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Mark Bittman: Cooking Real Food Is Cheaper Than Buying Junk Food

Is Cooking Real Food Cheaper Than Eating Junk Food?

It's a widely accepted notion that healthy, fresh food costs more than prepackaged, processed junk food, and not without reason. After all, vine-ripened tomatoes at the supermarket will set you back a few bucks more than frozen taquitos.

But in the Times "Bitten" column today, Mark Bittman attempts to dispel this notion altogether. "You can cook less expensively than you can buy fast food, junk food, processed, packaged, and prepared food — and you can get enough sound calories to live better," he argues.

While dissenters maintain that food stamp recipients may not have the resources for future meals, the time to cook at home, and transportation to get to adequate grocery stores, Bittman believes that a mere $10 for basic cooking equipment, some dried rice and beans, and a bit of time spent while cleaning the house is all you need.

Although Bittman makes several valid points about the cost effectiveness of cooking at home, some of his arguments (like the part about cooking equipment costing $10) seem less feasible. Still, I appreciate his noble cause — and agree that we need to focus our attention on issues such as remedying urban food deserts. What's your take on healthy home cooking on a budget?


Join The Conversation
Spectra Spectra 8 years
It's absolutely cheaper to eat at home and buy good, nutritious food than it is to buy junk. Junk food's not all that cheap...chips are like $3 a bag and soda is like, $4.50 for a 12 pack. I only spend around $60 a week on our groceries and we don't eat a lot of junky stuff. I buy store-brand/private label foods and I do a lot of my shopping at Aldi. Sure, I don't buy organic most of the time, but I think conventional produce is a lot healthier for you than "organic" canned soups and frozen dinners.
syako syako 8 years
I said $30 a week on food for dinners since that was the topic at hand. It's just me and my husband. So I buy about 3 dinners (3 meats usually and cheap ones like ground turkey which is only $1.75/pound) and the other ingredients which are usually veggies/rice/pasta/beans/etc. And that all comes to $30. And we eat one meal for two nights (leftovers). It really cuts down when you're not buying dinners for 7 nights, but more like 3 or 4 nights and having leftovers the other nights. We usually spend around $15-20 on other things like lunches, breakfast, snacks, drinks. So our weekly bill is about $50.
dootsie dootsie 8 years
Welfare recipients typically do all of their shopping (for their whole family) one or two days a month. Vegetables and fruits don't last well. Crap that you shove into a freezer does. The idea is supposed to be that if you cook from scratch all the time, the initial cost eventually outweighs the cost per meal of convenience food. Scratch ingredients are meant to be spread out over several meals, ie, use half a tomato, some flour and an egg out of the carton for breakfast, then the other half of the tomato, more flour and an egg for dinner. However, with a family of four, seven, twelve... that's not really feasible. You have to use two tomatoes, half a bag of flour and half the eggs for one meal. Thus, a prepackaged dinner might be more cost-effective. Trust me, his claim about $10 cooking equipment is completely valid. Dollar stores and Salvation Armies carry all sorts of decent cooking equipment.
AbbyHintz AbbyHintz 8 years
I'm skeptical, particularly of $30/week. Does that include lunches? Coffee? Alcohol? I admire those of you who can do it. I'm not lazy, I'm not fat, and I know how to cook. I'm often just tired at the end of the day and have about 3 h of spare time each day. I can put a price on getting nutrients/healthy food; it's time to read a book, take a walk or make out with my husband. Sometimes I enjoy cooking, but more often, I'd rather just quickly eat soup, hummus or simple tacos, or enjoy a lingered meal out at a reasonably priced local restaurant. On and off, I have been a vegetarian. That is when I lived the most frugally, but also felt a little like I was suffering and a little angry at people who weren't suffering along with me. And BTW -- you can get 3 menu items from Taco Bell for $3/day (though not recommended).
Phil Phil 8 years
