Vegetables. Source: Pam Brophy, http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/8937I remember watching a documentary on TV about an overweight family that brought their kids to eat fast food everyday because it was “cheaper” than buying vegetables at the supermarket and cooking them (it might have been Food, Inc.).

Now, I never was at the point of eating fast food everyday, but I used to be a full-time student that worked part-time, and I used to buy a lot of easy-to-prepare food at the supermarket. I did it because it was easier to prepare, I was younger, so I didn’t know any better, and back then, my body was able to handle the crap just fine.

Since I’ve graduated and especially over the past year, I have been shifting toward a healthier way of eating. A couple of weeks ago, this shift accelerated. I had been enduring some increasing symptoms, and I decided to kick the symptoms in the balls and cut out all of the foods I suspected to be at fault. I’ve cut out grains, some dairy, and I try to avoid processed foods in general, though I still do eat these types of foods on occasion.

How much is it going to cost?


There seems to be an ongoing myth that healthy food has to be more expensive. I worried about that, myself, as I started shopping for healthier foods, including vegetables.

First, let’s look at the costs if we eat out instead of eating at home:

Calories Approx. Cost
Breakfast
Bagel breakfast 400 $3.00
Total 400 $3.00
Lunch
2 slices of pizza + a drink 700 $6.00
Total 700 $6.00
Supper
McDonald’s Angus burger trio 1190 $9.00
Total 1190 $9.00
Grand Total 2290 $18.00

This could be a fairly typical way of eating if you never cook at home. I find it hard to believe that eating out could be less expensive than cooking at home, at least where I live.

What about if you eat at home? Can you save money by buying the cheap food instead of healthy food? I decided to compare the healthier type of food I eat today with the less healthy food I was eating only a year back. This is what a typical Sunday could look like for me:

Calories Approx. Cost
Breakfast
1 avocado 270 $0.79
2 eggs 140 $0.63
2 peaches 76 $0.67
2 tbsp. Cream 90 $0.30
Total 576 $2.39
Lunch
1 tomato 22 $0.25
4 cups red leaf lettuce 20 $0.50
½ cucumber 23 $0.17
50ml olive oil 433 $0.40
Leftover chicken 29 $0.05
1 peach 38 $0.33
Total 565 $1.70
Supper
Chicken leg 462 $1.00
1 beet 37 $0.15
½ leek stalk 27 $0.08
1 cup bai cai (bok choy) 10 $0.25
½ medium brocoli stalk 39 $0.50
1 sausage 256 $1.24
3g fish oil 27 $0.24
50g cheese 201 $0.60
Total 1060 $4.06
Grand Total 2200 $8.15

Now while I consider this healthy, it is not supremely healthy. The chicken is not organic (organic meat doesn’t seem to exist where I live; the closest I’ve seen is “anti-biotic free” pork that was insanely expensive), and the sausage still counts as processed food. I don’t practice this very strictly, but I do try to stay within some bounds.

Nonetheless, compare it to how I used to eat a year ago:

Calories Approx. Cost
Breakfast
2 pizza pockets 480 $2.00
2 tbsp. Cream 90 $0.30
Total 570 $2.30
Lunch
2 servings pasta 640 $1.00
1 cup pasta garden sauce 70 $1.00
Total 710 $2.00
Supper
2 sausages 512 $2.48
Total 512 $2.98
Snack



Whole grain bag of popcorn, ¼ bag 350 $0.88

Total 350 $0.88
Grand Total 2181 $8.16

I wouldn’t say that this is horrible; it’s much better than the fast food diet. It’s still not that great, though. I wasn’t eating very many vegetables or fruit, and this diet is very high in carbs and processed food. Even if you are not overweight, a diet high in inflammatory insulin-spiking carbs is not necessarily very healthy. I guarantee you that I don’t have the daily routine of Michael Phelps and that I won’t burn off all of those carbs.

As you can see, I didn’t save any money at all by switching to a less-healthy selection of food. The only advantage to eating these kinds of foods is that preparation time is quicker. The pizza pockets take a 2 minute microwave, whereas the eggs take around 5-6 minutes of pan-frying. Washing all those vegetables and salad takes time, too, and it also means more dishes to wash. However, today I’ll trade an extra 15-20 minutes for my health anytime.

These are approximate prices where I live; your mileage may vary.

So, what do you think about preparation time vs. eating healthy? Let me know about it in the comments! :)

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About

Kevin has left the office, and he is currently fighting the rat race by working on his own business. He enjoys exploring unvisited places around the world and gaining new experiences. He believes that by properly managing our energy and time, we can learn to invest our lives wisely.

