How To Eat Healthy For Under $6 A Day


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Is good nutrition developing a bad reputation based on outrageous costs?

A growing trend of studies touts the immense cost of eating fresh, nutritious food. Conventional wisdom seems to claim that the cost can keep you from being able to eat as healthfully as you might like and worries many who would otherwise prefer to consistently buy & prepare un-processed, highly natural foods.

But is eating healthy really as expensive as everyone claims?

No. No, it’s not.

Study Claims A Healthy Diet Costs 10x More – But Is It Misleading?

Much of the recent rabble surrounding the price of food stems from a 2007 study by University of Washington researchers about the price of snack foods compared to fresh fruits and vegetables. In particular, the study claims that eating a healthy diet can cost up to 10 times as much as a diet based on junk food. Well, no wonder people don’t eat healthy! With numbers like that, who could afford to?

As it turns out, though, the study uses price per calorie as it’s only metric for determining the cost of food. This means that when comparing junk foods loaded with fat and sugar to nutrient-dense foods like spinach, broccoli or apples, the junk food is going to dominate calorie count every time!

If we discount the fact that the calories in junk food are, by-and-large, nutritionally worthless, a more appropriate metric would be price per serving. Fruits and veggies, by nature, have a much lower calorie count per serving (hint: that’s partly why they’re better for you).

Let’s look at an example:

Food Price Servings Total
Calories
Price/calorie Price/serving
Nacho Cheese Doritos (11 oz bag) $2.99 11 1540 $0.0019 $0.27
Twinkies (6 ct box) $1.99 6 900 $0.0022 $0.33
Baby spinach (6 oz bag, 8 cups) $1.99 8 50 $0.04 $0.25
Broccoli crowns (about 4 cups) $0.99 4 120 $0.01 $0.25
Gala apple (6oz) $0.24 1 80 $0.003 $0.24

It’s pretty clear that the junk food items (that would be the Doritos and Twinkies, in case you’re wondering) are the champions of price per calorie, both coming in at fractions of a cent. But when we look at the price-per-serving numbers, all of a sudden the playing field levels, making the fresh fruit and veggies actually come out a bit cheaper!

How Much Does It Really Cost To Eat Healthy?

According to a New York Times article1 about the study, the average American spends $7 a day on food – nearly $50 a week – so I decided to put together a healthy meal plan for a day to see how it compared to the national average. While I do live in Klamath Falls, Oregon, which is less expensive than a metropolitan area, this daily plan is for a 6-foot-3, 200-pound man, so I’m not exactly skimping on calories here. Check it out:

Breakfast:

  • Scrambled eggs with cheese
  • Oatmeal with raisins and honey

Lunch:

  • Turkey sandwich with whole-grain bread, cheese, avocado, tomato and lettuce

Dinner:

  • Grilled chicken breast
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Baked sweet potato

Snacks:

  • Apple
  • Almonds

Shopping list in hand, I set out for my local supermarket, ready for the massive grocery bill I was about to face. You can imagine my relief when I found that my little shopping trip was not nearly as costly as the doom-speakers would have me believe. Fresh fruit and vegetables are actually not that expensive and even the meat and dairy is quite reasonable, if you know what to look for. Here’s the breakdown of what I bought:

Shopping List Price Price per serving
Brown eggs (30 ct) $3.58 $0.12  per egg
Frozen chicken breasts (4 lbs) $10.72 $1.34 per 6-oz breast
Deli style turkey breast (1 lb) $4.99 $0.31 per 1-oz slice
Mozzarella cheese (2 lb) $4.98 $0.16 per 1-oz slice
100% whole wheat bread (18 slices) $1.69 $0.09 per slice
Oatmeal (42 oz) $2.18 $0.21 per ½ cup serving
Sweet potato (1 medium) $0.37 $0.37 per potato
Gala apple (1 medium) $0.24 $0.24 per apple
Avocado (1 medium) $0.88 $0.88 per avocado
Broccoli (1 head, about ½ lb) $0.49 $0.25 per cup serving
Roma tomatoes (5 ct, about 1 lb) $1.19 $0.24 per tomato
Romaine lettuce (1 head) $1.99 $0.20 per cup serving
Almonds (½ lb) $3.40 $0.42 per 1-oz serving
Honey (local, 12 oz) $3.59 $0.15 per Tbsp serving
Raisins (½ lb) $1.50 $0.19 per 1-oz serving

