Categorized | Nutrition, Society & Culture

Junk food is cheap (and being healthy really is expensive)

Junk food is cheap (and being healthy really is expensive)

Last week, The New York Times published an editorial begging the question of whether junk food really is cheaper than good, healthy food. It’s conclusion was more or less no, that buying ingredients at a grocery store and cooking at home will always be more cost effective than picking up fast food. We must teach people to cook, and address the problem of those without ready access to grocery stores.

On this point, I do agree. Particularly when one is feeding a family, it will always make more sense to buy ingredients, such as chicken, pasta, rice, etc. and cook in bulk at home. If you’re a smart shopper, you can buy good ingredients and cook healthful meals — even without the aid of a Trader Joes or Whole Foods… and the pocketbook to shop at either. Generally, I recommend the article — pertaining the specifics the author argues, I cannot find fault. However, it’s the point the article DOESN’T address that I find more interesting. The article opens thusly:

THE “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli …” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

Emphasis is mine — this is the item the article doesn’t really address. Really, what that statement should be is “when a package of ramen costs less than a banana.” Because it DOES. Ditto for products such as Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. The article continues (after rightfully skewering the fast food, ie MacDonalds, is cheaper argument):

THE fact is that most people can afford real food. Even the nearly 50 million Americans who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) receive about $5 per person per day, which is far from ideal but enough to survive. So we have to assume that money alone doesn’t guide decisions about what to eat.

The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.

Kudos for not trotting out the yuppie argument about grass fed beef and whole foods, but what is “real” food?  Pasta… hello Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and ramen noodles. Both are packed full of artificial flavors, chemicals and salt… but they’re CHEAP and one can buy them at the grocery store and “cook” them at home! (add to this list also: flavored pasta/rice packs, Hamburger Helper and any other number of “quick” meals that primarily contain additives, chemicals and contain negligible nutrition). Rice & grains — cheap. But so is the gravy, the sauces, etc. that people will pair with them (and they will likely buy the cheap white variety, not the actually-good-for-you brown rice alternative). And this does not even take into account all the fatty, terrible ways one can prepare “real food” — what good is a piece of chicken if it’s been in the deep-fryer, or a bunch of green beans coated in butter, bread crumbs and gravy? Grocery store shelves are packed full of terrible, cheap food… and even when Americans do cook, so many have no clue how to cook “real food” in a healthy way. (and, yes, the BEST foods to eat ARE the most expensive)

Also a favorite: the author exalts the cooking of a chicken at home, and all the healthy calories one will get… from cooking it with olive oil. But, if you’re living in a food desert, living on food stamps — $5 a person, per day — are you going to buy the $28 bottle of olive oil (even the $10 is steep for someone pinching pennies) or buy actual food? Tell me how many people who are poor and trying to get “bang for their buck” are really going to invest in olive oil? No, they will pick up the cheapest oil cooking substance you can buy — vegetable oil and other not-very-healthy varieties… or just cook with butter.

The cheapest items at the grocery store win, and nine times out of ten, those items are the shittiest.  How many of us lived off ramen noodles, mac & cheese and pb&j in college?  They are the over-produced stuff of the corporate food giants and, yes, Virginia, junk food IS cheaper. So are many, many products that are stuffed full of high fructose corn syrup and other corn-derived (and fat-making) products — thank you government subsidies of the corn industry. So while cooking > fast food is a wholly sound argument, you can just point people towards grocery stores and cooking and expect the problem to go away.

Ultimately, we agree on some of the other issues, even if our author ignores that not all cooking is created equal:

Furthermore, the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

This addiction to processed food is the result of decades of vision and hard work by the industry. For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy. They put it on every street corner and made it mobile, and they made it socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace. They created a food carnival, and that’s where we live. And if you’re used to self-stimulation every 15 minutes, well, you can’t run into the kitchen to satisfy that urge.”

