There are a lot of things you can cut from your budget, but food is not one of them. Because you have to eat, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of choosing food that expands your waistline while thinning your wallet.
Eating healthy on a budget, however, may be easier than you think. Just a little planning can help you create nutritious meals and snacks that boost your energy levels and your bank account.
So grab a notepad or crank up a spreadsheet, and check out these tips to start learning how to eat healthy on a budget.
Make Your Food and Match it to Your Lifestyle
1) Make your own food.
"One of the biggest threats to both your budget and your health is when you have to grab food on the run,” says David Leonhardt, an author who writes about “Living Your Ideal Life” and is also known as “The Happy Guy.”
Restaurant food costs more and is often less healthy than what you can make at home.
2) Think snacks, not meals.
On days when you’re moving from one spot to the next, try to stop thinking about planning for three “meals,” Leonhardt says. Instead, pack food that is easy to eat on the run — bananas, apples, protein bars or fiber bars, nuts, crackers and other healthy munchies so you can eat healthy on a budget no matter where you are. Crackers can be unhealthy, so read the ingredients and select those packed with fiber and whole grains but minimal sugar and sodium.
3) Ask your friends to brown bag it, too.
If you eat out for social reasons, gently coax your friends to pack their lunch. You could even encourage them by offering to share a salad or other dish you have brought from home.
4) Shop from a list.
That may sound basic, but if you make a list and stick to it, you may be surprised at how much you save. “Planning prevents problems,” says cook and writer Katie Workman. If you plan your meals ahead of time and create a shopping list based only on the items you know you will need, you may be able to avoid unnecessary purchases and reduce food waste.
5) Don’t shop when you’re hungry.
Amy Yaroch, executive director of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, says shopping while hungry can cause people to buy junk food. Shopping when you are full can help you stick to your list.
6) Shop seasonally.
“Winter citrus, spring apricots, summer strawberries, and autumn apples give each season a unique, nostalgic feeling,” says Alex Curtis, who writes about nutrition for meal delivery company HelloFresh. “Buying produce in season is the tastiest way to save money, introduce a variety of nutrients to your diet, and get you out of your recipe rut.”
7) Shop the perimeter.
Start your shop with a lap of the outer sections of the grocery story. That’s where you will find fresh fruits and vegetables and lean cuts of chicken and beef, Curtis says. (Check out his yummy suggestion on the HelloFresh blog for what you can do with those apples you pick up in the outer aisles here.) Load your cart up with those foods first, and you may be less tempted by the bags of chips and similar items in the inner aisles.
8) Keep your eye out for sales.
Look out for discounted vegetable boxes in the produce aisle, Heather Russell, dietitian at The Vegan Society. Similarly, stock up on items such as pasta sauce and other staples when they’re on sale.
9) Shop near closing hours.
Stores often mark down produce near the end of the day. You may be able to find items such as lettuce and corn on the cob at significantly lower prices.
10) Get more nutritional bang for your buck.
Foods such as chickpeas, beans, brown rice, eggs, and spinach are packed with nutrients and friendly to your bank account. Use them to make chili, salads and side dishes.
How much can you save? Curtis of HelloFresh ran the numbers this way:
If you replace a bag of chips per day ($1.00/bag) with a homemade side of crispy chickpeas or black beans ($0.10/serving), you would save $328.50 annually. Instead of 15 grams of fat, 15 grams of carbs, 1 gram of fiber, and 2 grams of protein with the chips, you would get 1.5 grams of fat, 23 grams of carbs, 8 grams of fiber, and 7 grams of protein with beans.
11) Buy Store Brands.
The Vegan Society’s Russell says in-house brands can save you a bundle, especially on products like soya fortified milk.
12) Think Ethnic.
Chrissy Carroll, a registered dietician who blogs about health and fitness at Snacking in Sneakers, says items such as beans and brown rice often cost less in grocery-store sections devoted to International, Asian or Mexican foods. You can also find bargains at ethnic groceries.
13) Buy in Bulk.
Online retailers often sell foods such as beans and nuts at lower prices, Russell says. If you buy them in bulk and get in the habit of soaking them overnight, you will have a bargain source of nutrient-packed food to keep you eating healthy o a budget.
14) Buy Frozen.
Tired of your fruits and veggies spoiling before you eat them? Frozen produce can solve that problem. It lasts a long time and can give your dish an extra shot of healthy nutrients. Stir some frozen spinach into your pasta sauce and you won’t even taste it.
