Affording Real Food

Real Food Economics 101: Is Real Food Really More Expensive?

This is a pretty big subject so I plan to make this a series covering the cost of real food and applying the 80/20 rule to managing your time and money in the kitchen in depth.

Would switching to a real foods diet break your budget? On first glance, it seems the answer is yes. At least, that’s what you’ll hear from most quarters. Clean, wholesome food costs money, real money, and most people simply cannot afford it. Only those with big incomes can afford it, most of us can’t. If we look at individual food items like raw milk for instance or butter, I can see how people get this impression. Or if they are trying to replace processed food items for better processed food items of a similar kind. There can be some big price gaps here. But if you look at the overall picture of what it takes to make up a diet the gap generally completely disappears. This is particularly true of families that are eating out a lot or buying a lot of processed grocery items.

I propose that real food is affordable …

Real food is affordable by most everyone reading this post. Notice I don’t think it is affordable for everyone. There are some obvious exceptions like the homeless and people living without any cooking facilities, but I suspect they won’t be reading this. And I’m not saying it’s super easy. Making real food affordable and doable time wise can be challenging, particularly when you’re new to it. But I know you’re up to the challenge, ’cause you really care about what you and your family eats. Caring is all it really takes! How do I know you care? Because you are already doing the research necessary to take those first steps, or you simply would not be here reading this post! This post is for you, and I think that together we can work out how to make real food affordable for you and your family in your specific situation.

Good Fast or Cheap

Looking at this problem, just kinda walking around it and pondering, it looks like the classic project management triangle problem to me. In case you aren’t familiar with it, it goes something like this: You’re trying to accomplish a goal. A certain amount of time + certain amount of money = some level of quality. If you want a high standard of quality you’ll need lots of time or lots of money or both. If you don’t have that then quality will suffer. So you adjust according to how much time and money you have. You could emphasize just one, but mostly people pick two.

So people wanting free time and money eat cheap fast food and believe they have cheap and fast. Or they eat at expensive restaurants and believe they have good and fast. Or they buy processed food groceries and believe they have cheap and fast. Real food cooks buy real food and cook at home and have good and cheap! Are you surprised by that? Well, we’re only compromising on one point. Admittedly, this takes time and it is the point of the pyramid we’re compromising on. But with a little thoughtful planning we can whittle this down and our pyramid will be more balanced … things will take less and less time.

The 80/20 rule in practice

Shooting for 100% is where most efforts fall apart, in my opinion. If you try to attain a 100% real food diet in our food universe you will need very large amounts of time and money indeed! It isn’t a realistic goal for most, if not all of us. Don’t get me wrong, I think some people can come close. Personally, I always hold 95/5 as a goal. But if you are just starting out 30/70 or 50/50 is much more realistic. And the other part of the 80/20 rule applies here too; the first 80% of the goal requires only 20% of the effort! So getting to 80% real food is relatively easy … that should be very encouraging! So start out slowly, one thing at a time, one habit at a time. Before you know it you’ll be there :-).

It seems to me that a lot of the angst over affording real food revolves around this one thing: Awareness that something better exists somewhere in the marketplace. Something that we know we cannot afford. This is the awareness of high standards, and is in my opinion a good thing to maintain. Yet, just knowing it exists places us under pressure to switch immediately, yesterday would be even better ;-). We feel guilty choosing something lesser. So we tend to kinda shut down, feel a little depressed and like “What’s the use?”. And then we don’t make the choices that are an improvement, sometimes a big improvement that are within our reach. I plan to talk some more in later posts in the series about how to maintain an awareness of really high quality items that are either beyond your budget, hard to locate or time consuming to aquire ,without stressing out :-).

I know you probably have a tough customer or two that needs to be convinced …

There is most likely someone in your life that is skeptical that all this can be done affordably. If you share a bank account with them you’ll need them to on board with the changes. In this series we’ll cover a few specifics that I hope will give you the information you need to be persuasive on the issue of budgeting. This is a tough and emotional issue for all of us and we all need all the support we can get!

Over the next few weeks …

We’ll review in detail:

In the meantime check out A Good Enough Cook from the archives!

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32 thoughts on “Real Food Economics 101: Is Real Food Really More Expensive?

  1. This is so true. I cook at a preschool and basically have to cook certain things, it isn’t any cheaper to buy hamburger helper and canned soup than it is to buy pasta and make your own soups, it just takes a little bit more time.


