Diet depends on income. And?

Better access to supermarkets — long touted as a way to curb obesity in low-income neighborhoods — doesn’t improve people’s diets, according to new research. The study, which tracked thousands of people in several large cities for 15 years, found that people didn’t eat more fruits and vegetables when they had supermarkets available in their neighborhoods.

Instead, income — and proximity to fast food restaurants — were the strongest factors in food choice.

Access to grocers doesn’t improve diets, study finds

No. Shit.

Not emphatic enough. Here: NO SHIT!

I know that we need studies to formalize the obvious sometimes. And I know that there are folks out there who do not think that it’s obvious at all that fresh fruits and vegetables and meats are luxury items below a certain income level, but they are. Try as I might not to generalize, I have a feeling that anyone who believes that simply opening a grocery store will fix things has never been properly out of money for any length of time.

We still struggle with this in my household. We both work, we both come home exhausted, and between us we make little enough that the kids still qualify for state insurance (and will likely make *less* this year, not more). We try (and sometimes even succeed) to do right by the kids nutritionally, but fresh veggies have mostly gone right out the window, as even when we can get them at a good price they require extra preparation. Much easier to spend a buck twenty-five and throw a bag of corn in the microwave–or heat up a can of corn for even less. Fruit can be cheap enough in season, but three kids can eat *pounds* of the stuff, and so, for example, apples this time of year? Not a frequent thing. When I was shopping last week, the cheapest apples in the store were going for a dollar and ninety-nine cents a pound.

I know this has been said before, but it bears repeating: for the same two dollars as a couple of apples, I can have chicken nuggets and fries from BK (feeds one kid). Kids are thrilled, because that stuff is damned tasty, parents are thrilled because they don’t have to cook it and even more thrilled that the kids won’t be demanding a snack an hour later. There are a hell of a lot less calories in an apple than in a bag of fries.

Meat is something that doesn’t always get considered adequately in these discussions. Lean meat is crazy expensive when you’re feeding three kids and are at our present income level. We can find chicken with relative ease–boneless, skinless breasts at a dollar ninety-nine a pound (better deal than a pair of apples, if you’re looking to fill a kid up)–but you have to buy the things in seven to eight dollar packages to get the big discount. More than once a sale has gone by while we waited for payday. And lean beef, ground or otherwise? Forget it. I actually prefer fattier ground beef for cooking, but even the eighty/twenty I’d be making pasta with is rarely under three dollars a pound. An occasional sale will hit two forty-nine, but mostly? More than that.

Keep in mind that we have a variety of grocery stores within a reasonable radius. Within fifteen miles, there are three Walmart Supercenters, a Hannaford, a Market Basket, two Stop&Shops, two Shaw’s and two grocery stores that belong to small local chains. We’re also lucky enough to have a farmer’s market close by, where the produce prices are sometimes extraordinary. We can shop the living hell out the sales, between all of these, and get food much cheaper than we could if we had only one store close to us, or if we had transportation issues that restricted the number of stores we could shop at. We are also lucky in that most of these stores are in places we would be driving by in the normal course of things; if we had to spend extra gas to get to them, the savings would be minimal to non-existent, thus essentially putting that store beyond our reach.

Even when we manage to put meat and fresh veggies on the table, there is always the problem of starch. Starches are cheap, and if you buy them pre-processed, they’re really cheap. Minute Rice and Potato Buds, anyone? In all seriousness, we go for the even-cheaper-but-you-have-to-cook it plain white rice around here, as it’s inexpensive enough to measure the amount for a meal in cents rather than dollars…unless you’re using it to bulk out a meal. The issue here is that stretching the healthy food you do have often means filling out a meal with much less expensive, much less healthy alternatives. Not as much meat as you really wish you had? Make extra rice. Make a big pot of pasta and add a token amount of burger to it. Make small burgers and have a big serving of tater tots. Or potato chips. Hell, when I was a kid, we sometimes ate mashed potatoes with chunks of cheese melted into them and called it a meal.

Or ramen. There’s always ramen. Twelve packages for a dollar ninety-eight at the Walmart. And even then we’re making a set of assumptions; when your electric has been cut off, it’s hard to boil water. Then even ramen is something that’s beyond your reach.

The upshot of all of this is simply that it’s damned hard to feed a family a healthy diet on a small amount of money. It involves having access to a variety of places to shop, enough money at one time to stock up and to shop the sales, and the energy to not just figure out what to buy where when, but to cook it once you do.

These are the current USDA guidelines for a healthy meal:

Now, I’m going to grant you that this exercise would be less expensive if you had time and space and enough cash on hand to build up some supplies, but for the moment imagine this: a new grocery store just opened down the block from you. You’re thrilled, as most of the time you’ve been eating either fast food or simple, pre-processed meals. How much would it cost to bring home the ingredients to make this dinner for a family of five?

