Eating a balanced diet has lifelong health benefits, no matter your age or current health status. People with healthy eating patterns tend to live longer and are at lower risk for chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. For people with chronic diseases, healthy eating can help manage these conditions and prevent complications.
Nutritious meals are commonly thought to be more expensive than other choices, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Healthy eating on a budget can be accomplished by limiting food waste and being intentional about your dietary habits.
5 tips to eat healthy on a budget
Nutritious foods don’t have to break the bank. Consider the following five tips for healthy eating on a budget.
1. Cook meals at home often
One of the simplest ways to eat healthier on a budget is by cooking most of your meals at home. Frequently eating at home is associated with a greater intake of nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables. Preparing meals at home also allows you to be in control of the ingredients added to your dish. Most commercial and restaurant food preparation involves excess sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy seed oils. Eating at home is also generally cheaper per person than eating out on a regular basis.
Once you have mastered the basics of cooking, trying to replicate store-bought favorites may even become a fun new hobby.
2. Plan ahead
Creating a meal plan and shopping list can help reduce impulse purchases and keep the grocery bill within budget. Prepare for your grocery shopping trip with the following steps.
Check your current food supply
Healthy meals don’t have to be complicated. Keep things simple by starting with what you already have in your refrigerator and pantry. Make a list of your current stock and consider what recipes you can make with what you already have. Get inspiration by searching the internet, borrowing a cookbook from the library, or watching a cooking video.
Look for coupons and sales
Getting coupons from the local paper, online, or through a loyalty program can be a helpful way to save money at the grocery store. Consider bulking up on shelf-stable items that are on sale, such as canned beans or rice, and using sale items to guide your meal plan for the week.
Consider purchasing a chest freezer and stocking up on meats, frozen vegetables, and other frozen goods when they’re on sale.
Plan your recipes
Come up with a meal plan that works for you, your budget, and any dietary restrictions. Keep your schedule in mind, as busier days may benefit from keeping meals simple. You may even double a recipe and save half for the next day’s lunch. Consider using recipes with common ingredients that can be used for multiple meals. For example, tomatoes may be used for Italian pasta dish one day, then a burrito bowl later in the week. Using different herbs and spices can help make the same ingredient taste different in each dish. Tomatoes, for example, are common in Italian, Mexican, and Indian cuisines, but the various spices lead to completely different flavor profiles. I like the recipe website Budget Bytes, which provides a cost estimate for each recipe.
Shop with a list
Once you know what you need from the grocery store, write it down in a list and bring it with you to the grocery store. At the store, stick to your budget by purchasing only what you need on your list. Grocery lists also make shopping easier and faster, and ensure you get all of the ingredients you need in one trip.
3. Compare similar products
At the grocery store there are a lot of different foods to choose from, which can make it difficult to find the most nutritious and cost-effective options. Comparing similar products by assessing their nutritional value and cost per serving can be helpful when trying to choose budget-friendly healthy foods.
Check the unit price
Some grocery items may have a lower retail price (total cost) but a higher unit price. The unit price identifies the cost per serving or weight, such as cost per pound or ounce. A lower unit price indicates a better value, even if the retail price is higher than comparable products. For example, food sold in single-serving packaging tend to have a higher unit price than the full-size version. Buying the full-size product and creating individual portions at home is a good way to save money.
If the unit price isn’t listed, it can be calculated with the following equation:
Unit price = Total price/Total size
Buying foods in larger package sizes, i.e., “in bulk” or family size, is often the way to get the lowest unit price. Save money by buying regularly eaten non-perishable items (e.g., rice, pasta) and freezable items (e.g., meat, frozen vegetables) in bulk. Costco is great for such bulk purchases. If you cook at home a lot, I would recommend buying 16 oz bulk spice bags of your favorites and some good bag sealers.
Look for discount brands
Many grocery stores carry generic or store-brand versions of products that cost less than the name brand. Items like canned vegetables, dairy products, oils, and frozen fruits and vegetables are usually available in a cheaper store-brand version. Costco’s Kirkland brand is generally high-quality and comparable to name brands.
Read the Nutrition Facts label
Not all similar products at the grocery store have similar ingredients. Checking the nutrition facts label is another tool for healthy eating on a budget. The Nutrition Facts label is a convenient tool that can be used to assess calories, nutrients, and serving sizes of various foods. Try to avoid processed foods and consider food choices with less saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.
4. Purchase in-season produce
When fresh fruits and vegetables are in season, there is more supply available, resulting in lower prices. The farmer’s market is a great place to get fresh, local. in-season produce. Fruits and vegetables that aren’t currently in season can typically be found cheaper in canned or frozen, rather than fresh. Some produce is relatively low-cost throughout the year, including:
- Green peppers
Be considerate of how much produce you will eat throughout the week, as fresh produce spoils faster than canned or frozen produce. Try to buy a combination of fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable fruits and vegetables. Here are 21 ways to keep your food fresher for longer.
5. Incorporate meatless meals
Animal protein, such as lean meats and poultry, is commonly used as a protein source in North American diets. Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays a role in several functions within the body, including muscle and tissue repair and hormone regulation. Protein-packed foods also help keep you satiated longer than carbohydrate or high-fat foods.
However, over the past several years, the price of meat has steadily increased. Incorporating meatless meals into your dietary plan can help you save money. There are many non-meat protein foods that can make a good low-cost swap for animal proteins, including:
- Legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, peas)
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products (e.g., cottage cheese, greek yogurt)
- Nuts and seeds (e.g., almonds)
- Soy products (e.g., edamame, tempeh, tofu)
I would not recommend the pre-made meatless alternatives, such as Beyond Meat, because they are highly-processed and often more expensive and unhealthy than animals proteins.
Not sure where to start? You can’t go wrong with a simple salad, stir fry, or roast. If you’re looking for something more exciting, here are a few current favorites: fresh spinach & shallot quiche, Moroccan lentil and vegetable soup, red lentil butternut squash curry, and spicy & crunchy garlic tofu.
The bottom line
Following a healthy diet can help reduce the risk of certain chronic conditions and promote longevity. Many people believe healthy foods are too expensive, but healthy living can be affordable if you shop smart, cook at home, and avoid food waste.
Our household spends an average of $575 per month on food for two individuals. One is an lacto-ovo vegetarian and one adheres to the autoimmune protocol diet. As a household, 95% of our purchases are organic/non-GMO, all meat and eggs are pasture-raised or wild-caught, most dairy is A2, and all products are gluten-free. We’re very intentional about hitting macro-nutrients, micro-nutrients, minerals, and amino acids to keep immunodysfunction, which we both suffer from, in check.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
- $350/month – fresh, organic, locally-grown, in-season vegetables, fruits, and mushrooms (purchased weekly, here’s an example of what we eat in a week)
- $150/month – heirloom, slow-growth, pasture-raised chicken or wild caught salmon or cod (stock up on high-grade, cheap cuts on sale; we often go months without buying meat, then spend $500 at once)
- $20/month – pasture-raised eggs, cheese, A2 milk, A2 yogurt (used sparingly)
- $15/month – lentils, tofu, rice
- $10/month – spices, sauces, and other supplemental seasonings
- $10/month – dark chocolate, ice cream, kombucha, nuts, or other treats
- $20/month – one or two meals out, typically a shared Chipotle bowl or soup from Whole Foods
We’re spending around $9.58 per day each for two nutrient-rich, balanced meals and overall great health. As I’ve mentioned before, while healthy food can be expensive we either pay the cost now at the grocery store or we pay the healthcare system for the consequences of our diet later. So this feels like a great deal to me.