Bang for your buck

How to get more nutrition for your grocery dollar

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Use your food dollars wisely to get more nutrtion from food.
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Healthy option

Less healthy option

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2014

Everyone likes to get value for their money, especially when it comes to shopping for groceries.

But while many people will spend time comparing prices to find the best deal, they often overlook something that is actually more important: the nutritional value of the food they buy.

As a result, some consumers end up getting short-changed on their grocery purchase.

With that in mind, we recently visited a Winnipeg grocery store to demonstrate how you can make sure that you are getting the biggest nutritional bang for your food buck.

The good news is that keeping the cupboards stocked with healthy food does not have to cost more than it does to buy less healthy options. In fact, it can actually be slightly cheaper.

To illustrate the point, we spent about $30 each on two baskets of groceries - one filled with healthy food, one with less healthy food - to feed a family of four for a day.

Here is what we found:

1. It is possible to eat healthy on a budget, and it does not have to be more expensive than eating less healthy food. For the purposes of this comparison, we spent roughly $30, or about $7.50 per day per person, to feed a family of four three meals and one snack. This works out to about $2.50 per meal per person. In terms of cost, the difference between the healthy food basket and the less healthy food basket was less than a dollar. In fact, the less healthy grocery basket actually cost $1.12 more.

Our informal survey echoes the findings of a report entitled Nutritious Food Basket in Manitoba. Produced in 2011, it says that, on average, it costs $26 to $29 per day to purchase healthy foods in Winnipeg.

2. Eating healthy can be just as fast as eating less healthy. It just depends on the foods you choose. For example, quick oats and instant oats both take two to five minutes to prepare, depending on method of cooking. In the baskets compared, total time to prepare all meals was almost equal. Lunches can be prepared in less than 10 minutes (the burritos in the healthy food basket take 10 extra minutes to cook in the oven). Both suppers take about 20 minutes to prepare and cook.

3. The healthy food basket provides a much bigger nutritional bang for the buck than the less healthy food basket. For roughly the same amount of money, you can buy groceries that will do a better job of providing you with energy, as well as vitamins and minerals that can help prevent chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

The unhealthy basket contained items like processed, quick foods that are generally high in things like salt, fat, sugar, and calories. They do not give you a nutritional bang for your buck. In terms of calories alone, a person eating from the less healthy food basket would consume about 315 calories more per day than a person eating from the healthy food basket. Over the course of seven days, that would amount to 2,205 more calories consumed, all without getting the necessary nutrition for good health as outlined in Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide.

In addition, many healthy, unprocessed foods also last a family longer than their processed counterparts (and cost less per unit). For example, a bag of quick oats (1 kg) costs 23 cents per 100 g, and will outlast packaged instant oats (325 g box), which costs 76 cents per 100 g.

4. The fast food outlet is by far your least healthy choice when it comes to money spent and nutritional value. On average, a family of four would spend $30 for burgers and fries, and that’s just for one meal. The same amount of money will get you three meals and a snack at the grocery store. As for nutritional value, a typical meal at a fast food outlet can contain as much as 28 g of protein. But it also has 1,100 calories, 47 g of fat, and 1,300 mg of sodium. Bottom line: limit fast food.  

Barriers to healthy eating

Shopping for healthy foods requires certain skills (planning, budgeting, cooking), basic kitchen equipment (fridge, pots, bowls, etc.) and access to foods. Check your community for resources to help overcome any barriers to accessing food. Many areas have community kitchens or learn-to-cook programs, community gardens, food box/basket pickup locations or even provide free transportation to grocery stores.

Call Dial a Dietitian at (204) 788-8248 or your local public health office to learn more about these programs in your area.  You can also go to the WRHA website at to learn about meal programs, grocery delivery services and to get a list of resources that can help you eat better on a fixed budget.

Lana Pestaluky is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region. Tammy Nasuti is a dietetic intern.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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