Taking back family dinner: A healthy, affordable and convenient escape from processed food

Published: Monday, May 20 2013 3:40 p.m. MDT

“After a while, some things, you just — boom, boom, boom — know how it goes together. I don’t think you have to have the kitchen’s equivalent of a green thumb to do this. You just need to pick out a recipe online and start.”

Appliances like breadmakers, crockpots and rice cookers also make it easier to prepare healthy homemade meals, she said. “People somehow think I’m an amazing cook. Really, I’m not an amazing cook. I really think anyone can do it.”

Breaking bread, not the bank

Cost is the most common complaint about eating healthily — specifically, the high cost of fruits and vegetables — according to Andrea Carlson, a food economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

However, this perception — and the research that fuels it — is flawed, she said, because it focuses on “price per calorie” when a better metric would “price per serving.”

“Consumers are more interested in feeling full than getting the right amount of calories,” Carlson said. “Calories are a poor measure of satiety (or feeling full). With fruits and vegetables, you’re going to feel full before you eat too many calories.”

Highly processed foods often contain excessive amounts of fat or sugar or both, thus making them both calorically dense and cheap per calorie. The result is that people eat — and often spend — more before feeling full.

“These foods encourage people to eat more calories. ‘You can’t eat just one,’ ” said Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. “And more calories mean it’s harder to maintain a healthy weight and not gain.”

Melanie Warner, who covered the food industry as a reporter for the New York Times, illustrated the cost-effectiveness of healthy foods with an example.

“Take a banana,” she said. “You can buy one for 10 to 25 cents. Then look at a bag of chips — a serving size might be 50 cents to a dollar. You’re probably going to get more calories from a serving of chips, but on a cost basis the banana is going to fill you up more.”

Carlson said that the most popular fruits and vegetables also happen to be the cheapest: apples, oranges, bananas; in-season peaches, pears and plums; potatoes, romaine lettuce, broccoli. Mixing canned or frozen produce into one’s diet can further lower the cost.

The point, however, is not to narrow the slice of one’s food budget dedicated to fruits and vegetables, Carlson said. “That’s the most important part of the diet, and that should be a big chunk of spending.”

In fact, that category should account for 41 percent of household food spending, per USDA guidelines, she said. Currently, it comprises just 26 percent, on average.

Two areas where consumers could stand to trim expenses, Carlson said, are proteins and fats/sweets. Americans spend nearly three times more on fats and sweets than the recommended amount — 16 percent vs. the recommended 6 percent of the average household food budget.

Proteins comprise one-third compared to a goal of about one-fifth. Eating more plant-based proteins, such as legumes, can help reduce these expenses.

Blomgren said she plans two meatless meals a week, which saves money and allows her to buy a smattering of higher quality ingredients. To further conserve, she purchases flour and other non-perishable staples in bulk and hunts for sales.

“If you’re smart about it, it doesn’t cost more,” she said.

In fact, healthy meals can cost less than half as much as fast food. According to a study published in Family Medicine in 2010, a diet based primarily on bulk, generic, canned and frozen foods runs about $7.48 per day vs. $15.30 for fast food.

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