A gallon of milk runs around $4 at my local stores, more a little less if you buy the 1% or skim that the USDA recommends.

You can buy enough chicken for two meals for $8, but only if you buy enough right now for two meals. Otherwise it will be almost as much to buy two smaller packages for this meal at the higher price per pound.

You can get a small bag of rice for a little more than $1. The brown rice that would go toward the USDA recommendation that at least half your grains be whole grains? More.

To have enough veggies to make up the correct proportion of your plates, you can buy 2 cans of peas for $2 or 2 steamer bags for $2.70. If you want the fresh veggies that the articles are always talking about when they get excited about store openings, you can buy broccoli crowns on sale for $1.49 a pound, which actually puts you ahead of the game, since you only buy a pound and a quarter. This only works, though, if you’ve got the proper steamer pan or insert to cook it in or if you don’t mind boiling it or eating it raw. (Simple things can become complicated very quickly when we’re talking about food choices and poverty.)

Fruit is actually pretty easy, if the canned stuff is to your taste. 2 cans of mixed fruit will run you about $2.50. Plums are in season at $.99 a pound, which runs you about the same.

So you’re looking at spending a minimum of $17 to $18, with half a gallon of milk and enough chicken for another meal left over. That is, if all of this is on sale at the same store, if you have the facilities to cook it properly and to store the leftover, and if the kids aren’t teenagers and thus much more expensive to feed. If you have the knowledge and the energy to cook something that tastes decent, and if you have a few things floating around the kitchen to start with…a fat to cook the chicken in, salt and pepper, the right pans, some knives. If not, then adjust the cost upward accordingly.

Now, given that each meal you make will be successively less expensive for a while as you build a pantry, this may not make the most persuasive argument for BK being cheaper (working from the dollar menu, my family of 5 generally eats for $10 to $12 dollars, and usually we get the kids $6 worth and scrounge around the house for something to eat for ourselves). But it does make an argument for BK being *easier,* and given the challenges that folks in the lower income brackets often face–like working multiple jobs–that may be an even more important factor.

Cheap *and* easy is where things really go down the nutritional drain. Assume that you have hot dogs often enough that you have ketchup and maybe some mustard and relish floating around (startup cost around $6). Pack of hot dogs, say $2.50 for something decent (I can get rock-bottom hot dogs for $.88 at my local Walmart), buns maybe $1.39, giant bag of store brand chips $2.79. Between $6 and $7 bucks, and you have chips left over. $12 to $13 if you have to buy the condiments, and you have those leftover, too.

We’ve had that meal more than once lately.

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before. This subject, though, is near and dear to my heart, because I absolutely *hate* that we wind up feeding the kids the hot dogs and chips so often lately, as have resorted to BK more frequently than we have in the past just because we’re both too tired to cook. We wouldn’t eat nearly as many good meals as we do if we were limited to the store that’s within walking distance of us; we simply couldn’t afford to do that. The prices above are based on what I’ve managed to find on sale within the last several weeks at several different stores.

My point is simply this: plopping a grocery store down somewhere will not give everyone access to decent food, if by decent food you mean food that meets USDA recommendations and by access you mean the money, skills, equipment and time to actually cook it. It’s a hell of a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface, while being absurdly obvious at the same time. It baffles me that anyone who takes the subject seriously wouldn’t be able to see that.

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50 Responses to Diet depends on income. And?

  1. roadgeek says:

    You seem to have an excellent sense of budgeting and how much food costs, and you seem committed to providing a healthy diet for your children. All very commendable.

    But with all your life skills, so sadly lacking in many other people, did it not occur to you to simply not have three children that you cannot afford to feed and insure adequately? You mention quiet candidly that your children are on “state” insurance, and you also reveal the financial issues involved in feeding three children healthy foods. You state that it simply isn’t affordable.

    But you had three children without considering the cost of feeding and providing health insurance for those children? What were you thinking?

    • deb says:


      We were thinking that our jobs were stable. We were in a very different financial situation when those decisions were made. Not an uncommon story, especially the last few years. Trying to climb out of that spot has been interesting, to say the least.

    • Bryan says:

      You wait until you’re set for life (yeah, going hyperbolic a bit), there won’t be any more babies in the world.

  2. Jim says:

    Milwaukee, one gallon 1% milk 2.68 7.11.2011

  3. Ellen says:

    And the kicker is … the USDA recommendations are NOT the most nutritious diet.

    See “Fat Head” … free on Hulu or Netflix

    • deb says:


      You’re right about the USDA recommendations. I chose a familiar metric and the one beloved by the folks who are always up in arms about what we’re all eating. Seemed appropriate.

