A memorable moment in the startling documentary Food, Inc., comes in an interview with a family of immigrants, all of them overweight. They eat at McDonald's every single day, they said, because they don't have the money to cook at home.
The movie points out that a fast-food hamburger actually costs less than a head of broccoli.
It's a stunning fact, and it speaks worlds about American society and our relationship to our agriculture. But here's the catch: It doesn't have to be true.
The people at EatingWell magazine have just published a cookbook that tells how to make meals that are healthy and affordable. EatingWell on a Budget presents 140 recipes that can be prepared for less than $3 a serving.
"It's not particularly cheap when compared to fast food, but it's roughly equivalent," said Jessie Price, an editor at the magazine who is the book's co-author, along with the staff of the magazine's test kitchen.
And the advantage to cooking at home is that the food can be healthier and more varied. A dish of Louisiana Catfish with Okra and Corn, served over rice, costs around $2.50 per serving, she said by phone from her office in Vermont.
Some people say they can't afford to eat at home, and many more say they don't have time to eat at home. But Ms. Price challenges those notions.
"[They] say, 'What am I going to make? What are we going to cook? We'll just have to go out.' But you can open your pantry and find a can of tuna and some pasta, and use that to make a meal," she said.
The savings can be considerable. An extra-large sausage, pepper, and mushroom pizza from Domino's costs her $17.41 (it's a little cheaper in Toledo if you get carry-out, more for a delivery). A pizza recipe in the cookbook with the same ingredients is just $7.58. If a family orders a pizza every week - and many families do - it could save $511 a year in pizza costs alone.
The savings can be even greater for people who eat lunch out every day. Ms. Price used Panera Bread as an example.
"We pulled a stat that said their average lunch bill is $8.50. If you're going out 50 weeks a year - figure two weeks for vacation - five days a week, and spending that $8.50 a day, that works out to $2,125. But if you brought lunch from home, like leftovers from dinner or any of the meals from this book, and you spent the generous price of $3, it would cost $750, so you would save over $1,300," she said.
It just takes a little advance planning. Ms. Price, who brings her lunch to work every day, said she doesn't think about what to bring for lunch when she is rushing out the door in the morning; she prepares for lunch the night before while she is making dinner. She packs a salad and brings in dressing in a leftover spice jar.
To save more money, she recommends eating less meat, which she said is typically the most expensive thing on your plate. When you do eat meat, she said, remember that the recommended portion size is 3 ounces cooked, which works out to one pound of fresh meat for a family of four.
For instance, she recommends the book's beef and cabbage stir-fry with a peanut sauce - which also includes such goodies as orange juice, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, carrots, and peanuts.
"You'll get to have the meat, but there's not a ton of it, and you'll be satisfied," she said.
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