The "It's Too Expensive to Eat Healthy Food" Debate

There are some views held by well-meaning reporters and food bloggers that are so specious that it makes me want to hammer a nine-inch nail into my head.

The worst of these shibboleths is that it's too expensive to eat healthy food.

I've seen studies that attempt to prove Doritos cost less than lettuce by measuring foods on a cost-per-calorie basis (by this logic, tap water and zero-calorie diet soda have a cost of infinity). I've seen people compare the high cost of out-of-season organic produce with the low cost of dollar meals at McDonald's and consider it proof that healthy food always costs more than junk food. I've seen professional journalists make profoundly ignorant statements like "The solution that people live on lentils which are healthful and affordable is just ridiculous to me. Nobody wants to live like that."

That last statement is so negative, and so deeply arrogant, that I don't even know where to begin.

Look, if you want to eat both cheaply and healthily, you can't suffer from intellectual arrogance. You can't be close-minded. And you can't be in the profoundly negative habit of making blanket statements like "healthy food is too expensive." It is simply pointless to have a defeatist, all-or-nothing mindset like this.

Of course there are instances where unhealthy foods are cheaper than healthy foods. A simple example: 80/20 ground beef is 30-50c cheaper per pound than 90/10 ground beef, isn't it? And yet 80/20 beef has double the fat content of 90/10 beef. Therefore, 90/10 is "healthier" and--no coincidence--it costs more.

If you really think this is evidence that healthy food costs more than unhealthy food, then you haven't opened your mind enough to consider all your options. Why not entertain a creative and more open-minded third solution? Eat half your normal serving of meat (you can use either type of beef and the cost will be, well, half), and then make up the difference with a side dish of inexpensive greens sauteed with a few cloves of garlic. That solution is tastier, costs the least, and yet it's by far the healthiest of all.

Long time readers of Casual Kitchen know how to think about stacked costs and second order foods. They know that, all else equal, if a food has been processed, transported, advertised, or packaged, it will contain extra costs which are almost always borne by the consumer.

This is why if you want to save money and eat healthy, you'll want to focus your diet on whole, unprocessed foods, bulk grains and legumes, and simple, in-season and reasonably priced produce. You'll want to avoid buying branded foods, especially heavily-advertised branded foods, because those advertising costs are passed on to you in the form of higher prices. You'll want to avoid being the type of consumer who thinks food can't be truly "healthy" unless it has a magic organic sticker on it. And you'll want to read food blogs like this one offering a steady diet of laughably cheap, delicious and easy-to-make recipes. [See Casual Kitchen's 25 best "Laughably Cheap" recipes.]

And there will always be pricing idiosyncrasies in your grocery store. There are regular times each year when some healthy fruits and veggies go out of season and their prices skyrocket (and, thank heavens, every so often Doritos go on sale too). But, remember, pricing idiosyncrasies are opportunities, and you can take advantage of them if you stay open-minded and flexible. Don't go into a grocery store demanding grapefruit in October and blueberries in January. But when you see grapefruit at half the normal price in February and local blueberries on sale in July, stock up!

Casual Kitchen was founded on the idea that healthy food can be fun, easy to prepare and inexpensive. In fact, there are lots of foods and recipes out there that are be so inexpensive that it simply makes you laugh out loud--which is why I created the tag "laughably cheap" to categorize all of the best low-cost recipes here.

And no one says you have to live on lentils. That's just ridiculous to me. Nobody wants to live like that.

Related Posts:
Guess What? We Spend Less Than Ever on Food
If It's So Cheap to Cook at Home, Then Why is My Grocery Bill So Huge?
The Casual Kitchen Food Spending Poll: Results and Conclusions
Make Your Diet Into a Flexible Tool
When High-Fat Food ... Can Actually Be Healthy For You
The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet
Does Healthy Eating Really Cost Too Much? A Blogger Roundtable Discussion

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Amy said...

