Is healthy eating really affordable?
Many believe the cost of eating a good, healthy diet is near impossible. HFG editor Niki Bezzant looks at this issue and asks: what are the solutions?
We hear it all the time. Healthy eating is so expensive. It’s cheaper to buy potato chips than it is to buy apples. Soft drink is half the price of milk. Takeaways are so much cheaper than buying all the ingredients for a meal. These are common justifications for why people struggle with eating healthily, feeding their families healthy meals and losing weight.
How much has food increased?
Based on the evidence of our shopping trolleys, most of us would probably agree that food has gone up in price significantly in the last couple of years. The statistics back this up. According to Statistics New Zealand’s Food Price Index, the price of food overall has increased by 7.3 per cent from January 2009 to January 2012. Significant, but perhaps less than we might have expected. But healthy food — the food we all need to promote good health and prevent disease — seems to have increased a good deal more.
Each year, the Department of Human Nutrition at Otago University surveys supermarkets in the main centres and calculates the weekly cost of purchasing a healthy diet for men, women, adolescents, and children. The survey includes a range of foods in what they call basic, moderate and liberal categories, which will give most people all their nutritional needs according to the National Food and Nutrition Guidelines. According to their data, the cost of a ‘moderate’ healthy diet increased by 19.5 per cent from 2009 to 2011. Close to twenty per cent is a big increase, especially when most people’s incomes haven’t gone up nearly that much in the past three years. This is unlikely to surprise anyone who regularly does the food shopping.
What’s the cost to our health?
It’s not surprising that some Kiwi families’ diets consist of more unhealthy than healthy foods. And there’s no doubt it’s difficult to advocate for healthy foods when the food budget has to stretch a long way.
But the flipside of this situation is that by not eating well, and especially not giving our kids the best nutrition, we set them up for a lifetime of expensive problems. Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are all issues that require management and medication, and also carry serious limitations to a normal life. They can limit your lifespan and your income.
The cost of these diseases to the economy is immense. Nutrition-related diseases cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars every year. It is estimated nutrition plays a role in about 11,000 deaths a year.
So what are the solutions?
Looking at the big picture, it’s a complex problem that seems to have many answers.
One often proposed measure to cut the cost of healthy food is cutting the GST on vegetables and fruit, or on all healthy foods.
In March 2010, the University of Auckland released the results of a study that provided a fascinating insight on this proposal. Researchers looked at whether price discounts on ‘healthier’ foods, or nutrition education, was more effective in encouraging people to buy healthier food. The Supermarket Health Options Project (SHOP) study tracked the food purchases of 1,104 shoppers. Half of the shoppers received price discounts of 12.5 per cent on healthier foods for six months, and half received intensive, personalised nutrition education over the same time period, including tailored shopping lists, recipes and advice.
It may not be surprising to hear that those who got the price discounts made the bigger change towards healthy eating, with an 11 per cent increase in the amount of healthier food purchased, and two-thirds of the increase attributed to fruit and vegetables. The people who just got the nutrition education didn’t change their shopping habits at all. This would seem to suggest that a ‘no GST on veges and fruit’ policy would have a definite, positive effect on Kiwis’ eating habits. It’s already in place in some Australian states. In New Zealand, however, there is no move at this stage for this to happen.
What can we do?
So what are we as consumers — who want to eat healthier, but struggle to balance the budget — to do? It is clear that healthy eating can be expensive. But the cost of not eating healthily could be even greater. And those who argue that junk food is so much cheaper are missing the point. Yes, potato chips are cheaper than fruit. But who seriously thinks of chips as an equivalent choice to fruit?
At Healthy Food Guide, we still say healthy eating on a budget is achievable with knowledge, care and planning. Yes, it requires an investment, not only of money, but of time and a little bit of thought. But the payoffs are worth it — we get back many times what we put in.
Healthy eating on a budget – real life examples
While healthy eating on a budget can be a challenge, it can be done and it has great benefits. Here are three households who manage to sustain that healthy eating/budgeting balance, with their positive, practical tips.
Example 1: Trish and Tom
Trish and Tom Dingle live with their two young children in Christchurch. They own two project management businesses and Trish is a part-time stay-at-home mum, part-time administrator/assessor and a freelance copy editor.
Weekly food budget
$190 ($140 at the supermarket, $50 at the farmers’ market)
What sparked your decision to eat more healthily?
Before making the decision to start our family, we were drinking way too much alcohol, which in turn lead to poor food choices. We would get lazy and because we couldn’t be bothered cooking, we’d order takeaways at least a couple of times a week. We would also cook ‘easy’ meals with a lot of rice, potatoes and pasta using ready-made sauces.
My pregnancy with my son was especially difficult and I put on a lot more weight due to being housebound with a medical condition.
We both recognised that we wanted a better life for ourselves and we wanted to set a better example for our children.
How do you balance healthy eating and a tight budget?
