Wednesday 17 July 2019

Does healthy eating cost more, and how much do experts spend on their weekly shop?

As new research suggests that nutritious food is out of reach for lower-income families, Chrissie Russell asks five healthy eating experts to weigh in with the cost of their weekly food shop

Aoife Hearne, Karl Henry, Aileen Cox-Blundell and Paul Byrne
Aoife Hearne, Karl Henry, Aileen Cox-Blundell and Paul Byrne
Shopping clever: Aileen Cox-Blundell with her basket of healthy shopping. Photo: Owen Breslin

Chrissie Russell

New research has revealed that some families have to spend up to one third of their income to buy basic nutritious food.

According to the report, released last week by safefood Ireland, a low-income two-parent, two-child household would have to spend between 22pc and 33pc of their income (€128 to €153 a week) on a healthy food basket.

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But in a country abundant in fresh, nutritious, home-grown produce, why does healthy eating seem so out of reach to so many people?

Michelle Murphy, Research and Policy Analyst at Social Justice Ireland, believes the main barrier is cost. "Healthy eating is an income issue," she says. "The more limited your income, the less options you have."

She adds: "People in low-income households know what foods are healthy - they cannot afford them. Calories from healthy foods (fruit, vegetables, fish, lean meat, etc) are up to 10 times more expensive than foods high in fat, sugar and salt."

If the issue is to be addressed, then it needs to be done at a government level, says Murphy. "The Government must examine why calories from health foods are so much more expensive and what policies can be implemented to address this."

Ray Dolan, CEO of safefood, doesn't think accessibility to healthy eating simply comes down to price. "While it is strongly related to social class, food poverty does exist in high income groups, for example restricted access to food in more rural areas and the level of people's own cooking skills," he says.

He also believes that those talking about nutrition in the public eye have a duty of care to ensure that healthy eating doesn't become overly convoluted and out of reach thanks to a proliferation of expensive 'must-eat', 'super' products fetishised in pseudo-science. "Unfortunately a lot of so-called nutrition advice on social media has zero evidence base but looks appealing," he says, urging people to trust a reliable source.

With that in mind, we asked five bona fide healthy eating experts for an honest account of their weekly food shop, and how they believe you can eat well for less.

Caitríona Redmond, Wholesome Ireland

Weekly spend: €90 (family of four)

What's always in the basket? Four meals worth of meat, one meal worth of fish, tray of eggs, lots of fresh fruit and veg, frozen veg (peas/sweetcorn), wheat breakfast biscuits, porridge oats, a few loaves of bread, butter, cheese, yoghurt, milk and some treats.

She says: "We grow some of our own food and over the summer we supplement our shop with what we have in the allotment. I ditched brand names - apart from my chosen tea - and that has saved us a fortune and they're sometimes lower in sugar/salt/saturated fat content than the originals.

"I believe you can eat well and cost-effectively but it requires an awful lot of planning. I also have to dedicate time to cooking from scratch which, as a busy working mam with kids, extra-curricular activities and a commute, is the biggest battle.

"I find the idea that eating healthily is a class issue extremely annoying. You can have an unlimited food budget and still eat dreadfully. To eat well you need the skills to cook the food you have, the facilities and equipment to cook, time to get into the kitchen and access to fresh food. It's an unfortunate reality that if you don't have the magic combination of all these things then you are unlikely to be cooking up healthy food."

Paul Byrne, personal fitness trainer and director of BodyByrne

Weekly spend: €150-€200 (two adults)

What's always in the basket? Eggs, fruit, lean meats (including chicken breast, fillet steak, mince), fish, fresh and frozen veg, Greek yoghurt, protein powder, wraps and oats.

He says: "I'll have a protein shake with berries and Greek yoghurt for breakfast, after that it's usually two fish meals followed by an egg wrap or a lean meat and veg for dinner. My wife preps our meals for the week ahead which is handier and more cost-effective.

"But good food does cost. It's definitely way cheaper to shop for processed, sugary foods. Lean meats, good quality protein and veg can be expensive but it's about how you feel when you eat good quality nutrient-dense food. I'd like to see a decent subsidy on healthy foods (rather than a sugar tax) to make it more reasonable for people to buy healthy food without affecting farmers' bottom line."

Karl Henry, fitness expert and host of The Real Health podcast

Weekly spend: €80-€90 (two adults)

What's always in the basket? Chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, skimmed milk, Greek yoghurt and lots of vegetables.

He says: "Instead of spending time preparing meals in advance on a Sunday, my wife and I tend to make a larger meal than we need at the time and store the rest. We also swapped to doing our shop in a low-cost supermarket and that's definitely resulted in a drop in price with no noticeable difference in quality.

"Fruit and vegetables are not expensive. I just don't buy into the fact that people think that they are. You can buy a huge amount of vegetables for €20 and do a lot with them. Obesity is growing across all socio-economic brackets so I don't think healthy eating is just down to income. I think a lot of the problem is that we just don't know how to cook. Everyone should leave school with a handful of recipes."

Aoife Hearne, registered dietitian

Weekly spend: €150 (family of five)

What's always in the basket? Selection of meat, eggs, three types of fruit and good mixture of veg, wholegrain bread, milk, yoghurts, cheese, wholemeal spaghetti, Weetabix/porridge, potatoes, baked beans.

She says: "Two years ago I spent a month going to my local supermarket daily - no planning, no budget, no lists. When I totted the cost up later, I found I'd spent more on food than our mortgage! That's when I knew things had to change.

"Now I try to budget €150 a week. I do my shopping between two small supermarkets and, because they're small, I find I'm less likely to be tempted by stuff we don't need or be taken in by special offers. I cook from scratch in that I don't use ready meals but I will use some jarred sauces, a small compromise from a nutritional point of view. We try to eat more real food than processed food and use leftovers - like using what's left from a roast in sandwiches the following day."

Aileen Cox-Blundell, author of The Baby-Friendly Family Cookbook and creator of Hidden Heroes

Weekly spend: €120 (family of five)

What's always in the basket? Oats, bananas, natural yoghurt, peppers, courgettes, onions, garlic, avocados, spinach, bag of Hidden Heroes, chickpeas.

She says: "Three quarters of my shop is always fruit and veg. I plan dinners for the week ahead (stir fries, pasta, etc) and they always have a high veg content. I buy bags of lentils and beans and steep them overnight for inexpensive meals and we only eat meat once every couple of weeks, maybe two salmon fillets for €6 or a tray of mince for €3.

"When I started out on my healthy eating journey I thought it was about things like matcha powder, spirulina and cacao. But now I believe the 'super foods' are really things like oats, fresh fruit and veg.

"I like to buy seasonal and buy a lot from the €1 everyday savers range at Dunnes (who I work with). I regularly make double dinners, use the same base for several dishes and batch cook. Once a month I'll make a huge stash of mini muffins and freeze them for snacks. I bought a pineapple the other day for €1, threw in an avocado and a bit of spinach and made 12 healthy ice pops really inexpensively.

"I don't think healthy eating is a class issue. I talked to a lot of mums from all classes when developing my Hidden Heroes range and they had the same issue - they wanted their kids to eat better food but felt there was a lack of healthy, affordable convenience freezer foods. That's something I want to try and tackle."

Irish Independent

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