The cost of a healthy diet


The problem that overreaching free-market thinking displays is the assumption that everyone starts from the same place. If you’re poor and poorly educated, and all you’ve ever known or eaten is junk food because it’s all you ever had growing up, then you don’t have the opportunity to “solve this problem,” regardless of how much you may care about it.

The fact that the diet industry makes billions of dollars providing either a) basic nutrional advice known to anyone with a modicum of common sense, or b) bizarrely contrived pablum which is contrary to all standard nutritional information aptly demonstrates that even people with a mean education find difficulty in eating properly. Expecting some poor schlub who doesn’t read well and is working two jobs to self-educate on a healthy diet (and blaming him or her for their moral failings when they don’t) is a pretty disingenous way of perpetuating discrimination.


I think this is a big simplification. And look! I have cites to back me up!

From researchers at the UC Davis Center for Advanced Studies in Nutrition and Social Marketing:

This study says:

This page states:

That point was omitted from this thread. I think it’s clear that having to travel a long distance and incur substantial costs to obtain your groceries will seriously compromise your ability to eat cheaply.

I don’t know of anything in the diet I’m proposing that requires serious bulk buying. The biggest bulk I buy is 10lbs of flour at a time.

The issue of variety and taste - what people like and will happily eat - is an important one. I like the food I eat, but freely admit that a Big Mac is well calculated to taste great and appeal to huge numbers of people. Trying to wean someone away from fast food and onto rice & veggies, pasta or homemade soup is not likely to be easy. But again, that’s somewhat outside the scope of the OP.

Baking bread can take several hours elapsed time. But the total hands-on time for a couple of loaves can be under 15 minutes. It’s satisfying work, and even most fast-food junkies will go for bread fresh & hot from the oven.

I’m not so sure. If you are poor because you are working two or three low-paying jobs just to survive, then that is a valid argument. But aren’t most people poor because they don’t have any job? That sucks, but it removes the ‘not enough time’ reason.

ME? I’m not. I spend between $15-30 a meal, whether we’re eating in or out. I was just hoping **Xema **would stand by her claim in the OP:

I’m only halfway being snarky here. We don’t have much money, and my grocery bill is killing me. If I can cut it in half for even half of our dinners, I’d be ecstatic.

If, OTOH, $15 is about as cheap as I can realistically go for a dinner for four, then I’m doing all I can. But **Xema **seems to think I can do better.

And, for the record, my family’s not terribly picky, but they do demand variety (I could get away with literal rice and beans once a month, but not more than that - although I can do red beans and rice once and chili and rice once.) And I’m a pretty skilled cook with a well stocked kitchen, so I’m not even dismissing anything that isn’t a convenience food.

There are some urban exceptions. It’s painting with a broad brush, but Asian communities seem to be able to eat better for a few reasons:

  1. There is a broad base of people who place a high value on healthy, well-prepared food and demand it from local merchants.
  2. There solid, cross-generational support. Grandma may not hold a paying job anymore, but she can cook and she has the time and persistence to hoof it from one store to another hunting down the best and cheapest ingredients. (I lived in the Bay Area and learned to go do something else if there was an Asian woman over 50 at a vegetable bin. Because she was going to examine every single peapod individually until she found the ones that suited her.)
  3. The neighborhood is dense enough with customers that it is worhwhile for merchants to establish themselves there. Dense enough, in fact, for them to have to compete for customers.

I will say that those are, in some cases, silly prices. At my local ghetto supermarket, for example, dried kidney beans/cannelini/black beans/navy beans/pintos are about a dollar a pound. Rice at $1/lb is high, but not something I haven’t seen for small quantities (>5 lbs). Red peppers, romaine lettuce, whole wheat pasta, tofu, skinless chicken breast, red onions, fresh tomatoes, ground turkey – these are rich people foods. Of course they’re expensive – they are going to be pricey no matter where you go. Red peppers are just plain expensive, and so is tofu. Yellow storage onions do the job for me, as do frozen broccoli, peas, carrots, etc. at around $1.50/lb, not on sale (on average). The chicken prices are outrageous, I’ll admit – paying top dollar for your average supermarket whole chicken is ludicrous, unless you’re getting top quality and are one of those organic-only fetishists or have to feed the president or something.

