Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Mar

What is the Cost of Eating Healthy Foods?

foodmoneyA couple years back I highlighted a Time Magazine photo essay called “What the World Eats.” It was a fascinating visual comparison of what – and how much – representative families across the globe consumed in a given week. (Several obliging MDA readers later shared photos of their own rations.) Revealing on yet another level, the Time feature included the cost of each international family’s provisions. Expenses varied radically as you can imagine with weekly expenditures ranging from $1.23 in Chad to more than $500 in Germany. The three American families, incidentally, reported spending $159 (California), $242 (Texas), and $342 (North Carolina) each. With the talk about rising food prices looming in the headlines again, I found myself thinking about Primal food costs. Is anyone seeing the jump yet? Are Primal folks more or less affected by these periodic fluctuations? Do we, as a Primal group, really spend more than the average American on our food?

As many experts and commentators have noted over the years, Americans as a whole actually spend less on food than any other country when it comes to percentage of income. In the U.S., our average food expenses constitute about 9-12% of our income (depending on the source (1 (PDF), 2, 3) you consult). In 1949, it was 22%.

By contrast, much of Western Europe today devotes 14-17%+ of their total household budget to food. In Pakistan, families spend an average of 46% of their income on food.

On top of this, there’s the breakdown of food spent for “at-home” consumption (i.e. groceries) versus “away” (i.e. restaurants, fast food). Of the roughly 10% of income Americans spend on food, more than 40% is spent eating out (PDF). (In Belgium, for example, that number is 25%.) That means a mere 6% of our income is spent on the weekly supermarket/farmers’ market haul. When you look at it this way, we see that average at-home food costs are roughly equal to average health care costs, utilities, entertainment costs, and vehicle purchases costs. That’s not combined, folks.

A few more facts? (PDF) The groups that spend the most on food per person are the most affluent households, one-person households, and older households (55-64). (Probably no surprises there.) Among the groups that spend the least are households headed by single mothers. Larger households and those with kids spend less per person, and smaller households spend more eating out. Northeasterns and Westerners spend more on food (both total food expenditure and eating out costs) than Midwesterners and considerably more (especially in terms of at-home food) than Southerners. Affluent homes devote a lower percentage of their (more substantial) income on at-home food but a higher percentage on eating out than lower income and middle income homes.

More income, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into better food purchased. Although the amount spent on items like eggs, pork, and vegetables rose in higher income homes in Belgium, for example, in the U.S. the items prioritized with increased income were fish, cheese, and sweets. In another international comparison, higher incomes in the U.S. were associated with a higher percentage of the budget spent eating out, whereas “away” food expenses stayed fairly level as income rose in Belgian households. (PDF)

The information, I think, opens the door for a million questions and observations. Today, however, I’m interested in how the Primal community compares to the average American when it comes to expenses. The University of Iowa Extension Program offers a calculator that tells you how much you should spend on food to achieve the USDA’s Low Cost Food Plan (their version (PDF) of nutritious of course). (The department also offers calculators for “moderate” and “liberal” eating plans.) Doing the calculation for a “typical” four person family with two teenagers at home and no meals out, my number came up at about $815 per month. Does a good Primal bounty exceed the USDA’s low cost estimate?

Let’s do our own bit of informal research here. (The polls are completely anonymous.)

Approximately how much do you spend on at-home groceries (counting CSAs, meat shares, etc.) per month per person in your household?

View Results

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Additionally, how many meals, would you say, do you eat away from home each month?

View Results

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Finally, I’d love to hear your other thoughts. What’s your thinking on the income percentage picture? How do you work it? I know Primal folks bring a lot of creativity to the table when it comes to foraging for the best deals (as well as the best nutrition). How much does resourcefulness save? Have you gotten thriftier over time, or have you consciously increased your outlay for food as you’ve travelled down the Primal road, so to speak? I’ll look forward to reading your feedback. Thanks for reading today.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Since going primal 3 years ago, we found a local source for grass-fed beef, pork, and chicken. We also joined a CSA. The result? Our food bills went down AND our health care costs went down. No-brainer.

