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It's not easy putting food on the table that is healthy, tastes good, isn't time-prohibitive and is affordable. We break down some common go-to meals, along with cost-conscious homemade options.

Maya Feller M.S., RD, CDN
February 17, 2021
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Our series, Good Food for All, examines the barriers to putting healthy food on the table and what is being done to help.

If there is anything the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it is that we can't talk about food justice without talking about race, socioeconomic status and access. It is a privilege—not afforded to all—to have access to the nutrition variables that are needed to express optimal health. Putting balanced meals on the table each day is a luxury, but it should not be.

The roots of the systemic inequities run deep, and a growing pool of research directly correlates the inverse relationship between income and health issues: as income decreases, health issues increase. Research from 2018 noted that 89% of deaths in the U.S. could be attributed to noncommunicable diseases, with cardiovascular disease at the top of the list. Nutrition is a modifiable factor; however, so many people living in the U.S. face unjust barriers when it comes to consistently accessing safe, affordable and nutritious foods. Many of these barriers go past simply "following a healthy diet." For example, one needs to have safe and affordable housing with a functioning kitchen as well as the tools and time to prepare nourishing meals that support health.

6 dinner plates on grey background
Credit: Leslie Grow

Creativity is needed to put a cost-conscious nourishing meal on the table. Complementing a ready-to-eat meal with a fresh side can help reduce time in the kitchen. Preparing meals from a mix of ingredients, including fresh, frozen, dried, canned and jarred, can have a significant impact on both the price and nutrition profile of a meal.

Working with many low-income families has taught me the realities of putting food on the table that is healthy, tastes good, isn't time-prohibitive and is affordable. Checking off all those boxes is not an easy task—as you'll see here. We break down some of the common go-to meals clients eat, along with cost-conscious homemade options I often suggest.

Meal #1: Banquet Salisbury Steak Deep Dish Pot Pie

For those who are strapped for cash, inexpensive frozen meals like this potpie seem like an economical way to fill a belly. They tend to be priced significantly lower than freshly prepared ones, but are notorious offenders for serving up higher-than-recommended amounts of fat and sodium per serving.

Cost/serving: $1.10

Nutrition:

Calories: 410

Protein: 8g

Sat Fat: 8g

Sodium: 860mg

Carbs: 45g

Dietary fiber: 3g

Total sugars: 4g

Prep time: 4-5 minutes

Meal #2: McDonald's McDouble

The vast majority of fast food is made with ultra-processed ingredients—specifically refined grains, added sugars, synthetic fats and salt. Contrary to popular belief, these meals are not satiating. BIPOC communities have a disproportionate concentration of retailers selling fast and processed foods. The presence of these eateries is directly linked to the higher rates of chronic disease that they experience.

Cost/serving: $1.39

Nutrition:

Calories: 400

Sat Fat: 9g

Sodium: 920mg

Carbohydrate: 33g

Dietary fiber: 2g

Total sugars: 7g

Protein: 22g

Prep time: None

Trinidadian Pelau with Chicken
Credit: Leslie Grow | Trinidadian Pelau with Chicken

Meal #3: Homemade Trinidadian Pelau

Pelau is a hearty dish that can be prepared in big batches and enjoyed over time.

Cost/serving: $1.34

Nutrition:

Calories: 646

Protein: 28g

Sat Fat: 9g

Sodium: 752mg

Carbohydrate: 74g

Dietary fiber: 7g

Total sugars: 13g

Total time: 35 minutes

Tuna Casserole with Peas
Credit: Leslie Grow | Tuna Casserole with Peas

Meal #4: Homemade Tuna Casserole

Cooking at home requires kitchen tools, a working stove and oven, a functional fridge and freezer, as well as cooking skills and time. To create a nutritious meal, basic health literacy is also required. All pretty big hurdles. A traditional tuna casserole provides both protein and carbohydrates to keep you full, and is kid-friendly and easy to make, though it takes some time to prepare.

Cost/serving: $1.61

Nutrition:

Calories: 474

Protein: 30g

Sat Fat: 5g

Sodium: 728mg

Carbohydrate: 61g

Dietary fiber: 5g

Total sugars: 4g

Total time: 35 minutes

Veggie Grilled Cheese with Tomato Soup

Meal #5: Homemade Veggie Grilled Cheese with Tomato Soup

Adding veggies to a classic sandwich—in this case, broccoli, zucchini and red bell pepper—boosts the nutrient-density of the meal. Many families worry that this will result in food refusal and waste, so I recommend starting with one that is already accepted in a small quantity and branching out. It's about balancing the familiar with something new. The people I work with often need to keep per-serving costs around $1—so while this may be more nutritious than some other options, it's more expensive and is high in sodium from the canned soup.

Cost/serving: $1.88

Nutrition:

Calories: 472

Protein: 17g

Sat Fat: 11g

Sodium: 1,075mg

Carbohydrate: 55g

Dietary fiber: 7g

Total sugars: 19g

Total time: 25 minutes

Cost per serving is based on average nationwide prices as of January 2021.