  4. Lin says:

    Frozen veggies, discount bakery breads with whole grain, and Quaker old fashioned oat meal (in the big package) make a big difference at my house. Today, I had Ramen noodles – except it wasn’t really ramen noodles. I threw a handful of frozen peas, and a couple of carrot and onion slices in with the “Two cups water.” Then, after they’d boiled a bit, I threw in the noodles. I put the spice packet in toward the end to cook with the noodles to transfer a bit of flavor, then I drained off almost all the super salty liquid. I added a small bit of good oil and a tablespoon of sour cream. It was a bit like pasta prima vera with cream sauce. Yum!

  5. Joy Schulenburg says:

    Sorry, I’m just not getting the problem as you present it. Your examples baffle me.

    I’m currently on a fixed income of less than $700 per month of which a huge chunk goes to rent. I raised kids on welfare with food stamps for a couple of years and on less than that on a few occasions. Food stamps is never enough, but for the kinds of dollar amounts you state, it’s easy to provide excellent nutrition.

    You’re definitely talking about food as though it all comes in pre-prepared convenience packages of things like boneless, skinless chicken breasts and steamer packages of veggies. I’m not ever sure what the latter items are! Broccoli is a piece of cake to cook. It microwaves in a bowl with a bit of water and some kind of cover, in about 3 minutes. About the same on the stove top, maybe a minute more and you don’t need a special steamer. Buy the whole head, save the stems and make soup another night. Buy a whole chicken, flatten it and stick it in the oven for an hour while you decompress from work. Or put it in the slow cooker before you leave in the morning. You’ll have plenty for a family of 5 plus you can make soup of out the rest. You don’t need a gallon of milk a day unless you’ve got the kids trained to drink that much milk. Eggs are cheap and good for breakfast with maybe a slice of whole wheat toast and a sliced half an apple. Or bulk oats which can be made in the microwave while you get dressed for work.

    What I see in many modern households (including my daughter’s so I’m not pointing fingers at anyone in particular) is a lack of forethought and planning; the assumption that food should be EASY. THAT assumption, more than a lack of access to good ingredients, is a major cause of the kind of obesity that comes from too many calories and fats. The minute you start looking at FAST food, whether pre-made at KFC or the ready-to-heat garbage you buy at the store, you’re looking at either more money or more calories and, often, both.

    As you point out, it can help to be able to buy in bulk. However, if you don’t have the kind of money to get multi-packs or family packages very often, it’s still cheaper if you go to stores that sell the amount you need out of bulk bins rather than pre-packaged. Out here that would be Winco, but there are places like that all over the country. A prepackaged pound of brown rice is waaaay more expensive than bulk brown rice. Granola or oats come out cheaper if you scoop them into a bag out of a bin.

    But, above all, planning and scheduling so that you buy stuff and use it in the period of time your budget allows. Buy the package of chicken breasts and have chicken stew with carrots and potatoes one night. Two nights later throw together a quick stir fry with the rest of the chicken, some celery and a dollar’s worth of bok choy or cabbage. If you use a whole chicken for the same price, you might get a third meal of nice soup out of the remainder on the carcasses. The hardship comes when you want to not have to think about meals and arrangements ahead of time. Then you”re paying for the fact that someone else (or at least some machine) has done part of the work. If you want it cheaper, you’ll have to do that work yourself. Not always how we want it to go, but that’s really the way things work in most of the world!

  6. happyfeet says:

    here this lady learned me how to make dirty rice it’s very cheap and tasty – you need one of these though unless you have some kind of weird perverted chopping fetish

    at the end she gets a little crazy shaking the seasonings in – I don’t think it matters all that much if you follow all that part but curry and tony chachere’s and salt is the basic idea

  7. Peter says:

    Bravo! And it’s getting worse as food prices go through the roof with these idiots who have never once raised a cow or a crop putting more onerous rules out. Fruits and veggies getting expensive? Close off the irrigation in California’s Central Valley! Grain for cows, chickens and hogs getting high? More corn in the gas tanks!

    And now they sccreech about obesity. Meanwhile, if Michelle Obama would just shut up and raise her kids and leave mine alone.

  8. Cybrludite says:

    “It baffles me that anyone who takes the subject seriously wouldn’t be able to see that.”

    They can’t see that because they’ve never actually had to do that. As the noted American philosopher Yogi Berra put it, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

  9. You are so right. I have three groceries around me, and being impoverished and disabled, I still can’t afford a lot of meat and fresh veggies. The only way the boyfriend and I get meat and fresh veggies is by making trips to the food bank. He goes to a really good one and we get lots of good stuff. Food banks are hit and miss, though. Some are good, some are minimal, some don’t give you anything but mac & cheese.
    With both of you working, I doubt you have time to visit a food bank, as waiting in line can take hours. Just what you need when you’re exhausted from work. And that depends on if the food bank has one day of evening hours.
    Me, I make just enough on disability that I’m not eligible for food stamps. One of my problems is having the energy to cook. I don’t. I have really arthritic knees, too, and cooking is sometimes painful. Well, unless it’s nuked hot dogs, it’s always painful. I feel you.

