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The “Eating Healthy Is Expensive” Myth

There is this huge misconception in American culture that eating healthy is more expensive than eating junk food.  That’s the case if you don’t want to put effort into your meals and you want to buy gourmet food, but with a bit of effort it is simply not true.  I know about the dollar study where a guy went into a grocery store to see what he could buy for a dollar, and the worst foods had the most calories, aka “bang for the buck.”  However, I’m speaking from personal experience here.

Three years ago, I went vegetarian, and everyone told me how much more expensive my grocery bills would be.  You know what?  They aren’t.  On average, I spend about $50 every two weeks on groceries, and my groceries usually wind up feeding more than one person for around 5 nights a week.  That works out to approximately $100 a month, minus eating out, which happens about once a week.

For healthy eating, you need fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and other pantry needs necessary for cooking.  Whole grains are key, because they help your body feel full on fewer calories, and they are super-healthy for you too!  Let’s look at the facts on these food groups.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be a bit expensive, it’s true, but you just need to be a smart shopper when it comes to this.  Buy only what you will eat before it goes bad.  For me, this means I need to grab veggies once a week.  Also, store them properly, or they will go bad before their time.  If you really want to save money, buy fruits and veggies that are in season.  Produce that are in season are cheaper, because the stores can acquire them from closer sources.  I used this technique last night, and I found out that *all* of the produce I wanted was actually on sale, most of them for under $1 a pound.  A great resource for knowing what’s in season is eattheseasons.com, which also has an option for UK for my British readers.  For nights that you’re in more of a hurry, buy frozen fruits and veggies.  If you have more of a budget crunch, buy store brand ones.  These are cheap, and you usually can get two meals per bag.

Whole Grains
A box of whole grain pasta costs $1.29 at my local market.  That’s it, and I get at least 5 or 6 meals a box.  Whole grain rice appears expensive, but remember that a bag of it lasts a long-ass time, because it grows when it cooks.  Also invest in whole wheat flour and regular flour (you need that so it doesn’t get too heavy for some recipes).  A bag of either is around $2 in my market, and lasts months.  Any other whole grains you want are similarly priced.  It appears a lot to people, because they’re used to buying single-serving foods in the grocery store, but that $6 or $7 you’re spending on the bag of rice will make many many meals.

The most expensive proteins are the most highly processed.  This means that fake meats like tofurkey are the most expensive.  One box of tofurkey slices for sandwiches costs around $4.27 at my market.  You know what though?  It’s highly processed, and isn’t that healthy for you (though, healthier than meat).  A box of tofu, on the other hand, is usually somewhere between $1 and $2, and one box makes 4 meals.  Tempeh is similarly priced.  Beans, which you need to diversify from soy anyway, cost under $1 a can, and one can make around three meals.  If you want to go uber-healthy, you can buy bags of dry beans and cook them yourself, which is even cheaper than buying canned beans.

Other Pantry Needs
Since I’m not vegan, I do need to buy eggs, cheese, and butter, and these are usually the most expensive purchases I make.  However, one dozen eggs last me around 1.5 months.  Another purchase that, similar to the bags of rice, seems prohibitively expensive because of a single serving meal mindset is cooking oils.  Olive oil is one of the healthiest oils for you, and the bottle I bought last night cost $12 and some change.  However, one bottle lasts me at least 4 months.  Again, buy store brand.  The fact of the matter with all the pantry needs is their price can seem a bit high, but you use a little bit at a time in cooking–like with soy sauce for instance–so really per meal the cost is a few cents.

There you go. That’s my real-life shopping for healthy groceries experience.  Yes, you need to actually cook your meals instead of buying frozen and sticking it in the microwave, but trust me, it is not so hard to learn to stir-fry, sautee, and bake.  Stir-frying and pastas especially just require you to be able to stir things around in a pot.  Plus, you get the added benefit of burning some calories while making your food instead of just sitting on your butt on the couch watching tv waiting for it to heat up in the microwave.  It takes a bit of up-front cost to get your pantry equipped with the long-term use items like rice, but once you’ve done this, you’re down to buying a few quite cheap items a week, with the periodic need to replace the long-term items that never run out at the same time.  It is not too expensive to eat healthily if you know how to do it.

  1. January 6, 2010 at 6:04 pm

    I hear you Sister! I came home from Uni to find my Dad was storing beer in the salad drawer in the fridge! I was eating better on a student budget than him, everything he had in was tinned or processed and there was no sign of any vegetables. A month or so has gone by and he can’t live without salad or veg…I’m good if I do say so myself…just got to cut down his meat now as I generally prefer fish or veggie options. And your right its not expensive I’ve actually halved the cost of his groceries and now theres two of us not just him.

    • January 7, 2010 at 9:48 am

      Great job with your dad, Jessica! *high-five* It’s great when we can influence our parents to not only be healthier, but save money.

  2. basketcasey
    January 6, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    You do make good points, but it’s important to keep in mind that many people do not have the resources (grocery stores due to food deserts, time, energy after work etc) to cook fresh foods five days a week and those that don’t are “choosing” not to, it’s one of those ugly classist memes that pops up.

    • January 7, 2010 at 9:51 am

      What’s classist is the assumption that working class and middle class have vastly different amounts of free time. My parents are both very poor, working class people and when I was growing up, they cooked dinner from scratch almost every night for us. A full-time job is a full-time job, whether you’re a clerk in Target or a teacher. Personally, I work full-time and attend 2 graduate classes. Free time is not something I’m swimming in, but I still choose to make the time to cook and eat healthily. That’s what it boils down to. It always is a choice. Cooking dinner can take as little as 30 minutes. We make the time for what matters the most to us. I don’t assume that everyone who isn’t eating healthy is knowingly choosing not to. I do believe that many were never taught the truth about it.

  3. January 7, 2010 at 6:41 am

    That website is very nice! I actually completely agree with you, it’s reasonably cheap to eat healthy. It might be more expensive if you really want organic vegetables only, but we’re not that picky. Meat is always our most expensive purchase. Fruit is pretty expensive too, but we always just get whatever is on sale – although what’s on sale at our supermarket is not at all what’s listed on that website, but it might be different if I shopped at a farmer’s market.

    • January 7, 2010 at 9:55 am

      It’s interesting that what’s in season in the UK isn’t on sale in your grocery store. Maybe it’s different in the UK? I wouldn’t know 😉

      It’s true that organic fruits and vegetables are expensive, but I personally don’t believe it’s that huge of a deal if you can’t eat organic as far as your own personal health goes, as long as you wash them. I value organic for not putting more chemicals into the environment, though.

      It’s true that there are levels of healthy food, and I would count organic in among the gourmet options. My main goal is to show people that even if you can only do the lowest level of healthy, it’s still better for you than the processed stuff.

      Another reason I’m glad I don’t eat meat, is because it does make a huge difference with meat whether it’s organically raised or not, and organically raised meat is very expensive.

      • January 7, 2010 at 10:21 am

        In the UK our supermarkets will stock anything whether in season or not, ship it from all over the world, they don’t care as long as they get the sale they want. For good british seasonal veg we have to go to Farm Shops/Markets.

  4. November 16, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    healthy eating should be our top priority since there are many junk foods and foods with no nutritional value these days ~-,

  5. October 21, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    Reblogged this on LivingHealthy&Fit and commented:
    So true

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