Against the backdrop of a national obesity crisis, recent headlines have been full of claims that it’s cheaper to eat a diet of junk food than healthy meals. But is the research being misquoted?
Sparking the headlines, what the Cambridge University research actually looked at was the costs of different foods per 1,000 calories over a 10-year period. It found that the average cost of 1,000 healthy calories has risen faster than that of 1,000 unhealthy calories and cost almost three times more per calorie than in 2012.
The healthy foods (based on the Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling model) included canned tuna and tomatoes as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. The unhealthy foods were pizza, ice cream and the like.
Now, let’s just visualise those 1,000 calories…
1,000 healthy calories would be approximately…
14 cans of chopped tomatoes or
6 cans of tuna in spring water
1,000 unhealthy calories would be approximately…
1 cheese and tomato pizza or
1.2 litres of ice cream
You can see straight away that the 1,000 healthy calorie examples go a long way – these are large volumes of food. The unhealthy calories, by contrast, provide a much smaller quantity of food. Unhealthy calories might be cheaper – but they won’t satisfy you for long. And a lack of calories is generally not the problem we face in this county.
The 1,000 healthy calories also give a wider range of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. So in both quality and quantity they represent better value for money, despite their higher cost per 1,000 calories.
Prof Pablo Monsivais from the research team was the first to admit the study wasn’t about whether home cooked, healthy food can be cheaper than ready-meals. Speaking on Radio 4’s You and Yours he pointed out the importance of knowing which foods provide the most nutrients for the lowest cost.
People don’t shop by the calorie – they shop for the food that will satisfy them.
The problem comes when people don’t know how to cook from scratch using healthy ingredients. We worked with families living on tight budgets earlier this year and many told us they opted for cheap ready meals and processed foods precisely because they didn’t feel they had the skills or confidence to cook from scratch. The foods they were relying on were often high in saturated fat, sugar and salt while being low in essential minerals, vitamins and fibre.
Similarly, when we asked professionals who work with children what would make the biggest difference to the families struggling on a limited food budget, cooking education for children and parents was one of the most frequent responses.
People need practical solutions. That’s why we’ve trained staff from more than 40 organisations to run practical Cook and eat on a budget courses. The courses, now being run through food banks, housing associations and substance misuse charities to name a few, equip families with knowledge and skills to plan and shop for meals and cook from scratch with basic ingredients. All with nutritionally balanced recipes that are good for their health as well as their wallet.
These families are now
- planning meals ahead
- freezing foods (e.g. cheese, milk, bread) to make the most of bulk buys
- measuring food out before cooking to reduce food waste
- buying less processed food and batch cooking and freezing instead
- making the best use of leftovers.
These strategies are helping people to make best use of nutrient rich foods to put together balanced meals that are both affordable and value for money.
Here are some of their favourite tried and tested recipes that they said really work:
- Mini Pancakes – quick, easy and cheap to make – a great way to use up any leftovers in the fridge and can even be made using long life or powdered milk
- Fruity Yoghurt Cups – can be made with fresh, frozen or canned fruits
- Tasty Tomato Pasta– a basic sauce that can be easily adapted to use whatever’s available – try adding canned beans or pulses, frozen vegetables or leftover cooked chicken.
We know that when children eat better, they do better. So as families find their food budgets tightening, it’s more important than ever that they are equipped with the cooking skills and knowledge they need to make healthy meals from scratch.
Jayne Hoyle is the Children’s Food Trust Evaluations Officer and a Registered Dietitian. For tips on cooking healthily on a budget visit Let’s Get Cooking at Home website.