The price difference between healthy food and fattening fast food has been discussed for decades. Many believe that it’s cheaper to get a double cheeseburger than a salad at McDonald’s. It’s less expensive to buy a pizza than it is to cook a full meal for a family of four, right?
As a result, adults living in poverty are at greater risk than their more affluent counterparts for a number of health issues, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke, obesity (primarily among women), depression, disability, poor oral health, and premature mortality, according to a 2017 study by the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC). But why is that?
A lack of access to full-service grocery stores and farmers’ markets, being less likely to own a vehicle (and therefore being forced to shop at local malls or convenience stores, where the quality of the produce is lower and the price is higher), and a higher concentration of fast food restaurants are just some of the reasons why low-income people are less healthy, according to FRAC.
In these situations, it can sometimes seem impossible to get your hands on cheap, healthy meals. But there are ways to get (or make) affordable food that’s still good for you.
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Knowledge Is Power
You can’t choose to change your income or make fast food less available. That said, realizing that you are in control of what you put inside your body is the first step in reclaiming control of your health.
Cooking at home allows you to see exactly what's in your food and make the changes you need to see in your diet.
However, only 10 percent of Americans love to cook, according to research in the Harvard Business Review. On top of that, more than 35 percent of millennials consider themselves bad at cooking, according to Porch, a database of experts for home improvement. Not knowing how to cook and not understanding how to effectively shop for groceries are some of the leading reasons people in the United States don’t prepare meals at home.
Learning How to Make Cheap, Healthy Meals
Thankfully, there are solutions to these problems. For example, quick Google search will reveal many free cooking classes that can teach you how to whip up simple dishes.
YouTube is another great resource for learning to cook at home. It has become one of the easiest tools for beginners to use on this front. One of my favorite YouTube series on how to cook for a family on a budget is on a channel called Brothers Green Eats. Using resources like YouTube to learn how to grocery shop effectively is key.
Pro tip: Prepare meals around what you’d buy anyway and avoid purchasing groceries for specific meals. This is the perfect way to maximize your dollars and reduce food waste. Besides, let’s face it: Going grocery shopping when you're hungry is a recipe for disaster.
For a while, at least, you might also want to use a subscription to a service that specializes in budgeting, cooking, and meal planning.
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Why Cooking at Home Is the Way to Go
When you eat at fast food or quick service restaurants, you can't always customize dishes to your liking. You have no idea how long your fast food has been sitting in a warming tray before it actually reaches your plate or if it’s been processed to actually withstand those conditions. Fast food is packed with fillers, preservatives, and chemicals.
You can avoid these unhealthy ingredients by cooking meals at home. Plus, doing so is cheaper than you probably think.
“I had clients who often stress that they don’t have enough money to keep a balanced diet,” says Keith Mcniven, founder of the personal training company Right Path Fitness.
“But I’ll sit down with them and run through what they eat in a week. And when we do this, many of them notice that they spend more on the ‘bad’ foods. Certain vegetables, which might be considered less ‘attractive,’ are also very cheap and nutritious, such as broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, and cabbage.”
So I decided to conduct my own experiment. I went to my local grocery store, threw together a meal’s worth of groceries, and compared the cost with that of eating out.
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Cooking Cheap, Healthy Meals: My Experiment
One of my favorite dishes to make during a busy week is a chicken-and-vegetable stir-fry with a side of rice. It requires just a few items, it’s super simple to make, and it’s low in calories and fat. I set out on my quest to price out the food for my meal.
Let’s Go Shopping
At my grocery store, the store-brand boneless and skinless chicken breasts are only $1.99 per pound when bought in a package of five or six. The total cost for a value package like this ranges from $8 to $10. Plus, it will last for several meals, unless you’re feeding a crowd. I generally split a breast in half, and that’s plenty of chicken for one meal.
A 12-ounce bag of frozen store-brand Asian stir-fry vegetables costs $1.50. The particular bag I found contains broccoli, sugar snap peas, green beans, carrots, onions, celery, mushrooms, and red peppers — everything you need for a great stir-fry, minus the chicken and the seasoning. This is another bargain because one person could get two or three meals out of this bag.
Plus, frozen vegetables are generally much healthier for you than the canned variety because of the sodium that’s added in the canning process.
Meanwhile, one-pound bag of store-brand brown rice is a mere 89 cents. That’s ridiculously cheap when you consider that rice triples in size when it’s prepared. Two cups of dry rice equals six cups cooked. If you’re the only one eating, half a cup of dry rice should be more than enough. If you happen to prepare too much rice, it keeps well in the refrigerator and reheats nicely as leftovers.
These three items — chicken, vegetables, and rice — are the base ingredients of my stir-fry. I’m omitting all but one seasoning (soy sauce) from this article because people generally have staples like that in their pantries. You’ll really need soy sauce, though, to make this dish pop. In my store you can get a 10-ounce bottle of Kikkoman brand for $2.69.
All of the ingredients added up to a bit more than $15 for me. Prices will vary depending on where you live, give or take a couple of dollars.
Nonetheless, $15 for a simple chicken stir-fry that could cost you upward of $20 at many restaurants is a steal.
And that’s not even taking into account that you’ll end up with enough chicken for 10 to 12 servings, enough vegetables for two to three servings, and enough rice for at least four servings.
Bring on the Food: Cooking at Home
Once you get all of your items home, it’s easy to throw them together into a healthy, filling meal. I’ve personally been cooking for nearly 15 years. But if you’re new to cooking at home, YouTube and other guides will be your best friend.
Whipping up a killer stir-fry at home is a breeze. It’s as simple as cutting your chicken breast into bite-size pieces and putting it into an oiled skillet with your vegetables. Season to your liking with what you have in your pantry, making sure that when you remove it from the heat, all of the chicken is thoroughly cooked. Meanwhile, prepare the rice according to package directions. When you’re done, you’ll have a dish you can be proud of.
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Wrapping Things Up on Cheap, Healthy Meals
Cooking at home can be a daunting task for many people. However, educating yourself with the tools at your disposal is invaluable. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also save your health.
“If you’re trying to live a healthier lifestyle, but are short on money, plan your meals throughout the week with a few base ingredients that are good for you but also on the cheaper side,” Mcniven says.
Throwing together a quick meal of your own can be satisfying to your health, your wallet, and your taste buds. Occasionally eating out can be a great treat, but try keeping it to dishes that you know you could never prepare at home because they require special skills or equipment.
And remember — there is so much help out there for you to try your hand at making cheap, healthy meals. The key to doing it at all is experimentation! You never know what you’re going to love ’til you try it.
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Additional reporting by Jazmin Rosa.