Does It Cost More To Eat Healthy?

Is Healthy Food Expensive?

July 9, 2014   30 Comments

Look at that raw chicken! Doesn’t it make your mouth water?


I saw a graphic that compared buying a meal for a family of four at McDonald’s to buying a raw chicken along with potatoes and lettuce. Guess what? The chicken, potatoes, and lettuce cost less.

Yep. Done. Cheaper to eat healthy. Game over.

Actually, this graphic made me angry because (as you all know) those purchases are not comparable. Let us review.

Steps to buying a meal at McDonald’s:
1. Drive up to window.
2. Order.
3. Drive home.
4. Eat.

Steps to roasting a chicken, potatoes, and making salad:
1. Go to store, buy all ingredients, drive home.
2. Unpack ingredients, heat oven, find pans.
3. Pop chicken and potatoes in oven, wash lettuce, get out plates.
4. Cook for an hour, eat, wash up pans, dishes, etc.

TIME!!! As much as I love certain people (Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle, etc.) encouraging us to cook – to act like roasting a chicken and ordering at McDonald’s are equivalent is just plain silly. Many Americans are working multiple jobs, helping out loved ones, carting children to soccer, and at the end of the day – they literally don’t have the time to cook.

Guess what? Not only does it take more time to cook and eat healthy – it costs more on average. A recent scientific study across 27 countries found that it cost $550 more per person per year to eat healthier (see: Do healthier foods and diet patterns cost more than less healthy options?).

Yesterday, I didn’t pack my lunch and I was faced with a choice at a “healthier” local eatery. I could chose and $8 salad or a bagel with cheese and egg for $3. Which do you think I bought?

Why is the salad more expensive? The researchers hypothesized:

....many decades of policies focused on producing inexpensive, high volume commodities have led to a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.

What if all those decades had been focused on getting consumers inexpensive salad? I think we would be many pounds lighter as a nation.

Eating healthier requires more money and more time. There is no getting around it, but it is doable if you work at it.

Enter the Jamaican taxi driver.

I met a sweet Jamaican taxi driver on a trip to Florida. I asked him where I should eat near my hotel and he said, “Ohh, I don’t EVER eat out. I send most of my money home to my family in Jamaica.”

“What do you eat?”

“I always have a big batch of rice, beans, a little meat, and some carrots, potatoes, and peppers cooking in my apartment. I feed the neighbor’s kids, too.”

He found time to cook on his hours off and made a ton of food that kept him fed until he had time off again. He came from a different food culture where everyone cooked so he had the skills and he clearly enjoyed the process. It was simply part of him.

Since our culture teaches us to drive through McDonald's, we are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to healthy cooking.

I have found that nothing really worth doing is easy. Hard work, preparation, and commitment get me to the place where real change happens. After years of cooking, I am not even tempted by the drive-thru (but it took years).

Do you think it is cheaper to eat healthy? What have been your challenges?

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First 20 Comments: [ see all 30 ]

Love your site. I use lots of the recipes - thank you! :-) A

nd it doesn't cost more to eat healthily. Nor to use good English ("eat healthy" -- "eat healthily").

on July 9, 2014

I love this post--and the way it tackles the complexities of eating and feeding one's family. And I'm not sure "Eating Healthy" isn't grammatically correct--just a different usage. Obviously, healthily is the adverb. But there is another way to read the sentence...
Anyway, it is hard to measure the feelings of well-being that spread across a family when it is possible for one adult to be in the kitchen making meals. It is a good way to keep company with older kids doing homework; it is a good way to teach kids to help out with housekeeping tasks-cooking, dishes, grocery wrangling, etc. Having worked since my children were young I get the problem. I just don't want to ignore the non-(physical)nutrient part of home cooking...
Thank you, Lisa

on July 9, 2014

I have always eaten healthily (yes, I am English) and love cooking. Meal planning is essential. To save time and money you can batch cook. For example I cook just for me and my husband so each recipe is cooked for the full number of servings and at an appropriate stage in the recipe the extra servings are packed into storage bags or boxes and frozen. So, on busy days it is easy to get a meal out at breakfast time and let it defrost during the day with just a minimum of cooking when we want it. It helps to have a big freezer too. Mine is nearly always jammed full.

That yummy chicken would be roasted and eaten at Sunday lunch. The rest of the meat striped from the carcass and most of it would be used later in the week with lemons, zucchini, low fat creme fraiche and pasta for a delicious meal.

