The cost of a healthy diet

I’ve often encountered (most recently in this thread) the notion that a healthy diet is inherently expensive - to eat inexpensively necessarily means serious nutritional compromise. Yet I don’t find this persuasive. It seems to me that a diet of whole grains, veggies and limited meat is both cheap and fully healthy.

I follow this to some extent myself, which may mean that I’m not impartial here.

For example, typical breakfast cereals (especially those that are marketed heavily) can be shockingly expensive. I mostly eat oatmeal; buying this generically and in medium bulk (say, 3lbs at a time) yields a per-serving cost of around 0.11. Similarly, home-baked bread comes in at around .50/lb and in terms of nutrition seems to compare well with what you can buy in typical supermarkets. Veggies vary a lot in price, but squash, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes and dried beans are nearly always cheap. Many canned veggies and fruits are cheap year-round (canned italian tomatoes reliably sell for around $.87/28oz at my local supermarket, which is actually no great shakes when it comes to value for money). Rice is both cheap and good, especially when jazzed up with some beans or other veggies.

In the above-linked thread, it seemed well accepted by some posters that one obvious way to eat cheaply was to frequent fast-food outfits like McDonalds, with a consequent loss of diet quality. Such places are ocertainly cheaper than many other restaurants, but it’s still easy to spend $7/person on a typical meal there. For that price, you can easily serve a rice & veggies meal to 4 people.

So my question is whether the cost of a healthy diet should inherently be regarded as high, or whether the low-cost alternative I’ve outlined is valid.

The answer to is obviously going to turn on what’s “healthy”. If you believe that a half-pound of organic sockeye salmon a day is vital, there’s no way you can eat cheaply. And I’m fully prepared to concede that the diet I’m outlining takes some prep time.

Yes I believe eating healthy can cost a little more - however it does depend on where you shop. My wife and I shop at Trade Joes and Whole Foods for all of our grains, dry cereals, produce and organic needs. But we go to Safeway or Fry’s for our meats because they are exponentially less expensive. The thing is, most people love to have a one-stop-shop so they rarely plan on going to different places to get something maybe a little healthier. Also, if you have worked a full day and are going to the grocer you don’t want to spend 2 hours reading labels and finding the healthier choice.*

*In most instances.

Well for one you need a clean kitchen, and not everybody has a kitchen or has in useable form.

Also you need to buy groceries, prepare food, etc.
Essentially to eat healthy (and I’m not saying the diet you described would be healthy, but that’s GD material) one needs a to meet a certain number of conditions, and not all of them have to do with money. You have to care enough about what you eat to put in the effort, and if you’re not used to eating healthy food it’s going to taste very nasty.

Again, GD territory, but I’d venture a guess that people who pay attention to what they eat are more likely to go from poor to middle class.

Also, keep in mind that grocery stores are few and far between in inner-city poor areas. I know that if I were working full-time (much less multiple jobs) and barely making ends meet, the McDonald’s down the street is going to win out over bussing to the grocery store 30 minutes away, schlepping home groceries, and cooking up a meal.

Nicely said. I bake gorgeous loaves of bread which far supass in quality anything I can purchase at retail. It’s far less than $.50/lb, once you stop purchasing yeast in the tiny packets at the supermarket (or forgo yeast leavening altogether, although the level of committment and knowledge required for natural levain breads is considerable). It also takes very little active time, especially for artisan-style loaves prepared with a high baker’s percentage of water and virtually no kneading. Not everyone’s thing, but I enjoy it, it’s astonishingly cheap, and, as I said, the results are far superior, to my tastes, than anything I could reliably purchase, for any price.

Perhaps part of the problem is the largely BS “lore” surrounding the preparation of ingredients such as rice or dried beans. I’m certain that the nonsense surrounding dried beans (don’t salt before cooking or the beans won’t soften, you must soak for a long time, etc.) has contributed to many people preferring to consume their beans at the local taco-slinger, just as the myths about cooking rice (follow the directions on the package! if you lift the lid at the wrong time you’ll ruin everything!) have done the same; or notions such as that frozen vegetables are morally suspect, compared to their fresh counterparts…etc.