And this, plus pervasive food advertising, contributes to the problem of cheap, non-nutritious, readily available food… in grocery stores, that one can “cook.” There IS a disparity in nutrition and health between those with ready access to funds and those without, and not just because poorer demographics allegedly eat at MacDonalds every day. The answer isn’t simple — ie: go to the grocery store and cook — but complicated and multi-faceted. The piece scratches the surface (very well), but we have to challenge food subsidies and food advertising (and truth in advertising!) if we want to see any real change. We live in a world where salt-laden, reconstituted pasta  costs less than fresh pasta + fresh tomatoes, basil & olive oil. Where soft drinks cost less than water.  Where people choose potato chips for snacks, not carrot sticks. There’s a lot to work on.

I want to hear your thoughts! 

(and for the record, I really, really liked the NYT article… just felt it suffered from upper middle classism just a smidge — the sweet assumption that the average person can simply walk into a grocery store and make affordable, healthy choices for cooking. Come on. Nine times of ten I would choose ramen & mac & cheese… and I know better!)

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39 Responses to “Junk food is cheap (and being healthy really is expensive)”

  1. alisonofagun says:

    I think they also forgot to mention that buying in bulk is only cheaper if you have a family to feed. I am a family of one, so buying an entire chicken and head of broccoli means a lot of that will go to waste. It REALLY is cheaper for me to buy a week’s worth of ramen or Kraft when those are single serving and under a buck. Even fast food is too expensive for me!

    • curvynerd says:

      I was just talking about that with a friend! I am also single, and cooking generally makes NO SENSE for me, especially as someone with a weight problem. Items one buys at a grocery are portioned to feed families, but I have portion control issues… so for me, cooking = overeating. And that’s a waste of my money twice over, because I’m not getting multiple meals from my cost, PLUS I then spend money on the back end on the gym, Weight Watchers, etc. And when I buy vegetables, they inevitably go bad — I just can’t eat them fast enough. (which is why I suck it up and buy them portioned at Fresh & Easy — more cost per piece, but they have a LOT of single people portions.) Oddly, the cheapo ramen noodles ARE portioned correctly for a single person, so in the past they’ve been a go-to for me.

      • alisonofagun says:

        I sometimes get a huge bag of frozen broccoli and add it to the ramen to at least have SOME sort of nutrition, but..yeah. See my below response to MTW.

      • Emily says:

        Prep meals ahead of time! If you have a few different meals with crossover ingredients, you use up your fresh food supply and you can refrigerate/freeze portions, mix it up so you don’t have to eat it all before it goes bad and then you don’t get sick of it. Like I commented up above, soups are a great way to use up odds and ends.

    • Emily says:

      Buy and freeze! You can freeze almost anything. Also prepping ahead of time, cooking the food into things can buy you more time. Soups are good for a while (and can be frozen!) and are an awesome way to use up odds and ends of grocery stuff.

  2. MTW says:

    I think another issue is that now, people think food is supposed to be cheap, and balk at expensive foods. I remember reading a static (and this is from memory, so the figures aren’t exact), that 50 years ago, people spent 30% of their incomes on food (which would have been largely real food from the grocery store), but now, people spend only 10% on food. The idea was that people spend more money on non-essentials that didn’t exist until recently (cable, cell phones, manicures, baby yoga classes, dsl, etc etc etc) and that they have taken out of the food budget, so that no one now thinks it is reasonable, or doable, to spend so much of their income on food.

    And you know this I’ll always be a subject that will get me riled up, and I’m a HUGE believer in “real food” as well as cooking from scratch on a daily basis. I can only be self-referential here. My husband and I are NOT middle class. Our combined incomes are below the poverty line level for California. We buy very nice food at farmer’s markets and Trader Joe’s…. all vegan, almost all organic, and very little processed food. We spend $125 a week on groceries. Out of this, we manage to eat 40 meals per week (we eat out once a week). Which comes out to $3.12 per meal. I just don’t see how anyone could argue with that math. And if we can do it, I have to imagine other low income people can do it as well. And I bet we could eat on half that amount of money if we had to, and still not resort to Ramen…. Can people really not be able to comprehend dried beans, big bags of rice and vegetables that haven’t been pre-cut?

