The Cost of Healthy Eating vs Unhealthy Eating

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average family of four spent $569-$1298 on food at home in February 2020. But these estimates don’t include the high cost of eating out — a reality for most American families.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the average American household spent $3,459 on dining out in 2018. This amount was roughly 44% of the total household expenditure for food.

Between the cost of cooking at home and grabbing a bite to eat on the go, the costs can quickly eat away at your budget. But your eating habits could be costing you more than just your bank account.

Here’s some straightforward dietary information, along with some tips for how to find healthy options for less.

Healthy vs unhealthy eating habits

While there’s some debate about the details of a healthy diet – like low carb diets versus high protein diets – most people can agree that healthy eating begins with making better choices.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommends the following components of healthy eating:

  • A variety of vegetables and fruits.
  • Whole grains.
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy (e.g. milk, yogurt, and cheese).
  • A variety of proteins (e.g. seafood, lean meats, eggs, and legumes).
  • Oils.

It also recommends limiting saturated fats and trans fats, added sugars and sodium. All of which are common hidden components of the food and beverages that line our grocery store shelves.

Why do we choose unhealthy alternatives?

Unhealthy choices usually come down to three main factors: less money, less time and more taste.

  • Unhealthy food choices tend to be cheaper. A comprehensive review of 27 studies in 10 countries found that unhealthy food is about $1.50 cheaper per day than healthy food. If you’re feeding a large family, it may cost less to simply buy from the dollar menu or purchase cheap premade frozen dinners.
  • Unhealthy food is more convenient. It’s easier to pop something in the microwave or make a quick stop at the drive-thru. Many people are juggling multiple jobs and children, which leaves little time for grocery shopping or countless hours prepping and cooking meals each week.
  • Unhealthy food tastes better. This isn’t always the case. But many processed foods instantly satisfy cravings for salty or sugary snacks. Think about it. Most people don’t sit around craving healthy carrots when crunchy, salty chips are available.

But long-term, unhealthy eating choices can catch up with you. Both financially and physically. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40% of U.S. adults are obese, which can put them at a higher risk for conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Tips for eating healthy on a budget

To combat using cost as an excuse not to eat healthy, here are some simple tips that won’t break the bank.

Start by making a commitment to cook at home instead of making last-minute trips to the drive-thru line. Then, sit down and figure out what a realistic food budget should be for your family. It may be easier to think of your food budget in terms of each pay period instead of as a monthly category.

  • Plan your meals for the week. Create a shopping list based on your healthy meal plan. Sticking to a list will prevent you from mindlessly grabbing unhealthy alternatives, like fried freezer food. Don’t forget to check online and grocery mobile apps for coupons ahead of time to save extra money.
  • Buy frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen produce retains almost all of its nutritional value. Plus, it can help reduce food waste by giving you more time to eat it. Most fresh produce only has a shelf life of a few days, but frozen produce can extend that window for up to one year. Saving you money over time.
  • Cut up your own fruits and vegetables. Although pre-cut produce can be more convenient, it can also be a lot more expensive. For example, a 16 oz package of pre-cut pineapple chunks costs around $4. Whereas, a whole pineapple only costs $2.
  • Buy in bulk. Stores like Costco and Sam’s Club have quality food staples that can be purchased in large quantities for less. Consider buying your meats in bulk and freezing portions until you’re ready to consume them.
  • Read the labels. There are many hidden ingredients in our food. Just because a label on the front of a product markets it as healthy, doesn’t mean it truly is. Start by looking at the first three ingredients listed on the label. These will represent the bulk of what you’ll be consuming. Try to choose items that have whole foods included at the beginning of the list. And avoid ones that have refined grains, sugars or hydrogenated oils as their main ingredients.
  • Skip organic. Organic foods will quickly run up your grocery bill. If your budget is tight, opt for conventionally farmed fruits and vegetables. Keep in mind that products labeled as “contains organic ingredients” doesn’t automatically mean it’s a healthier alternative.
  • Cook large batches and store portions. Embrace the art of having leftovers. Save money by making large portions of healthy meals and eating leftovers for your next meal or freezing them for meals later down the road.

Eating healthy isn’t limited to just dining at home. You can find healthy options at many restaurants by looking up their menu ahead of time or asking the staff for nutrition information. Just remember to budget dining out into your overall food budget, so you can keep costs to a minimum.

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