    Bert wrote on March 10th, 2011
  2. We butchered a steer almost two years ago and are still eating him, probably have a couple months worth of meat left. We live on him, some chicken, and a ridiculous amount of eggs, we go thru about a dozen a day, we have three kids 4 and younger. I think we spend less eating primal, but then I’ve not figured it exactly. If I could stop making yummy almond and coconut flour treats we’d save even more :)

    Marie wrote on March 10th, 2011
  3. I’d add my costs to the poll, but I think I might skew it a bit, as I live in Norway. The price range here would put me on $500 at least after conversion. Which actually isn’t extravagant food, with the only out of home food being lunch in the cafeteria at work…

    Elensaar wrote on March 10th, 2011
  4. There is a much greater cost incurred when buying local organic. This will skew the global data. To have a comprehensive overview, you would need to also measure the food source/quality.

    $100 dollars @ the supermarket might buy you a large cart full of food, but it will also probably be of low-quality.

    How would these numbers stack up if put through a health & wellness filter? I.e. nothing bagged, boxed, canned, in a jar. No corn syrup, etc.

    The real meta potential here might be to create an info graphic that shows the ratio of cost vs quality vs amount of food consumed. (I think it’s fair to say that the average American consumes at least 1000 more calories than they *need each day).

    Dave J wrote on March 10th, 2011
  5. funny you post this, I did a full break down of my week, last week, i spent $75 on food that week. This is it:
    http://oliverhadfield.blogspot.com/2011/03/food-consumption-one-week.html

    oliverh wrote on March 10th, 2011
  6. Not sure if this is the right place for this, and I’m pretty sure you’ve seen this already, but there’s an interesting article in yesterday’s NYT about the possible dangers of chronic long-distance running.
    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/09/when-exercise-is-too-much-of-a-good-thing/?src=me&ref=homepage

    Sean wrote on March 10th, 2011
  7. Eating primally is an excellent way to save money. I save so much money on supplements that it is a no brainer. Every day I eat 16oz of vegetables, 2 eggs, and 1 cup of berries. Add some butter and a few spcies and that is it!

    Additionaly, the protien is cycled per day. For instance Day1=Beef, Day2=Pork, Day3=Fish, Day4=Beef etc. Eggs, vegetables, and fruit are daily.

    After tracking this online at ‘nutritiondata’ this “diet” meets and exceeds ALL RDAs with many doubled and tripled! As an added bonus my omega 6:3 ratio is always at 1:1 even with grain fed beef or an occasional chicken.

    8 dollars a day with 300 dollars a month saved from protien powders, cod liver oil, vitamins, and minerals. Hint: Egg shells are an eggcellent source of elemental calcium and trace minerals…

    Monte Diaz wrote on March 10th, 2011
  8. Almost forgot…Daily 20 hour I.F. helps save money too. :p

    Monte Diaz wrote on March 10th, 2011
  9. I make a valiant effort to always have Primal home cooked meals during the week but we tend to eat out 3-4 times a weekend. This works well for maintaining an 80/20 lifestyle. Although, when we do dine out we always eat at local, quality restaurants and never “get crazy” just for the sake of it. I will still order my grass-fed burger w/o the bun but will indulge in a few sweet potato fries! And weekend = wine, at least a 1-2 glasses a day. Needless to say, our food budget is pricey for two but I would rather invest in quality food now, than prescriptions and doctor visits later. I no longer view $1000 (groceries and dining out) as monthly expense… it’s really an investment into the health and well being of my family. I have extended family members and neighbors that spend $1000/month on Rx and continue to make poor food choices and never exercise. So at the end of the day, where do you plan to invest your hard earned money is the question.

    WT wrote on March 10th, 2011
  10. We spend $120 per person each month. We are a family of 5 with 2 teenagers, 1 child. I mainly shop at Trader Joes. Some of the posts have given me some ideas on trying to contact local farmers for grass fed meat in bulk. I just learned that most eggs contain soy protein and I would like to avoid that but the cost for soy free is prohibitive. I spend $1.69 per dozen at TJs. The soy free are $8.75 per dozen. Same thing for the organic milk I used to buy at $6/gallon. I now buy the regular milk for $2.69 gallon. Just those two items would be another $84 per month on my bill (when multiplied by what we consume). What I don’t compromise is supplements like Omega 3’s, Beta Glucan and probiotics.

    Shari wrote on March 10th, 2011
  11. soy protein in eggs? whaaaaaat?!?!

    Clay Caldwell wrote on March 10th, 2011
  12. Sorry for the advertisement but this is what I read about soy protein in eggs:

    Did you know that almost all commercial eggs today, including those that are organic or Omega 3 eggs, contain soy protein in the yolks? Even chickens raised on organic feed eat high concentrations of soy beans. So if eggs are a part of your diet today, so is soy protein, whether you realize it or not.

