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Recently we offered another round of continuing medical education programs for physicians at the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine. The cost of eating healthy came up, as it does at almost every event I do these days. There is a tremendous misperception about what making fresh food costs and the time that it takes vs. processed, boxed foods. Most people believe that it is more expensive to make fresh, healthier food and that it takes more time.
Recently the team at the Center gave a presentation where they purchased fresh food for a family of four to last a week - 21 meals plus snacks - for $127.00, and I got to wondering about specific examples of what people are spending money on. Because part of the case study that we used with the physicians dealt with Hamburger Helper, I decided to do a head-to-head comparison.
A box of Beef Stroganoff Hamburger Helper is $1.99 at Winn-Dixie and the pound of ground beef is $5.99. The package claims that it's five servings, but that's absurd for two reasons. First, the serving size, once prepared according to the directions, is only one cup. We weighed the amount of pasta in the package, and there are 2 servings of pasta in the package at two ounces each (a total of four ounces in the box). One pound of ground beef is actually 4 servings. (General Mills clearly has a skewed view of what makes a serving for dinner.) Practically speaking, the box contains 2 servings and calls for twice as much beef as necessary.
The only other thing in the box is a bag of "spice," which when you read the label is pretty disturbing, given that it includes hydrogenated soybean oil and monosodium glutamate, two ingredients clearly linked to heart disease and obesity.
Wacky ingredients aside, that works out to a true cost per serving for the boxed meal of $3.99, given the realistic portion size of 2 1/2 cups.
There are no vegetables in the recipe, but the box does recommend adding a can of mushrooms. A four ounce can of mushrooms is about $1.10, adding 55 cents per serving for a total of $4.49 per serving.
A quick and easy stroganoff uses half of the ground beef for two servings (the appropriate amount) at $2.98, a 58 cent onion, $2.00 for eight ounces of fresh mushrooms and 4 ounces of pasta (at $2.29 per pound). The remaining ingredients come to $1.20 (1/4 lemon at 20 cents, and call it another dollar for the Worcestershire sauce, flour, sour cream and spices). That's $7.33 total or $3.67 per serving, and you get not only a lot better food for you but it is so much better tasting. Yes, it means that you have to purchase some of the items like spices and the Worcestershire sauce, but over time that leads to a much more economical kitchen.
The nutrition numbers are astounding. A single (realistic size) serving of Hamburger Helper made with the canned mushrooms has 816 calories, 33 grams of fat, 15 grams of saturated fat, 2.5 grams of (deadly) trans-fats, only 2.5 grams of fiber, and a whopping 1,631 milligrams of sodium.
Compare that to our Quick Beef Stroganoff at only 531 calories, 13 grams of fat, 9 grams of fiber and 479 milligrams of sodium.
OK, it's cheaper and better for you and it is better for you to make your own food. What about time?
It takes about 5 minutes longer to make the real version instead of the fake one, because the whole wheat pasta needs more time to cook. In our test it took 25 minutes for the homemade beef stroganoff and 20 minutes for the fake Hamburger Helper version, including slicing the onions and mushrooms.
It is clearly less expensive to cook your own food, takes the same amount of time and is amazingly better for you. The only extra effort is in making a shopping list and cutting some mushrooms and onions. Simple.
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.