The difference in price between healthy food and fattening fast food has been a topic of discussion in our country for decades. We’ve known for a long time that it’s cheaper to get a double cheeseburger than a salad at McDonald’s. It’s less expensive to buy $10 worth of pizza than it is to cook a full meal for a family of four, right?
The result is a situation in which the lowest-income individuals in our society are the most likely to eat unhealthily. But it’s not because they don’t want to eat well, it’s because they don’t know how to. Cooking at home and making cheap, healthy meals don’t have to be difficult tasks once you have the know-how.
Knowledge Is Power
A September 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review states that only 10 percent of Americans love to cook. Another article, published on the home-improvement website Porch, indicates that slightly more than 35 percent of millennials considered themselves bad at cooking. Not knowing how to cook and not understanding how to effectively grocery shop are some of the leading reasons people in the United States don’t prepare meals at home.
Further Reading: Check out these tips for how to budget grocery shopping.
There are solutions to these problems, however. A quick Google search will reveal that there are many free cooking classes where you can learn how to whip up simple, delicious dishes. And Food Network, eat your heart out; YouTube has become one of the easiest tools for beginners to use to learn how to cook. One of my favorite YouTube series on how to cook for a family on a budget is on a channel called Brothers Green Eats.
If you didn’t grow up going to the grocery store with your parents, you may not know how to shop for food. Again, the internet is your best friend.
Using resources like YouTube to learn how to grocery shop effectively is key.
Why Cooking at Home Is the Way to Go
Cooking at home is the perfect way to control what’s in your food. When you eat at fast-food or quick-service restaurants, you don’t always have the ability to customize dishes to your liking. Often, food has been sitting in a warming tray for hours before it actually reaches your plate, and it's been processed to be able to withstand those conditions. Fast food is packed with fillers, preservatives, and chemicals. All of these can be avoided by preparing cheap, healthy meals at home.
Further Reading: “3 Cost-Effective Cooking Tips for One- or Two-Person Meals”
People also don’t cook at home because they think it’s cheaper to grab some pizza or McDonald’s than it is to shop for food and cook. But an August 2017 article in Cooking Light Magazine highlights how it’s actually less expensive to prepare meals at home as the cost of dining out rises and grocery prices remain at steady, historically low prices. So I decided to conduct my own experiment. I went to my local grocery store, threw together a meal's worth of groceries, and compared the cost with that of eating out.
How to Make Cheap, Healthy Meals: My Experiment
One of my favorite dishes to make during a busy week is a chicken-and-vegetable stir-fry with a side of rice. Since this article is all about eating healthfully on a budget, I decided that this was the perfect dish. It requires just a few items; it's super simple to make; and it's low in calories and fat. I set out on my quest to price out the food for my meal.
Let's Go Shopping
At my grocery store, the store-brand boneless and skinless chicken breasts are only $1.99 per pound when bought in a package of five or six. The total cost for a value package like this ranges from $8 to $10. Plus, it will last for several meals, unless you’re feeding a crowd. I generally split a breast in half, and that’s plenty of chicken for one meal.
Further Reading: “4 Quick Steps to Slash Your Grocery Bills in Half”
A 12-ounce bag of frozen store-brand Asian stir-fry vegetables costs $1.50. The particular bag I found contains broccoli, sugar snap peas, green beans, carrots, onions, celery, mushrooms, and red peppers — everything you need for a great stir-fry, minus the chicken. This is another bargain, because one person could get two or three meals out of this bag. Frozen vegetables are generally much healthier for you than the canned variety because of the sodium that’s added in the canning process.
A one-pound bag of store-brand brown rice is a mere 89 cents. That's ridiculously cheap when you consider that rice triples in size when it’s prepared. Two cups of dry rice equals six cups cooked. If you’re the only one eating, half a cup of dry rice should be more than enough. If you happen to prepare too much rice, it keeps well in the refrigerator and reheats nicely as leftovers.
These three items — chicken, vegetables, and rice — are the base ingredients of my stir-fry. I’m omitting all but one seasoning, soy sauce, from this article, because people generally have those staples in their pantries. You’ll really need soy sauce, though, to make this dish pop. In my store you can get a 10-ounce bottle of Kikkoman brand for $2.69.
All of the ingredients added up to a bit more than $15 for me. Prices will vary depending on where you live, give or take a couple of dollars.
Nonetheless, $15 for a simple chicken stir-fry that could cost you upward of $20 at many restaurants is a steal.
And that’s not even taking into account that you’ll end up with enough chicken for 10 to 12 servings, enough vegetables for two to three servings, and enough rice for at least four servings.
Further Reading: Learn how fast food compares to homemade food.
Bring on the Food: Cooking at Home
Once you get all of your items home, it’s easy to throw them together into a healthy, filling meal. I’ve personally been cooking for nearly 15 years. But if you’re new to cooking at home, YouTube and other guides will be your best friend.
Whipping up a killer stir-fry at home is a breeze. It’s as simple as cutting your chicken breast into bite-size pieces and putting it into an oiled skillet with your vegetables. Season to your liking with what you have in your pantry, making sure that when you pull it off, all of the chicken is thoroughly cooked. Meanwhile, prepare the rice according to package directions. When you’re done, you’ll have a dish you can be proud of.
Wrapping Things Up: The Bottom Line on Cheap, Healthy Meals
Cooking at home can be a daunting task for many people. However, educating yourself with the tools at your disposal is invaluable. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also save your health. Eating out can subject your body to insanely high amounts of sodium, fat, and preservatives that you would otherwise not encounter. Throwing together a quick meal of your own can be satisfying to both your taste buds and your conscience.
Eating out occasionally can be a great treat, but try keeping it to dishes that you know you could never prepare at home because they require special skills or equipment. Your wallet will certainly thank you.
Further Reading: “Smart Tips for Eating Out on the Cheap”