  10. Jay Currie says:

    There is nothing interesting about being poor, or cash short; but one thing which sticks out, having been there, is that it is damned expensive.

    Having minimal cash and hungry kids means you cut corners, shop sales and buy starch.

    The good news is that a tiny bit of beef nearing its best before date with rice and whatever green is on sale is a great meal made in all of ten minutes. It has worked for the Chinese for 5000 years, it can work for you.

  11. Marc Malone says:

    Your math does not add up right to me. I just do not see the problem.

    When I get chicken on sale (boneless, skinless), I get it at $1.99/lb. I buy a bunch and freeze it in portions. Plastic wrap is your friend. One piece, about 4 oz., is enough for each person’s meal. More than that is gorging oneself. I buy Calrose rice at about $7 for a 5lb bag. It goes a long way, is good, and is nutritious. It needs nothing more than a little butter and pepper. I favor frozen veggies. A 2lb bag is plenty. Such will run about $2-3, plus a pat or two of butter. 7-11 sells milk as a loss leader, 2 for $5 or thereabouts. Fruits and veggies in the same meal? Same food group. Huh.

    So, chicken $.5 per person. Veggies about the same. Rice about 1/2 again that. 10 oz milk about $.2. Something small for dessert, like a scoop of ice cream. $5 for 1/2 gal (64 oz), so $.4 or less. A meal for each person is under $2.50, or $12.50, for a family of 5. Breakfast and lunch are much cheaper. Lunch for a laboring man will run the same, though. He needs the calories to burn.

    This is a satisfying meal… once you get used to not gorging yourself. The problem is you are used to eating too damned much. I could feed your family of 5 on $16-20/day $480-600/mo, less if your kids are small. You just would have to get used to eating more wholesome foods which fill you up without stuffing you, and you would have to learn how to not reach for another piece of chicken or two. After awhile, it becomes natural, and you are still well-fed.

    Homemade Mac’nCheese is far superior to store brand and costs very little (noodles and cheese). Mix in a couple chopped up hot dogs and a side of veggies, and it is even cheaper than the above meal. Breakfast for me is a cup of coffee, a banana, and a bowl of shredded wheat. Sandwich and soup for lunch.

    Here’s another cheap, filling meal with hamburger. Brown the burger, adding spices. Add a can of cut green beans and a can of olives. Heat and stir. Put cooked rice in bowls and put the burger mix over the top. Glass of milk. Nutritious. Very filling. Very cheap.

    Oh. Chew your damned food. Thoroughly. If you eat like a dog, you can expect to need more food, because it is not getting digested. It should take at least 20 minutes to eat dinner, not 5. After 20 minutes, your stomach acid production will turn off by itself. You won’t be hungry, and all your food will get digested. You will gain all the nutrients. Talk during dinner. Small bites, so you are not talking with your mouth full. It is polite, and you get the full nourishment.

    I am 6’2″, and weigh 225. Being somewhat sedentary, I eat about 1500 calories per day or less. Most men need about 2000. Women need 1500. Laboring men need 3000. Children vary. You are eating the wrong foods, and eating too much of it. Empty calorie foods leave you hungry. Stay away from nutrasweet (aspartame). It is poison (becomes formaldehyde above 86 degrees), and it does something to to your brain which increases your hunger for carbohydrates. Diet soda thus makes you fat.

    Dogs cannot control their eating habits. They will eat until they burst. Many humans are like that, too. Get control of your eating, or it will control you. Poor people are poor, not because they lack work skills, but because they lack life skills.

    One last thing. Do the math on your and your wife’s jobs. You may be going backwards with the 2nd job. Figure in all the costs, transportation, clothes, lattes, cost of meals because you are too tired to cook, daycare, taxes, all of it. It may be better if wifey stays home or if one of you works from home.

  12. Jeff H says:

    roadgeek stated: “did it not occur to you to simply not have three children that you cannot afford to feed and insure adequately?”

    A little Johnny-come-lately with that there, ain’t ya pal? I have a very strong suspicion who you voted for in ’08, and his name didn’t contain the letters “cain”.

  13. Emerson says:

    I live in Long Beach, CA and am surrounded by 99 Cent Only stores and what I call Mexican Supermarkets. Between the two I buy most of my groceries at dirt low prices. I do avoid the fruit at the dollar stores.

    As I do have the extra money I also shop at Trader Joes where the prices are mostly very good too.

    Roadgeek – can you be any more of a smug, condescending douche?