"Pay for it now or pay for it later", is what I tell people.

Unknown said...

But...but...I love lentils!

You hit the core of the problem with your "open your mind to consider all your options" statement. I found healthy food to be much more expensive when I started trying to eat healthier. I was eating my typical "meat at the center of the plate" meals. It wasn't until I picked up the habits you describe - shopping seasonally in the produce aisle, eating less meat overall and substituting vegetables - that my grocery bills started to come back down.

Now, I'm not perfect - I still love the occasional meal with a big hunk of grilled protein. But I try to balance it by planning some meatless meals, and some meals where meat is a flavor component, not the center of the dish.

Mike V @ DadCooksDinner

Diane said...

I'm with you - this annoys me to no end. And it isn't really true. I eat very, very well and I eat for about $45 a week. I eat tons of vegies. I eat some meat & fish a week.

But what I do is to cook everything from scratch, not but out-of-season fruit & veg, never buy single-serving anything. I don't drink soda or juice. And I shop carefully, much of it at ethnic markets. I always have home-made stock in the freezer, and I know how to roast a chicken and a pork loin. My meals are the envy of my friends. And they are cheap!

Dan said...

Well said. I eat reasonably healthy (with a few processed snacks and foods, but with the majority made from scratch at home). And we have a pretty small grocery bill every month. That's helped by eating less meat and more vegetarian and meat-light dishes.

Marcia said...

Very great post as usual. Boy it's a big pet peeve of mine when people talk about how expensive it is to eat healthy.

It's true that there are folks that live in "food deserts" and truly don't have access to regular grocery stores. But that's hardly a majority.

Laura said...

THANK YOU for this post and your philosophy of healthy and cheap eating in general. You know I 100% agree!

Daniel said...

Well-put Amy. I couldn't have said it better.

Mike, I love lentils too! Oh the irony....

Diane, Mike and Dan: I think the three of you have hit on something important. Meat--or at least the regular overconsumption of meat--can be a key driver of high food costs. But at the same time, it also gives us an easy way to reduce food costs: just eat less meat. It seems obvious on some levels, but this is an important insight that many people just don't grasp.

Marcia and Laura, thank you for your comments. I'm grateful to have you both as readers. Please keep spreading the word!


ConsciouslyFrugal said...

Preach! Couldn't agree more.

What annoys me even more is the incessant blathering about how powerless poor families are. As if having a low-income equates being an idiot who is incapable of making smart choices, researching options or taking a stand. (Can you tell I work in the non-profit industry with low-income families? ha!)

The subtext of "it's too expensive to eat well" is always some passive aggressive dig on the intelligence of poor people. So. in.fur.i.ating.

Anonymous said...

I'm also a lentil fan! Lentil tacos rock.

Last year we moved from a small city in MO to the Chicago area. I discovered that for the last five years I was getting totally ripped off on my fruits and veggies at the "regular" grocery store. Since moving here I've been buying very inexpensive produce at large "fresh markets" operated by Mexicans. (I also belong to a CSA in the summer months and shop at a farmer's market, but summer is short here.)

Here are a few prices I've paid recently:
Romaine 2 heads for $1
MI apples .49/lb
beets .19/lb
limes 10 for $1
corn tortilla pkg .25
kale .99/lb
Mangoes 2 for $1

Now, if I went across the street to Jewel or down the road to Wal-Mart those items would have cost me lots more. Not every neighborhood needs a national grocery chain that is stocked with high-priced processed food. These are the grocery stores we need. If you have one near you, check it out and support them!

BTW, I'm white and don't speak Spanish. But I enjoyed the suggestion of the Mexican checker to sprinkle my mango with chili powder and fresh lime. Cheaper and way better than anything at any fast food place!

Anonymous said...

As Michael Pollan says, "Cheap food is expensive," and "eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Words to live by.

As for "food deserts," the community garden movement, and school gardens are a great start.

ANYONE can at least grow lettuces, spinach and herbs with a window or even lights.

