Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Costs of Eating Well

When I explain the way I (try to) eat to people who ask, I often get this response: "I can't afford to eat healthy. That stuff is expensive." While I understand poverty and have been in the unfortunate position of having NO money for groceries and having to eat whatever I could pick up at the food bank, that's not really what these people are talking about. They do have enough money buy their groceries, but believe buying high quality, fresh foods is out of their reach. I can't judge anyone's financial situation but my own, but wanted to give a little explanation of the costs of eating well (and not so well).

One of my goals has been to buy local, fresh, organic produce when possible (at the Farmer's Market in season) or as close to that as I can. Since this week's challenge is about eating more/better vegetables, this is a good thing to pay attention to. To find your BEST produce source, first check for nearby farm stands, farmer's markets, or farmers who sell their goods to the public. If you can't find anything, try searching here or here. If there is nothing in your area, the next step is to locate the grocery store with the freshest, reasonably priced produce. I had to scope out about 5 grocery stores to find mine. I went in, walked slowly through the fresh produce section, and noted the variety of veggies/fruits available as well as their freshness. Look for leafy greens that are crisp, not wilted. See if they have brightly colored berries, several varieties of apples, different kinds of squash, etc. Look for an Organic section and compare the prices to regular (as well as quality; I will not buy the organic kale if the non-organic looks fresher and greener. The goal is nutrition, here, not a fancy label). Check for produce sales, too.

Once you've found your best produce source, go there once a week and stock up. Check the ads in the paper or online first to see what produce is on sale, and if it is something you like at a good price, that is an easy way to save. If peppers go on sale, buy a bunch, slice them into strips, and freeze them in baggies for later use. If some weeks you find the produce just too expensive, go with frozen veggies. They are often just as nutritious as fresh, even though you'll find less variety and can't do as much with frozen since it is pre-cut and usually has to be cooked.

You may be surprised how much cheaper it is to eat vegetables than, say, Little Debbie cakes. Just looking in a local ad at fresh produce:
broccoli and cauliflower are 98 cents a pound
blueberries are 1.99 a pint
apples, oranges, and pears are 99 cents a pound
baby carrots are 99 cents a pound
red grapefruits are 5/$1
red, yellow, and green bell peppers are 99 cents each

Granted, this is not organic stuff, but I'd buy it anyway. When things are not on sale, the organic is usually not that much more or is even the same price as the non-organic. I regularly buy organic greens for between $1.69-2.89 a bunch, which makes a nice big pot. Well worth it.

I also try to buy grass fed or free range meat and eggs when feasible. When this stuff goes on sale, I stock up. Last time I bought free range chicken breasts I paid $2 a pound and stuck them in the freezer, and the grass fed beef (98% lean) was $3 a pound on sale so I bought 10 pounds and put it in the freezer in 1-pound bags. Eggs are fairly expensive where I live for some reason, so buying free range eggs is not much more than regular.

I think people get overwhelmed with the price of things. You see $x per pound for fresh fruits and veggies when they are not on sale and think it is expensive. But when you buy a bag of chips or other junk food you DO NOT LOOK at the price per pound. If you did, you might be shocked. Usually junk food is *more* expensive per pound than real food. I read online that the average price per pound for potato chips is around $3 a pound. Next time you are shopping, look at the tags under the food and see if they list price per pound. If not, put on your thinking cap and figure out the price per pound by looking at the total cost and the weight of the product. Sometimes junk like cookies can be $5-10 per pound! For what? Just junk.

And really, if you are eating healthy you're not usually eating *as much* stuff as you do when you eat junk, right? I know personally that 1700 calories of good healthy food costs a mere fraction of the 3000-5000 calories of junk, fast food, pizzas, sodas, and other crap I used to eat.

Here's what I ate for breakfast the other day, along with actual price I paid:
Chai tea w/organic milk from grass fed cows & agave nectar (15 cents + 12 cents + 9 cents = 36 cents)
2 fresh local eggs (over easy) from free range chickens (50 cents)
1 slice of 100% whole wheat, HFCS-free bread (15 cents)
organic butter from grass fed cows (25 cents)
green tea (19 cents)
1 Cuties Clementine (28 cents)
Total for this meal: 1.73

I think $1.73 is pretty cheap eating for such delicious, fresh, healthy food. A lot cheaper than that nasty McDonald's biscuit & hash browns w/coffee meal I used to eat... and infinitely healthier.

And I can make a pot of my Cabbage Roll Casserole, with lean grass-fed beef, local fresh onions, and fresh cabbage for about $6. It makes four HUGE servings (filling dinner) or six smaller servings. I don't think $1.50 is a lot to pay for such a healthy dinner, do you? You can freeze portions and then you have something so much better for you and more delicious than, say, a Lean Cuisine meal with all its sodium, which is usually twice the cost of this homemade meal. If you are eating out, you can save a whole lot of money by buying fresh organic foods and making your own meals instead.