Some counterarguments might include (a) knowledge of proper technique, since it depends upon a certain amount of experimentation, is unattainable for people without an innate interest in the subject (b) even simple cooking equipment – of which the good (not necessarily expensive) variety is necessary for serious “plain” cooking – can be hard to find amid the many rows of utter crap without knowing in advance desirable qualities (c) the highest ratio of calories per unit of currency can usually be found at a fast-food restaurant, nutrition notwithstanding. And the list goes on.

Fruits & vegetables can be expensive, because they don’t have much with regard to caloric content. However there are healthy foods that are affordable. Wheat spaghetti, beans, ground turkey, high fiber bread, etc.

No, you can’t. At least, not where I live (Chicago). Also, remember that you have to get to the store. One of the points in that other thread is that there are no stores with fresh food nearby. So subtract $3.50 for bus fare from your $7, and now I’ve got only $3.50 to feed a family of four a healthy meal with fresh ingredients. Remember you can’t buy in bullk because you need to be able to carry everything on the bus. McDonald’s is just on the corner- I can walk there.

Propose to me a meal plan for a week for a family of four spending $3.50 per dinner with my urban pricing. Try. Heck, even try for $7 per dinner with enough variety that my family will eat that way all week.

(Please? I really need ideas!)

I don’t doubt your homemade bread is wonderful. Heck, homemade white bread is wonderful. But do you seriously propose people with three jobs spend four hours baking bread? Or can we start adding bread machines to welfare payments?

Whole wheat spaghetti is invariably much more expensive than cheaper “white” varieties. I do use the product myself on occasion, for times when I don’t care about preparing Italian-style food, but rather just have a yen for the taste, but I can only source the ingredient in high-end supermarkets or speciality shops/food co-ops. The fattiest ground turkey can be had in my city for around $2.00/lb, with leaner turkey products costing more. On a par with ground beef, and with similar fat content at a given price range. Whole joints of turkey or whole chickens can be cheaper, even including the costs of parting/boning and the extra bone mass, but can’t really be said to be healthier than any other meat, in terms of fat content. High-fiber bread, when purchased pre-made, is invariably more expensive than the standard “sandwich white” (or nominally “wheat”) loaves. Fiber supplements, however, can be quite reasonable, as can whey protein when sourced in bulk.

On the contrary, I’ve never been in a convenience store/bodega-type corner shop where I couldn’t purchase good ol’ rice and dried beans – both quite easy to prepare in a moderately quick amount of time. Salt, dried cumin, black pepper, chile peppers, etc., are also easily available outside of a supermarket – people don’t have the knowledge or interest in preparing these sorts of humble dishes, however, in my opinion.

You can eat healthy and cheap, certainly; in fact, the most healthy traditional diets in the world depended up on cheap staple foods (rice, sweet potato, yam, quinoa, chickpeas) and small quantities of mostly lean meat, fish, or soya for protein, along with local fruits and vegetables.

The thing is, you have to know how to find and prepare this food. Many inner-city literally don’t know anything more about cooking than putting something in the microwave. Backintheday, I had neighbors who did not own a single pot or skillet, and probably did not how know how to boil water. And raising your own food may not be an option; even if community garden space is available, you have to know how to grow and care for food and plan around growing seasons.

Aside from some of my expensive tastes (wine, cheese, Irish whiskey, kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatos) my grocery bill is actually quite small, owing to the fact that I make my own sauces, dough, et cetera, and eat a lot of staple foods with only a modest amount of meat (no 8-12oz servings per meal) and almost no junk and processed food. But then, I’ve spent several years in professional kitchens cooking, ordering, and planning, and I have sufficient liesure time, education, and interest to experiment with and learn about new foods. That opportunity and literacy is a luxury that the poor can’t afford, and if they don’t come from a background that teaches how to cook and eat well then they don’t have the time or basic skills to learn.

