Is it Possible to Eat Healthy Food on a Low Income?

Emily Morsello

| 4 min read

I can’t eat healthy because it’s too expensive.
Have any of you — at some point — said this? There has been talk that the less income a person or family earns, the more likely those people are to eat unhealthy foods. Is it up to each one of us to make healthy choices, or our pocketbooks?

Fast, Cheap Food

There’s no denying that our society makes it extremely easy to run into the local fast food restaurant and take advantage of items that only cost a buck. And with high unemployment and a tough economy still in effect, can everyday Americans afford not to choose the unhealthier, cheap stuff instead of a homemade healthy meal?
Can folks with lower incomes not afford to make the healthier choice? Or is it just too hard to take the healthier road?

Healthy Eating Reserved for the Wealthy

This Associated Press article highlighted a study that concluded that the government needs to get involved and do something to bring healthy meal choices more in reach for low-income families. Mentioned in this article is researcher Pablo Monsivais, an assistant professor at the University of Washington. He refers to the representation of salmon and greens that is included in government suggestions for healthy eating and says he does not believe that such a meal is feasible for average Americans.
Hilary Seligman, assistant professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco says, “Almost 15 percent of households in America say they don’t have enough money to eat the way they want to eat.” She also added that recent estimates show 49 million Americans make food choices based on the price.

Do Healthy Foods Really Cost More?

On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe you can consume healthy foods at a reasonable cost, without breaking the bank. According to a Chicago Sun-Times article:
“A dinner of hot dogs and Devil Dogs is undeniably cheap. But a bowl of beans and rice with a banana on the side is cheaper. A survey by the USDA found that, by weight, bottled water is cheaper than soda, low-fat milk is cheaper than high-fat, and whole fruit is cheaper than processed sweet snacks. Preparing a big pot of lentils for the week may be not be glamorous, but it’s much cheaper and not much more time-consuming than cooking up frozen pizza or mac and cheese.”
Do you agree? Some folks say that many people are blaming bad eating habits on the recession.

Poor Choices, More Doctor Visits

Another interesting point is that the less healthy the food choices, the more likely you are to put your family at risk for health issues like cardiovascular disease and obesity, which could alone cost buckets of money.
This same article offers the following suggestions for eating well on a budget:
  1. Substitute snacks like fries, chips and chocolate with fruits.
  1. Cook meals from scratch instead of going in for frozen dinners. Processed foods can contain high levels of sugar, salt and fat.
  1. If you find it too expensive to buy fresh foods, buy tinned or frozen veggies and fruits.
  1. Plan your meals well ahead to avoid impulse buying or throwing last-minute meals together.
  1. Reduce the amount of salt you use. That’s good for the heart.
  1. Cook double the amount or prepare large batches of food and freeze what you don’t need. You can reheat these for a quick and healthy meal.
  1. Buy starchy foods in bulk and when shopping at the grocery store look for food at cheap prices instead of being focused only on getting the biggest discounts.
  1. Don’t waste food, use perishable items before they expire and make use of leftovers creatively.
  1. You can save on food costs when you buy fruits and vegetables that are in season.
  1. Replace white bread and white flour with whole meal or multi-grain bread and whole meal flour.
  1. Try to buy reduced fat and low salt versions of the foods you normally get.
  1. You can save costs on fresh produce by signing up for a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program that allows you to pay for vegetables in advance and obtain them directly from a farmer. You can get fresher and tastier foods for a lot less. Check out to find a farm close to you.

How You Can Make it Work

Even with a growing family and a husband in college, Kimi Harris claims that she’s still able to put organic meals on the table for her family. “The organic food market is growing, despite a sluggish economy,” says Harris. She shared 4 reasons she buys organic, even on a budget:
  1. Because I am concerned about my children.
  1. Because it has helped me heal and have a better life.
  1. We make it possible by switching our priorities.
  1. We make it possible by cooking at home.
Harris also provides a few ways she keeps the meals affordable when she cooks at home:
  • I make my own pots of broth
  • Soak and cook beans
  • Stretch out my organic meats
  • Fill in the gaps with produce and grains
Here are some more tips for eating healthy on a budget. What are your thoughts? Are we in control of our diets, or is our income?
Photo Credit: *patrick

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