Yes, some of those prices are pretty high, and that’s too bad. But a number of the ingredients listed are for luxury items that have no bearing on “eating healthy” (whatever that means). Also, there’s no cheaper way to obtain high value, given your constraint of giving your family variety. That means McDonald’s 3x/day is right out. So what are the alternatives?

Ok, I get it. Thanks for clarifying – I don’t want to misrepresent anyone, and what you say makes sense. Here’s my scatter-brained, schizoid logic which I’m trying to use, as follows (and perhaps precedes). Yes – I know that I can fill up for two bucks (maybe three if I’m going crazy) at the burger joint. But for a family of…I don’t know, four? let’s say it’s four…3x/day using the value menue is going to costand– it’s going to pretty d. monotonous. I don’t have any argument that fast food can make a lot of sense, and I agree that many of the claims made by “healthy-eating” advocates, as concerns cost are overstated – it’s just plain expensive to buy lean animal protein and fresh veggies (damn Alice Waters! frozen vegetables are one of the glories of American manufacturing!) and all that – but as an either/or proposition, I confess I don’t understand.

Yep, I agree. But they’re what I deal with or I have to drive a ways to find better.

I listed those prices because most of them were mentioned in the thread as “healthy foods”

Yellow onions are still around $2 for a 3 pound bag. Cheaper than red, I grant you.

Frozen veggies (which I do buy a lot of) are around $2-3 per bag, depending on the kind. Peas and corn are the cheapest, at around $1.69 on sale

What do you use for protien? Beef is even more expensive than chicken and tofu. Eggs are good, but high fat, so we only eat those once or twice a week.

Isn’t variety part of eating healthy, or have I been misled by that damn food pyramid and the “5-a-day” campaign?

I generally define “healthy” as minimally processed, whole grain, low animal fat, lots of varied fresh (or frozen) vegetables and a moderate amount (3 servings, in accordance with weight-loss guidelines and my lactation) of dairy.

My alternative at the moment seems to be spending a whole lot more of our income on food than I’d like. I’m lucky enough to be able to do that, even though I’ve had to make the choice not to save money for a down payment on a house so my family eats well. That’s with 2 respectable (i.e., much higher than minimum wage) incomes coming in. But I’m very aware that we’re much “richer” than a lot of folks out there.

Ah! Cross post. Yes, I think you understand me better than when I posted that last bit. Sorry.

And yes, eating at McD’s all the time would nauseate me. And really, really not provide variety or “health”.

I think what I am most shocked about from Whynot’s price list is that of chicken. Sure, a boneless, skinless breast will cost you $2.99/pound, but chicken backs )which, BTW, I have never actually seen for sale…) which has almost no meat for $1.99/pound? Ack! I get a while chicken for $0.99/pound. That’s at least three emals for me, plus bones for making stock.

Those prices suck, Whynot. :frowning:

“Satisfying work” is an opinion. Obviously not everyone is going to find it satisfying, or even a bit enjoyable.

Throwing together a loaf or two of bread simply is not easy for most people, even if the working time is under 15 minutes - which is way less time than I’ve experienced. Don’t you knead your dough? Even in a mixer, making artisan breads, it’s at least ten minutes of kneading time. By hand is longer, and takes a bit of strength.

Even discounting preparation time, the biggest problem with a working person is that it does take several hours to rise. I know it’s longer than I care to do after work on a weeknight, and if I choose to make bread on a weekend, my schedule is pretty much shot for at least half the day. It might not be a lot of work, but when you have to raise for an hour, then punch down, the raise another couple hours, then form loaves, then raise for 30 more minutes, then bake, that’s not a lot of time in between to run errands or pick up the kids or do all the other things that working people typically do on the weekends. Sure, you can do a few things - a quick errand during the first rise, or do housework - but overall I think you’re discounting the amount of effort it takes to produce a loaf. It’s not that much if you’re going to be at home anyway, but if you have other stuff to do, it’s much easier to buy a loaf.

