Eating better, healthier food doesn't have to cost more

Eating Better for Less

by Jennifer Beam

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I recently overheard a conversation in a grocery store between two women that were debating the cost of eating healthy. The debate was summed up by the one woman's simple statement "It's cheaper to eat the unhealthy stuff."

While sparing no expense for the nutritional benefits may seem like a worthy cause, the reality is that most individuals and families are on a budget and food is only a portion of total expenses. In truth, the casual observation by the aforementioned grocery shopper was right on. Healthier foods, such as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, baked snacks, low-calorie and reduced fat products, simply do cost more.

With so many reports published by the USDA and the modern-day nutritional guidelines indicating that certain foods are more nutritious, it's a shame that many families must choose between what is good for them and what they can more easily afford.

How do you bridge the gap between bringing the best food choices home and affording the total at the checkout? Louise Easterly, Licensed Nutritionist and Supervisor of Food and Nutrition at an USDA nutritional award-winning school district in Ohio, knows as well as anyone what it costs to feed a hungry brood. She agrees that it can be difficult to balance affordability with healthy choices when it comes to food. "When a bag of chips cost less than a bag of apples, people on fixed incomes are more likely to buy the chips. And it's sad that it has to be that way."

Easterly blames a lot of the problem on food manufacturers, questioning why a loaf of whole grain bread has to cost about a dollar more than enriched white bread. "Milk costs the same per gallon whether you buy skim, 1%, 2% or whole milk," she points out. While the dairy industry might have found a balance between nutritional choice and price efficiency, the choice between other products simply comes down to price.

According to Easterly, when her district switched to whole grain products like hamburger buns, pizza crusts, and tortilla chips, their cost increased $.10 to $.12 per serving. Easterly suggests shoppers focus on whole grain products, fresh fruits and vegetables when they can. If fresh produce doesn't fit your budget, buy a combination of fresh, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables. While not as nutritious, canned and frozen produce can still provide a percentage of the daily-recommended vitamins and minerals. Those on reduced sodium diets should pay special attention to the labeling of canned produce, as they are traditionally higher in sodium, but many manufacturers are now reducing or eliminating sodium in canned and frozen produce.

To get the most out of your grocery dollar and still reap the nutritional benefits, buy fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season when they tend to be cheaper. Plan meals around these produce products, and when the frozen or canned variety is on sale, stock up for the off-season. When shopping in the produce department, pay special attention to fresh produce. Purchasing the pre-packaged, pre-shredded lettuce, cabbage, or leaf spinach is more expensive than buying whole heads. The same is true for purchasing pre-cut vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots.

Focus on whole grain products when it is affordable to do so, but choose wisely. Whole grains are comprised of the entire kernel from the seed-heads of grasses and contain more fiber and nutrients than white flour products, which are made from just the endosperm, or the inner bulk of the kernel. Most white flour products are enriched with vitamins, minerals, and folic acid, but have a higher total percentage of carbohydrates.

A balance between whole grain and enriched white flour breads, cereals, and pastas is a better nutritional choice than consuming only enriched white flour grains. Often, whole grain pastas, store brand breads, and tortillas are competitively priced compared to their enriched white flour counterparts. Focus on these products instead of whole grain crackers and snack products since breads and pastas account for the bulk of your daily intake.

Organic food is another area that can confuse consumers who compare healthy eating with the cost. Organic foods may eliminate additives and preservatives, but often cost twice as much as similar products. Some nutritionists feel that consumers are misguided by their choice to buy organic because they think it automatically means a more nutritious product. When it comes to nutrition, key vitamins and minerals, like vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, zinc, folic acid, fiber, niacin, thiamin and protein are what's important. Organic foods don't necessarily mean less fat, fewer calories, or more nutritional value. Therefore, if you can't afford to buy organic, don't let that dissuade you from choosing more affordable nutritious products.

In the end, it may appear that choosing the healthiest food products is the more expensive route. While in many cases that may be true, careful selections combined with an understanding of what makes a food nutritious versus what food manufacturers want you to believe is the key to eating healthier for less.

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