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. Brian:

    Hey! Great article. Have you ever watched the documentary “Food, Inc.”? It points out that one of the main reasons processed foods are so much cheaper is due to the government subsidies of corn and soy beans. These are in turn fed to animals (including cows, even though cows are supposed/made to eat grass) making meat production even cheaper. Just some info.

    Thanks for the article. Keep it up.

  2. Laura:

    I would have to say, after living on an EXTREMELY tight budget that it is completely possible to eat frugally AND eat healthy. My husband and I have done it for a year, and we find that when we start to buy processed foods, even with coupons, we would inevitably go over our food budget. We do stick to the outside aisles of the store, shop the sales on meat (probably the only “processed” thing we would really buy) and we could usually eat for 1-2 weeks on about $75-100 for the two of us, plus our son, who’s 3 and is extremely picky. As a matter of fact, he eats more processed food than we do, and that’s probably the only processed food we buy regularly.

    As for Jamie Oliver’s new show, I haven’t watched it, but from my understanding, the change is HUGE for the kids. I agree with those who said make things they recognize, just healthier. Instead of fried french fries, start baking them. Start substituting sweet potatoes instead of white ones (one of our favorites!) and bake those fries. Use chicken breast and coat the “nuggets” in whole wheat flour and bake them. Then the kids are still getting chicken nuggets (something they are familiar with) but it’s not a HUGE change (baked fish instead).

    I lost 90 pounds last year eating healthy on a tight budget – trust me, it can be done! Simple substitutions and watching portion sizes are key, and one of my trainers said, “eat foods with one ingredient.” It makes life simpler in some respects (healthier foods) and more complicated in others (you actually have to THINK about what to do with it). Overall, it’s completely worth it.

  3. We all know that no matter how cheap processed food is, it will cost more in the long run when you look at your increased medical bills and insurance.

    I am vegetarian so I think my whole food diet is much cheaper than processed and I get round the time factor by cooking in batches for the most part and I have a few quick and healthy meals in my arsenal.

    For example if I want a flat bread, I have the dough made ready in the fridge. I roll it out and it takes 30 seconds each side to cook… just add egg, beans, whatever you want and that is a fairly instant lunch from scratch.

    Hats off to Jamie. He did the original Jamie’s School Dinners in the district I come from in UK and he eventually reformed the whole school meal system… If he manages this in USA he should be made a saint!!

  4. I’ve found that if I make a lot of things homemade, it’s cheaper to eat that way. But…if I want to make everything into true, whole foods, meaning organic and lots of things raw, etc., it is more expensive. Truly raw almonds (from wholesale places only, at least in our own state) are more expensive than the roasted ones in the grocery store or Trader Joe’s. A pint of organic, raw, unprocessed coconut oil will cost me $5.50 or more, while I could instead choose to buy a big can of Crisco shortening for the same price.

    We’ve personally found that if we do choose organic and raw staples, they are more expensive. I would LOVE to see a sale in our area for organic free range chicken breasts for $1 a pound. But I don’t see that happening in our community for probably a few more years. The healthier, natural foods are much more expensive here…especially if someone wants to purchase organic only.

  5. Good for you! We have been working on transitioning away from eating processed foods… and it’s been a long, slow journey. I hope you will share your experiences as inspiration for your readers.

  6. Didn’t read all the comments yet, so I apologize if this is a repeat. But if you go to ABC.com, you can stream the previous episodes of Jamie’s show for free!

    AND Food Inc. is free online for a limited time on PBS.com if you haven’t seen that.

    We are enlightened about whole foods and organics, and we just can’t unlearn what we now know. So for us, our grocery bill has gone WAY up. I do think it’s worth it, though.

