Is it Really More Expensive to Eat Healthy Foods?

Friday night I watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution for the first time. Let me just say, I’m sad I missed pretty much the entire season. What an eye opener!

For those who haven’t watched, a (very) quick synopsis of the show is that Jamie Oliver is out to change the school menus in the unhealthiest town in the United States. Out with processed foods and in with whole foods.

fruits

Anyway, on Friday night one scene showed Jamie Oliver in a school district freezer, talking to the district employee about excess processed food. The freezer was a HUGE room, filled with chicken nuggets and frozen french fries. The the district employee revealed that she had just ordered another year’s worth of processed foods. The reason? It was much cheaper to buy processed foods than whole foods.

I absolutely believe that’s true for a school district. I’m sure there are huge discounts on processed foods for schools, because school kids who eat processed foods will grow up to be adults who eat processed foods. It’s big business.

But is it true for everyday families? Is it really cheaper to eat processed foods than whole foods? I believe the answer is yes…and no.

On the one hand, a person can score free groceries by combining sales and coupons on processed foods. One search of the internet will reveal hundreds of stories of people buying $200 worth of groceries for $30. You just can’t do that if you’re only buying whole foods.

On the other hand, without using coupons, I’m not sure processed foods are less expensive. Frugality is usually a time-money tradeoff, and taking the time to prepare food from scratch will generally save at least a little money.

Locally grown produce in season will generally be less expensive (and more fresh) than produce that’s been shipped thousands of miles from Chile out of season. That’s even more true, if you take the time to pick it yourself from a local farm.

The big exception is meat. Free range, grass fed, all natural meat is usually a lot more expensive than chicken and beef that are mass raised and processed. Even then, though, sometimes you can find exceptions. I stopped at a grocery store in Salem on Friday to pick up a few things for our trip home, and the guy in front of me was buying whole, free-range chickens for less than a dollar a pound. And my brother told me that he recently found free range, organic chicken breasts on sale for less than their mass-produced counterparts. But that’s the exception, rather than the rule. I’m hoping to see change in the coming years, though.

Now that our homeschool is out for the summer, I’m planning on getting into a “make it from scratch” routine to move us away from processed foods and toward whole foods. I figure if I can set down a good routine during the summer, it will be easier to keep up with the cooking and baking while I’m teaching. You can bet I’ll be looking for every cost-saving measure available to those who want to eat healthier.

It is a sad commentary on society that it costs less to eat things that will destroy our health than to eat things that will encourage health. But in the long run, it’s probably less expensive to splurge on the good food than to pay the medical bills for diabetes and heart disease, stemming from years of unhealthy eating.

What do you think? Can you eat well on a tight grocery budget? Do you have any tips for doing so?

Photo by mnapoleon.



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By , on Apr 26, 2010
Lynnae McCoy I'm Lynnae, wife of one and stay-at-home mom of two. I'm committed to getting out of debt by being frugal with my choices in life.

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{36 Comments}

  1. Heather E. Sedlock:

    I believe this myth gained ground with the induction of eating “organic”. One can still eat more healthy, less processed foods and skip the “organic” label. eating from scratch will always be cheaper, per person, per serving, than eating out, eating pre-prepared meals, and so on. For instance, one of my favorite meals is the Hungryman’s boneless fried chicken. Comes with a breast of chicken, fake taters, corn and a small square of brownie. I paid $2.98 for it, each (and bought four). It takes 45 minutes in my oven.

    I made the same meal, from scratch, and in the same time. Difference? It cost me $1.18 per person, per serving.

    There are ways to make this type of eating even less expensive: buy fresh fruit and veggies that are in season. If you want a type of fruit or veggie that is not in season, buy it frozen or canned: it’s still healthier. Buy the fruit packed in water.

    There are tons more ways of eating healthy on a budget. I was able to maintain a healthy eating lifestyle while receiving foodstamps, after my first husband passed away and I had no income at all.

    Also, you will end up eating more often when eating healthy because our bodies are made to digest this food and does it easily. There are healthy and cheap ways to snack too, and this website really does a great job of showing you how:

    Link to Quick and Healthy Snacks

  2. Trying Hard:

    We have been eating healthier for the past month. Our grocery bill has gone from $125/wk to $200/wk for my husband and me (and 3 cats).
    I am eating much healthier, have lost 10 pounds, have dropped my total cholesterol by 20 points, and feel better. But I am hungrier all the time, I eat every 2-3 hours, and the cost of food is killing our budget. The fat we used to eat would keep us fuller longer and was much cheaper. But it wasn’t healthy for us, and we knew it. Now we need to find the balance so we don’t go broke!!
    We grocery shop two to three times a week. We buy fresh fruits and vegetables for every meal. We avoid eating a lot of rice and pasta, which is cheaper, but we have had problems with portion control of carbs. We also only buy whole grains, which is more expensive than their white flour counterparts. We cook all of our meals and bring lunches to work. We buy whole foods that we break down, not pre-packaged fruit servings or vegetables.
    Farmer’s markets are only in the summer (June, July, August, September) and are MUCH more expensive than the grocery store. FoodShare is cheaper, but you don’t know what you’ll get from the farmers every week.
    I don’t know how much longer we will be able to keep up the added costs and where we will have to make compromises, but it is DEFINITELY more expensive to eat food that is good for you.

  3. Mason:

    We’re personally making the switch to whole foods (not the store, the type of food). We’ve done a lot of reading and are finding out a lot about the value of this type of diet. At first glance, it does seem much more expensive but there are also many ways to reduce these expenses, which we’ll be exploring as we move forward. The point I wanted to make was from a book I just finished called “In Defense of Food” by Michael Pollan. He claims that, in 1960 Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food and and 5.2 percent of the national income on health care but that we now spend 9.9 percent of our income on food and 16 percent of the national income is spent on health care. This seems to say that eating well will end up less expensive over the long term… and you may not have to be sick as much!

