By Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
The cost of feeding a family of four a healthy diet can run $146 to
$289 a week, according to the latest numbers from the U.S. Department of
That's based on preparing all the meals and snacks
at home for a couple with two school-aged children. It doesn't include
one-dollar deals at fast-food restaurants or splurges at pricey
The USDA uses national food intake data and grocery
price information to calculate different costs for a healthy diet at
home. The latest numbers for a four-member family: a thrifty food plan,
$146 a week; a low-cost food plan, $191 a week; a moderate-cost plan,
$239; a liberal plan, $289 a week. Some food waste is built into these
"We constantly hear the claim that you can't eat healthy on
a budget, and to us that's a myth because a family can eat a healthy
diet with fruits and vegetables that meets the Dietary Guidelines for
Americans," says Robert Post, associate executive director of the USDA's
Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
Costs today are up
from 10 years ago, when a thrifty-cost food plan for a family of four
was $108; a low-cost food plan, $139; moderate-cost plan, $173; a
liberal plan, $208 a week.
The price of a moderate-cost healthy
plan went up 38% between 2003 and 2013, says Mark Lino, a USDA
economist. The cost of food in general went up 32%, he says. During that
time period, inflation was about 26%, he says.
But you do have to use "smart shopping strategies" like the ones on www.choosemyplate.gov, Post says.
thrifty plan is used as the basis of SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Eating a healthy diet
on that amount of money means buying the lowest-cost fruits and
vegetables such as bananas, apples, carrots, potatoes and greens, says
Lino. People who spend the higher amounts on food can buy more expensive
fruits and vegetables and even pre-cut and pre-washed ones, he says.
liberal plan allows for more expensive cuts of meat and types of
seafood. It does not allow more desserts such as chocolate cake or
cheesecake because it represents a nutritious diet, Lino says. The
limit for calories from solid fats and added sugars is the same in all
Registered dietitians who work with families and
dieters say how much people spend on food depends on their income, how
much they budget for groceries, where they live and a number of other
It is possible to eat healthfully on $146 a week, but you
can't do it without planning, says Bethany Thayer of Detroit, a
registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and
Dietetics. You have to shop sales, buy produce in season, purchase store
brands and buy canned and frozen vegetables when they are on sale.
Buying store brands instead of national brands can save you up to 30%,
To eat cheaply at home you have to make an investment of
time to plan meals, grocery shop, cook and prepare the food, says Tami
Ross, a nutrition expert in Lexington, Ky., and co-author of Diabetes Meals on $7 a Day - or Less!, written with Patti Geil.
advises her patients to plan for five evening meals a week and then
have a night or two to clear out the refrigerator of leftovers or
incorporate what she calls planned-overs.
taking one main food, such as chicken, and using it several different
ways throughout the week. You can serve it as an entree one night and
then other nights put it on top of a green salad or incorporate it in
soups, wraps, casseroles or chicken salad. That way you aren't eating
the exact same thing but you don't waste food, she says. "Throwing food
away is like throwing money in the trash can."
Ross also tells
patients to think of meat as the side dish, not the centerpiece of their
meal, because it's often the most costly part of the meal.
points out that there are many inexpensive protein choices - beans,
eggs, peanut butter and other nut butters, she says. And when it comes
to inexpensive whole grains, you can eat store-brand old-fashioned
oatmeal for 9 cents a serving, she says.
"People spend a lot of
money in the grocery store on their beverages," Thayer says. To save
money, your beverages should be tap water and low-fat or fat-free milk,
Elizabeth Ward, a registered dietitian in Boston and author of MyPlate for Moms,
says you can save both time and money with simple meals. An omelet with
vegetables, whole-grain toast, fruit and milk is a relatively low-cost
meal. So is a grilled cheese sandwich on whole-grain bread, green salad
Make a list to take to the store to cut costs, but it's OK to deviate from it for sale items that you know you will use.
avoid waste, take leftovers for lunch the next day, Ward says. "For me,
that's the best part of cooking dinner - you get lunch, too."
adds that people also can eat inexpensively on value meals and
fast-food fare, but there's a tradeoff. "Processed food and fast food
offer a lot of calories for the dollar but not a lot of nutrients.
That's one reason we have people who are overweight but undernourished."