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Nutrition fix: the (high) cost of eating healthy

It's no secret that eating organic is expensive. Walk down the produce aisles, the differences can be striking: $2.99 for an organic bunch of carrots versus $1.99 for regular.

And that's to say nothing of organic animal products. A regular 454-gram stick of butter will put you back about $5.49 at my local grocer in Toronto, but if you want organic it's another $4 on top of that.

Adopting a largely organic diet has been a focus in my three-month challenge to improve my eating habits. Every week I spend about $30 on fresh, organic produce. Prior to making the switch, I was spending less than $10 a week on basically the same foods, just grown non-organically.

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This means I've had to learn to save money elsewhere, which is no easy feat, especially when unhealthy options (hello, fast food) are so cheap.

Prior to revamping my diet, I was an undisciplined shopper. I never went with a list and would end up buying more than I needed. Generally, I spent about $500 a month on food. In this regard, I broke Barb Holland's primary rule for managing a food budget. Holland, who has been a home economist for about 30 years, says there is really only one strategy to master: planning.

"It seems that people don't cook any more and I think that it's due to lack of planning and organization," she says.

Without planning, people fall into the trap of buying processed foods such as frozen meals, which Holland says, are not only often less nutritious, but also more expensive. Cooking with whole foods is the first step.

Over the past three months, legumes have become my best friends. Lentils, chickpeas and beans have been a staple. (They are cheap.)

Eating more legumes has also helped me accomplish two other tips of Holland's. One is making big batches of food on the days you have time and then portioning them out for the rest of the week. Often, my partner will make a massive curry or a bean salad on a Monday night, leaving leftovers for lunches.

Holland's second tip is being smart about where you shop and what you're buying at each store.

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"I watch where I shop because you really do notice a difference [in price]," she said.

My partner and I split up the shopping, but we now frequent three stores for different types of food: a bulk store, my regular big-brand grocer for specialty items and a No Frills for basics. We shop about twice a month. And when we go, we're armed with lists and end up only spending about $125. Even with the $30 a week we spend on organic produce, we are still saving nearly $100 from our monthly food budget.

But is this diet and budget sustainable over the long-run? It depends on time. The weeks we have time to cook, the healthier we eat and the less we spend. This is especially true when we incorporate one or two vegetarian meals a week. But finding the time to cook and plan out meals is key.

Some weeks are too busy and we end up grabbing dinner out two or three times. Those are the weeks when my cash flow and calorie count are thrown out of whack.

Much like any other element of improving your lifestyle, eating well comes down to how much time you want to devote to it. When you prioritize a healthy diet, you'll accomplish it. And if you're smart about planning and types of food you buy, you don't have to spend more to eat better.

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