Guest post: Healthy Eating on a Budget

While I’m on vacation until Aug. 9 (and quite possibly for the day or two after I get back), I’m featuring several guest bloggers. Today’s guest post comes from Kayris who blogs at The Great Walls of Baltimore, among other places.

When a friend of mine went to her doctor earlier this year for her annual physical, he had bad news for her. Her blood sugar was up, her cholesterol was in the high range, and she had gained ten pounds in the past year. He told her she needs to lose weight or face serious health risks. Frightened by the prospect of diabetes and heart disease, she immediately overhauled the way she cooks and eats. Since then, she’s lost that ten pounds she gained last year and she feels better than she has in years. In fact, there’s only one downside to the new eating plan. Buying healthy food has taken a big chunk out of her grocery budget.

We eat pretty well, health wise, and I’ve found it hard to cut our grocery bills further than I already have because I’m not willing to make certain sacrifices to save a buck. To be sure, eating well and taking care of yourself will save you in the long run, but I wondered, is eating healthy really more expensive when you’re looking at it strictly from the standpoint of your credit card bill?

The answer is yes…and no. I’ve been meaning to blog about this topic for some time, but wasn’t quite sure where to start. If you’re talking about swapping fattier cuts of meat for leaner versions, or non-organic produce for all organic produce, then yes, it costs more to eat healthy. But if you shop for seasonal produce or wait for sales to stock up on meat, then you can eat healthier for about the same price. If you rely a lot on convenience goods or processed foods, making your own meal from scratch is not only healthier, but much cheaper. In order to prove my point, I wanted to compare how much it would cost to buy enough canned soup for a family of four, versus making a pot of your own, or how much it would cost to buy a premade, frozen lasagna versus how much it would cost to make your own. But that would have required a lot of research on my part, and I didn’t want to spend that much time on the post.

Then, back in March, I popped into Safeway for milk and spotted a new magazine.
Clean Eating is a new magazine by the publishers of Oxygen and it’s aimed, not at dieting, but at changing your lifestyle. When you “eat clean,” you try to eat foods in their most natural state and avoid refined grains, processed foods, etc. The idea isn’t new, but I think it’s a great way to reduce unnecessary sugar, salt and calories in your diet.

Anyway, the front of the magazine caught my eye because of the headline “Feed your family for five nights–Only 60$.” Food prices have been steadily rising and I’ve been struggling to keep our grocery expenses to a reasonable level, so I checked out the article. The five meals listed are very similar to meals that I cook, so I decided to give it a try and see how the magazine’s total bill compared to mine. I also made a few changes to suit the tastes and needs of my family.

Here’s the shopping list from the magazine’s website. Their prices are listed in blue.

3 small onions $1.99
1 head garlic $.39
1 lime $0.50
1 bag pre-washed mixed greens $3.49
2 lb. extra-lean ground white turkey breast $5.18
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts $14.97
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes $1.49
1 14.5-oz can Italian-style tomatoes $1.00
1 box high-protein or whole-wheat lasagna $2.39
1 small bag brown rice $2.00
2 1-qt. boxes reduced-sodium chicken stock $5.58
1 15-oz. can mixed tropical fruit packed in juice, unsweetened $3.19
1 6-pack bag whole-grain sub rolls $2.29
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach $0.95
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen mixed vegetables $1.89
1 15-oz. container non-fat ricotta $2.29
1 2-cup package shredded reduced-fat mozzarella cheese $2.19
1 6-oz. container non-fat yogurt $0.69
1/2 dozen eggs $1.99
Extra-virgin olive oil
Ground cinnamon
Ground nutmeg
Ground cumin
Dried oregano
Chili powder
Curry powder
Dried bay leaves
Cooking spray

Total: $54.46

For Pasta Roll-Ups with Turkey and Spinach, I substituted my own Spinach Lasagna Roll-Ups recipe. I wasn’t able to find whole wheat lasagna noodles at Safeway, and I don’t like reduced-fat mozzarella cheese, so I used part-skim cheese. My husband doesn’t like ground turkey and Johnny prefers cottage cheese over ricotta. Since the jarred pasta sauce I used had plenty of salt already, I also omitted the additional salt.

For Spicy Chicken With Brown Rice Pilaf, I used lime juice I already had on hand instead of buying a fresh lime. In place of the chicken stock, I used two teaspoons of sodium-free chicken bouillon granules and two cups of water.

For Chicken and Rice Soup with Spring Vegetables, I left out the bay leaf and made my own broth with water and bouillon.