    Tropical Traditions wanted to offer a soy-free egg from chickens that eat NO SOY. Tropical Traditions soy-free organic eggs have been tested to be soy-free! Our chickens are raised by family farmers and eat a coconut-based soy-free feed mixture that is certified organic, with no genetically modified grains (no GMOs!). Tropical Traditions developed the feed the chickens eat: Cocofeed. You can read more about Cocofeed here: http://www.cocofeed.com/cocofeed.htm.

    Why No Soy? Soy has become a big part of the human diet post World War II, with the result that there are many people with soy allergies today, and many people today are trying to reduce or eliminate soy protein from their diet.
    Soy is the cheapest protein available today, and it is a major component of most animal feeds. Cheap soy protein allows chickens to grow the fastest, and produce the maximum amount of eggs during their peak laying cycles.

    Highest Omega 3 Content! We don’t simply add flaxseed or flax meal to our chicken feed to make it “high Omega 3.” In addition to eliminating soy and using organic coconut pulp, our chickens eat a high quality fish meal and crab meal. Our fish meal is from deep ocean water small fish, and our crab meal comes from the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest or Nova Scotia. They are very high quality products that add not only a high quality protein to replace soybeans, but also the purest form of Omega 3 fatty acids that come from fish sources. Laboratory testing has shown that our eggs contain almost twice as much of the Omega 3 fatty acids as other organic “Omega 3″ eggs that derive their Omega 3 fatty acids from flax seeds. And we not only add high quality Omega 3 sources to our chicken’s diet, we completely eliminate the high amount of Omega 6 fatty acids that are contained in soy. Most nutritionists agree that our diet is unbalanced in its ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids because of the abundance of soy and corn in our diets today. Tropical Traditions organic soy-free high Omega 3 eggs supply a much better Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio because of the absence of soy.

    Shari wrote on March 10th, 2011
  13. We spend way more than we should have to. High quality foods need to be affordable and available to all classes of people.

    Anyhow – we have found ways to cut down on our food costs. Buying our grass fed meat straight from the farm, and in bulk, has helped tremendously.

    And when in season, buying local produce is much cheaper for us too.

    Teresa Lea wrote on March 10th, 2011
  14. I had to completely rework my budget when I made the switch from fast food & processed food to only whole foods, and then again when I went paleo.
    But it was basically taking my ‘eat out’ money and dumping it in to my grocery budget. I spend about $320 every month, and it’s just me in the house. I can shave that total amount down if I’m on low-flow, but $320 is the sweet spot for groceries – and I shop primarily at Trader Joe’s, Mothers and Henrys markets .

    Primal Rollergirl wrote on March 10th, 2011
  15. I live near a Whole Foods and have a weakness for grass fed beef. Combine that with the fact I am trying to gain muscular bodyweight at the moment and I easily spend about $500 a month. Between Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s I can get everything I need to stay paleo (+ dairy) but it cleans out my wallet. Definitely the biggest expense in my life.

    Zac Hunter wrote on March 10th, 2011
    • It’s worth it though, right? I read a book from the ‘whole foods’ movement that asked us to reconsider how much we’re willing to spend on groceries. By buying cheap food/fast food that’s crap for our bodies, we’re setting ourselves up for ginormous health bills later on in life (diabetes, heart disease, etc.).
      But by spending more on healthy food now, we’ll save in eventual health costs.
      Sounds worth it to me, and ‘real’ food tastes better anyhow! :)

      Primal Rollergirl wrote on March 10th, 2011
  16. When you buy good, whole foods, you’re also voting with your dollars. The only reason these corporations make this processed crap is because people will buy it.

    Clay Caldwell wrote on March 10th, 2011
  17. What a sobering series of comments. When I voted, I posted that I spend about $400 per month on food–but I think that might be a little low. The funny thing is that I meant for my family–my wife, myself, and our not-quite-three-year-old. I eat more primally than my wife does, and I have had to buy fewer healthier products due to our money issues. The stored up pasta in the basement is free, basically. Unfortunately, our budget only allows $250-$300 a month for food for the three of us, which is why we’re going under, pasta or no. I can’t imagine being able to spend upwards of a thousand dollars a month on food, yet I wonder how much healthier we would be if I could… I suppose one can make concessions here or there, but I thought one of the issues linking poverty and obesity in the U.S. is that McDonald’s, sodas, food crap is cheaper. Organic free range eggs cost me $4, and that’s with me driving to 3-4 different places when I grocery shop, just to save every penny I can. It’s difficult for me to spend “our” money on food for me when my wife is happier eating pasta and bread (for far, far less) anyway.