At home in Michigan, we (two of us) eat for $200 per month. That’s about $8.00 per day figuring that we eat out five times a month. Of course, that doesn’t include beer in the cost of groceries. It’s almost exclusively fresh foods with very, very little pre-package or convenience items. And that’s eating really, really well, and not wasting time clipping coupons or chasing sales or otherwise having to worry about cutting costs. I guess we could probably save more if we behaved like that.

Oddly, we leave our cozy suburb to go to poor, urban, west side of Detroit to shop there. It’s noticably cheaper than our chain stores in our neighborhood, which probably helps with the grocery bill, and it seems to draw other suburbanites who are looking for Mexican ingredients (that’s why we go; not the cheapness thing. That’s just coincidence and good luck).

Simplistic “the market always provides” sorts of explanations simply don’t account for the complexity of the situation. The costs of operating in poor neighborhoods are significantly higher. Even in bad areas, it’s simply harder to acquire and purchase the land required in highly urban areas as opposed to in the suburbs. Many poor neighborhoods are dangerous to do business in, so employees will have to be paid more, security costs money, suppliers will cost more - in general, the cost of running an inner-city supermarket would be substantially higher. And the ones that exist charge more (often taking advantage of their captive market to gouge on prices.) Consider also that a grocery store a mile away is close when you have a car, but it’s quite a hike when you don’t.

Poor people who are working long hours to earn enough money for necessities also don’t have the luxury of an hour to spend cooking for their families. It’s not just cost, there’s also time, and the already-addressed issue of the fact that it costs quite a bit to set up a functional kitchen.

Whynot is in Chicagoland, IIRC, rather than “10 miles N of nowhere” and therefore has to cope with higher (and more in line with the inner city) prices that the urban poor have to deal with. Admittedly, driving around and shopping at different stores and/or hitting sales, using coupons, et cetera can drive down the prices, but if you’re poor, don’t have a car, don’t read the newspaper, don’t have time to devote to shopping, et cetera then you can’t take advantage of sales.

I have to wonder…how many of you have actually browsed around an inner city supermarket? Stuff I can buy at the local Vons or Ralphs in Pasadena is often 30% greater or more in price in Watts or Compton; meat may cost twice as much, and be of poorer quality. And go into your local convenience store (which may be the only “grocery” for people without a car or easy bus transit) and just try to find something healthy to eat.

Some of you need to realize that the rest of the world is not like your little corner or nearspace, and that the background and education you take for granted is a benefit that not everyone enjoys.


No dispute that what’s enjoyable is a matter of individual taste. But people for whom I’ve demonstrated breadmaking often find it less work and more fun than they imagined.

It is, but bread anywhere near as good as what you can make can be hard to find and is rarely cheap.
And I think the OP makes the presumption that preparation time is not a big consideration. Including the requirement for convenience must surely increase the cost (or decrease the healthiness) of any diet.

Oh, I know – I don’t drive out to the “good” grocery store these days much because of gas prices, but also because the prices aren’t always cheaper at the suburban Wegman’s – in fact, it’s often more expensive for certain staples.

I understand now. To me, that’s sort of too bad – the “healthy food” debate is often steered in this direction. One of my pet peeves is the rant against white breads – the kind which are made by top Parisian boulangeres – but I understand that there might be some legitimate reasons to eschew white grain products (Italian pasta, French bread, etc.) if one has a specific reason.

Well, sure – that price sounds reasonable from what I’ve seen at local supermarkets. I tend to think of yellow “storage” onions as a kind of pantry staple – spice things up, provide some substance to other dishes. They can be spread pretty thin, so to speak. But yes, they do cost. For me, they have a lot of taste for the buck, so it’s worth it, but it’s probably a matter of opinion what their value is.

I agree that peas and corn tend to be among the cheapest. I’d add broccoli to that list, and spinach, which I’ve found to be reasonably priced (in my personal ghetto-style supermarket – it may be different where you’re at, of course). The only frozen veggie I’ve found to be pretty expensive is cauliflower, and maybe pre-diced red/green bell peppers (still cheaper than fresh, though!). Carrots are still within my budget, but I tend to prefer them “fresh” so that I can cut them to my specifications, but they tend to be more expensive as well. I hate that dogma that “fresh” vegetables are healthier than frozen.