    You’ve inspired me to blog about this myself…ok off to write a post now! :)

  7. Attila:

    I am in England; I think food here is more expensive than in the US and we don’t get nearly so many coupons, but that’s ok because they’re mostly for junk food. For me and my husband, we average at about £45 a week for food and household cleaning stuff (fairly low for this country), including all breakfasts and main meals, all but a couple of lunches for my husband and all snacks. He does work in a supermarket so we get 10% discount. Sometimes we buy ready prepared meals when they are on offer, but not very often. Most of our food is home made from scratch, fruit and vegetables, whole grains, a few refined grains, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, but not cheese as my husband can’t tolerate it. We look for the best quality at the best price; sometimes it’s the cheapest, most basic ranges, sometimes the most luxurious, but we eat healthily and well. Home made food is definitely better tasting, healthier, usually but not always cheaper. I buy whole free range chicken, that’s at least 3 meals for 2 adults, plus stock and bits for soup, and it tastes marvellous! Factory chicken is disgusting. Like you said, Lynnae, it can sometimes not save as much cash right now as buying cheap, processed junk, but the long term cost is better health.

  8. sandy:

    I have been cooking from scratch since my daughters (now 32 and 30) were small. Now it is just my husband and I and we spend about $5.00 a day to feed the two of us and we go out to eat maybe once a month. This includes b, l, and d. We buy our beef, grass fed, from a local source and it was $2.79 per pound the last time we bought it. We live in an urban area so no room for a big garden, although this hear I am going to try some containers. But, I check the reduced produce at two smaller grocerie stores and often get all I need at half the price of the regular. We use alot of legumes and such but we still eat meat (as a flavoring to the meal, not as the heart) and whole wheat flour, soy flour, quinoa, etc. which are not cheap but are healthy. To help with this we belong to a local food co-op. Baking is a one day a week thing and if that doesn’t work I mix up a refrigerator dough that can sit there for about f5 days and I just break off a hunk as I need it. Never waste-freeze it, puree it and add to soups or other recipes, compost, whatever. It is possible to eat healthy and still balance the budget. Good Luck!

  9. Lorie:

    I don’t see eating whole foods as a luxury; it’s a necessity. We’re taking baby steps to eating more from scratch. You might try “Once a month cooking” (also called freezer cooking). Check out moneysavingmom.com.

  10. Sam:

    I think it depends on what part of the country your in & the season…. farmers markets in my area are much more expensive (gourmet food prices) but are only open 4 months. If I can find a farmer selling out of the back of their truck then I get a good price.

    We eat about 90-95% whole foods and about 70% organic – I’m a single Mom of one boy and our monthly grocery budget is $200. The only things we buy prepared are corn chips & salsa (mine never comes out that good). Everything else is bought in bulk & whole. I also go to ethnic markets a good bit & that’s where most of our non-organic food comes from. It’s much cheaper to pay $10-15 for a 20lb bag of rice (lasts us 2months) then $5 for 3lb at the grocery store. My sons seems to be hitting his teenage years early and his consumption has increased in recent months so if I can’t adapt then our grocery bill will probably be going up $50.
    I make a baked good for breakfast for the week usually and we have a lot of crock pot & casserole dishes that last 2-3 dinners.

    Someone said something about foods spoiling as a single person – I second that. When my son goes to his Dad’s during the summer I have so much go bad because he’s not around to vacuum it down. Only the carrots last through that haul. When he’s gone my groceries go down to $40-70 a month depending on if I come across any tail gate farmers.

  11. Kika:

    I do think it costs more to eat healthy, real food. However, we are willing to live with one vehicle, no satellite (or cable), lots of second-hand in our lives in order to be able to pay for good food (although we have to budget and spend carefully) and educational opportunities for our children. Having said that, I know many people whose pantries are full of all kinds of ‘food’ and they spend way more than we do each month on groceries. So it also depends on how much effort you put into it, what your finances are in the first place and so forth.

  12. Kate:

    I think part of the reason whole/healthy foods seems to be more expensive is due to things spoiling before you can use them. As a single woman, I try stick to the outer aisles at the grocery store and only buy fresh produce. However, unexpected plans or working late derails my cooking and sometimes the produce I buy goes bad. Luckily I just found out there is going to be a weekly farmers market in my area, I can’t wait to check out the prices on Saturday!