    • alisonofagun says:

      I can totally comprehend them, but where I live and with what I earn ramen is hands-down the cheapest thing to eat. It only requires water, which the landlord pays. I make $80/week. It’s cool that you’re not middle class and are able to do this, but some people are SUPER not middle class. Some people (ME) are legitimately poor. Some people (ME) don’t live near a Trader Joe’s or a Whole Foods. Some people’s (guess who!) only options are the corner store where a single bell pepper costs $2.39, and ramen is 6 for $1. So, it’s not that I can’t comprehend dried beans and big bags of rice, it’s that I literally do not have the capital to buy in bulk.

    • alisonofagun says:

      Also, poor people are NOT the ones spending money on baby yoga, I can promise you that.

    • curvynerd says:

      I think we’re pretty spoiled in California, in the best possible way. I’ve been delighted to find good, local produce that is relatively cheap (have you been to Super King? Wowza), but when I was in Boston and even Atlanta (a farm state!) that wasn’t the case. You go into Shaws or Krogers and the cost of produce and basic, decent food is RIDIC. Of course, both places have Whole Foods and farmer’s markets, but I can imagine in a LOT of places in the country, it simply isn’t feasible to afford “real food” on a small budget (lower middle class meaning very different things in different parts of the country, but food prices being high all over, esp. at places like Whole Foods). I probably spend about a third of my income on food, and feel lucky to be able to do that (yay for not liking shoes, clothes or fancy electronics!).

      For many, I think a part of it is a) time and b) food education. A lot of people don’t have time to cook, or simply don’t have the energy. I know when I was working 12 hours a day at my job in Boston, I would come home and would have rather slit my wrists than cook. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have a family, work full time and then be expected to cook. That’s why I feel really lucky that I can afford the convenience items like pre-cut veggies & fruit, because it really makes it work for me. Same with decent ready meals (made with real ingredients).

      But then, honestly I think there are just a lot of people who don’t LIKE the things that are “good” for them (and cheap). Those foods aren’t advertised to them, they’re not served at school or in restaurants, and people aren’t accustomed to them. They also don’t have all the flavor additives that people are addicted to. In short, the American food palette is kind of a hot mess :)

      • MTW says:

        You are right about it being a hot mess! :-)

        Once again, I’ll be self-referential, and not claim to be making any statements for all of humankind… before I moved to CA, I was living even further below the poverty line than I am now. And I *totally* would claim that I couldn’t afford to eat good food, and I lived on Ramen and Kraft Mac & Cheese. And honestly, I didn’t have a spare dime to my name by the end of the month, so I figured I was justified in eating only the cheapest junk. But in retrospect, I could have eaten better if I considered it a priority, which I certainly did not. Somehow, I was able to afford rent living alone, long distance phone bills to an out of state boyfriend, gas to visit out of state boyfriend, dozens of ani difranco concert tickets, all of which took priority over healthy food. Let’s just say I make different choices now that I am old and wise. ;-)

        I totally understand the time issue, and I have literally no idea how parents who work full time manage to feed themselves and their children. None. But as a single gal, I guess the trick some people use would be to just cook once a week, like take 90 minutes on a Sunday and go wild, making a big casserole, a big pot of soup, etc…. and refrigerating / freezing the leftovers so you have home cooked food on hand when you don’t have time to cook it.

        • Emily says:

          That is exactly what I do! My Sunday is spent drinking wine, listening to music and prepping meals for the week. If I take a Sunday off and come home on Monday night, I’m going to bed hungry or eating something random. I’ve totally had to make it a priority or I’d just eat delicious thai food and frozen meals. I figure it’s a great routine to get into now so when I do have a family, trying to juggle it all won’t be as tough.

    • Caitlyn says:

      Though I do agree that people need to realize the real cost of food (and not the subsidized prices) and prioritize food over some other indulgences/luxuries, I grew up in a lower-middle class family and though I would never say we were poor, my parents lived paycheck to paycheck for pretty much my entire childhood. They spent a little over $100 (let’s say $150 to adjust for inflation, though that’s probably a little too much since I’m only 27) per week for a family of four and especially back then, before whole foods (the market and the concept) came back into vogue, processed food helped them stay on budget because it was cheap. I don’t want to say it’s all they could afford, because that’s not true, but it helped. As for now, I’m a nonprofit worker living in Boston (the land of expensive everything) and $40/week is all I can afford. Granted I make it work at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and having an amazing local company deliver me local produce once every other week (and for only $14/week), but still. Sometimes it’s tough to make it work.