Well, protein is an expensive proposition, you’re right. Since I just live with my girlfriend and I’m able to do the max with more inexpensive foods, I’ll often part out a whole chicken (using a $3.00 cleaver I got from a local flea market and/or a $10.00 10" chef’s knife got at a local restaurant supply store – yay!) or go for the occasional specials of 1.50 chuck roast and such. I find a little goes a long way, but I have the time and interest in seeking out good deals on palatable, non-rotten meat, and the knowledge it takes to turn a tough, gristly piece of steak into perfectly cooked bits of tender steak. I'm somewhat proud of my abilities to turn a butcher's cut into something intensely desirably, to the extent of using blowtorches and other tricks to obtain great results, but I realize that the days of finding a great flank steak for cheap are largely done. I'm also not particularly concerned about sat fats -- I'm not a healthy-eater kind of guy, since I drink wine every day but also lift weights and run and otherwise *really* want a lot of taste in each meal. Not a role model for family cooking. If I had to pick one source of lean protein for cheap, I'd go for canned tuna, and follow the Italians in their willingness to use such meats on pasta, etc. In a day and age when *any* part of an animal can go for lots of (chicken feet, chicken backs [!], marrow bones, flank steaks) a more gonzo approach is needed – there’s not a lot of lattitude to play around with.

You made a good choice, IMO. It’s too bad there has to be a choice. I’m somewhat certain some compromises could be made in meal preparation, maybe with significant cost-savings, but I don’t know enough of the constraints involved to come up with a menu plan right away. It sounds like you’re already a close-to-perfect shopper, i.e., one who knows unit prices on items and is able to shop around to the extent possible by gasoline prices/time constraints and such. If you were to start a thread specifically about the best way to get the most out your dollar, I’d certainly be willing to take a very close look (as a former chef – we tend to have a good idea on how to get max dollar out of every plate served!), although I don’t know as much about current nutritional standards as I should. Wouldn’t be hard to figure out how to make something tasty on just about any budget, however.

Yep, I live in Evanston, 3 blocks north of Chicago. I try to drive and do all the shopping I can in the farmer’s markets, little Mexican or European grocers, etc. because they can be cheaper. Those prices are an overview of what I can expect to pay in the large chain supermarkets (Dominick’s or Jewel) if I’m not getting a good sale price. In reality, I plan my meals around what’s on sale (which is how I’m able to get it down to around $15 a meal on good days) and I’m starting to experiment with freezer cooking, since I’m lucky enough to have a small deep freeze.

But you’re right - if I wasn’t a “homemaker”, if I didn’t know what the heck to do with a kohlorabi, and if I didn’t have a car to chase down sale prices, I don’t think I could even keep it down to $15 for a meal for four on a consistent basis.

(And chicken backs make great stock, BTW!)

He will. The claim was that for $7 you could serve rice & veggies for 4 people. It goes something like this (prices typical of where I live):

  • 1.5 lb of rice ($2.25) gives a generous helping to 4 people
  • To accompany this, we’ll saute: 1 lb of onion (about .70), some garlic (call it .40), half a pound of green pepper (at $.90, it’s rather expensive)
  • On the side we steam & serve 1.5 lb of summer squash ($1.35)

This gives a total cost for ingredients of $5.60, which allows us to budget a bit for spices and seasoning. It probably also allows for the cost of the electricity used to cook, and perhaps even for wear and tear on the pots & pans.

I don’t claim you’ll get away with serving this every night, or that junk-food junkies will swoon over it. But it does look like a meal that’s both cheap and healthy.

Cheap, yes. Healthy? Where’s the protein? Fat? A bit of fat in the diet is required; it’s too much fat that some people have issues with. And protein is essential.

It’d be hard to live healthily off nothing but rice & veggies. Throw some beans on, or some meat, and a bit of cheese or other source of fat.