo this habit immediately. Everywhere you go has a water fountain, a filling station, or a cooler so invest in a reusable water bottle that fits your needs. Plastic water bottles are killing the environment and your wallet.
A delicious Friday night dinner at one of my favorite restaurants! Steak with mushroom gravy and a twice baked potato with gouda.

A delicious Friday night dinner at one of my favorite restaurants! Steak with mushroom gravy and a twice baked potato with gouda.

  • Eating out: A night out to dinner is fine! Every day out to dinner is not. Think about it, when dining out becomes the norm, nothing is special about it anymore. Pick one dinner a week where you can relax, enjoy your food, your company and the experience of eating out. Don't order dessert. Just. Don't. Do. It. Dessert will throw your blood sugars through the roof when you're likely already satisfied or full from a delicious meal. You are better off picking up some "real ingredient" ice cream from the supermarket (Haagen-Dazs or Talenti anyone?) on your way home. Or better yet, walk around the neighborhood a bit and get dessert later somewhere else if you still really want it.

Changing one or several of these habits can free up money that you didn't realize you had. It may not seem like a lot but you can save about eight dollars by not ordering food at happy hour, dessert at dinner, or two lattes a day. This can equate to two or three additional produce items or purchasing better quality, uncured nitrite/ nitrate free bacon and deli meats. Imagine if you made one of these changes a few days a week; that might be over 20 dollars you can put towards real foods instead!


A lot of these changes may involve building a new habit. But this will enable you to lead a more consistent, healthful "real food" lifestyle.

Stay tuned for part two next week!