The best bang for our buck is shopping at our local farmers’ market. Veges here are much cheaper than in a supermarket. We generally buy fruit seasonally and we buy free-range eggs locally for about $4.00 a dozen (up to $8 in the supermarket).
When we buy meat, we buy from our local butcher. We used to be huge meat-eaters but cutting out meat has been a natural progression as we have tried new vegetarian dishes that have been delicious.
We shop a bit smarter. For example, a smoked chicken breast for $9.00 seems really expensive but we can actually get two smoked chicken salads for four out of one breast so it ends up being a cost effective option.
The same goes for fish and seafood. Fish on special can often be a lot cheaper than buying meat. Prawns are great value: I bought 16 raw prawns the other day for about $3.50 — it made a delicious meal and the kids loved it!
What are some of the choices you’ve made to adopt healthy eating on a small budget?
Our small changes over the past six months have now made us look at what and how we eat in a completely new way.
We now cook 95 per cent of our meals from scratch and we’ve significantly reduced our portion sizes as well.
I drink a lot more water and I’ve learnt to recognise when I’m full and to stop eating. It’s okay to leave food on my plate, and this is something we’re teaching our children, too.
My children are great eaters and I believe this is because we rarely have the same meal twice in a month and we don’t pander to ‘they’re kids and so won’t eat it’. Our kids eat what we eat and as a result there is very little they won’t at least try and subsequently eat. We don’t expect them to finish their plates and if they genuinely don’t like something, we don’t force the issue — they can have some fruit instead. We don’t cook extra meals if they don’t like what is on the menu.
What’s the benefit to your family of eating healthier?
The benefits are our family following a healthier lifestyle: it’s about food, exercise, less alcohol. There is a financial cost to eating healthily but I feel we are in a good enough financial position to be able to do it.
I feel great right now. As a family, we are much more positive day-to-day and we’re positive about our future. There are less arguments. The children are happier because we are happier. We are more focused on our goals and this is a direct result of the changes we have made.
How they save money on food
- I shop fortnightly and plan at least eight of the fortnight’s meals from HFG or other healthy recipes. We have found it really easy if we have the meals already decided on and the ingredients at the ready. We all love the fresh taste, variety, and ease of these recipes.
- We try to eat lean meat most of the time and we’ve got to the stage where we have one or two vegetarian evening meals a week.
- We have all but eliminated takeaways from our diet and make a real effort to eat well-balanced meals.
- We don’t drink during the week any more and we try to limit drinking to one night on a weekend.
- We grow a lot of our own vegetables.
Cereal with yoghurt and fruit.
Sandwiches (high-fibre bread of some kind with a filling of ham and cheese or tomato and avocado or something similar), with a fruit salad, fruit bar.
Monday: Chargrilled pumpkin and haloumi salad with chickpeas
Tuesday: Salmon and potato salad
Wednesday: Peanut-chicken and noodle salad
Thursday: Lemon chicken
Saturday: Burger and chips
Sunday: Saganaki prawns
Example 2: The flatmates
Eight flatmates — students Claire Neyle, Frances Cox-Wright, Freya Powell, Tess Novak, Julia Hunt-McNeur, Nic Harty-Morris, Liz Strickett, Richard Clarkson who live in central Wellington.
Weekly food budget
$200 ($160 at the supermarket, $40 at the vege market)
How do you balance healthy eating and a tight budget?
We budget for all of our dinners, basic lunch and breakfast foods (we buy snack foods and any individual things like special cereals with our own money).
We take turns to go to the vege market each week. Our roster means someone has to go each week (no matter how hungover they are), and we always have lots of veges that we incorporate in our planned meals. Because the vege market in Vivian Street is so cheap, we always have leftover veges at the end of the week that we try to use up.
By aiming to have our meals organised by Sunday and the shopping done then, too, we have someone cooking every night except for the weekends, with two people getting a week off each week. This means we’re able to organise cooking around our uni schedules. If someone comes home late, there is a meal put aside for them. This means we don’t buy takeaways often (which can be a temptation living a couple of minutes’ walk away from lots of fast food places in the CBD).
What are some of the challenges?
Because there are eight of us, we often have to double up recipes which works most of the time, but sometimes we do ‘double-and-a-half’ just to be sure.
We also sometimes need to alter our meals as Nic is gluten-free and allergic to eggs, but we usually just need to think ahead and make gluten-free alternative versions for him by using cornflour, or he will have rice or gluten-free pasta as his staple food in his meals.
What sorts of meals do you cook?
We cook a big range of meals for dinner so there’s always something new to try and we are always looking forward to dinnertime! We all have our own specialities. Claire makes great pastas, Fran and Nic make delicious curries, Freya’s a corn fritter expert and her boyfriend Jason is a fish cooking expert (he catches fish and gives it to us in exchange for his sometimes cheeky long showers!). Liz makes the yummiest vege frittatas, Richard’s specialty is his home-kill roasts, Tess makes the best soups to keep us warm in winter and Julia likes to make Mexican for everyone.