The meat and cheese were the most expensive part of the whole trip, but even so, they were not unreasonable. Now here’s how those prices apply to the meal plan for the day:

Item Price
3 eggs $0.36
1 slice mozzarella cheese $0.16
1 cup oatmeal $0.42
1 oz raisins $0.19
1 Tbsp honey $0.15
Breakfast total $1.28
2 slices whole wheat bread $0.18
3 slices turkey breast $0.93
1 slice mozzarella cheese $0.16
½ avocado $0.44
½ Roma tomato $0.12
½ cup Romaine lettuce $0.10
Lunch total $1.93
1 chicken breast $1.34
1 sweet potato $0.37
1 cup broccoli $0.25
Dinner total $1.96
1 Gala apple $0.24
1 oz almonds $0.42
Snacks total $0.66
Grand total $5.83

Wow…so there you have it: a whopping $5.83 for me to make healthy meals throughout the entire day. That’s 17% below the national average!

As you can see, these studies that count calorie-value, and the articles promoting them, are misleading at best… and dangerously disingenuous at worst. It’s this kind of self-perpetuating nonsense that makes people give up on the notion of a healthy diet. If you have hugely-popular mainstream media like the New York Times spreading the idea that most people will never be able to afford nutritious food, what kind of chance do they have?

Healthy Meals Do Require Planning…

That said, there are some challenges to eating fresh, healthy foods that you don’t face with the prepackaged, highly-processed stuff. Often it’s these issues, not cost, that are the biggest barriers for people to make the switch.

  1. Fresh food goes bad quickly – This means that you have to go shopping more often and use the food you buy before it spoils.
  2. Requires preparation – It’s much easier to dump milk and cereal in a bowl or pop a TV dinner in the microwave than prepare a fresh, healthy, well-rounded meal.
  3. Requires planning – Because of the first two challenges, it’s almost a necessity to plan your meals ahead of time so you have everything you need on hand.

5 Tips For Eating Healthy on a Budget

Often eating healthy is not as convenient as buying boxed dinners or going for a quick fast food lunch, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier and more cost-effective:

  1. Prepare in batches – Make large quantities of soups, quiches, etc. that you can eat throughout the week. This will save you time and help you use up fresh food so it doesn’t go bad.
  2. Get in a routine – You’re going to have to take regular trips to the grocery store so make it part of your weekly routine. It’s helpful to set aside half a day to plan, shop for, and prepare meals for the rest of the week.
  3. Buy frozen – You can save a lot of money buying frozen foods and they are the next best thing to fresh. The foods will also keep longer so you may not have to shop as often.
  4. Buy in bulk – Like buying frozen, buying items in bulk, especially at a wholesale grocery store like Costco can save you a lot of money. Just make sure you can use it all before it goes bad!
  5. Shop sales – This is kind of a no-brainer, but buying food that is on sale, or produce that is in season, will not only save you money, but add some variety to your meals. I like to think of my shopping trips as hunting and gathering expeditions – I never know what I’m going find!
  6. You Can Eat Healthy Without Breaking The Bank

    And there you have it: it IS possible to eat healthy without taking out a second mortgage or selling your firstborn, regardless of what popular culture tells you. In fact, it can be very reasonable if you’re willing to put in the time and effort.

    One last thing to consider is that the benefits of living well and eating a healthy diet are measured in years, not dollars. Years of good health. Years without relying on medications to get by. Years of happiness. One trap you should never fall into is putting a price on your health. As a wise man said long ago:

    “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates

    Do you have any tips for eating healthy without breaking the bank? Leave a comment below!

