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Myth Busting: Junk Food is Not Cheaper Than Healthy Food [Plus 4 More Health Food Myths]

Posted Oct 17 2011 12:46am

One more excuse to eat poorly bit the dust as Mark Bittman of the New York Times  took apart the oft-quoted adage that one reason why people don’t eat healthier is because junk food is more budget friendly. He writes, “In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home.” He then goes on to compare a McDonald’s meal for a family of 4 ($28) with a home-cooked dinner for 4 of roast chicken, salad, vegetables and milk ($14). Debunking the second part of the myth, that junk food provides more calories for the money than healthier fare, he points out that first of all few people in America need extra calories and second that it is still cheaper to add calories to home-cooked food.

I don’t know about you but I was surprised. I shouldn’t have been. Even though I’ve heard this rationale for years - and just accepted it to be true – in my personal life as the head budget maker for our home, I have proven month after month that it is always cheaper to eat at home than to go out. And no I don’t coupon. My friend Shellie taught me a couple of years ago how to plan a menu that would feed our family of 6 for $3-5/person/day. Considering the food stamp program allots $5/person/day, I figure that’s pretty awesome.

But are we eating tasteless gruel every day? Not hardly. It may take more planning and shopping – planning my menu and shopping list each month takes me a couple of hours and then buying everything several more – but eating healthy on a budget can be done. Here are 4 more healthy eating myths busted:

Myth 2. Farmer’s markets are the best place to buy healthy food. Perhaps in California, where food actually grows on trees, this works but up here in the hinterlands the only thing Minnesota grows nine months out of the year are sno cones. The farmer’s markets here, while fabulous when they’re open, are not cheap. Think outside the big box grocery stores and check out local Asian markets for cheap produce (and also weird stuff – just had my first taste of lychee nuts!), hispanic stores for cheaper meats and beans and discount stores for deals on frozen foods, bulk grains and seasonal items. Whole Foods, sadly, is almost never a good deal.

Myth 2b. Warehouse stores are bad for your waistline. People like to decry warehouse stores like Costco and Sam’s Club pointing out that buying peanut-butter pretzels in bulk makes you eat more of them – which probably is true although preventable by portioning them out into individual servings at home – but the reverse can also work in your favor. Buying a 1 pound box of salad for the same price you’d pay for 5 ounces at a regular store might inspire you to eat more greens. In addition to lots of produce, you can often find lots of shelf-stable healthy staples (say that 5 times fast) like quinoa, brown rice, raw honey, oats and dark-chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds (hush, nobody tell me those aren’t healthy). I also buy my uncured meats at Costco; I can get nitrate-free organic breakfast sausage and Canadian bacon for cheaper than the crappy regular kind at the grocery store.

Myth 3. You have to be a great cook. I suppose it would probably be helpful if you were a great cook but if you’re closer to the Swedish Muppet Chef – skewer the berjdie! – than Alton Brown, don’t despair. I suck at cooking so if I can manage, you totally can. It doesn’t take much skill to learn how to boil beans (because eating them raw might kill you - whoops) and chop and sautee some vegetables. I cook pretty much everything I eat in a big cast iron skillet – and bonus, you have permission not to wash it afterwards because it “seasons” the pan! – so I have basically one cooking technique: hot.

Myth 4. You have to have specialty ingredients. Goat cheese. Chia seeds. Amaranth flour. Strawberries and cream hemp protein powder humanely squeegeed off dirty hippies. Us healthy types sometimes get caught up in some crazy food fads and while it can make you feel lame to be the only person not drizzling your shiitake mushrooms with white truffle oil, it doesn’t mean your simple dish of crap on a plate i s less healthy. There’s a lot to be said for simple, whole, foods.

Myth 5. It’s time consuming. Like most hobbies, healthy cooking can be as time consuming as you’ll let it be but it doesn’t have to take any longer than hitting a drive through, especially if you’re okay with using your microwave. It really doesn’t get any faster than salad, especially if you have the forethought to pre-chop a bunch of veggies to keep in the fridge.

Some of my favorite cheap (about $1/serving), quick and healthy* meal ideas (that I totally am not the first to think of):

- Taco Salad: bowl of random greens topped with beans and/or meat, whatever veggies I can grab, sour cream and hot hot salsa.

-  Yogurt parfaits: plain full-fat yogurt topped with all-fruit jam, nuts, frozen blueberries and raw oats

- Miso soup: microwave a bowl of water, a tablespoon of miso paste (another reason to hit up the Asian market!), chopped green onions and cubed tofu. My husband thinks this tastes like “dirty foot water” which cracks me up. I like dirty feet.

- Stir fry: meat, veggies, oil. Lather, rinse, repeat.

- Honey mustard chicken: whatever cut of chicken you want (I’m lucky enough to get my dead poultry cheap, straight from the farmer who just wrung their necks), mix equal parts of honey & mustard and spread on top. Sprinkle with a few herbs. Cook in pan. Tastes delish over rice.

- “McMuffins”: Top a whole wheat english muffin with 1 fried/poached/scrambled egg, a slice of cheese, a slice of Canadian bacon or ham and spinach leaves. If the muffin is too processed for you, just pile it all on top of the spinach leaves – still totally yummy!

* I realize that depending on what your personal food philosophy is, these may not be “healthy” per your definition. I’m not trying to make a definitive list – just saying these are examples of what works for me. I hope you’ll tell me what works for you in the comments!

What do you think about Mark Bittman’s assertion that healthy food is actually cheaper than junk food? Do you have a fave tip for eating healthy on the cheap? Do you have a $1/serving meal idea?

 

 

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