Frozen won’t cost you anything on the nutrition front, says nutritionist Lisa Richards of The Candida Diet. “Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh produce,” she says. “In fact, because they are frozen at the optimal time, they are often more nutritious than the vegetables you buy at your local market. Large stores like Costco sell frozen bags of organic vegetables at very economical prices.”
15) Skip the soda aisle.
Your body needs water. Why not make it your primary drink? You can save a lot of money this way, but if you really need the fizz or caffeine hit you’ve been getting from soda, you may want to consider buying a SodaStream dispenser, says Trent Hamm, who blogs about budgeting at The Simple Dollar. Tea can be a cheaper source of caffeine than soda, he adds.
16) Sweep the kitchen/Shop the pantry.
Think you need to buy groceries? Scan the shelves of your pantry and fridge first. With just a few ingredients, you can often whip up a delicious stir fry, pizza or other meal, says food blogger Beth Moncel, whose site offers bundles of healthy, low-cost recipes.
17) Find new recipes at SuperCook.
Yes, you can make a meal with canned tuna, broccoli and ketchup. Just type the ingredients you have on hand into SuperCook, and it generates recipes based on them, Carroll says.
18) Scan circulars.
Annie B. Kay, a registered dietitian and wellness blogger, looks to supermarket circulars for great deals. “You can find them online or get one delivered to your home,” she says. “Often our local grocery has two for one meats - as in 2 pork tenderloins for the price of one, or two packages of chicken breast for the price of one - there is usually something healthy available. No coupon, just knowledge.”
19) ”Avoid cute little containers of things that cost $8.”
Peter Adeny, who blogs about budgeting as Mr. Money Mustache, notes that it’s easy to spend a lot of dough on tiny little containers of fancy snacks. Break that habit, and you save immediately.
20) Consider cost per calorie.
Mr. Money Mustache started skipping out-of-season blueberries after he calculated that at $5.99 for a tiny handful in a 4-oz container, those 64 calories cost 9.35 cents per calorie. He still eats blueberries, but only when they are in season and more affordable. Rolled oats purchased at Costco, in contrast, cost just 0.041 cents per calorie. You can find more of his cost-per-calorie estimates here.
Get to Know Your Community
21) Be aware of local support.
Many areas have community suppers, and farmers’ markets may accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps, Kay says. “It takes time, but there is support,” she adds.
22) Share a cow.
“If you're passionate about certain types of meat - for example, if you only purchase grass-fed or local meat - look into local farms that allow you to purchase a portion of a cow,” says Carroll.
Growing your own food can deliver tasty, fresh food to your table right from your backyard — or your windowsill, says Curtis of HelloFresh. For a primer on creating windowsill herb garden, click here. If you want to grow more, dig out a plot in your backyard or find out if your community has a neighborhood garden.
24) Consider a Community-Supported Agriculture Program, or CSA, program.
Master Your Kitchen
25) Store your produce the right way.
Food celebrity Rachael Ray sought advice from Citarella, one of New York’s oldest gourmet markets, about how to store produce so it lasts longer. To prevent greens from wilting, store them separately from apples, mushrooms, avocados, peaches and other foods that emit ethylene, a gas that can cause your other produce to spoil more quickly. Storing your produce in paper bags instead of plastic can also improve air circulation and longevity.
26) Use a slow cooker.
Slow cookers can ensure that you use the ingredients you buy and assist in making savory meals with affordable ingredients such as beans or with smaller portions of more expensive items such as meat. “Make simple one-pot meals in a slow cooker that aren’t overly focused on meat,” says Mark Schatzker, who writes about healthy eating and is the author of the book The Dorito Effect.
27) Make extra.
Cooking multiple batches of healthy food can improve your odds of eating healthy on a budget because you will more often have a nutritious, low-cost meals on hand. Curries and stews are good candidates for cooking in large quantities, Russell says.
28) Use food scraps.
Carrot tops taste great blended in pesto, Carroll says. Extra taco meat can top off sweet potatoes for extra meals. Toss those parmesan nubs into soup for extra flavor.
29) Learn some new cooking techniques.
Alice Waters, cookbook author and chef, says learning how to braise meat allows you to buy less expensive cuts, for example. Similarly, learning how to use knives safely and efficiently can make it easier to prepare fresh food.
30) Hack your ramen.
Ramen may have gotten you through your student days, so why not keep eating it? It can be healthy if you add high-quality food. You may want to toss the flavor pack if it contains ingredients you don’t want to eat. Simply add spinach, broccoli, eggs, or any of the other nutrient-dense foods suggested by Serious Eats, and you have a savory meal in minutes.