    • M says:

      “Can people really not be able to comprehend dried beans, big bags of rice and vegetables that haven’t been pre-cut?”

      It’s not just about comprehension. It’s also about time — especially if you have a 60-plus-hour workweek, which a lot of single girls do (and married girls too, for that matter, but at least you have someone with whom to split the shopping/cooking/prepping/cleaning-up workload, at least presumably).

      You have to soak beans overnight. Not all crockpots work the same way. And when the maximum setting on the thing is 8 hours, and you don’t get home till 12 hours later, you can end up wasting a lot of food that way, which is very upsetting.

      I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

      (I’m not going to get started on food deserts/two jobs/insufficient refrigeration/insufficient ventilation for cooking. These *are* issues for some people, and I think folks & articles with certain classist bents tend to overlook them.)

  3. Caitlyn says:

    Completely agreed. I feel the article’s tone is very condescending; it’s YOUR fault you don’t eat healthy, YOU should learn how to cook properly. And while I partially agree with that, as you do, there are so many issues with those statements. First of all, I think it’s a cop out for the food industry, why make excuses for them? Unhealthy food IS subsidized and therefore cheaper. Second, there are extenuating circumstances: single mothers and single people in general (though I myself am single and cook at least a few times a week), as others have said. Sometimes it’s just not practical.

    The article doesn’t compare apples to apples, take out to take out and food to food. A decent, healthy ready meal is infinitely more expensive than Chef Boyardee; healthy chains are often at least twice as expensive as McDonald’s. The supermarkets that most likely serve the most low-income families, ie NOT healthy markets like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, are often the guiltiest, jacking up the prices of healthy foods and keeping processed foods cheap. Whole Foods is most definitely cheaper than some other markets’ “natural foods” sections.

    • curvynerd says:

      You make a really good point, re: price gauging at supermarkets. You’re absolutely right — I remember the “natural food” section in Shaws was always ridic. I’m pretty sure there’s incentive to keep the shitty food cheap, as well, as I believe it’s cheaper to keep those items in stock (and more expensive to stock the “nicer” foods/brands).

      I feel really lucky that I grew up with a single mom who understood good food AND liked to cook. I really don’t know where she found the energy to cook, but she did, every day, until I was old enough to take it over. But, then again, we didn’t have cable, fancy electronics, my allowance was small (compared to other kids) and we NEVER went on vacation… so that’s how we could afford decent food. It’s a balancing act that is easier for some than others… and this was the age before Internet, cell phones, etc.

      • Caitlyn says:

        Oh yeah, that’s not a shot at single mothers, I just can’t imagine working the entire day then coming home to take care of a child AND cook. Serious kudos to those who do.

        Yeah, every time I shop at Shaw’s I have sticker shock. Despite its reputation, I always spend less at Whole Foods (and even less at Trader Joe’s).

  4. I always get really irritated with these sorts of “self help” articles. Buying in bulk isn’t possible for families who only have enough money to buy a small package at a time; it’s for people who can afford to shell out $40 up front to save $5 later. If your cabinets are bare, you’re going to spend $2 on a small box of pasta now because you won’t be able to wait and save the money to buy in bulk.

    And, as some people have already noted, it’s senseless for single people unless you’re buying non-perishable staples and have the room to store it. Personally, I live in a tiny efficiency and have no room to stock up on bulk foods.

    I live in an area where Whole Foods price gouges because the local grocery stores price gouge. The local farmer’s market is even more expensive. ($5 for a half dozen eggs? I don’t think so.)

    I’ve had people tell me to grow my own vegetables, but how? I live in an apartment with no patio or garden or even windows conducive to the light needed to grow anything.

    I’d love to see an article written by low-income people for low-income people. Most of the “tips” I see to save money require a large payment up front (e.g. canning, growing vegetables, cooking everything ever from scratch). If I make the choice to cook ramen with celery and carrots or frozen broccoli rather than go to McDonald’s, I think I’m doing pretty well.