Our dinner meals are well balanced. Although staple foods like pasta and rice are really cheap and we buy quite a bit of them (making carbs a base of our meal at least a couple of times a week), we also get lots of veges. We always have a vege component to the meal, whether it’s part of the meal itself or roasted veges or a green salad on the side.
We also like trying new grains which are a bit better for you and can bulk meals to fill all of us up. Our recent favourite that Tess found is quinoa. Because we’re all only cooking once a week maximum, I think we like to challenge ourselves to make new meals we haven’t made before and to maintain a yummy and healthy standard of the meals we make for everyone else. Having a lot of cookbooks all of our parents have given us and old Healthy Food Guides mags helps!
Do you think you get health benefits from prioritising healthy eating?
We do get health benefits from the way we eat. It’s a real struggle especially around exam time to prioritise healthy eating, so with someone making dinner every night it’s a lot easier to make sure you’re getting some nutrients to keep you going, and it’s a lot healthier (and cheaper) than buying something from uni.
Having a filling dinner really helps to keep you going with study after dinner and it’s also really good to have a break to clear your head space before studying again. We always try to eat together. I think we all maintained the same weight within the last year, apart from the boys who say they lost a couple of kilos from having smaller portion sizes (it’s more likely because we keep them in line by making them eat healthily!)
Overall, we feel pretty good about how we eat and think we have quite a healthy (and affordable) student lifestyle.
How the flatmates save money on food
- We plan out our meals before we do the vege market and supermarket shop.
- The person whose turn it is to do the supermarket shop makes sure we make the list earlier in the day, and checks the cupboards and fridge so we’re not buying ingredients we already have.
- When we’re at the supermarket we take our phones and calculate as we go along, or if we’re doing it online and we go over budget (which we sometimes do), we try to substitute a few things or cut out things we don’t actually need.
- We save money by substituting foods if we need to. For example, if a pasta recipe says we need to use chicken but it is really expensive that week, we will substitute it for something else.
- We always try to choose what’s on special and the cheapest brands of things as much as we can.
- We don’t do unnecessary shops throughout the week at the more expensive inner-city supermarkets.
Example 3: Debbe and Mark
Debbe and Mark Laurent live in Hamilton and have eight children — the oldest is 25. Typically, there are six mouths to feed in their household: two adults, a 19-year old, five-year-old twins and a 10-month-old baby. Mark works for a party hire company and Debbe is a busy mum who also manages two websites targeted at mums and families.
Weekly food budget
Why is it important to you to prioritise healthy eating, even on a small budget?
We made the choice to have children and as such we do what we feel is best for them. Our family is our top priority. We don’t go out, don’t smoke, don’t drink (well, not often) and we have no social life. It’s hard sometimes and I have days I feel down about things, I mean, who doesn’t love to be able to go out for dinner sometimes? But it’s all about priorities.
What’s the benefit to your family of eating healthier?
Don’t get me wrong — some weeks I feel like there are no benefits, and we have been known to have meals that probably aren’t the most nutritious, but overall we do try to make most meals not ‘unhealthy’.
We don’t have spare money so we’re not tempted to buy biscuits and chippies. Instead, we buy in-season fruit. We rarely buy juice or soft drinks — the kids just learnt that water was always on tap so generally, my older teens will automatically go for water when they are thirsty. My children have a healthy habit for life as a result. Even my twins now have water bottles that they just refill when the water runs out. I hope through teaching my kids by example that they can enjoy healthy food and don’t need rubbish food, I am giving them a better start to a healthy life. I guess I want my children to have a mind of their own.
Eating healthier not only means a healthy body but also a healthy mind. This is obviously going to contribute towards my kids’ energy levels as well so they can cope with learning. Kids need to learn to eat properly, they need to learn what they eat is their responsibility.
How they save money on food
- We make the most of versatile ingredients, eg. cheese, especially when they are on special.
- Meat is too expensive to have every night. We look at what’s on special at places like the Mad Butcher —chicken breasts are often a good deal, and, if it’s within our budget, we buy it.
- We buy vegetables from the local greengrocer, only what we need for that night. Friends and neighbours with gardens are willing to share their produce. We also have a garden and when our crops are plentiful, we return the favour.
- We buy vegetables when they are cheap in-season (eg. pumpkin) then freeze them.
- We use community- oriented groups that support healthy eating. In Hamilton, we have Community Fruit Hamilton — a group which makes sure we make use of fruit grown in our backyards through sharing.
Weekly budget: Our $150 food bill split
Milk: 4 x $5.80 = $23.80
Bread: 4 x $1.80 = $7.20
Meat: (est.) 5 x $10 = $50.00
Cheese: 1 x $8.99
Veges and fruit: (what we don’t grow or have given to us) $10.00
Basics: (eg. sugar, flour, spread, seasonings) $20.00+
Total: about $120.00+