    ioelus wrote on March 10th, 2011
  18. Well, “technically” I only eat meals in my home less than 10 times per month. I have 4 jobs so I’m only home for “dinner time” 1-3 nights a week. I have a food stash @ the primary job where I do most of my eating. I work cooking in a restaurant 2 nights. That job supplies all the tenderloin, ribeye, & bison scraps to feed the corgi. That’s only for ski season…

    Peggy wrote on March 10th, 2011
  19. Food in england is up. I spend about £80-£100 per week on food for myself alone. People will say thats absurd but i don’t care. I refuse to eat poorly, and this is the price. i’ll keep eating the best way i can, it’s a basic human right.

    Rocco wrote on March 10th, 2011
  20. I think my wife and I spend a bit more, but that is partially because we live in a small apartment in the city. We have no room for a garden, or very much freezer space for meat. This prevents us from buying bulk meat, which definitely ups the price. It’s worth it, though.

    Mike wrote on March 10th, 2011
  21. I wont conduct a study but since I have switched to being full primal I feel like I spend less money on food. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you are in pure practice consuming less biomass.

    Kevin Cowart wrote on March 10th, 2011
  22. We spend about $300/month/person on a primal diet (2 adults and 3 children) with only 1-2 days/month eating out. Having said this, we still don’t eat enough food and would like to buy more to eat, but this is already about 2/3 of our income and we are pushing to pay the bills. We don’t spend any money on alcohol, or any other habits. On the plus side, since eating primal we are spending less money on medical expenses and I have not had a cold or flu since.

    Kitty wrote on March 10th, 2011
  23. my food costs have skyrocketed since going primal. primarily, cutting out pasta, rice and bread (even for the kids), and replacing that with meat,vegetables, fruit, nuts. the kids also eat yogurt. we only buy organic, and if possible, local. food is by far, next to the mortgage, our highest cost. hard to complain too much, when we all feel great. and i really love that my kids have bags of candy from halloween, christmas, valentine’s that is UNTOUCHED. they aren’t interested any more. but they will go through 3-4 pieces of fruit a day. that’s spendy.

    tracy wrote on March 10th, 2011
  24. That calculator told me I should be spending $260 a month on groceries. I easily spend $800 a month, and I don’t go out to eat ever.

    The only thing that ever lowered my grocery bill was alternate day fasting.

    Chad wrote on March 10th, 2011
  25. I know this isn’t ideal for most people…We are involved in a primal dinner group exchange. There are three families and we each take a night tues-thurs. making dinner for all three families. We drop it off at each others house or bring it to the gym (one families owns a crossfit gym). We all live really close to each other and the gym is really close. It has been great. We all get to try new recipes and get to have a couple nights off of making dinner. I am not sure of the financial benefit yet. It has only been about a month. Depending on the recipe I could spend anywhere from 30$-45$ making enough for the 3 families.

    Hillary wrote on March 10th, 2011
  26. When I weigh eating out frequently at fast food joints and spending money on cheap crap… vs eating home cooked meals and quality time spent with family, it seems quite obvious to me why most of the world chooses the latter.

    sweeps843 wrote on March 10th, 2011
  27. About 10% net income right now but trying to adjust towards 15%. Great local farm that also carries a local ranchers grass fed beef and we raise our own chickens (just for eggs….daughter won’t let me eat her girls). Grow some of our own veg and we get the left over berries the deer, rabbits, coons and wild pigs miss on thier trips through the yard. My wife and daughter aren’t to big on me eating those either but I’m working on it.

    That 10% covers the rest of the household suppiles too. Tooth paste etc and cleaning supplies (dirt cheap..white vinegar cleans and whacks germs too and does a great job on the weeds in the garden).

    Richard wrote on March 10th, 2011
  28. I’m a single mom and only work PT, so I’m definitely on a tight budget. I decided to prioritize what foods I want to buy “best quality” versus the areas where I am willing to sacrifice. I spent the bulk of my grocery budget on meats, eggs and dairy, and then I have to be frugal in other areas. We don’t really buy much fruit, and we buy a lot of frozen vegetables (probably about half frozen, half fresh). I also make EVERYTHING from scratch. Mayo, yogurt, you name it. I buy special items like coconut oil from Swagbucks when I have earned enough Amazon gift cards to get them for free (love the Nutiva brand). I use coupons for anything I can (eggs, frozen vegetables, household items, beauty items, etc).
    All that said, I spend $40/week (around $200/month) for the two of us (my son and me). In addition, we eat out about once a week, and usually spend around $15-20.