    References

    1. A High Price for Healthy Food January 2011. Available at: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/12/05/a-high-price-for-healthy-food/. Accessed March 27, 2013.
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25 Comments on “How To Eat Healthy For Under $6 A Day

  1. ken
    April 15, 2013 #

    Great Read! Really puts things into perspective. I think the pre-planning is the hardest thing to do about eating healthy as you mentioned. Sometimes its just “easier” to have some cereal and milk. Buying the bulk at costco or sam’s is a lifesaver though. I buy bags of frozen chicken breasts at 2.23 a pound and try and take out 2 servings in the morning, and theyre all thawed out by dinner time. If you forget to prep in the AM then all of a sudden eating a healthy dinner becomes difficult. Prepping is key to success with eating healthy. I also try and keep quick snacks handy such as protein bars or even wheat thins (if looking for carbs). The cost savings from eating healthier has been quite significant for me because it keeps me from running to subway or something “healthy” and quick for meals. Those 5$ sandwiches add up fast!

    1. April 15, 2013 #

      Thanks for sharing, Ken. Totally agree prepping is key.

    2. April 16, 2013 #

      Thanks, Ken! I totally agree…the hardest part of eating healthy is the prep work, not the cost.

  2. April 15, 2013 #

    Living in NYC, it’s hard to believe the average American only spends $7 on food each day. This is a really enlightening read filled with great information. Thanks for putting the time and effort into writing and researching it!

    1. ken
      April 15, 2013 #

      yea, 7$ a day seems real low…that wont even get you a 5$ footlong anymore

  3. Bev
    April 15, 2013 #

    Great article, Nate! Seeing the breakdown of actual costs is so helpful. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Colin
    April 15, 2013 #

    Man — your chicken is cheap. I pay about $8 for 1.5 lbs of chicken at Kroger in Dallas. I spend about $100 a week on food and eat clean all during the work week. I would love to get it down to $75.

    Typical week looks like:

    Morning:
    Greek Yogurt
    Low Sodium V-8
    Turkey Bacon
    Oatfit – Oatmeal
    Banana

    Lunch
    1/2 cup quinoa with veggies, 6 oz chicken

    Dinner
    6 oz chicken, spinach salad with veggies, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil

    Snacks:
    Strawberries or an apple, protein bar or shake, and almonds (sometimes), frozen turkey meatballs (sometimes). 100 calorie popcorn at night (sometimes)

    1. April 16, 2013 #

      Yeah, I was actually a bit surprised that I could find frozen chicken breasts for that cheap, too. Sherm’s Market (where I shop) typically has good prices on meat, but that seemed like an incredible deal, for sure.

  5. Chris
    April 15, 2013 #

    Living in DC, $5.83 will get me a bowl of cheap cereal and a lean cuisine, and maybe a hot pocket. Obviously the argument is subjective because it depends what you buy. Buying unhealthy foods is typically cheaper for me because there are so many options I can buy what’s on sale. Rarely do apples for on sale, even then they’re like $1.69/pound and 5 apples still run me about $4. 8 ounces of almonds runs at least $6 for me, maybe more. When I was eating unhealthy my weekly groceries were about $70/week. Now eating almost totally unprocessed food is running me about $100/week. I could cut it down to 70, but then I’d be cutting quantity and that wouldn’t be a fair comparison. I want some of these 24 cent apples!!

  6. N. Banish
    April 15, 2013 #

    Nice article, Nate. It also helps keep costs down when you don’t shop on an empty stomach!

    1. April 16, 2013 #

      Thanks, man! Great point…I’m definitely not as disciplined shopping when I’m hungry.

  7. Alexander
    April 15, 2013 #

    Even if they are cheaper, eating unhealthy/junk foods will cause long-term problems later on for your health and subsequently healthcare costs, and it is these hidden costs that most people fail to take into account.

    1. April 16, 2013 #

      That’s an interesting point and I agree.

    2. April 16, 2013 #

      Absolutely! I wanted to touch more on the long-term aspects of cost, but they are much harder to define and are different for everyone. Though if you just look at medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, you can see how outrageous the costs can be.

  8. C.J.
    April 17, 2013 #

    I think proper planning is the key.

  9. Sree
    April 20, 2013 #

    Nice read Nate. I think the point here really is that eating healthy is not as expensive as it sounds. Wile eating organic is the hot thing now, it can significantly add to your food bill and make it look like eating out is about the same. There are additional costs (indirect costs) that should be included to look at overall costs. For example, most of us tend to not think about the cost of gas when going out to lunch. If these are small commutes chances are you’re getting bad mpg and that will quickly add up. Moreover, with protein being costly, one can never get as much protein rich food for a cheap price. But as you pointed out, eating at home requires planning and if one just likes to pick up groceries everyday or two that would add up to gas costs. The last thing is of course, the value of your time. Yes, you may be off work but does that mean your free time is worth nothing? There is a reason why people who make $100 an hour tend to not invest time making their food. Just thought I’d put out all factors!