    • curvynerd says:

      Yes! Exactly. I have an efficiency kitchen and I live alone, and buying non-perishables in bulk simply makes no sense — my food (esp. fruits & veggies) always go bad before I can eat them all, and my cabinet space is limited. Thank God for Trader Joes — I buy their frozen meals, which don’t suck, and keep for a long time. But I totally understand how a person with less access — and money — would turn to the “cheap thing I can afford right now” rather than the good-for-you thing that is pricier. Because even my “affordable” basics are way outside the price range of some individuals, assuming they even have access to the same stores.

      And YES to an article by a low income person for a low income person being needed. Specifically, I’d love to see it written by someone in a food desert. Because yuppie poor in Brooklyn or L.A. is NOT the same as poor poor in, say, Carlisle, KY (omg srsly there are like no stores in some areas).

      • I’m so amused that you mention Carlisle: it’s about an hour away from where I live! I’m in Lexington right now, which is the wealthiest city I’ve ever inhabited. Before this, I lived in a low-income area in a “city.” (It’s losing people so quickly that it’s about to lose its city status.) Since I’m in grad school, I’m basically living off my loans. I’ve gotten into intellectual arguments with my classmates because it’s so rare to find people in a master’s program who came from a lower income background, and they just don’t understand privilege.

        I constantly remind myself to check my privilege. I’m surrounded by people who think a trip to Europe is a cheap spring break trip. People in my program probably think I’m antisocial (or a stuck-up bitch) for not attending every social meal or happy hour, but I simply can’t afford it. I quickly learned that telling the truth garnered looks of pity or infuriating comments, such as “I know exactly what you mean! I have to come back a day early from Spain because the flight’s cheaper.” Suddenly I feel that I’m stiflingly poor.

        However, I remind myself that I’m more fortunate than many, especially my fellow Appalachians. I have a place to live–at least until January–and I have food to fill my stomach. No, I don’t have the luxury of walking to a good grocery, but I have a car and can drive to Whole Foods or Kroger, both of which are within five miles. I can’t buy organic everything, and I often have to chose between the lesser (or cheaper) of two evils, but I don’t go hungry.

        • curvynerd says:

          I used Carlisle as an example b/c I’m woefully under-traveled in terms of going outside of major U.S. cities, but I’ve been to Carlisle! Via my last job, I was taken on a grand tour of the farm areas around Lexington. Some of the towns are tiny and have like no stores! I’m seriously spoiled by living in cities.

          I totally know what you mean. I don’t consider myself poor, nor do I consider myself wealthy. I feel like I’m just middle class. When I was in college, it was very strange to encounter, for the first time, truly, properly wealthy people… many of whom consider themselves upper middle class! I really had to reassess how “middle class” I am. If we go strictly by income brackets, no way were my mom and I middle class. But I digress. It can be really tricky when it comes to socializing with these groups — can I afford that restaurant? If I’m invited to a birthday dinner where we are expected to pay for the birthday girl, can I afford it? (the first time I encountered this social convention, which was totally new to me, it was a shock) I forget how, well, stingy I am until I’m around people for whom money is no object. It really only happened in school… most of my current circle are about the same as I am :)

        • Michael says:

          Thanks for the really interesting article and comments!

          sorryaboutyourweight, big kudos for your efforts and coping with all your wealthy classmates! Although I wouldn’t criticise other people’s lifestyle choices, I’m intrigued as to how you can run a car as a student and yet consider yourself so poor? Could be that I’m looking at this from a British perspective, but having a car at university makes me one of the wealthy few here. Maybe that’s another example of those ‘luxuries’ that people choose over healthy food?

  5. Tori says:

    How many of us lived off ramen noodles, mac & cheese and pb&j in college?

    And/or after college. I’ve had post-college living situations where my refrigeration was a small-size dorm fridge (the kind that’s roughly 18″x20″x20″ on the outside) and my heating appliance was a hot plate. While it is possible to make whole grain pasta with sauce (even jarred sauce) on a hot plate, it takes twice as long — because there’s one burner for both the water/pasta and the sauce. Ramen pretty much begs to be a hot-plate meal.

