By: Eric Mittenthal

Last week, USDA released a report called “Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive: It Depends on How You Measure the Price.” The report dispels the popular myth that high calorie foods are cheaper than more healthful options and finds that if you look at price based on portion size instead of by calorie, there’s better value in Dietary Guidelines for Americans friendly foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meat and low-fat milk.

This is a message many nutrition experts have been preaching for years and USDA’s findings mirror an analysis that AMI did  a few years ago in response to the movie Food Inc. The movie portrays a family that said they were forced to eat only from value menus in quick service restaurants because it was cheaper than home prepared food from the grocery store.  The family members all chose to eat in the car and discussed their poor health conditions, which the film’s makers blamed on the food industry.

The scene ignored the many different portion sizes, foods and nutrition formulations offered by quick service restaurant chains.   Nutrition information is available in all restaurants to help consumers select the products that are right for them.  The film also failed to present a true picture of the values available at the grocery story and the economy of a many home prepared foods.

Comparing Costs of Food at the Grocery Store

When people purchase foods at restaurants, they are paying for the cost of the labor to prepare those foods. That’s why it is typically less expensive to purchase food at the grocery store and perform the “labor” (the cooking) yourself. For example, during a recent visit to a major online grocery web site, the following meal was purchased without using coupons:

Boneless chicken breasts (1.25 lbs — $6.25), broccoli ($2.99), brown rice ($1.99), green leaf lettuce ($1.99) and beefsteak tomato ($1.49), 1 cup light Italian dressing for marinating chicken and tossing salad ($1.25), 1 oz. butter (.25), half of a fresh cantaloupe ($1.25) and ten ounces light vanilla ice cream ($1.00). The total cost for this delicious, well-balanced meal was $18.46. And there just might be some leftovers, too.

Here are some other reasonably priced meal suggestions, based upon food selected on line from another major grocery retailer:

Mexican Feast – one pound 90 percent lean ground beef ($2.99), one package flour tortillas ($2.99), 1 package taco seasoning mix ($1.09), one 8-oz. package shredded cheddar ($2.99), 1 15-oz. can organic black beans ($1.09), one 16-oz bag brown rice ($1.65), one tomato on the vine ($.62), one head iceberg lettuce ($1.79), three bananas (.90), 2 apples ($1.52). Total cost: $17.63.

Italian Dinner – one 12-oz. package cooked Italian meatballs ($4.49), one 20-oz. loaf sliced Italian bread ($1.50), 1 pound whole grain pasta ($1.75), one 24-oz. package express garden salad (2.99), one 16-oz. bottle Italian dressing ($1.33) and one quart pineapple, raspberry and orange low-fat sherbet ($2.50). Total Cost: $16.55

Note that many of the items above are convenience items, like pre-made meat balls, canned, cooked beans, grated cheese and bagged salad. Additional savings may be achieved by grating cheese, cooking dry beans, washing and cutting lettuce and so forth.

USDA also has a great Supertracker tool on its website with meal planning, calorie tracking tips and more. A healthful diet doesn’t have to be difficult and costly. With a little effort and planning, feeding your family a healthful meal can be a piece of cake (or lean meat!)

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