Chow line: $4.50 a day for healthy foods?

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I want to get a head start on my New Year’s resolution to make healthier food choices, but I really don’t have a lot of money to spend on food besides what I already spend. How can I make better food choices without breaking my meager budget?

It’s good that you want to make healthier food choices and aren’t waiting until a specific date on the calendar to make that change. And, contrary to popular belief, healthy food doesn’t have to be expensive.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, healthy foods are not necessarily more expensive than less healthy ones. In many cases, it depends on how you measure the costs of the foods that you are comparing. For example, the USDA said in a written statement, “fruits and vegetables appear more expensive than less healthy foods when the price is measured by calories rather than by weight or by amount in an average serving. The price measure has a large effect on which foods are determined more expensive.”

Furthermore, the USDA found that when you compare the costs of foods by weight or portion size, grains, veggies, fruits, and dairy foods are less costly than most meats or foods high in added sugar, salt, or artery-clogging saturated fat. Also according to the USDA, carrots, bananas, lettuce, and pinto beans were all cheaper per portion than soda, ice cream, ground beef, or French fries.

The USDA’s Food Plans: Cost of Food Report estimates the weekly costs of a nutritious diet at four different levels: thrifty, low-cost, moderate-cost, and liberal. According to the February 2019 report, for a family of four (male and female ages 19–50 and two children ages 2–5), the cost of a nutritious diet on the thrifty level is $130.70 per week, averaging $1.55 per person per meal; the low-cost plan is $167.10 per week; the moderate-cost plan is $206.10 per week; and the liberal plan is $254.80 per week. 

The foods chosen for each plan were based on the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, according to Carol Smathers, field specialist in youth nutrition and wellness for Ohio State University Extension. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

“It is possible to eat a diet that meets the USDA dietary guidelines at an average cost of $1.50 per meal in central Ohio,” she said. “And there are cost savings and health benefits associated with consuming fewer unhealthy items and eating in smaller portions.”

Smathers offers these tips to track your lower food costs while increasing your healthy food choices:

  • Set a grocery shopping budget. Calculate the number of meals that will be eaten at home, then multiply that number by $1.50, for example, per person. The total is the amount that you would spend on your grocery purchase.
  • Create a grocery list including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins to meet MyPlate recommendations. Remember, if you fill half your cart with fruits and vegetables, you are more likely to fill half your plate with produce.
  • Limit your purchases of processed foods.
  • Track your meals. Don’t shop again until the target number of meals that you’ve budgeted, is eaten. 

While it might be a challenge to stick to your plan, research has shown that the average time it takes someone to stick to a new habit is 66 days, Smathers said. 

“So, if you want to develop a new behavior, it will take at least two months, and for many people that’s simply not enough,” she said. “Stick with it for longer, and you’ll end up with a habit you can keep, without thinking.”

Chow Line is a service of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carol Smathers, field specialist in youth nutrition and wellness for Ohio State University Extension.

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Carol Smathers
Family and Consumer Sciences
OSU Extension