I don't use special lights, just my regular CF bulbs. BUT, I grow herbs everywhere--in the kitchen (parsley, thyme) in the bathroom (sage,oregano and lavender) in the living room rosemary) in the bedroom (mints) in the laundry room (basil, thyme) and in the home office (garlic and onion chives). I'm currently waiting for the new crop of cilantro and dill to sprout.

And the house smells great because of it.

Of course, the other part is that you must learn to cook.

I wish gardening and cooking was taught from pre-k through HS.

Janet C. said...

You wouldn't be badmouthing lentils if you had ever eaten Jerry's dal...(dal is, after all, a type of lentil...). But seriously; thank you for a great post. I love how you keep your blog going no matter where you are in the world. Neither snow, nor rain, nor earthquake....:-)

Viveca from FatigueBeGone said...

I am doing a price comparison right now on baking bread with spelt flour from vs. buying regular and specialty loaves of bread from grocery and natural health food stores.

I'm big into spelt flour because it is an ancient grain that anyone digests well.

While on the hunt I've also found some excellent and inexpensive resources for other ingredients including soy flour and ground flax seed. I am excited.

Will post the results on this experiment in about a week.

Cheers! V.

charmian @Christie's Corner said...

Thanks for posting. You can twist numbers so they say almost anything, so I'm glad you took this grocery math to task.

Mamie said...

Absolutely fabulous! I just linked to your post on my Facebook status - among my FB friends, for some I'll be "preaching to the choir," and for others, perhaps your post will help introduce a bit of enlightenment.

Daniel said...

TLOLA: Thanks for the feedback and for reading.

Consciously Frugal: Interesting point. I would have chalked it up to guilt more than anything else, but maybe you are onto something.

Anon: Love it. In my view the easiest way to learn about food is to get out of your community's dominant grocery store.

FIONA: thanks for your insights. That is a particularly cheap way to grow your own spices and herbs, and it's easy. Reminds me of an indoor chive plant we used to have that we nicknamed "Beaker"--we'd say we gave him a haircut when we'd harvest him!

Janet: thanks for noticing. If I can say this without sounding too self-aggrandizing, I'm very proud of how I've maintained the content here at Casual Kitchen despite the quake and all of our efforts to learn Spanish here in Santiago!

Viveca: be sure to keep me posted.

Charmian: thanks for stopping by! I'm all about untwisting numbers so people know the real truth.

Mamie: Thank you! I hope you are right.


GrowingRaw said...

Clearly there's much more to healthy eating than being disciplined about what goes in your mouth. You have to learn to plan, budget and shop smart too. Then there's healthy cooking skills and maybe even gardening skills to be practised.

Monique said...

My Lord, that NYT post you linked to makes my blood boil.

Found this post through The Simple Dollar, and I think his analysis of the problem is spot on. People either don't want to do the work to be a frugal healthy eater (learn to cook, pay attention to when food is in season, etc.) or think that lentils are disgusting because they had a bad experience with healthy food a long time ago. No one wants to admit that they don't value eating healthfully. Blaming society on the other hand....

Yes, it's true that if you're well off you can financially afford to ignore when foods are in season, but if you care about sustainability you won't be buying the expensive out of season food anyway.

Anonymous said...

I am a latecomer to this post but I have to take issue with your statement that zero calorie foods cost infinity per calorie.

You calculated $3.99/1600 for the doritos, a total of $0.002 per calorie, and $1.49/300 for the collard greens, which comes to $.005 per calorie.

How on earth did you arrive at Diet Coke costing infinity per calorie!? $2.00/0 certainly doesn't equal infinity. And water, which is free, costs 0 per calorie no matter how you look at it. You're

MP3 said...