It's do-able, without a doubt. My monthly grocery expenses never go over $200, though I don't eat lavishly What needs to be overcome is the culture of instant gratification (which is arguably what put our nation into a credit crisis, why there is a diabetes and obesity epidemic, among other unsavory problems). This impatience carries over to the way we eat. If people have a choice between McDonalds or Pasta Pomodoro--which would require driving thru or being seated--and/or buying potato chips or ice cream--which requires looking to your left or right in an isle and unwrapping--or cooking at home--which would require acquiring dishes in mind, shopping for the ingredients, and then actually cooking--people are liable to choose the option that requires less calories. It's human, animal nature to conserve calories for future use. We're programmed for it. It doesn't mean it's the healthiest option for our bodies or for the nature (mostly, or at least in part) providing the raw ingredients used for the big mac or cheetoes. This is the real problem that needs to be addressed, and is being addressed, though at a frustratingly glacial pace. Cheers to the Minimalist. Though, surely he's preaching to the choir as most reading the Bitten blog are already well aware that it's cheaper, healthier to eat real food. Like anything it just takes commitment and optimism.
fuzzles fuzzles 8 years
Chief, As always, you continue to rock! :kool:
mek123 mek123 8 years
kudos to everyone who can keep their grocery bills reasonable. Thanks for the ideas, I should be able to spend less than I do. And I like ChiefDishWashs' grocery list!!
kurniakasih kurniakasih 8 years
I love this thread, many good suggestion and advice, keep them coming, ladies (and gents) :D I want to budget myself better when it comes to grocery shopping and I'm taking notes. And I dunno, when I tried to cook 'real' food, I ended up saving more money than when I just bought prepackaged one...b/c ingredients (leftovers) can be used for another meal, while the packaged one usually...well..that's it, that one meal.
Sun_Sun Sun_Sun 8 years
i am at awe at the ladies who spend 20-30 dollars a week on groceries :O kudos!
chiefdishwasher chiefdishwasher 8 years
21 hot dogs @ $2 a pound is @ $6 21 pieces of bacon @ $3 a pound is @ $6 21 buns in bulk will be @ $5 To make it healthy I'll throw in $3 for some toms and onions For about $2 I'll have enough mustard to last me a month For about $5 I'll have plenty of pickles Thats @ $27 I'll have $13 to buy a case of bargain beer Whooo Hooo!
kia kia 8 years
mamasitamalita, I sure hope I didn't give the impression that I don't think variety is healthy. The costs do go up once you go beyond your bulk beans and rice. That is just a fact. 2+1 one no longer equals 2. I do agree about creativity because meals can still be delicious and economical if you work with your resources.
Modus-Vivendi Modus-Vivendi 8 years
Wow, thanks! Now I am excited to do my shopping next week and see if I can get that low myself.
RoaringSilence RoaringSilence 8 years
I think getting nutrients and healthy food is something on which you can not put a price.
Modus-Vivendi Modus-Vivendi 8 years
Anonymous, what's your weekly shopping list like? I believe you ladies, I just need ideas for myself!
margokhal margokhal 8 years
Fiscally speaking, it's cheaper by units to eat at home. You spend less per person per day on food, though the initial cost of buying a week's worth of food might actually be more expensive than buying a fast food meal. Healthwise, obviously it's healthier to cook at home. You can control what's going in your food, use more vegetables and spices (they're amazing for flavor without calories!), and make really whatever you want, without all the processed byproducts. And you can even cook "unhealthy" foods like mac n' cheese and pizza - but with healthier substitutions and alternatives! It always tastes better than the storebought/fast food kind.
Modus-Vivendi Modus-Vivendi 8 years
Syako, I have a small $10 crock pot! It's small and just has a knob you can turn to low, high, or warm. But then again I also have a big fancy $70 one with a meat thermometer attachment and lots of different settings. I'm also curious as to how you do meals on $30 a week! I cook at home almost every night but my weekly grocery bill is usually $60-$80 depending on what's on the menu. Archerkate, that is a good point about cookware. You can't get top of the line stuff for cheap, but my cheap pan fries eggs about as well as my fancy one.
tlsgirl tlsgirl 8 years
For myself and my BF, we spend maybe $50 a week on groceries, and we cook pretty much every night (eating out maybe once a month). We're really healthy about it too. And there are cheap ways to find cookware - discount stores like TJ Maxx, the Dollar Store, Salvation Army (just found a $30 Kitchenaid stand mixer there last week). I think it's totally doable and I hope this helps to dispel some of the excuses people use to get out of eating healthy.
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