  2. The only issue I have with the “real food is not more expensive argument” is when comparing to a family that already mostly cooks from scratch but is following the USDA food guidelines. In my opinion, real food means grass-fed/pastured meats, grass-fed and/or raw dairy, plenty of traditional fats, etc. If you are already cooking all of your own food, but using lower-quality ingredients like conventional meats, industrial fats, etc., then I think switching to my definition of “real food” would definitely be more expensive. This is not to say, of course, that real food can’t be affordable for most people through other money-saving strategies, but this always springs to mind for me so I thought I’d mention it. Ultimately I think it often comes down to priorities – my husband and I live on a small income for our region but are able to afford real food because we skip spending money in other areas (like eating out, entertainment, etc.).

    I’m looking forward to the rest of your series!


    1. Hi Meghan 🙂 I agree it’s possible to go cheaper if they let go of both getting it fast and quality. Then you could get by cheaply indeed! Most people in our culture want to hang on to cheap and fast. I think most of us are performing a juggling act out of necessity. We have limited budgets and limited time and are trying to attain a high level of quality to boot. So I think many are struggling especially with the economy as it is. I’d like to open a dialog about how to make necessary compromises without losing site of high standards. How to comprise consciously.

      I had planned to make your point in my next post but you beat me to it ;-).


  3. I agree with Meghan, using real food and cooking from scratch is less expensive but not if you go local and organic. I don’t begrudge the farmers their income but it is just not feasible on my limited budget to go organic.


    1. All my stuff isn’t organic either. I don’t think real food cooking is less expensive but pretty similar in price to what the average family already spends. This may require more attention to bulk buys to achieve though. You may spend less than average. I know I was when cooking from scratch but buying from the grocery. I’d learned how to get the food bill pretty low from the tightwad gazette back in the 90’s. I found in switching to better quality choices the bill is now roughly equal to what most families spend on food including meals out.


  4. It’s true. I think people look at the cost of pastured meat and think that they can’t afford it. Yet, we don’t need all the processed junk if we are cooking from scratch. It’s amazing what I don’t buy anymore that I thought I needed. It’s a lot of effort to make your own mayo, but I like that I am spending less for it with quality ingredients!

    This is a must read for all peeps who are struggling with the cost/convenience issue. You did a great job of outlining it all!


    1. Thanks for the kind words Jen :-). I’m planning to go into the subject in some detail starting this weekend if things don’t get too crazy around here!


  5. This is a topic near and dear to my heart. It is just so frustrating to hear that people are afraid of the expense of real food. There are still better choices to made no matter what your income bracket. Can’t wait to see what you bring!


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  10. Over the past few years I’ve started eating less processed and more “whole” food. I try to buy whatever vegetables are cheapest (which usually means a lot of carrots), but even when I splurge on something like red peppers I figure my serving only costs about fifty cents, much less than a bag of chips or a candy bar would. TALU


  11. This is a great series Kathy. Often I have gone for stuff in a box that you add to, because it isn’t going to take me long (like ordering pizza). With proper planning it is possible to have a healthy budget. I promise I don’t do that often – they are my meals in a pinch. TALU


  12. So true! We’ve been a mission for the past year to show people that real, wholesome food can be enjoyed on a budget! It really can! We are living proof! There are (almost) 10 of us in our family and my husband works as a handyman and carpenter. Hardly a profession that’s raking money in hand-over-fist! LOL! But, we eat well–real food, organic (mostly) and from scratch.

    LOVELY POST! We’ll Pin it for our readers!


  13. fabulous post kathy! i truly believe eating locally and in season is an affordable option for most people. it comes down to priorities and while it may not be as cheap as buying bag after bag of ramen noodles, it IS cheaper than eating from the grocery store. it takes a bit of practice, a bit of planning and a bit of commitment, but once you figure it out, it’s not that difficult. Nor is it expensive. those of us with internet connections, lap tops, cell phones, cable tv and who go out to dinner every week, go to the movies and buy alcohol can afford an extra 20 bucks a week on groceries. that’s like, one glass of wine at a restaurant.

    Just an FYI m’dear – this post will be featured on the monthly Wednesday Fresh Foods Link Up Round Up this week! If you have a chance, feel free to stop by and check out the other featurettes 🙂 Hope to see you again soon with more seasonal & real food posts! xo, kristy


  14. I really loved your blog post. I pinned it to one of our Story City Locker Pinterest boards, the ‘you have time to cook’ board. You put to words, better than I’ve been able to, a topic I’ve wanted to have accessible in our social media. Thanks!


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