The Cost of Eating Healthy

An offhand comment from a grocery store employee that eating a healthy diet was “too expensive” led to a lot conversation in our home. Was it really true? Was a healthy diet outside the financial reach of many families?

Recently, we decided to find out by looking at the cost of our diet. For six days, from Sunday, March 21 to Friday, March 26th, we tracked everything we ate and how much it cost.

­Note: the nitty gritty details follow below. If you just want the recipes, you’ll find them here. (PDF)

The Math

We spent $212.42 on food during the 6-day span. In some cases, we ended up with leftovers in the freezer for another time, and some of the ingredients are still in our cupboards, so we deducted a portion of the cost. We also ate lunch out once each that week.

The end result was about $30/per day.

We went back to our financial records for 3 random months, and the numbers were pretty similar. Overall, including meals out, we ended up at $30 a day.

How does that stack up? According to stats Canada the average Ontario family spends approximately $7500/year on food.  That’s a little over $20/day – we’re clearly over that by a wide margin.

At our rate of $30 per day, eating an organic healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables with a few meals out would likely be close to $900 per month. That’s a lot for some budgets.

How to Cut the Cost

On the bright side, there’s a lot of room to work with as far as price is concerned. Here are a few ideas:

  • Be Selective with Organics Our diet includes a huge amount of certified organic food. You could choose to buy non-organic fruits and vegetables, or you could also make selective choices based on buying just the dirty dozen organically, or avoiding them altogether.
  • Be Price Sensitive: We buy what’s best for us, without checking prices often. A little value shopping would certainly help our price tag.
  • Buy in Bulk: We have a tiny freezer, and limited pantry space, so we don’t buy many things in bulk. Buying in volume or joining a co-op would definitely help with the savings on some of the dry goods.
  • Eat in: We ate out very little during this week, but when we do go to restaurants, it’s expensive. The last few times we’ve been to a fast-food restaurant with 4 people, it’s cost us $30 just for one meal. That’s also the cost of lunch for two the last time we had a table service meal at a restaurant. If you need to cut costs dramatically, this the place to do it. One meal out = one whole day of very healthy eating at home.
  • Focus on Inexpensive Meals: Not all our meals were pricey – focusing on our cheaper meals could cut the cost down to close to the $20 mark. But we’d be relying heavily on simple carbs, pasta and rice in particular. Our cheapest meals were by far the ones that used pasta. That’s not ideal for health.
  • Grow Your Own: Not everyone’s cup of tea, and not an easy year-round option, but if it suits you, you can pay for your own delicious food with time instead of money.

The big takeaway for us was this: food is more expensive than we thought, but if you eat out more than a couple of times a week, you’ve got enormous room in your budget to replace that food with something more affordable if you need to.

The Meals and The Recipes

I always plan our weekly menus in advance, which helped with this project. I make a shopping list and buy all the ingredients so I don’t have to worry about it day to day. This also allows me to look at the whole week and see if it is balanced.

You’ll notice this week was light on meat, but it was just by chance. We aren’t vegetarians, but we do generally eat a lot of vegetarian meals.

Here was our dinner menu for the week:

  • Sunday – Organic greens with tuna (2 adults) – $7.81, time to prepare 10 min
  • Monday – out for a birthday party
  • Tuesday – Vegetarian Spaghetti (2 adults, 3 kids) $17.38 (but half went in freezer therefore $8.69/meal), Time 10 min in the AM, simmer all day, 10 minutes to boil pasta in the evening)
  • Wednesday – Tilapia, organic roasted sweet and regular potato, sauteed zucchini and mushroom (3 adults, 2 kids) $16.66, Time: prep = 15 min, cook = 40 min
  • Thursday – Chinese noodle soup (3 adults, 1 kid) $15.02, Time: 20 min
  • Friday – Pasta – pesto, artichoke and grape tomatoes (3 adults), $6.92, Time 20 min.

Lunch for Tara

I usually make something at the beginning of the week for the entire week.  This week it was a Brussels Sprout and Navy Bean Salad.  It didn’t last all week because I shared with a student intern on Thursday so had to get a falafel on Friday.

Cost $12.18 – or $2.44/serving  Time:  prep: 15 mins, cooking 30 mins

Lunch for Eve

Eve’s school lunch varies but is usually something like this:

  • Meat and cheese (2-3 slices, 5-6 slices)
  • Rice Crackers 10-12
  • Organic berries – 1/3 cup
  • Unsweetened apple sauce
  • Homemade dessert (ex. 2 cookies)
  • Cut of veg (cuc, peppers or carrots)

Average cost = $2.96

Breakfast and lunch for Dan

All over the map. He’ll often have a banana and coffee early in the morning, then something else mid-morning. Then a small lunch. Then sometimes another small lunch. 🙂 It depends on the day, but lunch is usually leftovers from dinner, a cost already occurred in the above meals.

Breakfast for Eve and I:

Bowl of cereal for Eve, 2 apples with peanut butter for me, and 2 cups of coffee.

(The interesting thing here – we drink organic, fair-trade coffee with organic cream (Dan) or milk (Tara).  Each cup cost about $0.70.  We could get cheaper ingredients and cut coffee costs to under 10 cents a cup, but it’s still far cheaper than coffee out. And really delicious. Thank you Creemore Coffee Company! :))

Download the recipes (PDF)