    Even now, while cost is a factor in my food choices, mobility, pain, and concentration are bigger factors. By the time I reach dinner-prep-time in any given day, there’s only about a 50% chance that both my brain and body will function in ways that are safe for me to cook. (Because if my hips crap out on me during a yoga practice, I fall on a rubber mat. If my hips crap out on me while I’m standing over a gas stove, I potentially have burnier problems.)

    Certainly, I don’t think that a lot of people are in my exact situation. However, I do think there are a substantial number of people who have — usually, but not always, in addition to limited incomes — reduced ability to cook or store food. Similarly, there are quite a few people — again, with some overlap to lower income — with decreased time or ability to prepare food from scratch. And still probably some other people who are spending a greater portion of their income on expenses like health care — which is not a luxury in the same way that, say, premium cable is.

    To sum up a rambling comment, I think true access to healthy food is way more complicated than the price tag at the grocery (or convenience) store.

    • curvynerd says:

      Yes to everything in your comment! It is SUCH a complex issue, and it’s just a bit patronizing, especially in the New York Times, to suggest that the Magic Solution is a grocery store and cooking classes.

  6. Emily says:

    I wrote this whole loooong thing (I recently wrote an essay on my eating habits) and then the page refreshed for some reason and now it’s gone.

    But in general I really feel a lot of it, where the middle class+ is concerned, is a lack of education and a sense of entitlement.

    When I was poor and was sieving money and had no income (fun 8 months), my friend bought me ramen and I’d occasionally splurge on 2 99 cent things from McDonald’s. Had I known how to stretch that money ($1.98!), I could have bought a pound of veggies and either scrimped to splurge on broth or borrowed some from a friend and made a soup that would last me longer than the McD’s and be better for me than the ramen.

    You can have boiled potatoes, or almost any veggie, for the cost of mac and cheese. It doesn’t taste as yummy but it’s totally a cost-effective option. Buying almost all fresh (non-prepackaged meals) I spend on average about $2.00 on breakfast, $1.50 on lunch and $1.50-$2.50 on dinner each day. Compared to a day I splurge on a Chipotle or a food truck at lunch at $6.91 for the meal, it’s no comparison.

    Again, I’m speaking from a lower middle class perspective so with extenuating circumstances or lack of availability, I realize things change.

    • curvynerd says:

      Welllll, yes, but we do live in probably the best place in the U.S. for produce. I love the produce prices out here, and agree that we absolutely can stretch out dollars on really good food. Just not sure that’s an option in other places, for many people. (as I recall, in Atlanta, choices were kind of crap) But 100% yes to this: “where the middle class+ is concerned, is a lack of education and a sense of entitlement.”

    • These prices are unrealistic for some parts of the country (like mine). I can’t have boiled potatoes for the cost of mac and cheese, and that’s partly because mac and cheese has coupons. I envy your produce prices and hope that one day everyone will be able to find similar prices.

      • curvynerd says:

        Don’t get me started on coupons. That damn TLC show makes me want to try it. I suspect my diet will suffer. (the DEALS!!!!)

      • Emily says:

        Yeah, it definitely depends and I speak purely from my knowledge of my time in Los Angeles, the farmland of Minnesota, Memphis and my time in Boston. I don’t know what it’s like everywhere, I’ve just found that in those areas there was at least 1 “poorer” vegetable that could be bought for very cheap but still held nutritional value, not just LA.

  7. Ryan says:

    I’ve heard of that term “food desert”, and it is scary.

    Thankfully, I live in Vancouver, Canada, where there are lots of markets.

    There’s a place called Sunrise market close to where I live that gets all the “B” grade veggies/fruits that no one in the regular supermarkets will buy.

    Everything is misshapen, or getting close to being quite ripe/expired, but if you pick and choose, there is 100% useable stuff to find.

    I can get bell peppers for 60 cents a pound, I can get entire heads of cauliflower for a dollar, bananas for 40 cents a pound, and the list goes on and on…

    I am able to spend around $6-$8 and it’s enough fruit and veggies to last around 2 or 3 days. Then I just buy dry beans in bulk (which is super cheap) and a bag of brown rice, and I’m set, it’s pretty much all I need.