If you were to factor in the health care costs of the damage to our bodies caused by eating junk and/or being obese, the savings by eating healthy is phenomenal. Think about that. Not to mention the cost in years of your life.

Reconsider what is "expensive" and what is "affordable." Take a look at the costs of what you usually buy, and see if you can replace some of that with healthier produce and other items. Maybe that $5 you were going to spend on a couple of boxes of 100-calorie packs would be better spent on a half gallon of organic, grass fed milk and a couple of delicious organic apples! See what you can do!


Tathi Mitchell said...

Great post! As I always tell my husband after we go grocery shopping, "cooking healthy meals at home is ALWAYS cheaper than eating out!"

wahoostampingirl said...

Thanks for writing such a well thought out post on this subject. It is a huge pet peeve of mine when people say that eating healthy is expensive. I always counter with eating PROCESSED food of any kind is more expensive. I'm not 100% against processed food, but cooking from scratch is way more economical and usually better for you.

Jenn said...

I feel that my grocery bill is ridiculously expensive, but always talk myself down with the fact that I'm feeding clean whole foods to my family that have not been heavily processed. I always see people ahead of me with bills that are half (sometimes 1/3!) of what I spend, but their cart is filled with Banquet frozen dinners and Coca-Cola and huge bags of chips. That used to be my cart. But then, I also used to be 40 lbs heavier. Definitely not worth the swap for me!

Andra said...

Fan-freaking-tastic post! I love how you analyzed your healthy breakfast vs. the cost of a crap drive-thru meal. I even started making my own whole grain bread (my bread machine has paid for itself 100 times over by now). Organic whole wheat flour costs about $8 for 5 pounds, about the cost of two loaves of decent 100% whole grain, no HFCS bread but I can get about 8-10 loaves from that bag.

Kyle Gershman said...

There has to be a magazine out there that would publish this. This is a timely wake-up call.

The Chubby Girl Diaries said...

Thank you for posting this! I have been actively only shopping the perimeter of the grocery store while avoiding the middle aisles as much as possible.

The recipe for cabbage roll casserole looks easy and yummy!


Anonymous said...

I went grocery shopping last night and the whole time I was thinking, "$2.99/lb. for cherries. $3.99/lb. for grapes. This is horrible!" It probably doesn't help that I will eat a pound in one sitting. I think my fruit and veggie bill last night was $30.

You mentioned pizza. I used to eat pizza a couple times a month and never realized how truly ridiculously priced it was. $20 for bread, sauce, cheese, and meat? That is outrageous. It would only last me three meals max. $6 for your cabbage roll recipe that lasts four to six meals is certainly the less expensive (and wiser) choice!

Ali said...

Thank you for posting this! I've never really thought about breaking food down the way you did. When you look at it that way, you can see that eating healthy doesn't really cost that much. Good tip too on buying what's on sale and freezing it. Thanks again!

midlife_swimmer said...

Great Post! I have argued this for years.

I used to have an in home daycare for 10 years. I live in a metro area with health conscious people so I was requested to accommodate special diets, vegan, vegetarian etc when I started my business. Through word of mouth parents of children (toddlers) with type 1 diabetes, or severe food allergies would find me. My child was allergic to corn and corn syrup so I was already cooking from scratch often.

Unlike a daycare center, the days children were ill and did not attend my "school" I did not get paid. After a few years I noticed at meetings with other providers that they complained greatly about the lack of revenue when the kids they watched were ill. I realized then, my kids didn't get sick often, rarely were put on antibiotics and in 4 years of operation not one kid had missed a full week because of illness.

It actually turned out that serving healthy food MADE money for me and let their parents use their sick and vacation days for themselves.

PS I am on food stamps at the moment my hubby was recently laid off and we still cook from scratch and the food benefits last through the month on healthy food, but definitely would not if we ate mostly prefabricated packaged foods

What a Splurge said...

Great post!

Would it be too obvious to say, "How expensive is it to be a diabetic, or be too heavy to have the edge in the employment market or have any of the other conditions associated with obesity?"

People are quick to see the small picture and not the large one.

NewMe said...

Although I do believe you make some valid points, I think the situation is perhaps not quite as clear cut as you make it out to be. Read this: The Fat Nutritionist has a lot of interesting arguments.

One of the most important things is having ACCESS to good food (as TFN points out). Many inner city neighbourhoods don't have decent grocery stores, let alone farmers' markets. It's like banks--you just don't find them in poor neighbourhoods and people end up cashing their cheques and paying very high fees for the "privilege" at payday loan outlets or Money Marts. You also need a car to get to the markets where healthy food is sold. I know, in the States people would rather be homeless than give up their cars, but there are lots of people who don't have cars and therefore lack the physical means to go out and buy good food.

