The Cost of Eating Right

Making improvements to your food choices can require making adjustments to foods familiar to you. As I work with individuals and help guide them on making better food decisions, the most common concern I hear is the cost of eating right. Many people automatically assume that eating a healthy, balanced diet cost more.  

There are many misconceptions on what eating healthy even means. Many food manufacturers and restaurants inflate the price on any food product that is labeled for marketing purposes as “healthy”. But what defines healthy?

Choosing foods that are fresh, rich in nutrients and minimally processed, with little to no additives, would be one way to describe eating health. A diet high in vegetables and fruits, which also includes whole grains, lean proteins and good sources of calcium, provide a diet varied in nutrients.

When talking about foods that meet this description, it can be very easy to eat healthy on a budget. A person’s perception and outlook on certain food decisions can influence this concept. Let’s compare a few popular lunch options:

Lunch 1= Chipotle bowl with a bottle of water……………………………….$10.15
1 cup rice, 4oz chicken, 1/2 cup of beans, ½ cup of veggies
Nutritional Information: 935 Calories, 52g fat, 1455 mg sodium, 67g carbohydrates

Lunch 2= Frozen Lean Cuisine with a bottle of iced tea…………………… $4.98
1/4 cup brown rice, 2oz chicken, ¼ cup of broccoli
Nutritional Information: 390 Calories, 1.5g total fat, 480mg sodium, 26g carbohydrates                             

Lunch 3= Homemade lunch with a salad and ice water……………………..$2.47
1/2 cup brown rice, 4oz chicken, 1 cup of broccoli, side salad
Nutritional Information: 361 Calories, 4g total fat, 157mg sodium, 42g carbohydrates  

The healthiest lunch option is #3, the homemade meal. Although many people find it easier to grab lunch on the go, making your meals and snacks at home is clearly the cheapest and healthiest choice.

One could argue that purchasing all the ingredients needed to make the same meal with fresh foods could cost slightly more initially. However, one could make additional meals out of that initial cost. See price break down below.

Makes 4 servings

Food OptionTotal CostCost per meal
Bag of Lettuce$1.79 $0.45
Tomatoes3 for $1.99 $0.50
Chicken Breast2 4oz breast $2.63 $1.32
Brown Rice2lbs $1.89 ¼c x 22 $0.09
Broccoli$2.50 raw or frozen bag $1.59 $0.63 raw or $0.40 (frozen)
Total $9.89Total $10.80 total  $2.47 per person total  $2.70 per person

A large bag of potato chips can cost $3.49, but paying for a bag of potatoes at $1.99 seems non-comparable to most people. From a nutritional standpoint, a bag of potato chips does not provide any significant nutrients, nor does it satisfy someone’s true hunger. However, actual potatoes (roasted, boiled or baked) can be included in a healthy balanced meal, providing a great source of potassium and vitamin C.

Here are some tips to help reduce your food dollar and increase the nutritional content of your meals and snacks.

1. Plan ahead. Think about the days ahead of you. Plan to bring meals and/or snacks with you before leaving the house.

2. Make a grocery list when shopping. Make an effort to use every thing you purchase before it goes bad.

3. Make smarter food purchases. Look for fresh produce that is on sale, or buy 1 get 1 free. Work your meals and snacks around those items.

4. Purchase produce that is in season and look for local items, being sure to compare prices.

5. Prepare your own meals as much as possible, limiting the frequency of eating out.  

6. Purchase pre-cut vegetables and fruits only when truly needed. Keep in mind they will cost slightly more. If you are willingly to pay for the convenience of the pre-cut, this can help you save on time when trying to prepare your own meals.

7. Beans are a great source of protein and they are very inexpensive.

natalie-castro-204x300About Natalie Castro, M.S., R.D., LDN

Natalie Castro-Romero is the Chief Wellness Dietitian for corporate wellness at Baptist Health South Florida. She earned her bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics from Florida International University.  She completed her master’s degree in nutrition and exercise science at the State University of New York, University at Buffalo. Ms. Romero is certified in adult weight management and works passionately to improve the health of both adults and children. Her clinical experience includes working with patients suffering from gastrointestinal disorders and critically ill patients in intensive care.  In addition, she has conducted research on eating behaviors and pediatric obesity.  Her research has been published in several peer-reviewed medical journals.

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