  14. Joe says:

    Try buying dry beans in bulk and cook with bulk rice. No need to buy meat every day. And less expensive than $6 of starch at BK.

  15. megapotamus says:

    Maybe it’s not too late to deal with your problem through abortion as roadgeek not so obliquely implies. It would be something like the 25th trimester so no big deal. As for it being selfishly poor planning on your part, I also had a purty good job, had it for 17 years until Obama illegally wrote down the value of GM/Chrysler bonds by 70% to benefit the mid-day tokers of the UAW. It seems the law firm where I worked had been paid in bonds for many years. Go figure.
    I also am not seeing your cost figures jive up with mine. I haven’t seen store (Kroger) brand milk over $3 that I can recall. It’s $4 and change at CVS, not the low cost leader. Whole frozen chickens can be less than $1 though of course much of that might be water. I cook in bulk, even for my little self. Beans, beans, beans are my reserve though far from a delight. No one who has a freezer should have a cubic inch of space in it, if hunger is at the door or even in the neighborhood. That takes some forward looking of course and figures without the palate of the toddler. Well, one thing all parties seem to understand is things are not getting better on this score anytime soon. Food is life but ENERGY is food. Transportation and cultivation costs are up due to fuel costs and the ethanol monstrosity. We are in for literally lean times but recall that even during the Great Depression there was no starvation in America. There was hunger aplenty but no Ukraine type deprivations and there won’t be this time either. Overseas may be a different story.

  16. lee says:

    I am a physician, and have read extensively about nutrition for thirty years.
    Gary Taubes’ 600 page Good Fat Bad Fat should be required reading for every med student on the planet.

    Do NOT listen to the government or Michelle Obama regarding nutrition.
    The reason there’s an obesity epidemic which is financially devastating this country is the politicalization of the government’s food recommendations (pushing the grains for decades) and the lies certain academicians perpetuated by manipulating studies on dietary fat and heart disease in the late ’50s and 60s.

    Do NOT avoid animal fat. It is satiating (makes you feel full), and it is not just NOT bad for you–latest studies show “Atkins” diet does not adversely affect blood lipids–it is GOOD for you. We need those fats to make brain and nerve cells, the fat helps us absorb other nutrients, and it is a great energy source.
    So buy cheap cuts of pork, bacon ends (three pounds for $4 at my grocery store), sausages and enjoy!

    Large bags of frozen vegetables are more nutritious than most fresh vegetables anyway, and are more economical, as you can use every bit of them–nothing going bad in the fridge when you don’t get to prep it for a meal–so don’t think you aren’t doing right by your kids when they don’t get fresh.
    Canned fruits are fine too. Again, often more nutritious than “fresh” that is a week or more old.

    Starches have a role to play as well—they should be used as cheap “filler” when necessary. It’s when they are consumed independently that they trigger insulin release that sets up fat deposition inappropriately. So, rice and pasta at meals.

    I almost never ate between meals when I was growing up. Just didn’t happen. Of my five siblings, our health as middle-aged adults is directly proportional to our weight.
    Raising thin kids is a gift. Give them a multivite and some fish oil from WalMart every day–they’ll be healthy for life

    • deb says:

      Thank you for the book recommendation. I’ve heard good things about Taubes. There definitely seems to be a shift in thinking going on and one whiich I’m happy to see. Interesting that fresh and better are not synonymous.

  17. Lea says:

    You know when you buy the precut broccoli in the bag you can microwave it to steam it. Just poke some holes in it.

    I think people trying to make it on a budget would do well to focus on in season fruits and vegetables (99 cents a pound for plums is pretty cheap and bananas are always ridiculously cheap), and frozen veggies, which I have found on sale for as low as 88 cents a bag. The steamers are more. (I love the frozen bags of onions, mirpoix, cajun mirpoix…)

    Basically, anything processed is more. Tips on doing prep work early/pre cooking things on days you don’t have to work would go a long way towards helping people who don’t have much time to cook. Although I don’t think there is anything wrong with a hot dog now and then. And sandwiches. Cut the chips and add in some sort of veggie and you have a pretty healthy meal.

  18. Becky says:

    if fruit really was cheap and easy to fix, then it would be cheap and easy at the fast food joints too.

    Bananas are very cheap. Buy only as many as you KNOW you will eat in 2 days. Just as easy to eat in the back seat of a car as any other fast food item, and more satisfying.

    You don’t need to be cash strapped to agree with the point of how easy it is to get the fast food or to throw a hot dog in rather than take the time to make a meal. And so I’m not being critical in any way shape or form of the reality expressed here. But in the end, as noted by someone already above, it is about habits. You can get a crock pot at any thrift store and rice cooks in the microwave (if you can’t afford a rice cooker). A can of beans or chili over a pot of rice is a very satisfying family meal. If you don’t live in an apartment, plant an apple tree or (right climate) orange tree. blah, blah…I can go on, there are a million tricks.