  10. Dianne
    April 20, 2013 #

    This is great to point out to people that you can definitely eat a heathy diet while staying within a budget. Not to mention with some of those junk food items people consume way more than one serving so their cost actually goes up.
    I must say however that where you live you can buy your food at quite a bargain. I’m here in Tampa and our food prices are much higher. But that would probably be true for the junk food too….I really don’t know because I don’t buy that stuff.

    I just may have to do a little comparison on my own for my clients.
    They may see that even though an avocado here costs anywhere fro $1 to $1.50 that they could still include it in their diet.
    I’m off to two farmers markets here so I’m hoping to score on some great fresh veggies …they probably won’t be at a bargain price but I know where they are coming from so I know they are at optimal nutritional value, and free of pesticides.
    Have a great healthy day.

  11. Jennifer
    April 20, 2013 #

    Agreed! I like to shop Costco on Sat, and prep meals on Sun. This weekend I’ll be making clean turkey meatballs that I can freeze and pull out throughout the week. I also buy huge quantities of fresh meat , then separate into freezer bags with different homemade marinades so dinners are easy. I’m a married mom of 3 kids under age 6, a full-time teacher, and a part-time fitness instructor. Finding that prep time is possible, but you have to want that healthy lifestyle. Also, exercise makes me more energetic and efficient, so it’s really the whole package. Eating is key. My youngest is 16 months old, and I’m finally rediscovering my abs! Yeah! Love your website and emails!

  12. Ruben Perez
    April 20, 2013 #

    Great article. this just added more to my knowledge toolbox. Here in NYC it is a bit hard to find the good deals, but Costco is the key. I used to pay $3.19 for 2lbs of old fashion oatmeal at the local Supermarket, at Costco $7.85 for 10lbs. And obviously the planning and discipline, I do my food planning for the entire week, I take Sundays to get my Monday-Friday meals ready.

    @Alexander is right 110%. the average citizen is poorly educated when about nutrition and the long term causes of eating this cheap fast food, When I comes to my nutrition and health I don’t think about the price tag.

    Again, great article, thanks for sharing.

  13. Michael
    April 20, 2013 #

    Excellent read. Now all I have to figure out is how to do this and gain weight all the while because I’m got too skinny.

  14. Ray
    April 20, 2013 #

    Great point about the bias in the study – I had never actually read the journal article itself, and assumed their conclusions were correct. The fact that they were looking at price-per-calorie is hugely important though; calories are key, generally, but most Americans get more than their fair share anyway.

    Really, one should be looking at the price of all the veggies + other healthy stuff you need to fill you up for one day vs. the price of unhealthy stuff needed to fill you up for a day, which is exactly what looking at price-per-calorie does. Excellent article.

  15. Chris
    April 21, 2013 #

    Excellent conversation. Nate although you highlight an excellent point about cost per serving, the biggest take away for me is how easy it is to do with some thought and as others have suggested PLANNING!

    The only surprising aspect of the article for me was the total calories in your sample meal plan, especially for a 200lb guy. Always a struggle for me to know what is the “corrrect amount” for my size (160lbs) should be .

  16. Jay
    April 21, 2013 #

    I’d like to add that within a restricted number of foods there are many ways of preparation and means to assemble them. Poaching/frying/boiling the eggs, or changing the lunch menu from sandwich to salad (by turning the bread into croutons), and turning dinner from grilled chicken with sides to stir fry or casserole bake means that you don’t get bored eating the same ingredients all the time.

  17. April 21, 2013 #

    Excellent read. Would other nuts be a good replacement for almonds? I’m not too fond of almonds.

    Also, your apples are insanely cheap–they’re around $0.78/lb at my store. Maybe I should shop at farmer’s markets or something.

  18. dan feldman
    May 1, 2013 #

    Great article. What about canned veggies, with no salt added. Or washing the salt off the canned veggies?

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