For Curried Chicken Salad with Tropical Fruit, I didn’t use the bagged greens, substituting green leaf lettuce instead. I knew this meal would be too light for my husband, so I also made twice-baked potatoes on the side with ingredients I already had on hand.

For Turkey Meatball Subs, I substituted 93% lean ground beef for the turkey and part-skim mozzarella for the reduced-fat version.

Making adjustments for some of the items on the shopping list (eggs, for example, are listed as 1/2 dozen and we eat a lot of eggs. I usually buy three dozen at a time because Safeway runs buy one get one free sales on the 18 pack), my shopping list looks more like this. My prices are in red.

3 small onions $2.22
1 head garlic $0.40
1 lime1 bottle lime juice $1.97
1 bag pre-washed mixed greens 1 head green leaf lettuce $1.19
2 lb. extra-lean ground white turkey breast 3.5 pound 93% lean ground beef value pack $7.00
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts $12.00
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes1 jar pasta sauce $2.00
1 14.5-oz can Italian-style tomatoes $1.15
1 box high-protein or whole-wheat lasagna 1 16-ox box Safeway brand Semolina lasagna noodles $1.56
1 small bag brown rice $2.50
2 1-qt. boxes reduced-sodium chicken stock1 jar reduced-sodium chicken bouillon granules $3.75
1 15-oz. can mixed tropical fruit packed in juice,
unsweetened $1.25
1 6-pack bag whole-grain sub rolls $2.89 for 12 rolls
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach $1.19
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen mixed vegetables $1.99
1 15-oz. container non-fat ricotta1 16oz container cottage cheese $4.49
1 2-cup package reduced-fat mozzarella cheesePart-skim mozzarella cheese, 32 ounce block $6.99
1 6-oz. container non-fat yogurt1 32 ounce container fat-free plain yogurt $1.99
1/2 dozen eggs3 dozen eggs $5.49
Parmesan cheese 7oz block $4.49

The total for my grocery list comes to $66.51, and that’s pretty close. It’s even better, actually, when you consider that I purchased the larger container of some things and will have leftovers. The eggs are the most obvious example, but I’ll also get many more meals out of thr 32-ounce cheese that I bought. The rest of the cottage cheese will get eaten for breakfasts, and I also bought the large container of yogurt because I cook with yogurt a lot and it’s the more economical choice. In addition I already have many of the items on this list in my pantry. Rice is something I always have, as is chicken bouillon. I also stock up on commonly used ingredients when they go on sale, so we have ground beef and chicken in the freezer, yogurt in the fridge,and lime juice and canned tomatoes in the cabinets. So when I only buy the things I don’t already have, the total comes out to $39.53.

Of course, that’s for dinner only. It doesn’t include things like those 3-4 gallons of milk we go through a week (at $3.50 a pop) or fruit for lunches or things like crackers, cereal, bread, peanut butter, waffles, butter, etc, that quite often show up on my list. It also doesn’t include side dishes, like steamed veggies or salads. And while all five recipes are similar to recipes I already make for my family, I wouldn’t cook five recipes containing meat in one week. Another thing to consider is leftovers. We usually have leftovers, and my husband takes them to work for lunch the next day, or we have a night during the week when I don’t cook anything new and we eat whatever is in the fridge. Finally, while I have found that produce prices don’t vary much from store to store, prices for other items, such as meat, can be found in a wide range of prices. Some of the prices on my list are sale prices. The Perdue chicken is sale priced at $3.99 a pound, and I estimated that I would need three pounds. I almost never pay full price for Perdue chicken ($5.49 a pound at Safeway), but I also won’t buy storebrand chicken. How cheaply you can buy this list of food will depend heavily on sales.

Even so, I think that’s a reasonable amount to spend for a family of four in a week, especially considering that all five meals are tasty, healthy and easy to prepare.

How would your state/store stack up against such a challenge? Could you purchase those ingredients for 60 dollars? What do you consider to be a reasonable grocery budget for a family of four? And do you agree or disagree that it is more expensive to eat healthy?

Kayris lives with her husband, two kids and one grouchy cat in Baltimore City, MD. When she’s not home with the kids, she works part-time as a veterinary technician at a busy, multi-doctor animal hospital. She blogs about raising kids in the city at The Great Walls of Baltimore, shares family-friendly recipes and cooking tips at Mommy, What’s For Dinner?, and contributes to Generic Mommy, a blog about being a smart consumer.