Is cheap food unhealthy? Another way to ask the same question, is it expensive to eat healthy food. I was surprised to learn, when I cut back on my grocery budget to pay off debt, that we were able to eat healthily on a very low budget.
Many cheap processed foods can be laden with salt, unhealthy fats and unnatural ingredients.That being said, cheaper foods do not all fall into that category. The kinds of food you choose to buy and how to decide to prepare it has a big impact on how healthy it is. Focusing on as many cheap whole foods as possible can drive down the cost of a grocery budget.
If your overall goal is to save money on your grocery budget,meal planning with cheaper foods while still trying to remain healthy can lead to the following outcomes;
- Less choice in the weekly menu.
- Less variety of foods and ingredients.
- Food intolerances can be easier to cater for by excluding packaged foods.
- Excluding many packaged foods can help to keep food costs down.
Factors that could make it more difficult to eat healthily with cheap foods;
- Being limited to where you can buy food.(Lack of availability of certain goods).
- A lack of basic cooking skills.
- A lack of basic cooking equipment.
- Lack of a like minded community and/or appropriate educaiton.
It is a complex issue that does not have the same answer the world over, so let’s have a closer look at whether cheap food is unhealthy food.
It Depends On Where You Live In The World.
I learned a lot about food when forced to live on a lower budget. It would appear that not all countries are equal when it comes to food costs, food quality, government food policy and food education. There are concerns in the UK that eating healthily is out of the reach of many people. The article linked below discusses;
- The prevalence of takeaway food outlets in deprived areas.
- The impact of advertising and food promotions.
- How incomes have an impact on the foods people choose to buy.
[Read the article from The Telegraph here: Eating A Healthy Diet Is Too Expensive For Many Britons, Research Finds]
Another article highlights how the availability of similarly priced healthy and unhealthy foods appears to impact food choices. People tend to veer towards purchasing unhealthy food if it is a similar price to healthier options.
[Read the articles by by Diabetes.co.uk Cheap Unhealthy Food Makes Healthy Food Choices Much Less Likely.]
Food choices in US households appear to be heavily influenced by government policy. This YouTube video by VOX makes for very interesting viewing to get a greater understanding of the question, ‘is cheap food unhealthy?’
Healthy Cheap Foods vs Cheap Unhealthy Food
In an article in ‘The Conversation’, ‘Myth: healthy food is more expensive than unhealthy food’ ‘the author takes a deeper look at the ‘cost per calorie’ metric often used in the debate about whether cheaper foods are unhealthy or indeed that more expensive food is healthier.
Cost Per Calorie
The comparison of two pots of chocolate dessert, one full fat and one lower fat,is used as an example. If the cost comparison is made on calories alone, the lower fat pot of chocolate dessert will show up as more expensive per calorie.
The pots of dessert may be the same price at the till but because there are less calories in the low fat dessert, that dessert could be classed as more expensive than the full fat dessert. Calorie for calorie, the low fat dessert is more expensive, proving that the ‘healthier’ option is in fact more expensive and that the less healthy option is cheaper.
While it is more expensive per calorie, by weight, the pots are close in price. So in the customers basket at the till, it could be argued, that the unhealthy and healthy options are not significantly different in price.
This shows that it is worth doing your own research into whether you can feed your family on cheaper foods and still get healthy options.
Cost Per Weight
When I did my no spend year I fed my family on €50 a week for a year and we ate well enough to be healthy. I actually lost some weight (I was overweight when I started). Cut backs had to be made and as a result I became inventive with our food.
I constructed by meal plan on basic nutritional information available online and focused on cost per weight of the food I was buying.
|Healthier Option||Other Options|
|Porridge 2KG 99 cents||Puffed rice 375g 99 cents|
|Plain Flour 2Kg 99 cents||Sliced brown loaf x2 (800g each) €1.78 total|
|Wholemeal Flour 2Kg 99 cents||Chicken Kievs 4 pieces €2.49|
|Whole Chicken 1200g €2.99|
|This basket gives you 7.2Kg of food for €5.96||This basket gives you 2.475kg of food for €5.29|
Cheap Foods Which Are Also Healthy?
It is clear to see that the question as to whether cheap food is unhealthy,does not have a straightforward answer. Using the cost per weight method to manage a tight grocery budget can help to illustrate how cheap food does not have to be unhealthy.
It can take several months to build up some pantry staples but it is a worthwhile exercise in the longer term. Buying a few larger packs of basics such as rice, flour or other pantry staples each week can help to build up a pantry without a large cost burden in a shorter space of time. This is one of the cornerstones of cheaper but healthy meal planning.
There may be times when you cannot afford to stock up on baking ingredients or pantry ingredients and that can end up costing more in the long run. I have found however, if you concentrate on as many whole foods as possible, you can make lots of healthy and filling meals on a tight budget. There are some of the foods I concentrate on when trying to keep my food budget low.
- Minced beef
- Whole chicken
- Butter and margarine
- Various Flours
Meals based on these foods along with learning how to bake a few basic recipes can go a long way. Variety and convenience have proven to be expensive.
I learned so much from websites like BBC Goodfood.
This popular website is loaded with 1000’s of recipes including the simpletest of things such as basic sauces and breads.
Learn To Cook With Cheaper Healthy Ingredients.
There is no question that this varies across countries. I live in the EU and food policy here is different than in the USA. Focusing on what I can change myself is how I dealt with my own goal to feed my family healthily on cheaper food.
Foods worth learning how to make are sauces, breads and snacks. I found that those things added a real cost to the grocery budget.
I watched lots of youtube videos to learn how to do feed my family as healthily as I could on cheaper foods. Linked below is Frugal Fit Mom Christine who I got lots of ideas from on how to achieve that.
I also highly recommend Jack Monroe’s website Cooking On A Bootstrap where you will find a vast number of frugal recipes. I listened to and read as much of Jack’s material as I could when I needed to keep my food budget low. The recipes are accessible to most people and are costed too.
Is Cheap Food Unhealthy: A Frugal Foodie Weights In!