Healthy eating is a personal choice, but only to a certain extent. It's most definitely also a societal issue.

PatriciaW said...

Great post, Lyn. Lots of good information. In general, poor eating costs more long term. Sadly, from a cash flow standpoint, it is often easier to each poorly than to eat well. The cost is actually higher even in the short-term but the cash out of pocket is not. Thus, many who are scraping by or living check to check wind up eating poorly.

Stiney said...

I used to think it was so expensive to buy healthy food until I actually started doing it. We spent $30 on food for the whole week because we went and stocked up on an amazing amount of fruit and veggies at the farmer's market.

Jack Sh*t, Gettin' Fit said...

Great post! Eating healthy isn't always cheap... after all, there's a lot of cheap crap in the grocery store. But put it up against conveneince foods and restaurants and it's a no-brainer...

Heather said...

I totally agree with you. I used to spend way more on my food for my binges than I do eating healthy. I know thats not the case for everyone, but even still, I think you can find healthy foods that last and make many meals for around the same price or cheaper than what one would normally spend on packaged junk. plus in the long end, any extra money you do spend on healthy food is less than you would spend on medical bills for health problems later on if you were not not buy the healthy food and continue to eat unhealthy anyways.

Lidian said...

I totally, totally agree! This is a wonderful post. I never thought I could love stir-fried cabbage as much as I do, but I do! And broccoli, and all sorts of other things - just as you say. You are so wonderfully positive and motivating, I love reading you every day :)

redballoon said...

Yeah, great post Lyn. Thank you!

Thrice Blessed said...

I am eating as healthy as my budget allows. I'm sure it could be healthier if I could buy everything organic, but I settle for Fresh, and try the best I can to avoid GM foods.

screwdestiny said...

Wow, I wish the grocery stores here sold produce for that cheap. I do most of my grocery shopping at the cheapest place in town: Super Wal-Mart. If I can't find everything I need there, then I move on to our two other grocery stores. But I have never seen red and yellow bell peppers selling for less than $2.49. And that's when they're on sale. And $1.99 for a pint of blueberries in winter?! I paid $4.29 for a pint just recently. And organic here is usually always at least a dollar more expensive than the normal stuff.

I totally don't mind paying more for healthy food, but my boyfriend gets upset at the grocery bills. For us to eat out all month it costs us about $900 (for two people--that's ridiculous!). If I buy healthy, whole foods and cook at home the whole month, it costs between $600-$800. But if we buy processed, cheap junk, it costs about $400. Yeah... He just doesn't value eating healthy as much as I do, so he doesn't understand why we can't just buy the cheapest stuff. *sighs*

Tammy said...

I agree that it's not anymore expensive to eat healthier. I think the misconception comes in when people go on a "diet", and go out and stock up on all the "diety" brand crap, like the frozen meals for their "diet" lunches, and the bars for their "diet" breakfasts, and the 100 calorie snack packs, etc. I think that's why people think it's more expensive to eat's actually more expensive to go on a "diet" by typical standards....which is too bad, since they're shooting for the wrong thing, and something that will ultimately fail.

Lyn said...


I hear ya. Some places just don't have any cheap produce. It's been bugging me that the price of Clementines doubled after Christmas, so when the ones I have run out I am switching to a cheaper fruit.

Is there a Smiths near you? (I have friends who live in your area so I am semi-familiar). If so they have some really good, cheap produce ads, they're online by zip if you want to look.

I know I am very blessed to have access to the wide variety of good foods in my area, and for that I am thankful. We all gotta do the best we can with what's available!

Steelers6 said...

I wonder if ppl who think it costs too much to eat things that are healthy are using that as an excuse? Or as Stiney said, maybe never even pursued it? A preconceived idea?

And I like how Thrice Blessed puts it - "I am eating as healthy as my budget allows." I was thinking that, but wasn't sure how to put it...I mean, maybe not everyone can afford A, B, AND C as far as nutrition, but they could afford to buy frozen veggies and the leanest meat they can swing, water instead of pop, etc.....take STEPS toward health..

plus, if those of us striving for health and wellness eat only the amounts of food bodies need, maybe it is actually LESS food, thereby making the tab cheaper.

If you are a member of one of those warehouse stores/clubs, [or know someone who is] don't forget to utilize them for fruit & veggies and lean meats.

Jill said...

It should also be pointed out that cravings and hunger are a physical response to a nutritional need, if the foods you eat are more nutrient dense, and if your diet is balanced, you will be less hungry, eat less and spend less money on food! Not to mention at the doctor's office, or not having lost earnings due to illness - I could go on and on.

TheLosingAmerican said...

Yes I totally agree with you! How much is your BODY and LIFE worth to you??

