Healthy Food IS More Expensive. So Now What?


Whenever I hear someone claim that healthy foods don't cost more than unhealthy ones, I can only shake my head. And take a bite from the $1.50 organic honeycrisp apple that I accidentally bought at the farmer's market. I don't know about you, but the more I focus on buying fresh, minimally-processed foods, the more money I seem to spend.

Luckily there are people at Harvard to back me up. A 2013 study from Harvard School of Public Health found that eating a healthy diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts) cost about $1.50 more per day per person than eating an unhealthy diet (the kind full of processed foods and refined grains). Sounds like pocket change, but that's an extra $2,200 per year for a family of four.

Here's what gets me: I spend a lot more on a pound of fresh fish than I would for a box of fish sticks. I could easily pay $1 for a single orange. Organic chicken is $2-3 more per pound than conventional. Whole wheat spaghetti is more expensive than white. And the dyed, sugary kids' cereals seem to be the only ones that are ever on sale.

Maybe the problem isn't that healthy food is expensive—but that hyper-processed, sugary, salty, additive-laden food is so cheap. And of course, eating a healthy diet could mean lower health care costs down the road, so maybe a healthy diet is a money-saver after all.

In the meantime, though, I'm focused on our bottom line. And since feeding my family healthy food is important to me, I've accepted that I have to pay more for certain foods. But I still need to keep spending in check. If you're in the same boat, here are some ways to do that:

  • Try not to get overwhelmed. I work hard to quiet the swirling worries in my head as I shop (is this organic? GMO-free? dye-free? local? fair trade? sustainable?) because it's enough to make me crazy. Instead, I focus on the big picture: Am I buying lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains? Do fresh foods outnumber packaged? Read more about how I stopped stressing out about grocery shopping here.
  • Pick and choose where you spend your organic dollars. I simply don't have the budget to buy all organic. So I compare prices for organic and conventional fruits and vegetables, especially the ones that tend to have higher pesticide residues (see the Environmental Working Group's lists here). I tend to go organic on spinach, lettuce, and berries when I can. I go conventional on fruits that have a thick rind I'll be discarding, like cantaloupe, pineapple, and watermelon.
  • Prioritize. Buying local or organic meat, milk, and eggs is important to me. I have concerns about usage of hormones and antibiotics, as well as humane treatment of animals. But since organic and local are more expensive, I have a bunch of items that I DON'T prioritize, like spices, baking staples, and grains like pasta and rice, so I buy all of those at a discount grocery store. Everyone's priorities are different, and that's okay. The point is to decide what your priorities are, put your focus there, then find ways to save on the other stuff.
  • Meal plan. This is by far the biggest way I stay on budget. I make my meal plan at the beginning of the week as I'm making my grocery list. My ultimate goal: No repeat trips back to the store. (Because how many times have I run in for "just an onion" and come out with $50 worth of groceries? Too many.) For a free, one-page meal planning worksheet that includes space for a shopping list and a week's worth of dinners, go here.

How to YOU save money on healthy foods?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author of Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

Baby has to eat! Give your cutie plenty of baby food choices while maintaining your budget with these tips.

Image: Grocery shopping via Shutterstock

1 Comment

  1. The USDA has debunked your 2013 Harvard study. Harvard measured nothing but calories bought for a dollar. You don't buy healthy food for just calories, you buy for vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It takes five ounces of broccoli to satisfy your green vegetable requirements for a week. It takes twenty five pounds of broccoli to supply all your calories. Buying calories you don't need instead of micro nutrients you do need is like pouring soda in your car's gas tank because it is cheaper than gasoline
    You "accidentally" spent $1.50 for an apple. I bought apples for $.49 per pound this week, and bananas and pineapple for $.33 per pound. Considering the difference in waste they are all about $.15 per one cup serving. And I wash everything thoroughly, even if it has not been fertilized with "organic" animal waste or sprayed with "organic" poisons like pyrethrum. You apparently get greater comfort from the magic word "organic" than I do. I will settle for "nutritious" and score with myplate and the HEI 2010.
    If you don't like junk kids' cereal why don't you make old fashioned oatmeal? It is cheaper per serving, per calorie, or per any other metric, than any ready to eat cereal, on sale or not.
    I place greater importance on whole grains for bread, pasta, and baking over buying chicken that claims it is "hormone free." That is simply because no one raising chickens in this country uses hormones. Did you know that? Beef is another story, but you should be severely limiting red meat anyway. As you said, everyone's priorities are different.

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