49 Comments Kevin on Sep 21st 2010

49 Responses to “Is It Really That Expensive to Eat Healthy Food?”

  1. Oh it is totally worth the time. I love cooking a big meal on Sunday, and using the leftovers for a ‘base’ for a meal the next couple days. For instance, we cooked some chicken on Sunday, used leftover chicken in chicken-pasta-salad yesterday and will use some in stir-fry tonight. All you have to do is plan.

    I actually find cleaning and cutting up fruits and vegetables therapeutic for some reason. I go nutty if I start to run low on F&V in the refrigerator as that is the ‘go to’ snack for my kids. I do not buy entirely organic either, I mix and match.

  2. Kevin,

    You make an interesting point: challenging the assumption that eating healthy has to be expensive. Like Kris mentioned, it probably more about planning than raw costs. I am not great with planning meals, but my wife is great! I’m glad it is not left up to me to pick/prepare most of our meals because although they wouldn’t be incredibly unhealthy, they would much more dull.

    Kudos to all the people who find “cleaning and cutting up fruits and vegetables therapeutic!” :)

  3. Lulu says:

    It is really more of a convenience to buy pre-made food than to get healthy food. I love getting fruits and vegetables that I can prepare at home but sometimes I am just tired and it seems really easy to take a nap while I wait for pizza delivery. I find myself preparing more and more food at home now…while it does seem a little bit more expensive at first the cost becomes less as you reuse more of the fresh foods.

  4. Nicole says:

    Chicken and pork are two meats that it’s ok to eat non-organic, if the internet is to be believed. The gov’t regulations on them are such that they’re not shot up with chemicals to the extent that beef is. Same with bison/buffalo.

    Though I have to say that genuinely free-range chicken is amazingly flavorful.

    We ate incredibly healthily when we were really poor, though probably too much rice and potatoes for me given my insulin problems. Beans, split peas, canned tomatoes, and remaindered (“ready to eat”) produce made up the bulk of our diet. We ate less meat– mostly chicken pieces. And we walked a lot to save money. Still, I wouldn’t go back!

  5. I hate when people automatically jump to unhealthy, prepared foods, or eating out, without even trying to be healthy. They just state that it’s too expensive, or they don’t have options or time.

    However, I do know plenty of people that this is completely true for. Where I grew up (in a huge city) there weren’t too many supermarkets around, and the few that we had carried substandard meats, fruits, and veggies. So it was either, buy half-rotten and bruised up produce, or get a meal in a box.

    Many people in these areas rely on public transportation, so they can’t just travel outside the city to the good supermarkets, and when they can, they are limited in what they can buy.

    Then there is the fact that healthier foods are much more expensive than their unhealthy counterparts. Especially comparing organic to regular fruit & veggies – or even with semi-prepared foods that have more healthy inputs than similar items.

    I guess I know plenty of people on both sides of this thought. Some just use price and time as an excuse to eat that way, but others really are constrained.

  6. Lina Zussino says:

    Without a doubt it is far cheaper to eat healthy…. if you are organized! I know, I know, time is money… however my husband and I are extremely busy people too. We run two business from home. I have a whole months dinner menu planned out. I never worry about what am I going eat or cook tonight and it’s always a healthy meal. Lucky for us we both love cooking so there are a lot of frozen fruit, veggies baking and yes I even make my own homemade bread. This summer I went out and picked 6 grocery bags of apples – peeled them and froze them. I have tasty healthy apples and portage for breakfast. This week steel cut oats were on special for $.33/100g. I think it’s fair for me to say – “Healthy eating is far cheaper then most may think.”

  7. My wife cooks a lot so we’re able to eat healthy ones, mostly vegetables, fish and poultries. We’ve cut back on meat and we would buy the lean ones if ever. We are also switching to a lot of organic foods. When we go to Costco, we normally pick-up the organic ones if available.

  8. I cook for the whole week on sunday. Not sure if it is still as healthy as eating freshly prepared food, but I figured it is better than eating out. If I don’t have anything in the fridge during the week, I end up eating out :( Now I try to keep salad ingredients on hand, much cheaper, very less time to put together, so I won’t have any excuses to eat out. I do not buy everything organic (I am a vegetarian) but mostly buy local (it is cheaper too).

  9. Evan says:

    I never had to shop…living at home in College to moving in with the gf (who became The Wife) during law school – that when I started food shopping I was shocked how much a box of baked crap is vs some veges and fruit. What kind of excuse can you have not to eat healthy when a banana costs 19 cents at trader joes!

  10. Good post Kevin, although I like my Angus burger trio about once a month!!!

    My wife & I cook at home a great deal. We’ll usually have a glass of wine with dinner, decompress from our days at the office, and plan (and look forward to) our weekends. It’s a pretty nice routine. We dine out once in a while but we try and eat healthy when we’re at home. We probably eat a tossed salad at least 3 times/week and fresh vegetables every night.

    Looking back 10+ years, I can’t believe how I ate.

