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How To Eat Healthy For Under $6 A Day

By Nate Morrow / February 20, 2016

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:

Lunch:

Dinner:

Snacks:

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!

    Show 1 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.

29 Comments

  • Ruben Perez says:

    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.

  • Michael says:

    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.

  • Ray says:

    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.

  • Chris says:

    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 .

  • Jay says:

    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.

  • Rasheed says:

    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.

  • dan feldman says:

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

  • Bill says:

    I enjoyed your article - good research, clever and interesting analysis. I have a large kitchen and numerous small and large appliances and I am retired so I have the time to do the planning and prep (cooking has become a pleasurable hobby). However, I found your article when I was looking on-line to try to help a diabetic who lives in a small single room at a YMCA and receives about $187/month in food stamps ($6.00/day). I'd like to hear your idea for eating healthy at $6:00/day with the restraints of a small bar fridge, and only a shared cooking facility with minimal appliances. He has been eating meals like cereal and milk because of his constraints, which as you can imagine, is playing havoc with his blood sugar numbers.

    • Kristin Rooke, CPT says:

      Hi Bill,

      It's awesome that you're helping someone out with their food budget, and I'm glad you came across our article! There are definitely ways to eat healthy while only having a small bar fridge. It does require purchasing more shelf-stable items, but it's do-able. Leave the fridge space for items like eggs, milk, meat & fish, etc. that need to be refrigerated to stay fresh. Your friend could eat oatmeal instead of boxed cereal. He could pick up canned beans and legumes. Buy fruits and vegetables that don't need to be kept cold, for example bananas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, apples, avocados, etc. And buy items in bulk.

      I hope that gives you some additional ideas! Let me know if you'd like more advice.

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Jay W. says:

    I think this level of money cannot support healthy eating. Sorry. I am diabetic and live on $6.25 per day. I find that trader joe's or whole foods have many items that are better quality than the regular stores. And at the same cost. Certain items must be purchased at standard grocery stores. It takes me hours to shop while reading all the labels. I still end up short and have to visit food banks to make it. A lot of it is expensive organic stuff. Just expires quickly. Your article is great. You left out buying drinking water. Buying non-sugar mayonnaise. In my case. Salt. Pepper. Etc. If you get my drift. There are a lot more things that go into meals. And it costs more than the amount of $6.25 for me. Lets be reasonable. People can't eat the same thing for months on end. I have lost over 65 pounds doing this. So far.

  • John says:

    Double checked price I pay for 1 lb chicken. Its more expensive but these are 2016 prices. $2.99. that's not in bulk however. Supermarket price. I'm sure with a supermarket card, coupons or whatever, you could get a better deal.

    Bulk chicken breasts per pound must be substantially cheaper per pound. Vacuum seal them, freeze them and you should be good for a little freezer burn.

    If you spend a little extra money on olive oil when you defrost (even with a little burn, unlikely with proper storage even long term) it'll make it taste better.

    Bake it and fry it. It'll taste like shit or whatever. The point is to have good insulators for the poultry. A regular plastic bag wont cut it for long term storage.

    If you vacuum up chicken breasts like its nothing it'll be alright for bulk short term storage.