The carcass is brought up the to boil in a pan of water with an onion, carrot, celery, a slice of lemon and parsley and then tipped into my slower cooker and left for about 8 hours. Any residual meat is taken off to feed the dog, the bones are disposed of and the lovely, lovely stock with the veggies, not the lemon, bagged up for the freezer. It is a lovely base for soup!

I reckon I can get 3-4 meals out of a medium sized chicken with a meal for the dog and soup for lunch. Bargain!

on July 9, 2014

Ok, so we have time to post EVERYTHING on Facebook, Twitter, set our DVR's to catch and then watch every episode of the Kardashians and the Real Housewives and also blog about how challenging our lives are. And yet we cannot complete a simple task of feeding ourselves and our families a respectable healthy meal. Really? Amazing how our priorities have changed and clearly not for the better. My Brother and I were raised by a single Mom. She had a full time job, kept the house immaculate (no small feat with two teenagers who were NO help), and a VERY tight budget. Yet still managed to fix a home cooked meal every night with wholesome ingredients, not this junk that everyone seems somehow justified in placing on the table. I asked her how on earth she managed to make this happen day in and day out. She said that part of having a family meant she had made a commitment that she was responsible to make sure we were raised properly and that included what we ate. No you don't have to roast a whole chicken every night, it does not have to be that complicated, And as Sue showed, you just have to rethink where your priorities truly lie.

on July 9, 2014

The money people save on cheap food is spent at the doctor's office. Eating healthy is more expensive in the immediate present, but saves you money overall I think.

on July 9, 2014

It is more expensive and much more effort to eat healthily, particularly for singles and couples. Unless you are prepared to (a) cook from scratch and (b) cook every single day. The reality is that most people simply don't have time to do this. And the reality is that preservatives allow for cheaper food because it doesn't spoil so quickly.

Eg if I plan to eat a pie, I don't have time to make puff pastry, so I would buy it pre-prepared. The all-butter pastry is way more expensive than the transfat-margarine pastry. Or let's say I don't even have time for that, and instead buy a ready made pie. I can buy buy a cheap "meat" pie (with a low percentage of poor quality meat in it) for less than half the cost of a healthier pie with good chunks of high quality meat and vegetables and no preservatives.

Battery eggs are cheaper than free range eggs. Supermarket budget range sausages, with low grade meat and colouring and preservatives are a fraction of the cost of the free range, pure meat sausages they sell as a "luxury". Organic produce is always more expensive than regular produce (although for many fruits and vegetables, regular may be just fine).

on July 9, 2014

It is frustrating to have a run to Subway for a salad cost me almost $10 when I could hit the dollar menu at McDonalds' for $3.

I do have to laugh at the correction of healthy vs. healthily. Apparently you've given the grammar police something to do!

on July 9, 2014

I love this article! It does take time, effort and a few extra dollars to eat HEALTHY (lol) but, it's worth it in the long run. I try to do meal prep to keep up my healthy eating habits otherwise, I find myself going out to eat.

on July 9, 2014

I love reading your articles! You're so honest & realistic about raising a healthy family & the challenges that go along with that. Thanks for the great recipes!!: )

on July 9, 2014

This was an awesome post. I have learned to cook two meals at a time by doubling what I cook the first time. Then I freeze the second meal for another day. This has helped on time, not so much the money. Guess in the long run paying for healthier food now will cut back on medical cost later. Hopefully there will be balance.

on July 9, 2014

In my 64 years on planet Earth I have learned, finally, to try to be "in the moment." Cooking is part of this experience. After 40 years of preparing meals I still don't have a Cuisinart-type gizzmo. My 9 x 12 wooden chopping board and a good quality, sharp chef's knife brings me into the food preparation experience. I absolutely think eating unprocessed food is the best. The nice part of take-out or eating out is the ability of having someone wait on me, and no clean-up. But it's always a trade off - more hidden calories in eating away from home or knowing I have control over what I am putting in my body.
I think it's so sad to see how busy and stressful this world has become. I think technology has taken away so much time for 'real' things from our lives. I work 30 hours, have three adults and two young children in our house, and learned it's always a trade-off. What is really important - what do I chose to give my time to.

