Real Food: I can’t afford to eat real food.

The biggest obstacle to eating real food is not budget. It's habits and preferences. We keep hearing "you can't afford to eat healthy." But it's a lie. This mom shares how she feeds her family health, real foods, and on a budget.

One of the most common reasons I’ve heard about why people can’t eat real food is that they can’t afford it. I hear all the time that “eating healthy is more expensive.” And I just wanted to take some time to address that today.

I loved the documentary Food, Inc, but one part that bothered me was the family who ate out and ate junk food all the time because they thought they couldn’t afford to eat better foods. It bothers me even more that in order to make political points, we keep beating people down and telling them they are right and they can’t afford it, and that just usually isn’t the case. 

Real food isn’t always more expensive

This is a bold statement, contrary to what everyone else is saying, but the absolute truth is that real food is not always more expensive.

Remember, you’ll be cutting out all the processed junk foods, and most eating out at restaurants, which frees up money in your budget.

I once went to the grocery store with a friend. She bought a case of Pepsi, a case of Dr. Pepper, a couple bags of chips, Little Debbie’s, fruit-flavored gummis, and some candy. I’m not judging her, or you, or anyone else. My point is that she spent more than $25 and didn’t buy a single bit of nourishment. In the Food, Inc. documentary, Joel Salatin mentions this as well, he says people will come to his stand drinking a $.75 soda and complain that a dozen organic free-range eggs are $3.

We are so set in our habits that we don’t even realize what we are doing.  But, when we cut out those things, we can free up extra money in our food budget to spend on real food instead. 

Another thing to remember is that the big food companies are making lots of money. The profit level on processed foods is much higher than that on real, whole foods. Convenience foods are notoriously high cost.

The family from documentary spent $9-10 for their family of 4 to eat from the dollar menu at a restaurant, each getting 1-2 food items plus a soda. They then went to the supermarket to “prove” that they couldn’t feed everyone on that budget with real food. But that just isn’t the case. Here is one quick, on-the-go alternative menu:

  • 1 box of triscuits, $3
  • 1 bag baby carrots, $1.50
  • 1 pkg. string cheese, $3.50
  • 1 banana each, $1.50
  • water to drink, free

Total: $9.50.

This is just one example of many. They could have bought cans of tuna, a jar of peanut butter–there are so many options! They could have spent the same money, had healthier foods, and had food leftover. They may not like those foods, and I understand that, but then it becomes a separate issue–personal preference and not inability to afford it.

It doesn’t have to be more expensive. We just have to think outside our habits.

Lisa Leake did her 100 days of real food challenge on a budget, allowing herself $125 per week. This budget is more than what we spend for our family of 4, but might be helpful in getting started. Read about her tips and experiences. 

You can also see how I make the most of our grocery budget and save on groceries.


I know this is always a tough thing to hear, but the reality is that life is about priorities and choices. 

In past years (and it’s still the case in many other countries), people spent much higher percentages of their income on food, and much less on luxuries. We have so many luxuries these days that we treat as needs, that we cut into our food budgets in order to pay for them.

  • junk food, candy and treats;
  • eating out at restaurants;
  • vacations;
  • expensive outings (a night of 2 games of bowling costs our family $40–that’s almost a week’s worth of groceries!)
  • cable & satellite TV;
  • new, name-brand clothing instead of used;
  • tons of different sports and activities for our children;
  • expensive toys and gifts for our children and ourselves

The list goes on.

Again, I am not saying these things are bad. Only that we have our priorities mixed up if we are buying those things, yet scrimping on buying good, wholesome, nourishing food for our families.

We need to remember the difference between wants and needs.

Count the (long term) cost.

I know, better than most, that sometimes you literally just can’t afford things, regardless of how important it is.

However, I keep going back to this idea that “if something is not important to you, you’ll find an excuse, if it is important to you, you’ll find a way.” I’ve seen it over and over again.

How we nourish our bodies is important.

Michael Pollan makes a very convincing case for this in his book, In Defense of Food, and references several compelling stories. As our spending on food has decreased, our need for and spending on healthcare has dramatically increased.  I’ve seen the argument over and over that doctors cost much more than buying good food. It sounds trite, but it’s true.