    It’s probably worth the time and a little extra effort to find a few tricks that allow you to get away from the junk food. Once you know a few, the best part about it is that you can pass those tricks onto your own kids and they will enjoy them too.
    Fast food is only good for being fast. No matter how much you think you love it, when you are done with a meal, it is ultimately unsatisfying.

  19. Carl Liff says:

    poor, diet related health and obesity are really a result of laziness and ignorance – people simply have no clue how to eat cheaply while keeping it healthy – and if you tell them how they’re then too lazy to follow the advice. It’s very simple: find a meal that’s cheap to make and healthy and then eat it every day – for me I eat a lot of lentils and a lot of whole grain rice, which are both cheap and very good for you – many people make it impossible to eat cheaply and be health conscious because they can’t shake the idea of eating something different every night – and don’t waste your money on stuff that is unnecessary – I never eat sugar, don’t drink milk, hardly ever eat meat and I’m very healthy and definitely not over weight. But try explaining this to people and they start whining – why? because of laziness, ignorance and no doubt an infantile need to smother their troubles with garbage food.

  20. A agree. Deb is going for easy rather than cheap.

    Meals take planning more than money. A roaster chicken is usually $.89 or $.99 a pound, weighs 3-5 pounds and produces leftovers. Learn to carve them and you can have all the skinless chicken breasts you want for $1/pound less than the pre-packaged ones (which usually go for $2.99/lb where I live).

    Eat more pasta. Learn to make sauces from scratch.

    Most important, learn to cook from scratch (buy a cookbook and do it the right way, don’t experiment).

    But, mostly, the way to cheaper cooking is knowing how to cook what is cheap when it is on sale/fresh in the market.

    It is ALWAYS more expensive to eat fast food and ALWAYS cheaper to buy individual ingredients and make the same meal. A pound of ground beef is about $3/lb, 10 lbs of potatoes are $4 and this combo feeds a family and leaves 9 lbs of potatoes remaining.

    The quarter-pounder value meal at McD is $6 and feeds one person. Feeding my family of five at McD is usually a $25 proposition for one meal. By comparison, my weekly food budget for the family is $150 (includes toiletries, paper products, cleaning items and everything else you buy at a grocery store, not just food), which breaks down to about $21/day to feed three meals.

    So, it is cheaper to live shopping grocery stores than fast food. Just not quicker or easier.

    Also, bite the bullet and buy bulk (if you can store it). You save money over the long haul, and that’s how you economize your food dollars.

    As for the quality of your “diet,” well, hell, that depends on what you buy to feed your family. Fast food is not unhealthy. No food is, eaten in the right quantity.

  21. Lea says:

    I will also say, in trying to keep your food dollars low, I find all junk food to be expensive. Stuff like chips and cookies are unnecessary and unfilling. Juice and Sodas lift right out as well. If you stick to the edges, meats, fruits and veggies, plus some frozen vegetables, you will do well. Sad to say, cheese is expensive (I love cheese!). If I am on a serious budget, it lifts right out.

  22. Jay says:

    The food pyramid and “my plate” increase obesity.
    even the USDA was forced to admit that less fat and more carbs is correlated with obesity –
    They unwittingly beat Gary Taubes and the paleo guys to the punch!

    But they keep recommending more carbs and less fat, and subsidizing grains with billions of our tax dollars. Lesson: once the government is massively wrong and their advice is killing people they will not admit their mistake.

    The best cheap foods that are NOT obesogenic are eggs, butter (NOT margarine!), and tuna. Stock up when on sale or buy in bulk, since eggs last 4 weeks in the fridge, butter can be frozen indefinitely, and canned tuna lasts forever.

  23. Thomas Hardesty says:

    even with all the comments about healthy food, you’ve still left out one of the most serious problems with all this – cheap food is cheap because of all the fillers, preservatives, chemicals, pesticides, msg and other non-food and deadly crap put into the food. When BK can sell a burger, fries and a coke for $2.99, do you really think there is actually much real ‘food’ in it? Rampant and growing health issues in our kids – allergies, autism, ADHD, diabetes, cancers, etc are coming from the fact that poisons and deadly chemicals are filling us up along with the ‘food’……

  24. Teri Pittman says:

    I’ve had to live on damn little and I’ve never eaten like this. I buy a whole chicken, cook it in water, then bone it and take out the meat. With a large chicken, I now have soup stock and two meals of chicken. I do spend the money to go to a real butcher shop and buy ham hocks. They have more meat on them than the ones in the store and I make a pot of beans every week. I don’t see beans mentioned and I’m not sure why. Beans and corn tortillas are complete protein, without the ham hock. Add cheese and salsa and you have a very good meal. I’ve had a lot of lunches made from beans and corn tortillas.