This is a very interesting subject. I find I spend a lot more on food and eat less healthy when I don't do meal plans and plan my cooking time. I end up buying unhealthy processed food and eating bad cheap carbs to feel full. However if I take the time to plan, make my meals from scratch, plan my snacks and pack my lunch the evening before, I eat well and cheaply.
I leave Saturday completely open to the grocery shopping as I visit many stores - the butcher, the fresh fruit and veg market, the bulk food store etc. If I left trying to find healthy food to just the grocery store I'd go nuts. It's crazy that three-quarters of the shelf space in the store is made up of unhealthy, high calorie, high sugar and salt content processed foods.
I suspect that how to cook from scratch, nutritiously and well is not taught in schools, so many people simply haven't learned how. Also, if you're pressed for time, maybe hold down a couple of jobs, it's not easy to cook from scratch. You really have to work at it.

wctemp said...

"Of course there are instances where unhealthy foods are cheaper than healthy foods. A simple example: 80/20 ground beef is 30-50c cheaper per pound than 90/10 ground beef, isn't it? And yet 80/20 beef has double the fat content of 90/10 beef. Therefore, 90/10 is "healthier" and--no coincidence--it costs more."

I don't believe that the cost is related to how healthy the food is - it's the content.

Think of it this way - the more expensive ground contains more protein content (meat) with less fat. The 'fattier' product is cheaper because of the filler added (fat, connective tissues, and less desirable trimmings, etc.).

Anonymous said...

You know I do have to say that eating healthy does have it's costs though. One is in time to prepare the food, cut it, etc. Two is that some healthy foods are expensive. The majority of my food budget is yogurt and produce. Produce is not cheap. Lettuce is nowhere near cheap. And I certainly can't stand the price of milk anymore.

But I will say my twin who is low income but is trying to diet and eat healthy. Her comment is the money I save on eating less food, I am spending on produce. That is what I would encourage. But I would not argue that eating healthy is cheaper than eating unhealthy. I won't even argue they are equal in price. In general, I find healthier foods a bit more expensive.

I coupon quite a bit too and the easiest things to get cheap with coupons aren't always the good for you stuff, either. So that adds to my feeling like eating healthier is a bit more expensive. OF course, yes, I do eat lettuce, apples, and bananas out of season and they are more expensive that way. How else can I eat healthy in Wisconsin where in the winter almost nothing is in season, except what is trucked from California or Florida?

veronica (lifewithnature) said...

Yes, eating healthy food CAN be more expensive that common unhealthy options. But that doesn't mean we SHOULD select the cheapest! There's still many ways we can save money on healthy foods (just wrote a blog past on that). Just have to be creative!

Daniel said...

Okay, more responses to comments:

Monique, you raise some interesting points, and I agree, it's always a lot easier to for a person to blame society for his or her problems. But I'd also ask, can society really decide for you what you eat--and how much you eat? That's where things get hairy.

Anonymous: no offense, but I hope you reconsider your math.

MP3: Great thoughts. Eating healthy and cheap can be easy, but it isn't always easy. What I'm railing against is the absolutism of people who claim eating healthy food is too hard (or too expensive) and then just wring their hands and complain.

- : Go back and reread my discussion of 90/10 and 80/20 ground beef.

Anonymous: thanks for your input. I'd respond by saying that healthy food can be more expensive depending on your choices, but if you are really struggling with your food costs, I'd urge you to take a look at my post "The 25 Best Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchen"

Veronica: hear, hear. Thanks for your thoughts.


Anonymous said...


Julie @ Willow Bird Baking said...

Your point of view is right on, BUT when people start equating your POV with, "Poor families could easily eat healthy food on a budget," they miss a whole slew of points.

Points like:
-To have an open mind and buy things in season and learn recipes to use what's available, you have to have the ability to educate yourself. This means books (require time), the internet (time and money), or cable (time and money).

-You also need equipment for cooking ($$) that you don't need for convenience foods. You also need time to make healthier foods that convenience foods don't require. Those who are impoverished must necessarily place a higher priority on working longer hours.