    Leah wrote on March 11th, 2011
  29. You don’t have an option for eating out 0 times a month! On average, that’s about what we do.

    I am VERY frugal, and it does take a lot of work to find healthy food we can afford. It’s worth it though.

    We’ll eat better, and save money, when I have my own garden. You really should do a post on gardening; it’s very Primal to get the sunshine, exercise, and food all together (even though, of course, Grok didn’t garden). Foraging is another cheap and Primal food source I’d like to get more into. It’s amazing how many “weeds” are actually delicious foods!

    Sheila wrote on March 11th, 2011
  30. I actually keep a very detailed budget. My family of four (30 year old male, 30 year old female, 2 year old male, 5 year old female) spent $1100 a month on food before going primal, and $1300 a month after. Not bad if you ask me.

    Paul wrote on March 11th, 2011
  31. I have not figured out what it costs us to eat primal, but when people tell me they can’t pay $4.00 for a pound of grass-fed ground beef, I explain to them that I can make a very healthy lunch for myself and my boys using that meat, a few avocados, and some steamed broccoli for cheaper than they can take their kids out for a happy meal.
    Also, if someone tells me they cannot pay $12 for one chicken, I explain to them that that chicken makes 2 family meals and two big containers of slow cooked stock, and if I were to buy boxes of stock at the store, the 3 boxes of stock would be the same price as that chicken.
    No matter how much you pay for local meat, you can always cook at home for cheaper than eating out. Plus, now that I have been eating only grassfed meat, I just can’t eat meat anywhere else. I think it is about eating smarter.

    momof2groks wrote on March 12th, 2011
  32. we need to create a forum where we can share all the cheapest sources for various primal foods…coconut oil on amazon etc… and other products…bulk nuts would be a good find.

    kevin wrote on March 12th, 2011
  33. We are a family of 4 and spend around 500$ per month on food. Since cutting out all grains and sugar I suspect our monthly grocery bill will be less. With not having to buy cereal, crackers, oatmeal, sugary snacks, lunch meat, chips, Pepsi, eating out at fast food restaurants, etc etc etc, our grocery bill will be much less. Even if we buy more veggies and grass-fed meat.

    I’m on the Canada’s east coast too, and we are building our own garden this spring so we can have fresh veggies and enough to store and freeze for the winter months.

    Genevieve wrote on April 3rd, 2011
  34. grass-fed and pasture-raised PACKAGES from your local rancher are a much better deal. We buy 1/8 beef and 1/2 pork package and it turns out to average $4.25/pound. We are able to store it in our regular sized freezer (we get one package about every 6 months so there is somewhat of a rotation, but we always have a little of each kind of meat). This is much more economical than buying individual cuts. Check with your local rancher to see what sort of packages they offer.

    katy wrote on April 8th, 2011
  35. Since I’ve been eating more Primal, I’ve been spending soo much more on groceries, and also going more often. Buying lots of fresh produce biweekly ain’t cheap (avocados, why??), and fish is goddamn expensive (especially since I only opt for environmentally friendly, sustainable fish sources).

    I don’t regret it though- it’s so much better than cereal and lunch meat sandwiches.

    Ali wrote on February 17th, 2012
    • Same here Ali. It’s been tough on a low income. I sure am glad that it has cured most of my health problems though. So I guess it is going to save me a lot of money in the long run.

      Kitty wrote on February 17th, 2012
  36. I live in Europe and I tend to be less worried about organic produce, mainly because I get a lot of vegetables from a neighbour who has a farm, and maybe most of my meat isn’t grass fed, but I bet it’s got a lot less hormones and other junk than american intensively grown cattle will have.

    I buy free range eggs mostly out of worry for the chickens and sheep or goat butter (either is delicious!).

    Yes, organic vegetables are more expensive, but I used to spend more on crap like cookies, cereal, pizza, 12 kinds of cheese and cold cuts and other processed stuff.

    I am my household, and spend about 40€/week (52$, I think) at the supermarket/healthfood store – that’s about 11% of my available income…
    I used to average at 75€, before going primal on January 2nd.

    Luce wrote on January 21st, 2014

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