Does It Cost More To Eat Healthy?

July 9, 2014   30 Comments

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

Is Healthy Food Expensive?


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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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").

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

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!

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.

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.

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).

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!

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.

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!!: )

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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. :)

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.

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.

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.

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."

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 :)

I had to chuckle at this one as I thought about the on-the-fly dinner we prepared last night. I had visitors at the beach with me and we were running all day. Got home and had nothing planned for dinner... I panicked! Well, threw together what I had on hand... sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, sauteed zucchini, left over chicken in salad greens with left-over tomato/cucumber salad as dressing. Crusty bread w/EVOO & Rosemary dipping sauce, watermelon and cherries for desert. On the table in 20 minutes! All organic and bought locally. Granted it's summer and all the good produce is readily available. Keeping a well-stocked fridge and left overs go a long way. And we sure ate healthy or healthily. Whichever/whatever. Have fun with my spelling & grammer errors! Life is GOOD!

I think it bears repeating (and repeating, and repeating) that learning how to cook, and then learning how to cook consistently in a health-conscious manner is a learning process. Even if you grew up in a home where you ate out 1-2 times per year, picked vegetables from a garden, and had family meals every night, you still don't know how to plan, shop for, cook, and store meals unless you are shown how to make it happen. Like with any worthwhile endeavor, it takes, time, patience, and a LOT of trial and error to get a system down that works. I think the fail rate comes due to the time involved in getting over the learning curve.

Time is 100% an issue - but there are strategies to combat that. Yes, sometimes it will fall through the cracks. Sometimes you WILL forget lunch. In that case - hitting a grocery store if possible can be a cheaper way to get something. Fresh fruit, either buy a package of bread/cracker or a single from the bakery if possible, peanut butter. Cold run you less than $8 and then you have an emergency PB stash? Or grab a few slices of meat/cheese from the deli and make a sandwich? Anyway - for the home cooked issue I would say: Make a menu and prep as much as possible ahead of time, I have a friend who cooks just on Sunday and reheats planned meals and use your slow cooker on days time is issue. Personally, I find the meal planning has helped a lot. It also cuts costs because you use the menu to shop - only buy the produce you NEED and none is wasted. That's my 2 cents :)

I have found that Organic food is very expensive. Now that I only shop for my husband and myself I could probably buy more Organic food but for my son/daughter-in-law with two small children and a limited income I'm sure it would be quite difficult.


I agree completely on the need for education (even if it's just a recipe pamphlet and a crockpot) to help recipients of supplemental nutrition programs stretch their food dollars and make healthy meals at the same time.

Are we really talking English here? Just checking.

Anyhoo, I agree it does cost less to eat healthy in the end when you add up medical bills etc. Healthy does not mean expensive...sweet potatoes and cabbage are just two of healthy cheap eats! I agree you do have to plan. I try to cook majority of food on Sunday. That way I don't have to go get anything and besides my job is so crazy I am literally to tired to even do a drive thru I just want to get home as fast as I can!

This is a more complicated question than people like to acknowledge. You can't compare one meal with certain ingredients to another individual meal bought at a fast food place. No one eats the same food everyday and it's not healthy to eat the same food all of the time. It also never includes time, energy, water, and cooking necessities. Spices, pans, electricity, etc. aren't free. They are investments, as are things that help in healthy food preparation like an immersion blender or food processor. Not everyone can make those investments nor do they know how to cook.

In general, if you don't eat meat, cheese, or fresh fruit, you can eat healthy and cheap. Fresh fruit (excluding bananas) is pretty expenisve. Certain vegetables are cheap, but not all of them. The cheapest way to eat is to use canned vegetables (which aren't as tasty or healthy) in various dishes like soup.

So, if you ate rice, beans, a limited number of vegetables and eggs, you could eat healthily and for cheap, but you would be on a limited diet and likely missing some essentials (especially Calcium and dairy foods - all of which are expensive). However, who wants to skip eating things like avocado, mango, grapes, and Brussels sprouts?

My cheapest meal is 85 cents per serving and that's vegetarian paella - soy chorizo, mushrooms, bell pepper, yellow onions, black olives, green onions, rotel tomatoes with chili, and rice and a lot of spices. It's pretty healthy, but it is missing some essential nutrients.

Orchid, I totally agree. I personally choose to eat smaller amounts of higher quality meat, both as an ethical (since it's free range) and personal health choice.

"You can't compare one meal with certain ingredients to another individual meal bought at a fast food place."

This is so true. And that's also why it's so much more expensive or challenging for smaller households, because you lose the economy of buying in bulk, OR you have to eat the same food for about a week, OR you have to have a truly massive freezer and be prepared to eat frozen rather than fresh food.

The fact is that a stick of celery, in most places, doesn't cost 1/10th of a bunch of ten sticks. You always pay more for individual or partial items. That means less variety or significantly higher costs.

"However, who wants to skip eating things like avocado, mango, grapes, and Brussels sprouts?"

I'll happily skip the sprouts! The avocado, not so much. It's delicious and nutritious, and I just consider it an investment in my health.

There are plenty of health, simple recipes/meals one can choose. In addition, organic produce purchase in season is more affordable. Grains, beans are examples of items which are generally inexpensive and healthy as well. I grew up watching my relatives in Southern Europe eat a healthy, Mediterranean diet on a small budget. We just need to focus, think long-term and not consider fast food restaurants or processed foods as an option. Have a great day!

My family loves, for example, baked mac and cheese. A frozen processed meal runs $10/12. Making it myself, supplies are half that much and I have more control over ingredients... plus, you can prep ahead of time and pop in the fridge until it's time to cook. And I AGREE about the slow cookers!

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