-Grocery stores in poorer areas often carry less fresh produce and fewer options in general. The Food Lion I sometimes go to has the tiniest produce aisle I've ever seen.

-Transportation to a well-stocked grocery store, farmers' market, stores for equipment, is often limited for poor families.

For many reasons, while eating healthier may be as attainable in a vacuum as eating convenience food, that's not always the case when you factor in families' contexts. Some people are still able to do a wonderful job, but we must examine our privilege in discussions like this before we start assuming it's easy for anyone.

By the way, to the above poster who suggested this line of thinking is somehow insulting to poor families -- not at all. Why is clarifying that some families don't have access to certain sorts of information as readily as others insulting? I actually view it as supportive of those families who would be overlooked in the, "LOOK it's so simple to eat healthy for cheap!" argument.

Daniel said...

Julia, I hear you, and thanks for contributing. And you've touched on why this blog exists: to share these ideas so everyone can benefit.

One follow-up: I think Consciously Frugal's point was more subtle: that it's insulting to assume that someone can't take action because they are poor. It was in no way to deny that disadvantages like the ones you describe exist, or that they present problems to people of all kinds.

I think, further, that she's making the case that we should assume that anyone and everyone can take some sort of action, regardless of their situation.

And once again, that is the purpose of this blog: to assist everyone with finding solutions.


Anonymous said...

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:

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!


Stuart Carter said...

See the ever reliable cracked for "the 5 national stereotypes that are statistically bulls**t":

budget chef said...

I agree with Amy, I would also like to say that you CAN totally eat healthy on a budget!!
You can great deals at farmers markets for example - especially if you become a regular;-)

I always buy in bulk especially my meat and I never deviate from my shopping list.

I have also found a grat website that i have bough a few books from on budget cooking. Take a look and good luck being healthy on a budget:-)

Sarah Lalonde said...

As someone who is at this time below poverty line AND eats healthy, I can assure you all, it is with sacrifice to the wallet. Take into account that my partner and I can't go through food as fast as a family of four could- So for example I bought bananas the other day- they were green, and today they already started to go bruised looking. Had I bought granola bars instead- I'd have a pack of them for a very long time-they won't go bad. Each town and city is different with costs and each family thinks about more then the initial cost. I think it's unfair to judge people, especially when most judging probably don't live in poverty themselves-and many probably don't support a family while in poverty.
You can eat healthy! but it does cost

Daniel said...

Sarah, I strongly encourage you too keep reading this blog. You'll find a ton of resources to help disabuse you of the belief that healthy food has to be expensive. You might start out by reading many of the extremely helpful and idea-packed comments immediately above yours.

One more time: Just because there are instances where healthy food IS expensive, but that in no ways means that all types of healthy food are more expensive. This is a logic error that many, many readers make, and it needlessly separates them from their money.


mike3 said...

"Why not entertain a creative and more open-minded third solution? Eat half your normal serving of meat (you can use either type of beef and the cost will be, well, half), and then make up the difference with a side dish of inexpensive greens sauteed with a few cloves of garlic. "

Problem that was not talked about: something along these lines reduces the calorie content of the meal considerably. While that may be good even for those whose problem is a strong excess of calories, it is *not* going to be helpful for those who are in a "skinny fat poor" segment where that they are already consuming not much more than their base survival amount but because it's not sourced from the right nutritive mix, it still produces an unhealthy result.

There's a lot of different population segments and they *all* need address. This was never even touched in pages of comments and so I figure it has to be made visible.

Daniel said...

Hi Mike,

It doesn't seem like you've grasped the overall thrust of this post. In your comment, you've created a hypothetical example of a person who is "consuming not much more than their base survival amount" and you're trying to argue that because this post doesn't help *all* people, the ideas here are somehow invalid.

This post is not designed for all people, and certainly not for your hypothetically imagined example of someone barely eating enough to survive. This is something we have discussed elsewhere here at Casual Kitchen: see for example point #5 in this post.