There’s a smack of cold reality upon starting to actively try to ‘adult’ when taking the first steps away from a parent’s home for college or work. Inevitably, the strain of getting three substantial meals a day, multiple days in a row, all of which should nourish all your bodily needs, throws another spanner into the works of our hard earned independence. We’re constantly told healthy body equates to healthy mind, only beginning at the 2L of daily water we’re recommended to sip away at daily, and progressing to calorie counting, portion size, salt intake and supplements. So when you add in the additional stress of money, it all inevitably becomes a question of the associated cost of being healthy. Despite what the face of it appears to be, it’s massively feasible to eat healthily and at reduced cost, with the trade-off of a time investment.
Two words have helped the supermarket heavyweights of your local shop, as have everyone who has subscribed to the fit foodie life – bulk, and buying. Stalwarts of the nation’s shop like Tesco and Supervalu purchase large stock shipments at any one time to minimize costs like shipping and packaging, while Aldi and Lidl’s value-brands compound the cheap factor. The same holds true for anyone stocking up on weekly to monthly blocks of food purchases – as long as you intend to use up what you buy, it’s cheaper overall than odd purchases of shopping. Healthy whole foods run by the same principle; whole-wheat pasta, tinned tuna and quinoa can all be purchased in bulk and incorporated in a large number of meals at a highly reduced cost than unhealthier long-term stored foods like blocked cheese or processed red meats. Even completely avoiding the ‘super-food’ aisles, simple purchases like low-fat milk and long-storing sweet potato all come in at lower costs pound-per-pound than their less robust counterparts.
Food preparation (or ‘food prep’, in case any dots have to be connected) has taken a backseat in terms of new-age eating regimes, but it’s tried and tested and has more benefits than just simply saving time. Akin to the nature of buying in bulk, anyone willing to spend 1-2 hours on a Sunday evening cooking up a set of lunches for the week ahead automatically cuts out the need for impulsive purchases of ready meals outside the house. Besides this, factors such as portion size and wastage are also cut down on, if you want to be environmentally conscious as well as cheaper. Admittedly it does mean you need to invest in a set of handy tupperware (ask mam), but the fact that packaging and containers are not factored in, which are guilty of driving up ready-to-go meal options pricing.
Again, long-standing investments in differing flavours from herbs to spices can help with making some monotonous chicken really change if taste is a factor.
What about the advent of eating meals out? Admittedly a large factor in dining out is to indulge in a rich once-off meal, but do the healthier options similarly prove to be less costly here? Look at menus and you’ll note that white meats come at a substantially reduced cost than notorious beef or lamb counterparts, while vegetarian options consistently ring in as the cheapest option on many menus. Vegetarian, vegan and international restaurants also provide massively economic options that stray away from heavy fat and salt usage for taste, instead using those more natural flavours. While, being Irish, most families and parties do tend to plump for more calorific and ‘hearty’ options than a whole food option, the emphasis is on the option being there and crucially being pretty tantalizing.
If you could summate the argument for eating healthier, the notion of cost may not spring out, but it is unquestionably a factor with the appropriate steps taken and smart shopping endeavours implemented. The quicker option seems destined to become the de facto choice in a society more and more focused on work and longer days, but then again, 1-2 hours planning on a Sunday can go a long way.
It’s the curse of McDonalds to serve as the automatic go-to when talking about unhealthy eating, and I’m not about to break the mould by taking my custom elsewhere. Whether or not the infamous fast food restaurant deserves its rank as the ‘baddest of the bad’ is irrelevant here: it’s a fast food chain with a ubiquitous legacy for serving less-than-healthy food, and that’s good enough for me. Equally important is that I’m using soups/sandwiches/salads as shorthand for ‘healthy foods’ from here on in — but that’s not to say that every sandwich is better than every McSomething, because some people put Taytos between two slices of bread and cover it in sugar. You get the picture.
So, in the left corner let’s put a typical meal from the golden arches: a plain cheeseburger with twisty fries and a cup of something fizzy. In the right, a sandwich with a small bowl of vegetable soup and some salad on the side. The natural next question now is: which one is cheaper? From the point of view of McDonalds, this is relatively easy to estimate: assume an approximate cost of €2 per item and the above meal weighs in around €6, give or take one-fifty. The soup-salad-sandwich combo is less easy to price, seeing as there’s no single chain with a monopoly on veg soup; but a ‘to-stay’ sandwich usually costs upwards of €4, with a side salad likely to be an extra 50c-€1, depending on whether it’s a mouthful or a full side. A bowl of soup will typically set you back €2+. At the till, that clocks in at around €7.
Now, there are issues with the above, I accept that, but you can nonetheless appreciate the intuitive appeal of such an account: a trip to McDonalds will generally wind up being cheaper than a romp to your local café or non-fast-food restaurant. So, does healthy eating cost you (financially) less? As far as the above says: no. If the means to this conclusion still taste a little off, though, then you’ll be pleased to know there’s also an à la carte option, one whose central premise is strengthened by the above account’s obvious uncertainty.
Money, after all, isn’t the only thing we spend, as someone who will trek through a thousand restaurants to find the perfect sandwich combo knows all too well. Eating is a time-consuming process, and whether you’re cooking it from scratch, picking it up from the grocery or ordering it through an app, a lot of work goes into making that food appear on your plate, and that doesn’t even consider the time it takes to eat it. What is interesting, however, is that the length of time you spend on the above processes can be cut drastically shorter when you opt for less-than-healthy food choices: they don’t call it ‘fast’ food for nothing. Not only is cooking time far shorter, but decision-making becomes child’s play: walk into any McDonalds on this planet and you can be assured there’s a box of chicken nuggets waiting with your name on it. And the uniformity of price means you know how much change to wrangle from your pocket at the till. As illustrated by my humming and hawing in the previous paragraph, however, buying custom-made, typically healthier food is far less straightforward:
wander in to a local restaurant and you could hate the soup of the day, and pay double the price of a regular bowl to find that out.
All this is to say that eating healthily can be kind of a pain, and that choosing chicken nuggets over chicken soup is often a compelling — and resource-saving — avenue. What this doesn’t imply, however, is that healthy eating is therefore something to be avoided, or that there aren’t a host of other things that stand to be gained by dodging the twisty fries. Because while soups, salads and sandwiches can up the drain on your wallet and brain, maybe that extra cost is one we should be more willing to pay?