It's no secret that junk food is cheaper than health food, but I didn't realize how much cheaper until I read about a study on the American food dollar.
According to the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, $1 will buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda "" but only 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit.
It made me wonder: Could someone on a limited budget actually afford the recommended daily servings of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy products and heart-healthy fats? I decided to find out.
My goal was to feed my family (my husband and two daughters, ages 6 and 12) seven healthy breakfasts, lunches and dinners for under $125 (just under $4.50 per person per day) "" and to do it without clipping coupons.
I arrived at $125 after researching the average food stamp benefits for families in our area and using the "figure your food dollar" calculator at the Iowa State University Extension's Spend Smart. Eat Smart. website (http://www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsavings/fooddollar/). The calculator estimated I'd need to spend $174 per week to provide my family a nutritious diet that meets current Dietary Guidelines for America. That seemed in line with what we typically spend, and I figured I could do a lot better if I really tried. I was willing to put in a little extra time in the kitchen, but I did not want to sacrifice quality. I hoped we would not have to resort to white bread, macaroni and canned peas, but I was dubious as I began crunching the numbers.
Before making my shopping list, I
visited www.myplate.gov to get the
USDA's recommended food servings for each member of my family. I also consulted Dianne Dirig, program leader for Family and Consumer Science at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Otsego County.
"I think it's very doable to feed a family of four on $125 a week," said Dirig, who works with nutrition educators to teach people how to eat healthy on a budget through CCE's Eat Smart New York program. (www.cce.cornell.edu/otsego.) Armed with common-sense tips from Dirig (cook from scratch, avoid processed foods, use dry or canned beans as a protein source, buy fruits and vegetables in season, use leftovers to stretch meals further), I carefully planned the week's meals and made a shopping list.
I bought bread at Daddy Al's General Store and the rest of my groceries at Aldi and Hannaford. Breakfast consisted of eggs with toast, cereal, toast topped with peanut butter and sliced banana, or French toast; with orange juice, coffee or milk.
My husband and kids usually bring lunch to work and school, and I was able to include most of their favorite things: sandwiches with turkey, cheese, lettuce and tomato, or peanut butter and honey; cottage cheese, grapes, apples, bananas, juice boxes, pretzels, raisins, multigrain tortilla chips and celery with peanut butter.
The dinner menu included a few family favorites served with extra vegetables, such as meatloaf with mashed potatoes, green beans and butternut squash; and barbecued chicken with baked potatoes, salad and steamed carrots. Remembering Dirig's advice, I cooked a little extra chicken to use as a flatbread pizza topping the next day. I also tried a new recipe for red beans and brown rice that I served with salad for a meal that was quick, filling and cheap.
Overall, the experiment was a lot more work than I thought it would be "" and even with all that effort, we didn't always fit in enough dairy, fruit or vegetable servings, and we didn't quite make the budget goal. Our grand total for the week, including one school lunch and a mid-week trip to the store for milk, bread and ketchup, was $132.58.
But by the end of the week, I'd learned a lot about where we do well and where we could do better, both in terms of eating well and eating cheaply. I also gained a deeper appreciation of how fortunate I am to have access to an abundant food supply and the means to choose fresh fruit over potato chips.
According to the Agriculture Department, 17 million American households reported having difficulty putting enough food on the table last year "" the highest number since the government begin surveying in 1995.
Imagine what a difference it would make if everyone who could afford it trimmed $5 a week from their grocery bill and used that money to buy a few healthy, non-perishable food items for the local food bank.
Just a little food for thought as we head into the giving season.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at email@example.com.