  4. Cindy:

    I have found that health food specialty stores (ie. Whole Foods) have better than Wal-Mart prices on some things and over the top prices on others. You just have to know your price. I buy a lot of bulk grains, nuts and seeds from local stores specializing in emergency preparedness and storage (I live in Utah, it’s almost a hobby for some people). Most bulk grains are less than a $1/lb so I soak and sprout a lot of these. Raw vegan author Ani Phyo has taught me a lot about the flexibility of soaked whole grains. The packaged foods in health stores have much simpler ingredients that you can experiment with at home. Contributing your own labor and creativity instead of paying someone else for it is always rewarding.

  5. When my child was ill, he had a hollow bone in his leg, we did 80 percent raw fruits and vegetables. He got well. My husband asked one day how much more buying sprouts was costing. It was 30 a month vs 3 if I could sprout them myself. For that much savings, he found time to water and harvest them. It did not take so much time as remembering to rinse them. I was too ill myself and frazzled to keep up with kids and sprouts.

  6. When taking a long-term view, its cheaper to eat healthy than eat unhealthy.

    I could swing by the drive through and order a meal off the value menu for $4.00, and my hunger is satisfied. Or, I could prepare a quick dinner at home using fresh ingredients, heavy on veggies, whole grains, and lean proten – and spend $7.00. Over the course of a year, that’s $1,095 extra spend on dinners at home vs. convenient fast food.

    Wait, some may say: doesn’t that fly in the face the argument?

    No, not really in my opinion. I feel that this difference is minimal. Taken over 20 years, I will ONLY spend $22,000 more by using healthy foods at home, vs fast food for dinner. Think about it, isn’t that a great deal? Wouldn’t you spend $22,000 more over 20 years for healthy food vs quick, convenient food? I would!

    After 20 years, that unhealthy food will cause you a ton of health problems. You will gain weight, damage your arteries, lose a lot of energy, and maybe feel bad about how you “let yourself go”. More importantly, the quality of your life and possibly your lifespan will be lessened.

    I would pay $22,000 over 20 years to have a longer, happier, more active life! To me, its worth the investment. And besides, from a strictly financial point of view, the problems you have with your health by eating poorly will end up costing you in terms of health care bills AND the lost ability to be active and work.

  7. etinca:

    Oh, yeah. The school lunch issue. If you can buy a year’s worth of food that can be frozen or refrigerated, especially in the volume schools use, then fo course you’re getting a bulk rate. School cafeterias also get food commodities at a subsidized rate (dairy, for example, will keep for a long time, but the commodities in storage have to be replenished & turned over for incoming new, so the schools are a good place to accomplish that). The federal school lunch program actually has very strict requirements on content, serving size, etc., but err too much in getting processed high density items that only need to be heated up or thrown together rather than actually creating a dish from scratch. Like the difference between a restaurant with a chef & one with a cook & a microwave or oven that pulls things out of the freezer.

  8. etinca:

    I found that once we got stocked up on spices/seasonings, buying unprocessed food to cook is much less expensive. One way to save is to not automatically go for, say, a specific variety of apples. There are a lot of tasty varieties & I’m finding that usually one is a lot cheaper than the other each week – so within the varieties we like, I can select the best price. Or lettuce – the pricing on that is very inconsistent, and often the prewashed/bagged is cheaper than by the head. We’ve found that a whole organically grown chicken, while expensive compared to other whole chickens, is less per pound than individual chicken pieces (especially breasts), & this works for us because we actually eat the entire chicken. But if I can get chicken pieces in bulk for a deal, I’ll buy them. It’s all about individual choices & priorities, but I would encourage anyone to try a couple of weeks of just buying food to be prepared & then compare those grocery bills to your usual one, to see for yourself (just be sure to subtract the cost of all the non-grocery items you might be purchasing at the same time).

  9. I recently switched from processed foods to cooking fresh produce/meat at home. Literally, we went through our cupboards and got rid of everything that was processed junk and then throughout the month bought all new ingredients based on the recipes we were cooking that day.

    The transition has been very expensive but as we cook at home more frequently, our restaraunt spending is decreasing in proportion, so our overall bill has only risen slightly over the course of the month. Sure, we aren’t eating out as often and we are cooking almost every night (other nights are leftovers) but we are eating healthy, fresh foods.

    In the past month, I have lost about 9 pounds by changing my diet and exercising. I am not overweight but I was starting to some padding on my belly…I’d rather have a 6 pack, so that is what I am working on.

    I have been tracking my food spending for the past couple of months and discuss my diet and fitness progress over at my blog, Hundred Goals. I recommend that you check it out so you can track my progress and how much it costs (in real dollars, for 2 people) to eat healthy. We have not entirely eliminated junk food, or eating out but we are working to cut back, a lot. It is a journey and I hope what I am working on will help to motivate others to make the changes in their own life.

    PS- I love Jamie Oliver’s show. Have you watched his speech on TED? It is pretty good. I posted a link on my Facebook page if you want to check it out.

  10. Loved, Loved, LOVED that show! Watched it from the very beginning and it was a real eye-opener! Glad my kids were home-schooled and ate home-cooked than processed. We always have fruits of an assorted kind on hand and I’ve found that food is cheaper to make and cook from scratch and it tastes better. I like to know what we’re eating. Another good book is Food Rule by Michael Pollan. It’s a very quick read and basic but makes a lot of sense.
    Great post!

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