There have been debates about the cost of healthy living in America for years. But, what’s the reality?

The sad truth is that many healthy foods do actually cost more, especially when you have a large family involved—and since the average salary of the average American worker is under $45,000 a year, the cost of food plays a large role in what’s on the dinner table every night. Because of this, it’s not uncommon (or unusual) for people to reach for something convenient or pre-packaged to satisfy their after-work cravings, especially if its healthy counterpart costs twice as much. Further, many people want to be healthier but simply can’t afford the rising costs of healthy foods like produce. Many “fad diets” have come into popularity in recent years, including the Paleo diet and the Keto diet, both of which are heavily based on meats and fats. Those foods are typically some of the most expensive items found in grocery stores.

Unfortunately, because it’s often easier and cheaper to choose unhealthy food options, the U.S. is facing a national health problem. Specifically, as of 2015, nearly 40% of adults over 20 in the U.S. were considered obese. The problem even extends to children. About 1 in 5 kids in the country are considered obese, too. While there are some national initiatives (such as the “Let’s Move” campaign) designed to fight childhood obesity, a lot of the issue could be helped by changing dietary habits and patterns.

So, why is some healthy food so much more expensive than the alternative? Can you still eat healthy, nutritious meals on a budget?


The Cost of Farming

One of the biggest reasons why healthier foods like fruits and vegetables are so expensive, especially when considering the organic versions of these foods, is because it costs more to “produce” them. Especially for small organic farms, the cost of moving produce to table includes smaller teams, paying more for “organic certifications,” utilizing special organic facilities to harvest the produce, and so on.

Further, many types of fruits and vegetables need to be harvested by hand, especially the more fragile ones like apples and peppers. This requires farmers to hire more workers, work longer hours, and they may not end up with as much of a harvest as their machine-heavy counterparts. As a result, the fruits and vegetables that require more labor are more expensive in local grocery stores, whether organic or not. The price of produce is not raised to deter people, it’s that the farmers who grew it need to make a living and pay their employees. Stores also need to make a profit, so the prices continue to go up until everyone benefits — everyone except the consumer, it seems.

Meanwhile, it’s cheaper to manufacture processed foods, or foods with GMOs. GMOs crops are often grown for their resistance to pests and increased harvests. Unfortunately, there’s no proof yet that GMOs are safe to consume over the long term. This has led consumers to specifically look out for non-GMO foods, like certain cereals, and turn toward less-processed products.


Health vs. Convenience

There’s a reason fast food joints have the word “fast” in their name—after a long day, you can easily order something from the comfort of your car, roll up to the window, and it’s handed to you within ten minutes. Even more appealing, spending less than $20 to feed a family of four is possible, especially if you order strategically off the value menu.

Going back to the statistic on American workers making an average of under $45,000 a year—it’s safe to say that many Americans also feel like they don’t have enough time to cook healthy meals at home, on top of paying more for the ingredients — so of course it makes sense to stop by the closest fast food place on the way home from the office. According to The Atlantic, “women now devote a little more than half the average time per day to cooking compared with 1965. Men cook a bit more on average, but their increased time in the kitchen is not nearly enough to make up the difference. Fast food has proliferated to fill that gap, especially among low-wage workers who lack resources and control of their own time.” This is even truer for families who live in food deserts, or places far enough away from urban centers that accessibility to some foods becomes more difficult.

It’s easy to see how cooking up healthy meals hits American workers in their two most valuable assets — money and time, both things that people never have enough of. With that said, how can people find a middle ground between eating better and saving time?


Can You Eat Healthy Without Breaking the Bank?

There is good news for people who want to focus on a healthy lifestyle without blowing their budgets:

One option is to utilize fruits and vegetables in creative ways. You can stretch their value and get the most out of them with a little creativity. For example, find ways to add them into your favorite meals, such as mixing them into casseroles, salads, or soups and stews. This allows you to use a variety of produce and boost the nutritional impact of a meal.

If you feel like produce goes bad quickly and is a waste of money, there are also ways you can make it last longer! Herbs can be frozen, for starters—or even blended and frozen into ice cubes to add to sauces and soups later. You can also can and store vegetables like beans, corn, and cucumbers, and fruits like peaches and pears for long periods of time.

You can also grow your own produce for little cost by creating a garden. Things like tomatoes, potatoes, squash, herbs, and even edible flowers are easy to grow, and are forgiving for those without a “green thumb.” Buying seedlings or seed packets is extremely cost-effective, provided you have the time and space.

Finally, you can usually find lower-priced produce at your local farmer’s markets or produce stands. This is because the farmers who grow them don’t have to pay for transportation and/or shipping. Those savings are passed on to you.

There are ways to get around the high costs of healthy eating. No to solutions will be the same for everybody, though. Don’t be afraid to find your own creative ways to combat the expense of healthy food in America—your body will thank you for it!

By Frankie Wallace