I figure I could probably live well and healthy on about $3-$4 a day (including some fruit and veggies), with sufficient variety not to get bored. But that doesn’t take into account the years of experience and the thousands of dollars of education that underlies that.


Another potential problem is getting children to eat healthy. My grand-nephew is going through a stage where all he will eat is chicken nuggets and corn on the cob. I was never a picky eater myself, but the generation I was born in wasn’t raised on "happy meals’.* I also spent several months a year on my grandfathers farm, so vegetables have always been a major part of my diet.

*Also, we didn’t demand what we were going to eat or declare that we “wouldn’t eat something”. If we did, going to bed hungry was the least of our worries. :slight_smile:

I have been on both sides of the spectrum - being able to afford whatever food I choose to buy, and having to literally look for pennies through the house (and sidewalk!) just to buy a bag of rice.

And, since I lost my job three months ago, and my employer was able to take advantage of a loophole in the state unemployment law to avoid paying unemployment claims, my only income right now is from my son’s part-time job.

Add to that the fact that I have a metabolic disease that requires I limit my sugars and starches. And, of course, everyone should limit fats.

It is downright impossible for me to limit my starches and sugars as much as I should and still afford to eat right now.

My son and I spent 1½ hours in the store yesterday, and it went like this:

Too expensive.
We could afford that but look at all the fat in it!
Yeah, beans are dirt cheap but look- I could eat a whoppping cooked tablespoonful each meal.
Yeah, rice is a little better - I could have ½ cup each meal! Can’t afford a salad to go with it, though. I could buy some ground chuck but my gosh the fat! OMG, look! Even the ground turkey is 20% fat! Must be nothing but skin. Oh, look, this ground turkey has almost no fat at all - oh, no wonder, it’s twice the price.

And so on. And this is very similar to my experiences from several years ago, when I was unable to work due to a critical illness and its after-effects.

I finally decided to just ignore limiting starches until I could get a job, just like I did last time I was so strapped. Of course, that means I’ll likely have to double my insulin dose, which would of course doubles my insulin bill, so I’m still paying more. And last time, when I was ill, the spikey blood sugars delayed my recovery significantly.

I just thank God my situation is temporary. And I thank God I have easy access to well-stocked stores with a wide variety of choices. The stores in the not-so-affluent neighborhoods don’t even stock such things as extra-lean ground beef, whole-wheat pastas, fish that has not been battered and frozen, or turkey parts.

I don’t necessarily buy into the statement that poor means fat - but if you already have the tendency to being overweight, being poor is going to make it much, much more difficult to take it off or keep it off.

I think we are reaching some level of agreement that it isn’t the cost of healthy food so much as the time and effort needed to prepare it including the time taken to get to food stores.

If you have to go somewhere far to go to a grocery store, it’s because there is no demand in your area for a grocery store. It’s not like the government is pruposefully keeping produce markets and grocery stores out of inner city neighborhoods.

If it was an untapped market niche, somebody would’ve tapped it by now. If you care, I’m sure you can get a grant to set up a stand, selling either a hotdog for $2 or a choice of 3 fruit(say an apple and two plums, or somesuch) for $2, and a large eggplant for $2. I’m willing to bet if the stand is going to be full of rotting fruit and vegetables and out of hotdogs in 3 days.

The reason is, people who care about what they eat have already solved this problem for themselves somehow. And for people who don’t, this is not a problem at all, is it?

Yes. That and the fact that fast food places are going to serve what people want, not whats good for them. I can’t imagine that McDonalds would ever sell more Oatmeal Breakfasts than Egg McMuffiens. That is, unless they made it so sugary and fattening that it became applealing to the masses.

While you can spend $7/person on a meal at McDonald’s, it isn’t necessary. I can be legitimately full on $2.17 - plus, it’s ready instantly, I don’t have to cook, and I don’t have to clean up afterwards.

