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 Agriculture.
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 restaurants.
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 costs.
"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.
The 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.
The 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 the plans.
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 factors.
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%, she says.
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.
She 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.
Planned-overs are 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.
Thayer 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, she says.
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 and fruit.
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.
To 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."
Thayer 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."