    I’m glad I have these options, it makes eating healthy and cheap quite easy for me.
    RY

    • curvynerd says:

      I definitely think location is key! I also have access to cheap veggies here in Los Angeles, and it’s been a real Godsend. I’m also SUPER spoiled by Trader Joes, Fresh & Easy and Whole Foods — the benefit of living in cities that have a huge yuppie health food culture :) I’m also terrified by the notion of a food desert — apparently fast food restaurants out number grocery stores by something like 25 to 1.

      I don’t know how it works in Canada, but my quibble with the U.S. is that the government actually subsidizes the production of all this horrible, fake foodstuff via the corn and soy industries. But they DON’T really subsidize farmers who are growing fresh fruit & veggies, so that cost is passed onto consumers. It’s just so skewed — I think government food subsidies are a HUGE problem with class disparities and diet in the U.S.

  8. Robin says:

    We’re pretty fortunate in that cost isn’t really an issue for food purchases, but we still run into a lot of space and time issues trying to eat unprocessed foods and home-cooked meals.

    First off, our kitchen is TINY. The burners work, but they suck. Totally uneven and prone to burning half the food while the other half is raw. I can only fit a couple of pots on the stove and big baking sheets don’t fit in the oven. Some of our pots are too big to fit in the sink, so washing them can be big mess time. And this is in a fairly modern, graduate housing kitchen. I can only imagine the state of kitchens in section 8 apartments or public housing or for families that are struggling to find a consistent place to stay.

    Rice and beans sound great, and I have made dried beans from a bag before. They are cheap and tasty! I really want to do it again, but that means 3 hours being around the house making sure the apartment doesn’t burn down and the pot gets stirred often enough. (I have heard rumors of using a rice cooker or crock pot, but space issues are a problem here).

    I definitely have issues with buying fresh and using things up before they go bad. When we lived in New York, I would hit the grocery store every two days or so, but I HATE doing that now because traffic sucks. And in my case, I’m not running to work a second job or pick up a child. I just want to have time to work out before dinner and not eat at 9 PM. I have this dream world where I spend Sundays cooking lunches for the week and prepping stuff, but in actual world, I spend Sundays playing frisbee and watching football. Because I am already fed up enough that I have to do 90% of the cooking in our shitty little kitchen and still do half the dishes.

    Then there’s the issue of finding things that both my husband and I want to eat. If I lived alone, I would pretty much subsist on wacky whole grains like quinoa and bulghur, tofu, tempeh, tons of vegetables, fruit, mushrooms on anything, chicken, and beans plus some pasta because dammit I love pasta. It would be mix and match and easy to cook. But my husband does not like whole grains or beans or tempeh or fruit. And funny, other people think that mushrooms and hot sauce should not be added to every single meal. I’ve considered just making what I want to eat and letting him fend for himself, but tiny kitchen makes that REALLY difficult so if we want seperate meals, they’re going to have to be premade.

    In reality, I probably eat healthier than I did on my own when I was prone to fiber overload and not enough calories. Because, really? Hot sauce on frozen spinach is NOT a healthy dinner no matter what the food police tell you. But there’s still a lot of issues we run into that make it hard to eat as unprocessed and healthy as we want despite being in a really good situation overall (excepting our crap kitchen). The funny thing is, the #1 thing getting in the way of making more food from scratch is my desire to work out every day.

    • MTW says:

      RE: Dried beans in the crock pot, it’s amazing and the only way I cook beans. I usually do 2 bags of beans at a time, soak them overnight, then throw them in the crock pot in the morning. It takes 6 – 8 hours on high, or 8 – 10 hours on low, depending on the kind of bean. When they are cooked, I portion out the amount I want to eat in the very near future and refrigerate them…. and for the rest, I measure out 1 1/2 cup portions, and separate them into freezer bags, and freeze them. That way, whenever I need a “can of beans”, I can just go to my frozen bean arsenal! I always have about 5 different kinds of beans all cooked in the freezer and ready to be used as a moment’s notice!

      And THAT is my best tip on budget cooking! :-)

      • Robin says:

        Any ideas for using a fancy rice cooker? We got one of those as a gift a few years ago, and it says it can be done on the slow setting… I really don’t want to buy anything new (especially given that M will probably not be so happy with a huge influx of beans into our diet) but if I can figure out how to slow cook on that it’d be great for making lunches.