on July 9, 2014

I LOVE Sherry's comment above about how people find time to post Facebook comment and tweet about how busy their lives are, but can't find time to put together a quick (healthy) meal. We cook our meals the previous night as a couple, and sometimes we are up late, but it is great bonding time. The next day, just need to heat it up, eat as a family, and off to whatever the kids are doing that day. Can't remember the last time we watched TV, but I treasure that talking time with my husband while we cook.
When we do have to eat out, I would absolutely say that eating healthy is way more expensive than eating junk. Chipotle is our go-to restaurant for something quick, but the cost is at least 40% more than if we would go to a fast-food burger joint.

on July 9, 2014

Great post, Lisa. I love how grounded in reality and how honest you are.

on July 9, 2014

I have my own business, travel and work long hours, am a single mom with 2 teenage girls and I rarely go out to eat...slow cooker and the bbq grill and an organic roasted chicken bought from the store go a long way. One chicken can create several meals for the 3 of us:
--sliced with roasted veggies the first night
--leg/thigh in daughters lunch the second day
--chopped pieces on a chopped salad the second day for my lunch
--chopped up pieces in a veggie pasta the second night with bbq corn off grill
--boiled carcass with lots of veggies/ spices the third day to make a high vitamin magic broth that becomes the base for several soups...all of which can be made by pressure cooking whatever potato or vegetable you want and then blending with base (takes about 20 min total)

AND...start the slow cooker with a pot of beans (takes all of 5 minutes to start) and we have beans that can go across at least 4 meals
Cheaper, better tasting, healthier and very time efficient. I do believe there is a way ...AND...if we all shifted our mindsets that our first priority of spending should be focused on what we put in our bodies instead of what we cover our bodies with (makeup, clothing) and what we distract ourselves with (digital devices, big screen tvs)...this question of "Does it cost more to eat healthy" would be irrelevant.

on July 9, 2014

In my house we eat the same way that we always have. One way of thinking about it is the theory that you pay now in buying and cooking your own healthy food or you pay later in medical bills and the cost on your health. We only buy humanely raised meats and as organic as possible on the veggies, beans, and rice (and any other side dishes). We garden organically and I volunteer at a local farm. I grew up with parents that would go to a market at a farm (and much of the meat and veggies that we ate was local). As for fast food--last week with the holiday my idea of local fast food (we were in Maine) was lobster one night and fried local clams for lunch the next day. I'd rather support a small local takeout place over a fast food chain if I want "fast" food. :)

on July 9, 2014

I think if done right it can be cheaper to eat healthy (or healthily). Most people think that you have to buy fresh vegetables, but frozen and canned are healthy foods as well. They are often cheap. Buy things on sale and in season. It does take meal planning because we probably throw out more food than we eat when we buy fresh food. And not everything takes a long time to cook. You can have a healthy meal that takes relatively no time at all. Or throw things in a slowcooker while you're at work.

Like Bethany said it will saves us money in the long run.

For the record, healthily is technically correct, but healthy is starting to act like an adverb. It's changing. Some people accept it and some don't.

on July 9, 2014

Yes eating healthily costs more per meal than eating highly processed junk food. But to look only that far is false economy. There is an unshakeable correlation between eating highly processed foods and heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, hip and knee replacements etc. etc. etc. In the long run I think it's cheaper to eat healthy. Plus your quality of life will be much higher.

on July 9, 2014

When I was younger I received food stamps to feed myself and my daughter. I was luckier than most, my kitchen was well stocked with hand me down appliances from family so I had everything I needed to really cook. I also already knew how to cook. A lot of working poor aren't that lucky, and have to work much more than I did.

I always thought we could make supplemental nutrition programs could be made a lot more efficient if we gave recipients a crock pot and a book of recipes.

Also, "healthy" is acceptable as it is 1. Common usage, which trumps all and 2. The word "food" is implied in the sentence.

on July 9, 2014

Wow, and that's why you shouldn't comment on your phone. Let me tackle that second line again: "I always thought we could make supplemental nutrition programs a lot more efficient if we gave recipients a crock pot and a book of recipes."

on July 9, 2014

I found both the initial post and all of the comments you all left extremely helpful and inspirational :)

I'm currently a graduate student, so the affordability of food is definitely a consideration when shopping. But a lot of you have mentioned the importance of priorities, which is making me re-evaluate my current system, which definitely does not prioritize my gorcery budget.

I'll plan on setting aside the money for groceries at the beginning of the month so I don't end up with a cart full of processed foods the last week of the month.

Thank you all :)

on July 9, 2014

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