How to eat healthy — and on budget — despite soaring food costs

Can't stomach the thought of paying more for groceries? Food industry experts and dieticians share their tips for eating well — and on budget — even as the weakening loonie sends Canadian food prices skyward.

Whole foods can be turned into countless different meals, experts say

Canadians should opt for frozen fruit and vegetables instead of their fresh counterparts in order to stay on budget as grocery costs continue to rise, experts suggest. (Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

The sliding Canadian dollar has become true dinner table conversation as it pushes the cost of what's on your plate ever skyward.

The effects of climate change on crop yields, currency fluctuations and other factors will add an extra $345 to the average household's annual grocery and restaurant bill, according to a forecast from the University of Guelph's Food Institute.

CBC Forum on rising food prices

"We have to get back to the way our grandparents dealt with life. Grow what you can, preserve it and unfortunately, fresh fruit in the winter is becoming a luxury." — a comment from Kim Heffernan ​​on the CBC Forum chat on rising food prices. Read the full discussion here.

But although that would bring that type of household spending up to $8,631, food distribution analysts and dieticians promise there are still ways to stick to a grocery budget — and a healthy diet.

Registered dietitian Andrea Miller suggests families expand their palates by choosing seasonal, and different, vegetables like cabbage to keep bills steady.

Seasonal vegetables are cheaper, because of the lower transportation costs — which is why root vegetables like turnips, parsnips, onions and carrots are still relatively affordable.

"You can buy less expensive cuts of meat, which may not be as tender, and then add these winter types of vegetables to make a stew in the slow cooker," the Whitby, Ont., dietician said. "And then make sure to freeze the rest for another meal or take it for lunch the next day."

Choose frozen veggies, not canned

Fruit and vegetables are an essential part of your diet, but because their prices are so vulnerable to the weather and the dollar, Miller recommends choosing frozen or fresh varieties. Vegetables are flash-frozen almost as soon as they're harvested, which means they have the same nutrients as their fresh counterparts, Miller said.

All that — and for half the price.

Canned goods, however, don't give you the same nutritional bang for your buck, she said.

"They're not terrible if you're selective."

Canned tomatoes and legumes are great, she said, as long you choose those without added salt. But other canned vegetables don't have the same nutritional value — and they're also likely high in sodium, she said.

The creator of Good and Cheap, a free, budget-friendly, e-cookbook, keeps her fridge and pantry filled with the staples she recommends in the book that became a viral sensation.

Most of that includes natural foods: flour, fruit, vegetables and more. Rather than buying a "box of pancake mix" that can only be used for one thing, Leanne Brown suggests buying whole foods than can be turned into countless different meals.

"Something that I really recommend for people is eggs," she said. "It's classic and beautiful and delicious — and it's useful in so many different ways."

Jars holding beans, oats and other staples line Brown's pantry, things she can combine with leftover veggies or protein for a cheap and healthy meal.

"I have a lot of things for flavour around. I have chili paste and soy sauce and a good thing of dijon mustard so that I can always make a dressing really quickly," she said. "I like to have those sorts of things that can last for a really long time, but also have a great deal of flavour ... to make dried goods or other basic fruits or vegetables kind of sing."

Food shortages

Long-range solutions to food security in Canada, however, go beyond individual choices.

Some of the changes may need to happen in agribusiness and food production, University of Guelph professor Sylvain Charlebois said.

Right now, Canada imports more than 80 per cent of its fruit and vegetables each year, the majority of which comes from the U.S., according to the University of Guelph's 2016 Food Price Report.

"Importers are going to play a cat and mouse game," the food distribution professor said. "They'll be very careful, they'll be shopping around, they'll try to keep more suppliers in their books than ever before."

That will likely translate into some food shortages for Canadian consumers. If people won't buy $8 cauliflowers, grocers will drop their prices to get rid of what they have, and won't keep them in stock, Charlebois said.

Technically, it will save people money in the short term as grocers offload extra produce, but shortages of tomatoes, lettuce and various berries could become common if the dollar stays around $0.70 US this winter, the distribution expert said.

"You are dealing with perishable products and the last thing retailers want is excess inventory that isn't moving."

Investment opportunity

The floundering loonie could, however, be an opportunity for investment in Canadian food production, Charlebois said, something that would make the country less vulnerable to things like the 10-per-cent price jump seen in imported pasta and other processed goods this year.

Those spikes come amid Statistics Canada's release Friday, which found that food prices in December 2015 increased at 3.7 per cent in a year's time — or more than double the 1.6 per cent rate of overall inflation.

"A weaker loonie builds a stronger case for more processing in our country," Charlebois said. "If we are to talk about food sovereignty we cannot decouple agricultural output with food processing capacity — they go together."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?