        I have heard the freezer tip so many times, but our freezer is tiny. :( I need to clean a couple things out of it, but it’s pretty much at maximum capacity.

    • curvynerd says:

      I hear you on the crap kitchen! From my memory, I think mine is just a smidgen larger than yours. Do you have a mini stove? They’re the WORST.

      Hahahaha. It’s a good thing you are eating healthier with M! But I can imagine it’s tricky making both of you happy, when it comes to cooking. I envision a bright future, with a Real Apartment that has a Tricked Out Kitchen. I feel like cooking is a lot easier when you have proper space and equipment. I miss having a real kitchen.

  9. Kris says:

    This is such a touchy subject! People in general and (IMHO) especially people with weight problems and money problems face a world of criticism trying to feed themselves.

    I’m lucky – I *know* I’m lucky – I have a good job, have been able to take a university level nutrition class, and have spent a lot of time in the last ten years researching, testing, and trying new nutrition plans in a effort to a) lose weight, and b) feed myself and my family healthy, nutritious food on a budget.

    That said, when every penny counts, (and I’ve been there), white potatoes at $2 for 20 pounds and free pasta and cereal gifted by a friend might be all you have to eat (prices circa early 1990′s).

    Life skills should be taught in high school – mandatory, not optional! Basic budgets, basic cooking skills, how to read a grocery flyer, basic nutrition. It amazes me how little too many people know about the food they eat – but then I remember, it took me 10 years to learn what I know, and I, too, used to eat a ton of processed foods because it was cheap and convenient.

    Tough subject, and there are no easy fixes.

    • curvynerd says:

      I think food education in school would help, but a larger problem and handicap is that the schools are up against food advertising. I’m not about a nanny state, but do think that advertising should be regulated, specifically: advertising to children and food advertising. One of the ones that KILLS me is Kraft cheese. Kraft “the American cheese” is NOT cheese. Technically, it’s a “cheese product” and must be labeled as such. But in the advertisements, they get away with a label in teeny tiny print (that only people like me look for and read), whilst the voice over and most of the messaging loudly proclaims CHEESE. So many people are deluded into thinking they are eating actual food. (Kraft cheese is just one product that annoys me — there are so many examples like this)

      I think what would be very interesting is a “truth” campaign about what’s really in the “food” that is marketed to us and we consume. I think a lot of people wouldn’t eat certain things if they realized what they were. Imagine is people understood what flavor additives are… and food dyes. And food companies shouldn’t be allowed to advertise their food products in certain ways, IMO. (don’t get me started on those “corn sugar” commercials, which are probably the most dishonest ads I have ever seen in my life.)

      • Kris says:

        I totally agree! I came home from a weekend away, where I left my mom with my kids, to find the following “food” in my house:

        “fruit” roll-ups
        “fruit” loops
        Rice krispie squares

        OMG!! Sigh… I love my mom, and she means well. And I am by no means perfect either when it comes to food – yes, there are still processed foods in my house, because my DH and kids like them, but they are few and few between, and (most) of my kids prefer fresh, REAL foods (real cheese, dense, grainy bread, whole grain cereals with no added sugar).

        But learning about the crap I was feeding us was key to helping me decide what NOT to buy.

  10. Jenn says:

    As much as I like reading the NYT, I have to say that this assessment is inaccurate and somewhat elitist. For starters, it doesn’t account for how BROKE people are these days, nor does it mention how, even in a recession, grocery stores are more focused on making money hand over fist than providing affordable, nutritious food. It is much cheaper to eat junk food. That is not a myth. If you have $30 to spend on groceries for the week, you’re not going get very much. Fruits and vegetables can cost upwards of $1-2 for a single pound, milk costs $4-5, peanut butter costs $3-6, etc. Frozen vegetables The only bread worth buying starts at $3-4. When you compare that with 10/$1 package of Ramen, 3/$0.99 ravioli, and 2/$4 specials on Lay’s Potato Chips, it’s glaringly obvious that healthy eating is out of reach for a lot of people.

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