  11. I think the preperation time is worth it. At the beginning it will be a relatively steep learning curve, and you very well could come out ahead if you were to just by fast food. However, if you stick with it, you’ll build skills and learn tricks to help you save time. Also once your skills get high enough, you can start cooking meals that taste better than fast food!

  12. Kevin says:

    @Everyday Tips
    Sometimes laziness overcomes us, but my girlfriend especially likes preparing dinners with different ingredients and a variety of colours. It is one way to express your creativity, while creating something that everyone can enjoy. :)

  13. Kevin says:

    @Roshawn @ Watson Inc
    Haha, my girlfriend is better than me at this, too. ;)

    @Lulu
    You are quite right. Sometimes after a long day, I really don’t feel like it and go the easy way out. I do pay for it in the end. With a little bit of preparation and planning, you can buy healthy ingredients for a great price, and spend less than you would on junk food or take-out.

    @Lina Zussino
    Wow, that is a lot of planning and foresight! It must be cool to have something different to eat every single time and never worry that you’ll run out of food in the fridge! That happens on occasion to us!

  14. Kevin says:

    @Ken @Spruce Up Your Finances
    I don’t worry too much about organic bananas and stuff like that, but I would prefer organic beef and poultry. Otherwise, I am with you for lean cuts of meat, since toxins tend to accumulate in the stored fat of the animal. A mix of fresh vegetables with anti-oxidants in combination helps out, too!

    @Nicole
    That’s interesting. I personally try not to eat too much pork, but this is the first time I’ve heard support for it from this angle. Maybe next time I won’t feel so bad about indulging myself. :)

  15. Kevin says:

    @Khaleef @ KNS Financial
    That is pretty bad. I used to live in the poor/immigrant areas of town and get around via public transport or bicycle, but the selection of produce there was the same as in any other part of town.

    If all you have to choose from are soggy vegetables, then I can understand why one would choose to stop by the local fast food joint; especially as I recall in some parts of the US, fast food costs can be fairly cheap. It depends on where you are.

  16. Kevin says:

    @Suba @ Wealth Informatics

    The great thing about that is that you never have to worry about what you’re going to eat, nor how you’re going to make it! As you are vegetarian, you don’t have to worry about eating stale meat, either! I guess that is one advantage to not eating meat.

  17. Kevin says:

    @Evan

    LOL, true. I used to go through boxes of those baked crackers, and I can’t believe how much money I wasted on them… you could buy 20 bananas for the price of a box. Sometimes, they do taste good though.

  18. Kevin says:

    @Financial Cents

    That does sound like a pretty nice routine. As I take it, you seem like a pretty stress-free guy that sees the good things in life, and takes the time to enjoy them. I don’t personally drink much wine myself, but I do enjoy wine every now and then with a good dinner, and as I understand it, a glass of wine is good for your health, too!

    P.S. Yeah, I have to admit an Angus burger trio every now and then is tempting. :)

  19. Kevin says:

    @Jeff @ Sustainable Life Blog

    Even cooking spaghetti with meatballs is better than fast food, and it takes almost no skill at all to cook. The worst you can do is make a mistake like put the pasta in while the water is still cold and end up with soggy noodles… so what, you’ll learn after the first time. ;)

  20. Sandy L says:

    I have to start understanding where my budget gets busted here. I lump my groceries with other stuff like paper products, shampoo, diapers, etc and I am wondering how much of my spending is the non-food stuff.

    My individual meals are quite often very cheap but yet I still end up spending between $150-$200 at the grocery store every week to feed 5. We’ll see if I ever get geeky enough to categorize my spending down to that granularity. Might be worth doing it for a few months.

  21. Raw fruits and vegetables are definitely cheaper than processed foods.

  22. There’s a big time health food movement in SF, which actually helps lower prices due to more competition.

    Every morning I eat the fruits from my backyard for breakfast. That helps!

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  27. Melanie S says:

    I agree with the sentiment of this post, but I find the prices on the healthy food a extremely low. Maybe food is just a lot more expensive in my region, but there’s no way I could get prices like that.

    The other thing to consider is wasted food due to poor meal planning. I might only eat a few cents worth of something, but if I don’t use the rest, I’m out the cost of the whole lot.

    It would be interesting to compare a weekly meal budget based on fast food, healthy groceries and not-so-healthy groceries (showing that with proper meal planning, eating healthy can be the economical choice).

  28. Kevin says:

    @Melanie S

    Really? I always thought that Avocados at 80c/each and eggs at $3.78 a dozen were on the expensive side! I guess prices really are relative.

    Lately my weekly spending has been about $50 to $60 including lunches, depending on what I buy. Every day that I eat lunch out you can add about $8 to $10 to that total.

