Have you ever bought your toddler a nutrient-packed $6 carrot-apple smoothie and watched them dump it on the supermarket floor? Or grabbed a bag of fresh cherries and discovered, at the checkout counter, that it cost $16? It’s painful -- and it can make you think that healthy eating is beyond your family’s budget.
But experts say that healthy meals and snacks don’t have to be so costly. If you’re a busy parent struggling to put nutritious food in your kids’ lunchboxes, you can do it without tapping their college fund. You just need to make smart choices when you shop.
The Real Costs (and Savings) of Healthy Eating
How much more does healthy eating cost? In a 2013 study, researchers analyzed the data and came up with a rough answer: about $1.50 more each day per person. That’s the difference between a very healthy diet -- like one high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and fish -- and an unhealthy diet with lots of processed foods, meats, and refined (non-whole) grains.
On the one hand, that extra cost can add up. For a family of 4, that would be about $2,200 more a year.
But on the other hand, $1.50 a day may be a lot less expensive than you expected. It’s cheaper than your daily latte. And that doesn’t include the long-term financial savings of healthy eating, such as a lower chance of serious and expensive chronic diseases as you and your kids get older.
Why Do We Think Better Food Costs More?
Kelly Haws, PhD, associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, studied how people think about the nutrition and cost of different foods. The results were published in 2017 in the Journal of Consumer Research.
“People generally believe that ‘healthy’ equals ‘expensive,’ ” Haws says. But that’s often not the case. One part of the problem is that we may confuse “healthy” with other labels that do increase costs, like “organic” or “gluten-free.”
However, unless you have a diagnosed medical condition, you can have a nutritious diet without worrying about those extra labels. They key is to eat more whole foods and fewer processed ones, says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Haws also notes that people associate healthy foods with health-food stores and food co-ops, with their beautiful displays and (often) higher prices. In reality, you can get healthy whole foods at any grocery store.
The misunderstanding of food costs has real risks to our wellness, Haws says. Some people might not even bother trying to eat healthy because they assume that a diet of cheap and not-very-nutritious food is their only option. “That simply isn’t true,” she says.
Tips for Sticking to Your Budget
So what are some ways you can keep your grocery bill low while your family eats healthier?
- Compare your options, and pay attention to portion size. Sure, a big bag of chips costs less than a bag of apples. But before you grab the chips, think about how many snacks you’ll get out of it. “If your kid is eating a quarter of a bag of chips for a serving, it only lasts four days,” Rumsey says. “That bag of apples could last more than a week.”
- Plan before you shop. Tell the truth: Ever gone on a health kick, bought a cartful of fruits and vegetables, and then left them to rot in your fridge's crisper drawer? The best way to avoid that is not to impulse buy. Plan your meals before you go, so you know exactly what you’ll need, Rumsey says.
- Choose cheaper protein. Per serving, protein is probably one of the most expensive foods on your shopping list. “But you don’t have to stick with red meat or fish for your protein,” Rumsey says. For example, you can buy a bag of lentils for a few dollars and get five or six meals worth of protein.
- Buy in season. Don’t just keep getting the same fruits and vegetables year-round, Rumsey says. Pay attention to what’s in season.The costs will be lower and the fruits and vegetables fresher.
- Go frozen. When fruits and vegetables you want aren’t in season, buy them frozen. They’re usually frozen right after they’re picked. They may actually have more nutrients than “fresh” produce shipped from far away, Rumsey says.
Finally, remember the research: More expensive does not equal healthier. Don’t be seduced by fancy food co-ops, organic labels, or marketing gimmicks. No matter your budget, choosing healthier food doesn’t have to be a luxury.