More importantly, you simply cannot put a price tag on health and the quality of life it can afford. I say this to you as someone who has always struggled with various health problems.

Be Encouraged

Again, please know that I am not judging anyone. My purpose today is to encourage you. You can do it. You can find a way if you commit to it. Your body and family will thank you.

Maybe you legitimately cannot afford to buy 100% local and organic, but you can take baby steps to get there. Free up money in your budget here and there. And, you can certainly afford to cut out the convenience foods and buy real food instead of processed.

P.S. One of my favorite resources to recommend for this is Stephanie Langford’s Real Food on a Real Budget. You can get that resource along with 80+ others this week at a 98% discount–less than the cost of a meal out with your family. This collection is all about helping your family become healthier.


Real Food Series

This post is a part of my Real Food Journey series. Click here to see all the posts.

31 Days of Real Food Series


  1. Jessica says

    Hi! I appreciate your passion for real food, and I think your post has some helpful advice. However, I wanted to point out that there are families (mine included) that do none of the things that you suggested cutting out to gain more money for food (for example, we have no tv, never eat out, and “new” clothes are purchased very rarely and only from Goodwill, no soda or junk food) yet still barely have enough money to cover even the cheapest groceries. While we try to eat as healthfully as we can, real food is more expensive. I also wanted to point out that, if my family is on the road, the ten dollars we spend on a dollar menu on a fast food restaurant can purchase more food (especially protein) than ten dollars on items that do not have to be cooked at a grocery store. While your alternative menu sounds wonderful to me, it simply would not be enough food for my husband. If we did go to the grocery store, we would replace the box of Triscuits with a couple packs of hot-dogs: sure, it isn’t as healthy, but it would give our bodies protein and fat and be more filling for longer than Triscuits. My husband and I were shopping this week on a strict budget, and had to buy margarine instead of butter (we both prefer butter) because it was half as much money that could then go toward some fruit.

    This is a rather long comment, so I’ll stop here. To be clear, I’m not trying to attack the spirit of your post: my family DOES eat as many fruits and vegetables as we can afford, and try to buy real food if it is not significantly more money. I am just trying to point out that unhealthy food can be healthier than healthy food if your budget is small enough that the difference is whether or not you get enough protein or calories to fuel your bodies.

    • Crystal Brothers says

      I do understand a tight budget. We feed a family of 4 on $200/month. Yes, junk food can feel more filling at the time, since it’s full of empty calories, but it doesn’t contain as much of the nourishment that we need. As I said in the post, that is just one sample, of many others that I could have chosen. A jar of completely natural peanut butter would be a good choice, etc. There are many of other combinations if that one doesn’t suit you. I completely understand that preferences come into play. My point is that it’s possible. I believe very strongly in owning our choices.

      Also, I don’t recommend eating every meal on-the-go, so this isn’t something I’d recommend eating all the time. We eat a similar meal for lunch quite often. This meal would have approximately 8-10 grams of protein, which paired with other meals throughout the day should be just fine, and yes I still think much better than junk food from the dollar menu (for the most part), but we can agree to disagree on that point. It sounds like you do what you feel works for you and your family and that’s all we can do. Thanks for sharing your thoughts :)

    • says

      I feel your pain. It took years of tweaking and revisiting what we ate at home and on the go before we found a way to eat nutritiously within our budget. It takes time to figure it all out and yes, while occasional convenience was nice, we stopped depending on the dollar menus and unhealthy foods like vegetable oil, trans fats, fake foods, sugars and take out foods.

      I think this bundle will help you meal plan and eat real food on a budget without eating food off the dollar menu and margarine. In fact, this bundle has so many menu tips and real food recipes that you’d be amazed how much money you’d save without sacrificing your family’s health. Good Luck!

  2. says

    I agree with your premise. The mentality of eating healthily is more expensive is in the back of my mind, but it’s not always true. For me, it’s moving in the direction of healthy as much as I can rather than thinking about what I can’t do.

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