    If you want to feed cheap, you make soup. Even if you don’t make your own stock (which is dead easy with a crock pot – you do have one, right?), just add veggies and a little meat for flavoring. If you toss this all in the crockpot before work, dinner is ready when you get home.

    And, it’s worth checking to see if there aren’t vegetable stands in your area. We shop one that has much cheaper prices than the local grocery stores. I also shop Grocery Outlet, which has closeout lots of food and can be much cheaper. My food bill is always higher when I shop the regular market, instead of those stores. Check out Hillbilly Housewife for more ideas on how to save. It’s a shame that people don’t understand how to cook and shop these days.

  25. LAKA says:

    It’s not what you spend, it’s what you pick. I know Tortilla Flat is fiction, but consider this quote:

    The visiting nurse, trained in child psychology, said kindly, “Freddie, do you get enough to eat?”
    “Sure,” said Alfredo. “Well, now. Tell me what you have for breakfast.” “Tortillas and beans,” said Alfredo. The nurse nodded her head dismally to the principal. “What do you have when
    you go home for lunch?” “I don’t go home.”
    “Don’t you eat at noon?” “Sure. I bring some beans wrapped up in a tortilla.” Actual alarm showed in the nurse’s eyes, but she controlled herself. “At night
    what do you have to eat?” “Tortillas and beans.”
    Her psychology deserted her. “Do you mean to stand there and tell me you eat nothing but tortillas and beans?”
    Alfredo was astonished. “Jesus Christ,” he said, “what more do you want?”
    In due course the school doctor listened to the nurse’s horrified report. One day he drove up to Teresina’s house to look into the matter. As he walked through the yard the creepers, the crawlers, and the stumblers were shrieking one terrible symphony. The doctor stood in the open kitchen door. With his own eyes he saw the _vieja_ go to the stove, dip a great spoon into a kettle, and sow the floor with boiled beans. Instantly the noise ceased. Creepers, crawlers, and stumblers went to work with silent industry, moving from bean to bean, pausing only to eat them. The _vieja_ went back to her chair for a few moments of peace. Under the bed, under the chairs, under the stove the children crawled with the intentness of little bugs. The doctor stayed two hours, for his scientific interest was piqued. He went away shaking his head.
    He shook his head incredulously while he made his report. “I gave them every test I know of,” he said, “teeth, skin, blood, skeletons, eyes, co-ordination. Gentlemen, they are living on what constitutes a slow poison, and they have from birth. Gentlemen, I tell you I have never seen healthier children in my life!” His emotion overcame him. “The little beasts,” he cried. “I never saw such teeth in my life. I never saw such teeth!”

  26. amy says:

    I think a serious issue, that seems to get overlooked, is that MOST people these days do not know how to cook. It doesn’t matter that you can get 4lbs of pork loin for $5, and a giant bag of jasmine rice for like $5. People don’t know know what to do with it! Most of the people my age (late 20′s early 30′s) eat out nearly every night. And when they ‘eat in’ they are eating pizza, delivery food, or sandwiches. They do this because it doesn’t even occur them to do otherwise.

    Only one of my friends cooks. One. The others all eat out for every meal or eat pre-made stuff they heat up. One of my friends didn’t even know there was a difference between margarine and butter. It’s depressing, honestly.

  27. plum says:

    Congrats on the Instalanche!
    By the stores you list and the photo at the top of the page I suspect you are in NE. Shaws & S&S are a rip-off (and Shaw’s is the worst!) unless you have manufacturers’ coupons combined w/ a sale. Market Basket’s produce is not great unless you get it when it’s first put out, but for other stuff it’s pretty cheap. I get a lot at Trader’s & BJ’s. Our Wal-Mart doesn’t have produce and it’s just a scary scene – makes the police blotter on a daily basis. I agree with buying a whole chicken rather than the boneless/skinless breasts. The cost per pound is much less and then I can throw the carcass in the pressure cooker and make some awesome stock very quickly. I don’t know if it is actually more filling, but rice/pasta cooked in chicken stock just tastes more filling. Good luck. Many of us are in the same boat with the economy being what it is.

  28. vb says:

    Amy is right. Too many people today simply don’t know how to cook or stock a pantry or plan two meals from one piece of meat or vegies. As for the too tired to cook: how much time does it take to make an omelette with extra vegies or meats fom the previous meal. How about adding a zucchini to the pasta with tomato sauce. Lentil soup is the easiest thing in the world, especially if you have frozen extra chopped carrots, onions, and celery to form the base. Slice up a hot dog or two and add to the soup shortly before it is fully cooked, and you have a hearty meal. If you have a sick blender, you can cook leftover raw vegies and puree them for cream soups. Try carrrots, pumpkin, broccoli, or parsnips for this. Try open-face sandwiches; they look bigger than they are with a bit of garnish.

