Making Sense of Nutrition Content and Cost of Food

I often hear people complain that “healthy” food is too expensive. Often, packaged food that is marketed as “better for you” than cheaper alternatives scarily offer no real benefit.

The cost of fruits and vegetables will add up if you’re trying to eat them in addition to your regular meals. Making them part of your main meal in place of other ingredients is much more affordable. Using eggplant in place of lasagna noodles and either Portobello mushrooms or beans in place of beef, for example, will obviously save you money.

Meat and poultry is usually the most expensive thing in your grocery cart and leaner versions are even more expensive than fattier cuts. If you replace the meat or poultry that you usually buy with more vegetables, whole grains, and vegetable-based sources of protein, you can save an astronomical amount of money.

I have compared a less healthful pasta dish and a Mexican meal to more healthful options on the basis of both cost and nutrient analysis below. The results speak for themselves:

Less Healthful Cheesy Italian Baked Pasta

  • 2 medium red sweet peppers $3.18
  • 9 ounces ziti or penne pasta $0.60
  • 1 ½ Tbsp butter $0.13
  • 3 cloves garlic (negligible cost)
  • 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour (negligible cost)
  • 1/8 tsp salt (negligible cost)
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper (negligible cost)
  • 1 ½ cups 2% milk $0.64
  • 12 oz bulk Italian sausage $2.24
  • ½ cup chopped onion $0.40
  • 2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar $0.23
  • 2 tsp dried oregano (negligible cost)
  • 1 ½ cups purchased marinara sauce $1.40
  • 1 ½ cups shredded Italian cheese $3.49

Total: $12.31 for 6 servings ($2.05 per serving)

One serving contains: 511 calories; 25 grams total fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 828 mg sodium; 50 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams fiber; 22 grams protein; 11% DV for Vitamin D; 12% DV for Calcium; 18% DV for Iron; 11% DV for Potassium

 More Healthful Inside-Out Lasagna

  • 8 ounces whole wheat rotini $0.75
  • 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil $0.11
  • 1 onion, chopped  $0.40
  • 3 cloves garlic (negligible cost)
  • 8 oz sliced white mushrooms $2.99
  • 1/8 tsp salt (negligible cost)
  • ¼ tsp black pepper (negligible cost)
  • 1 14-oz can diced tomatoes with Italian herbs $1.00
  • 8 cups baby spinach $6.58
  • ½ tsp crushed red pepper (negligible cost)
  • ¾ cup part skim ricotta cheese $0.75

Total: $12.58 for 6 servings ($2.10 per serving)

One serving contains: 355 calories; 9 grams total fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 288 mg sodium; 54 grams carbohydrate; 9 grams fiber; 17 grams protein; 1021% DV Vitamin D; 17% DV Calcium; 41% DV Iron; 19% DV Potassium

Less Healthful Mexicali Hamburger Casserole

  • 1 ½ pounds ground beef (90% lean) $9.74
  • 1 15-oz can Mexican-style diced tomatoes $1.00
  • 1 ½ cups frozen whole kernel corn $0.50
  • ¾ cup shredded Mexican cheese $1.75
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour $0.06
  • ½ cup yellow cornmeal $0.83
  • 1 Tbsp sugar (negligible cost)
  • 1 ¼ tsp baking powder (negligible cost)
  • 1 egg $0.18
  • 2/3 cup milk $0.28
  • 2 Tbsp canola oil $0.08

Total: $14.42 for 6 servings ($2.40 per serving)

One serving contains: 479 calories; 20 grams total fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 595 mg sodium; 32 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 44 grams protein, 14% DV Vitamin D; 18% DV Calcium; 131% DV Iron; 16% DV potassium

More Healthful Slow-Cooker Pinto Bean Stew with Jalapeno-Corn Dumplings

  • 1 pound dry pinto beans $0.99
  • 1 medium onion $0.40
  • 1 medium red bell pepper $1.59
  • 2 stalks celery $0.33
  • 1 cup frozen corn  $0.33
  • 2 cloves garlic (negligible cost)
  • 2 Tbsp chili powder $0.95
  • 2 tsp ground cumin $0.41
  • 2 Tbsp lime juice (1 fresh lime) $0.50
  • 1 ½ teaspoons salt (negligible cost)
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour $0.06
  • ½ cup yellow cornmeal $0.83
  • ½ tsp baking powder (negligible cost)
  • ¼ tsp salt (negligible cost)
  • 2 Tbsp cold butter $0.17
  • 1 fresh jalapeno $0.24
  • Zest of 1 lime (accounted for)
  • ½ cup buttermilk $0.25

Total: $7.05 for 8 servings ($0.88 per serving)

One serving contains: 323 calories; 5 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 56 grams carbohydrate; 12 grams fiber; 16 grams protein; 10% DV Vitamin D; 9% DV Calcium; 27% DV Iron; 22% DV Potassium

In general, the cost of a fast food meal is $5-7 for the average person. Burgers, fries, and drinks at McDonalds will cost nearly $30 for a family of four. The Inside Out Lasagna is $2.10 per serving and the Slow-Cooker Pinto Bean Stew with Jalapeno-Corn Dumplings would be just $0.88 per serving! And I’m pretty sure that your fast food meal wouldn’t give you 12 grams of fiber and 22% of your Daily Value for potassium with only 5 grams of total fat, like the stew does. I’d also be willing to bet that you’ll be more satisfied with the stew than you would be with the same old burger and fries.

Check out these great resources if you want more information:

Don’t let the misconception that eating healthfully is going to cost you an arm and a leg stop you from making this year different. Use the money you save when you stop buying junk fast food and processed foods to invest in a food processor and a slow cooker (if you don’t already own them). If it’s a meal that you’re sure you’ll like, make two batches at a time and freeze one for later. There are plenty of ways to make preparing meals at home more enjoyable and less time-consuming. Instead of counting grams of protein or calories, abiding by a strict list of “allowed” foods, or purchasing expensive frozen meals – simply resolve to prepare more food at home in 2018. The top New Year’s Resolutions for 2018 are to eat healthier and to save (more) money –  37% of people say that they are planning to work on these goals this year. How great would it be to achieve both of these goals simultaneously?