    I agree with you about meal planning. It would be quite a waste to buy some fruits and vegetables and then never eat them, forcing you to throw it in the trash. Your comment reminds me of a girl that I know that buys a whole watermelon and then eats it with a spoon. She usually scoops out maybe 1/5th of the watermelon, if even that, and the rest goes in the garbage. I find it such a waste….

    Thanks for your comment!

  29. Kevin says:

    @Financial Samurai

    That reminds me of when I stopped over in Dominica for a day. Apparently the people there live very long and healthy lives, and it is in part due to the fact that they have easy access to fresh fruit, right in their own backyards!

    More competition is always good. Here the choice is between the cheap warehouse supermarket and the more expensive unionized supermarket. The union places are quite nice but prices can be up to double that of the warehouse-style supermarkets, and you don’t necessarily get higher quality.

    When it comes to actual organic food, it’s almost impossible to buy. Sure, you can get organic bananas at double the price, but what’s the point? I want organic meat, and you won’t find it at any supermarket.

    • Kevin says:

      Just to add, I find the whole label “organic” and “natural” kind of laughable. All food is “organic” and “natural”. It’s kind of like the expensive beef and chicken that advertises how they’re grain-fed, when that is standard industry practice…

  30. Kevin says:

    @The Biz of Life

    So it definitely seems, unless you limit yourself to Kraft Dinner 5 times a week!

  31. Kevin says:

    @Sandy L

    I don’t have kids, but $150 to $200 for a family of 5 including non-food items sounds very reasonable to me! I will be pleased if we can avoid going over $200 for a family of 5… considering I spend $50 – $60 on myself, that would be close to $300 if extrapolated over 5 people.

  32. Craig says:

    Often you get what you pay for. You buy cheap food and you get cheap nutrition. You’re stomach gets full but that’s about it as far as nutritional usefulness. Healthy eating could be a few more dollars but the health benefits far outweigh the money spent.

    • Kevin says:

      Great point, Craig. You could easily fill yourself up on bananas and Kraft Dinner for a couple of bucks a day, but it wouldn’t be very fulfilling nor healthy … (though I suppose you wouldn’t be completely malnutritioned either).

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  36. Amy says:

    Great post! I’m looking to make some changes in my own eating habits, so I appreciate your insight a lot! Thank you. I recently stumbled upon this blog like I did yours and I thought your readers may appreciate the advice of this couple: http://burisonthecouch.wordpress.com/2010/11/04/food-for-thought/

    I’ve started to look for their stuff more regularly and I think I’m going to add your blog to my list as well. Thanks for the post!

  37. James Fulton says:

    Kevin,
    You make an interesting point, Most of the time its time consuming and tiring, but the real reason behind it is the lack of planning before starting it. But when its done in the right order i hope it take much less time probably near to half an hour .

    BTW , Thanks for the economic calculations….

    James

    • Kevin says:

      I agree, James. There’s something wholesome about eating home-cooked food as well. I like Jamie Oliver’s thoughts here and would recommend him to those looking to learn more about preparing food at home… anyone can become a home chef!

  38. [...] How expensive is it to eat good food?  Another great question, this time asked by Kevin @ Invest It Wisely earlier this year.  This post was one of the first I read at Kevin’s site and his analysis spurred us to consider writing a blog as well with a focus of using financial data to back up our arguments.  In this article Kevin looks at the cost of healthy, unhealthy and fast food diets while comparing calories as well.  Be kind to your waistline and body in the New Year folks! [...]

  39. Tina says:

    Hi, love reding your post. Must say, that we spend a lo more for rubish food that healthy one. Unfotunatly that’s true. I also think people should cook more at home, as much as they can – as eaing its also some kind of ritual. Much better than ging o a resturant and take 10-1 minutes for a dish, that should give you energy for a whole day.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughs with us,
    Tina

    • Kevin says:

      I personally prefer eating at home; for me restaurant eating is more for social events like eating as a group or with coworkers, or for special occasions. The home is also a great place for those as well though such as Christmas dinners.

  40. I must say you have interesting and valid points on your post. It is indeed a wrong conception that eating healthy food is expensive. In my case both myself and my husband are very particular about eating healthy. So we both plan our meals together though more effort is taken by me but he is always supportive:)

    • Kevin says:

      Sounds good! And in the end, we don’t have to eat perfectly. 80/20 rule applies… if you’re eating home-cooked meals most of the time, cooking with healthy fats, etc… you’re already much of the way there.

  41. Healthy cooking doesn’t have to be expensive. Actually a lot of fresh ingredients are much cheaper than processed foods because of the energy and man-hours it took to prepare them. By cooking meals yourself you will also develop a totally different relationship with food. You’ll become more conscious of what you’re eating.

    • Kevin says:

      This is true… not all of the crappy food is cheap as well. Some of it can be quite expensive! I do wish that non-CAFO meats were more widely available and less expensive where I live.