I cannot get a balanced meal for one at that price and convenience. I could prepare large quantities of food, freeze things, eat leftovers, food co-op with friends and neighbors, etc. and eventually get down to that price level for a balanced meal. But it isn’t going to be convenient. And I’d still need a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, and oven. McD’s and other fast and super convenience foods don’t require that I have those things.

Thanks for the very personal anecdote. One of the scandals of the modern supermarket – even high-end supermarkets – is that it’s difficult to find unadulterated frozen fish. Tinned/canned fish can be a good source of lean protein, but if one is concerned about one’s salt intake? Forget about it. Even though I have considerable experience with diabetes – Type I and II – I can’t offer any kind of advice in good conscience over the internet. But I’d think twice about abandoning regular, consistent eating in favor of manipulating your insulin supplements, which, as you said, will cost you more in the long run. There are cheap alternatives to animal protein which could be explored – if you have a doctor, preferably in consultation with him or her, or if you don’t, then by searching forums with an interest in providing reputable nutritional advice.

Correct. As I said, it’s very difficult to achieve the high ratio of calories per dollar McDonald’s can provide at home. It’s cheaper to buy a $0.99 sandwich at a FF joint than to prepare the same sandwich at home – in most if not all cases. I can’t bread a filet of chicken, fry it in oil, buy a prefab bun, spread it with mayo, etc., for any cheaper than a FF joint. For many people, (a) it’s not worth the extra effort, (b) the initial outlay of money to purchase cookware and staple ingredients in bulk is unreasonable or (c) the haute cuisine/“gramma’s rules” juju-style of preparing food is sufficiently obfuscatory to deter those who would otherwise be willing to walk to the corner store next to the McD’s.

Are we? I don’t think I’m willing to concede that point yet.

Local prices:
Chicken, $2.99 per pound. Chicken breast: $3.99-6.99 per pound. Chicken BACKS: $1.99 per pound

Ground turkey: $2.99 per pound

2 lbs frozen white fish: $6.99

Tofu: $2.29 per 14 ounces

Green peppers: $1.99 per pound

Red peppers: $2.99-$4.99 per pound

Romaine lettuce: $3 per head

Red onion: $.99 per pound

Tomatoes: Fresh: $2.99-4.99 per pound; canned $1.89 per 14.5 ounces

Rice: $1 per pound, unless you get into larger than 5 pound bags

Beans: $2-3 per pound, dried; $1.79 per 24 oz can

Whole wheat pasta: $3.99 per pound

And this is at the chain supermarket, not Whole Foods or Wild Oats. This is not even “high-end” organic stuff we’re talking about.

Can someone whip me up a week of healthy dinners my family will eat at those prices for under $7 per meal?

I think lots of people are using rural pricing (or even suburban pricing) to “fix” an urban problem.

Certainly, it’s possible to eat healthy cheaply, depending upon where you live. I raise organic cattle (Corrientes, really low fat content), and get fruit from the apple trees in my backyard. I have neighbors who fill their freezer with healthy meat for the price of a hunting license and an elk tag. A number of us swap: the fisherman brings trout, I bring beef, the gardener brings veggies, the farmer brings corn, etc. Everything’s fresh and organic.

We still have to buy a lot of food (rice, flour, grains, veggies and fruits that don’t grow here…), but the overall expenses stay pretty low compared to what we’d pay in a big-city grocery store.

Obviously, this won’t work in New York City.

No. I have no idea how picky your family is, for one. Second, where are you going to feed your group at an “unhealthy/bad” (tongue-in-cheek – I believe fast food eating has a valid place at the table) for $7.00/meal? People get sick of eating Filet-O-Fish no less than they do eating good ol’ rice and beans – so why does it have to be an either/or proposition? Eating a meal one doesn’t tire of is just as much of a problem at the “corner Mickey D’s” as it is at the “corner store,” no?