  13. Sakura:

    I am an avid coupon user, but we also eat healthy. I believe the money I save on personal items, activities, and household goods allow us to purchase whole foods and stay within our budget. Last July my DH was diagnosed with T2 Diabetes. This made me open my eyes and see what’s really going on in our pantry. Although he isn’t overweight he still has the disease. Our pantry wasn’t too bad, but it did need some tweaking! I don’t purchase organic foods, but I do purchase a lot of whole foods. I belong to a produce co-op, I get a weekly delivery of fresh fruits and veggies. I purchase chicken by the case, beef by the quarter cow that I split with three friends, rice and beans in bulk. I’m shocked at how many items contain high fructose corn syrup, or high amount of carbs and sodium. We don’t spend a lot of money on food, but we always eat a balanced meal and snacks. I’ve switched my whole family to eat the way my DH has to eat. It was a bit hard in the beginning, but everyday we are getting better at it. I always offer a cooked and raw veggie and fruit with dinner, and a salad and small fruit with our lunch. Breakfast is usually something quick like eggs, pancakes, cereal, yogurt. We try to stay within 50 carbs for meals and 30 for snacks.

    My youngest child is very similar to my husband, so I am extremely careful in what I give him. He starts first grade next year and I do plan on packing his lunch for him. Although his school is trying to make changes they are minimal. I want him to continue his good eating habits while at school.

  14. Sheila:

    I haven’t watched the show, but some of the things I’ve read have said that his recipes and ideas aren’t going over too well. I read some of the things he is putting on the menu, and I’m not sure I would eat them myself! (Okay, I just don’t eat fish. :) ) I think he is making too drastic of a change at once. If kids are used to pizza, why not make a healthier pizza? Why not make healthier chicken nuggets? That’s what I do! I just think gradually modifying things would make it go over better. My kids are willing to try new things because I don’t go overboard with changes all at once which is what the article I read indicated that he has done. I tried to get a link to the article, but it is no longer available. I totally applaud what he is trying to do, but I just wonder if he will have long-term success with his approach. Of course, any success is better than not trying at all!

  15. Oh it is SO possible to eat healthy, and even organic or local, and save money like you do when buying processed foods! We get as much organic and healthy items as we can, but I have a great friend who ONLY eats organic or all natural items, and she is a coupon “hound” just like I am. Actually, she made a point of saving all the money her receipts said she “saved” for a whole year. If she saved 5.13 on an order, it was put into an account. At the end of a year, she ended up saving 4,000 dollars in cold hard cash just by shopping the sales, paying attention to clearance items, and using coupons for the organic or natural items she uses(yes, there are oodles of coupons for organic items. it amazes me that people don’t know that yet). She amazes me with her deals still to this day. Yes, it takes hard work to save like that on items that are actually good for you, but I think your health and your wallet or worth the extra work.

    But please don’t think that eating this way will be so much more expensive. You just need to have the mindset that you will make it happen and will find any and every way to save money while doing it. It can be done!

  16. Brad:

    Also can be seen on Hulu.

  17. Mrs. G:

    I live in Canada and food here is very expensive. To counter this, I do the usual things, watch for sales on whole foods and stock up at that time. I live in a rural area, and I am able to buy local meat and poultry, and in the summertime local fruits and vegetables so that helps. We also have a large garden, and I can and freeze as much as possible for our harsh winters. We have cut back on the amount of meat we eat, filling up on whole grains, veggies and fruit. I bake my own whole wheat bread and buns with the help of my trusty breadmaker. I make all my muffins, cookies and cakes from scratch, and make large amounts so that I can freeze part of it. This helps when I am pressed for time. We also eat a lot of homemade stews and soups and beans. I don’t buy juice at all, we eat the whole fruit and drink water. Doing these things all help your food dollars go along way. By the way, you can watch all the episodes of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC.com Loved the show, can’t believe that the USDA counts french fries as a vegetable!

  18. marci357:

    I eat mostly fresh and fresh home-preserved… but my way won’t work for a lot of people.

    I grow a garden. I grow edible landscaping for year round greens and veggies. (on a 50×100 city lot with house on it – so not much room! ) I partake of nature’s local bounty – clams, crabs,fish, geese, ducks, elk, deer, and the occasional dairy cow my son, the dairy farmer, looses and has to butcher.