I also noticed the same thing when I started eating healthier...I was paying less than I usually would because I wasn't buying the bags of cookies, candy bars, bags of chips, etc. etc. That stuff can REALLY add up...AND because it's so addictive, you go through it MUCH faster than you would a big bowl of raspberries for example (at least I would :-D ).

MB said...

The problem I have with buying lots of fresh fruits and veggies is when I don't eat it all before it goes bad. I continue to buy as much as I can and eat as much as I can but something always gets wasted. Also, I bought a big bag of clementines the other day 'cause they are in season and everyone is raving about how sweet and delicious they are now but mine were kind of sour. ;(

Another excellent post Lyn. Thanks!

Marcia said...

This is a great post! My blog is dedicated to frugal, healthy eating. And I've read a lot of recent blog posts about the subject of how cheaply you can eat a healthy diet.

But I really enjoyed your post - it brought new perspective and thought to the subject.

One of the biggest problems I have (sorry to NewMe, you're just the latest in the string of people who use this argument) - is the argument that poor people don't have access to healthy food.

It is absolutely, positively true, for a fair percentage of the poor population ("food deserts" is an appropriate term that I've read). However, nearly all of the people that I've personally ever met do not fall into that category. I've never lived in the inner city. I haven't been rural in over 20 years. So the majority of the folks that I know who "can't afford" healthy eating really aren't educating themselves enough.

We need to start with what we can do. The people who *can* eat healthfully, should. This can only serve as a way to make it easy for everyone else (if you can afford good organic, local food, buy it. You help the farmer. He grows more. He makes it more available to others.)

Of course, then there's the potential job loss when the food manufacturers go out of business...

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything you said. I noticed I spend on average $50 to $70 LESS each week than when I was eating all those unhealthy foods.

Lyn said...


Yes, it kind of takes awhile to get used to how much to buy without wasting. I do freeze a LOT of produce... if you bought broccoli and then find yourself not using it, just steam it and freeze it for later. Some things don't freeze well, even cooked (like citrus) so I used those first.

If you get produce that is not good tasting, such as the sour Clementines, or if you get something and look and it is going moldy or whatever, you can take your receipt back next time you shop for an exchange or refund. They usually don't make you bring all the rotten produce back, just the packaging and receipt.

MB said...

I'll have to keep a closer eye on the produce and try cooking and freezing if it's going to go bad.

I never even thought to bring back fruit that wasn't up to par. Great idea if I could only find my receipts when I need them.

As always, great advice. Thanks!

Have a great weekend!!

JD said...

Marcia, I agree. I read the blog that NewMe suggested and while it did raise some good points I hear plenty of "middle class" people talking about healthy eating as "so expensive." That is definitely my experience.

And the excuse that there aren't grocery stores in inner cities doesn't work for me in my city. The oldest farmer's market in the state is smack dab in the middle of the "ghetto" and guess who usually shops there? People that don't live there, people that make a special trip to support their local farmers or are "food snobs." Every store in that market (except the seasonal vendors I think) takes food stamps. In addition to that there is a full service grocery store also smack dab in the middle of this area.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. Please keep blowing the myth that eating healthy is more expensive. Even in your example, you note that many fruits and vegetables are $1 per pound and Little Debbies are almost double that. And obviously fresh vegetables and fruits are more expensive than frozen, even though the nutritional content of frozen veggies is very high. And not to mention dried beans and brown rice which pound for pound is very very cheap.

Galya Talkington said...

Amazing post! Thank you!

amy edwards said...

Yes!! That is what I'm trying to tell people! We don't realize how much our eating out and sugary snacks truly cost us. Eating healthy and organic and natural can actually be cheaper in some cases, about the same, or at worst only slightly more than you're spending now!

I love the links to the local farmers markets. I'm going to check those out now! :)

Thrifty-Chicky said...

I have found that frozen vegetables go on sale a lot. This past year I have really opened the door on things like, brocolli, brussels sprouts, yellow squash, lima beans, okra, turnip greens, and spinach. We used to skip veggies unless I opened a can of green beans, peas, carrots, or corn. Now I do lots of frozen veggies and try to incorporate more dried beans. For now with my budget and frozen veggies with a few fresh items is working well to make some healthy meals.

Anonymous said...

This is so true! Only recently have I realized how friggin' cheap produce is, compared to A LOT of other things! I'll just stick to that! Thanks Lyn for pointing all this out; I hope it really helps a lot of people to realize that eating healthy is NOT expensive.

Hanlie said...

This is an issue that cannot be highlighted enough. I save so much by not buying meat, dairy, soda, processed food, fast food, treats, etc that I can occasionally afford the more expensive health foods like hemp protein, raw nuts, Himalayan Crystal Salt, barley grass powder, tahini, fruit teas, berries (very expensive here) and still save. This is in addition to the loads of fresh produce.

Cost is not the deterrent in most cases, although it's a good excuse. The real deterrent is laziness.