  29. Harold says:

    Fresh fruits and veggies cost more- I know that. But, this whole article rings false from one statement- “A gallon of milk runs around $4 at my local stores, more if you buy the 1% or skim that the USDA recommends.” I buy milk all the time; current milk consumption in the house down to a gallon a day. Everywhere I have ever lived, and I’ve lived all over the country, at all times in the last 35 years, skim or 2% has always been the same or LESS than whole milk. The cream that is skimmed off to make 2% and skim is sold at a premium price as cream and to make ice cream and other premium products- skim and 2% are leftovers from cream production. Milk producers love it that the USDA recommends them; elsewise it would be dumped as waste. Right now, at the local Wegman’s, skim is about $0.06 less than whole. And closer to $2.00 a a gallon. I’ll attribute the $4.00 to local market conditions. But I don’t believe the skim and 2% being higher than whole- doesn’t happen.

    • deb says:

      My mistake on the milk. I did have it the wrong way around and it’s been corrected in the post. Thank you.

  30. Phelps says:

    Being thin is a luxury. That’s part of the curse of our prosperity.

    Starches are what make you gain weight by screwing up the fat storage/fat release cycle. What are the good things to eat? Meat proteins (fats included), solid unhydrogenated fats (butter and lard), vegetables, and fruit. That is why we crave these things.

    So why does the FDA push grains so much? Because the FDA is right beside the USDA, and the USDA has to keep grain farmers happy. The less starch you have in your diet, the better. (I still love bread, but everything in moderation.) The problem is that starches are cheap, and the animal protein and fruits and vegetables are expensive.

    When I get chicken on sale (boneless, skinless), I get it at $1.99/lb. I buy a bunch and freeze it in portions.

    This is a basic misunderstanding of poverty. When you are truly poor, you don’t have the money to “by a bunch.” You have the money to buy enough for right now, even though you lose money that way in the long run. You can’t put off eating for a couple of days so you can buy a couple of days of food. Add in that many (not saying all) of the truly poor are in that situation because they have poor planning skills in the first place, and it becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

  31. Jenny says:

    Deb, I’m seconding Ellen and Dr. Lee here: Go watch Fat Head (right now!) and then Naughton’s other lectures, and get the newest Taubes book.

  32. Margaret says:

    Peanut butter with no additives, not even salt, is an excellent food. It is high in the right kind of fat, good protein, very filling for kids. We have it every day for lunch, have for years. Stir with a knife when opening and keep in the refrigerator from then on. Cheap but excellent nutrition.

  33. non says:

    “Bananas are very cheap. Buy only as many as you KNOW you will eat in 2 days. ”

    You can get extra – take overripe bananas, peel them, cut them in quarters or slice (we are talking just seconds of labor here) and put them in a plastic bag in the freezer. Whirl in blender or food processor for creamy banana ices – I usually make them plain, but some add cocoa (full of antioxidants and low-fat), some honey, peanut butter – a great dessert for kids, especially in the summer. (Now when you puree frozen sliced or quartered bananas, only puree as much as you will eat for dessert at that meal, since the puree doesn’t last. But the frozen bananas keep just fine.)

    You can also use the frozen bananas to make the ocasional banana bread or muffins if you bake. sometimes banana bread is very high in sugar and fat, but you can make yours healthier, w/ whole wheat flour and less sugar etc. Or put some defrosted mashed banana in pancakes, if you make them. If you buy overripe bananas you can do all this intentionally, for cheap.

  34. Jay Solo says:

    One thing not addressed here – could it be because the post was not meant to be a comprehensive permutation of every way in which it is possible to eat cheap… or challenging to do so – is the difficulty allergies present. Bananas? Yep, still reasonable in price. And a common substitute for baking egg-free items, if your kid is allergic to eggs. It gets much more interesting when he is allergic to bananas. And dairy. And peanuts. And tree nuts. In addition to eggs. Makes feeding kids for a pittance more challenging, even for people who are too stupid to plan their way out of poverty.

  35. Virginia says:

    What we eat is a choice. Every part of the country there are patterns. What food is in season? Where are the best buys? It does take time to read and find the best places to shop. I would rather spend my time preparing good food and not in the Dr. office. I am not saying it is easy. You can improve and find the right balance for your families. Good fats are needed for the brain to work well. Fresh fruits and vegetables are worth having a little bite .

  36. Kristi says:

    Dried beans. So easy, healthy, tasty.

    Even easier in a crock pot.

    Freeze individual portions.

    If you can afford BK, you can afford healthy food — just make the effort to plan ahead, cook on your day off.

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