    The clams I dig myself, and some of the fish I catch. I can hunt, but usually have enough without hunting. I take fish carcasses from friends and “finish” cleaning them out – the scraps left on the bones after fileting, and the fish jowls. Then I return the carcasses to a friend for the crab pots :) The geese/ducks are usually from a hunter who can’t eat all he gets so he shares with many. The elk and deer are because I volunteer to help cut and wrap the meat, and get a portion in return for my services. The dairy cow is just trying to salvage something from the loss of a broken leg etc, and for helping butcher, cut, and wrap, I receive a portion of the meat. I also glean a friend’s garden of the overabundance of certain things, as the friend gleans mine. Berries we collect in season – the grandkids love to berry pick.

    All of the above is canned, frozen, dried, or preserved in some way whatever is not eaten immediately. And shared :) Also makes good Christmas gifts!

    In return, I make huge batches of soup, stew, clam fritters, fried fish, jams, pies, canned veggies, etc…. and share amongst the bunch of us – family and friends – who work together in a symbiotic relationship to make all this happen.

    There’s a lot of give and take and sharing and that’s how I eat healthy and frugally and with much enjoyment in the process of gathering food as well as growing and eating it :)

    Time consuming? Some, but not bad. I work 45-50 hours a week, and babysit grandkids about 15-25 hours a week on top of that, as well as sewing and gardening and having a life. What I do not do is watch TV :) That frees up a LOT of time!!!

    So – my food is basically fairly money-free :) Works for me!

  19. Janelle:

    Hey just FYI you can watch all the episodes on the net right now at the Food Revolution site!

  20. I was about to say what Miss T said, that there are some things you can find for pretty cheap, like rice, beans & pasta. Shopping and preparing the food isn’t the hardest part. I think it’s finding the time and motivation to put together a meal plan for the week. Once you’ve done that, everything else just falls into place.

  21. Annie:

    I just wanted to throw my 2 cents in and say what I’ve found some tricks to making and keeping healthy foods in the house:
    Start bread dough in the morning so it can rise while doing other chores like washing dishes or getting other snacks made (I like to bake a banana muffin which is packed with fiber) that way I also have healthy, “fast” snacks on hand when cravings for more unhealthy snacks hits. I also make my own english muffins which make great sandwich thins/buns in place of bread and my own tortillas. All these breads from the same ingredients too which really helps when bought in bulk/on sale/and or with coupons.

    • Ann:

      How do you make tortillas and english muffins? I’d love a very detailed recipe.

      Thanks

  22. I agree with your yes and no analysis. Purchasing fruits and vegetables are more expensive than say, not purchasing them, but on the other hand, apples and grapes are cheaper (or at least comparable in price) than Oreos and Doritos.

    I was under the impression that the reason schools use so many processed foods is because they receive government subsidies for these foods and wouldn’t receive them for fresh foods? I could be just imagining that though.

  23. Connie Walsh:

    My whole family can eat for almost nothing if we eat processed (with coupons (like you said)). Eating healthy is a luxury. But that said, I admit that eating processed food is easier and less stressful. No need to wash, cut up, or prepare single snack portions. No one ever gives out coupons on apples.

  24. We try really hard to eat healthy and still do it on a budget. We have found two things work quite well. We tour the ethnic food isles at the grocery store and can often find things such as beans, lentils, rice, spices etc in bulk for really cheap. They just require a bit more prep. i.e. you need to soak your beans over night before cooking them. We also have found you can get great quality produce for cheap at ethnic food markets. Not only do we save money but we also get a chance to try some different veggies and fruits that we haven’t before.

  25. Heather Tucker:

    We used to be one of those ‘processed food families’–food in cans, stuff we couldn’t pronounce and cheap (not necessarily good). Less was spent in the initial outlay, but I am sure our health has suffered because of it. Fast forward to now and you’ll see a vastly different diet due to religious (I’m a SDA) and personal choices. LOTS of local fresh produce, meat is no longer the focus of the meal (serving per person is about the size of a deck of cards) and it just feels better. Not that it’s cheaper when you’re in line at the grocers but the cost is less when it comes to your health…high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease become less of an issue.

    Yeah, we do slip up and eat “odds ‘n’ ends” but, as Michael Pollan put it in his “Food Rules”–if your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it…

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