I get a lot of questions during lectures from people wanting to know how they can eat better when eating healthy is so expensive. They base their questions on claims that unhealthy choices are cheaper. For instance, I saw a recent news story where the reporter walked around Walmart and looked at the value of foods based on the measure of calories per dollar. This is really nothing more than a cute parlor game to say that one dollar will purchase close to 1,000 calories of candy bars but only a single large apple, because it doesn't tell us anything about what we get for our money. Calories are certainly an important part of our diet and weight control, but it is the quality of those calories that matters to our health.
The conclusion often from studies and news reports is that the subsidies on more calorie-dense foods are the culprit Because our government provides funding to farmers growing calorie-dense products like corn (which is processed into sugars) and beef, the typical fast food menu can be advertised as being "cheap, cheap, cheap," and candy bars can be sold for 33 cents each.
This is, however, one of the great myths about healthy eating -- ranking right up there with the fallacy that eating healthy doesn't taste good. I believe it's more economical to cook a fresh, healthy meal than to eat junk food.
The argument I hear most often is that it's cheaper to eat at McDonald's. After going to McDonald's recently and putting together a typical meal for four (mom, dad and two kids), I came up with a total of about $14.00 (I didn't actually buy anything, though). For that money, you get almost nothing of nutritive value, but bland white bread, greasy burgers and fries with a sugary soda.
That same $14.00 will purchase two pounds of lean ground beef, a pack of eight whole wheat buns, lettuce, tomato and enough potatoes to make oven-baked french fries and salad ingredients with money left over for some fresh fruit. The best part is that this is twice as much food as at McDonald's, so there's plenty for leftovers later. Better food at half the price: that's pretty simple. I'll allow that there's no soda included in the home cooked meal, but no one should drink soda anyway and a full pitcher of iced tea costs pennies to make.
At KFC, they sell $5.00 "complete" meals. I say "complete," but they really aren't since there's far too much refined carbohydrates and the only vegetables are deep fried potatoes.
These meals serve one person and generally include two pieces of chicken with fries and a biscuit (no veggies) and a soda. That comes to $20.00 for the same family of four, and for that you can purchase a whole chicken for roasting, four ears of corn on the cob, makings for a side vegetable or a salad and have money left over for fruit for dessert. Sure, the KFC meal is right at 1,000 calories, which makes it 200 calories per dollar, but there's also only 2 grams of fiber in the meal, more than a teaspoon of salt and 16 teaspoons of sugar. In the long run, those poor quality calories end up costing a lot.
The same home cooked meal with one roasted chicken breast, one roasted chicken thigh, a side salad, corn on the cob and an apple comes in at around 600 calories with about a quarter teaspoon salt. There's 11 grams of fiber and half the sugar, but the sugars are from natural sources and not table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. It's a healthy meal for less than KFC.
Sure, if you count this as calories per dollar you come out behind, but not all that much -- and the food is far, far better. The home cooked meal costs 120 calories per dollar, but these are great quality calories: low in sodium and added sugars, high in fiber, much more satisfying and, in my opinion, much tastier than KFC.
I spend a lot of time in grocery stores and it's amazing how much convenience food I see. Take the Healthy Choice penne in tomato sauce frozen meal. For the same family of four that it would take five of these (or maybe even more, considering the amount of calories that each member of the family might need).
At $2.80 per serving, that's a minimum of $14.00. That same 14 bucks will buy a box of whole wheat penne, onions, tomatoes and cheese with money left over for salad and fruit -- and it'll make six servings.
I do get people who want to argue that there's no time to cook, but this is also a myth. Putting a chicken in the oven to roast takes one minute to season and 5 seconds to put in the oven. Same with roasting the corn on the cob. Making a salad dressing and prepping the veggies takes all of about 10 minutes. That's less than 15 minutes work time to make a fantastic dinner. You might stand in line that long at the fast food joint.
There are so many recipes available online that are quick, easy and family friendly. They are inexpensive and delicious, but even those requiring more expensive ingredients are still cheaper than eating out -- and they're so much better for you. These are difficult economic times. One of the best ways to save money and get healthier (which also saves money) is to cook your own meals.
The myth that eating junk food is cheaper is just that: a myth.
Follow Tim Harlan, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrGourmet