Eating healthy on a budget might be easier than you think. With a little bit of planning and creative thinking, you can create nutritious meals and snacks that boost your energy levels without a big price tag.
Whether you’re feeding yourself or an entire family, there are also simple ways to avoid overspending at the grocery store. So, grab a notebook and check out our suggestions for eating healthy while saving money in your bank account.
1. Make a plan and stick to it
We’ve all zipped through the fast food drive-thru line when we’re starving. Such a move might curb your hunger, but restaurant food often costs more and is less healthy than a meal you can make at home.
"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, blogger of The Happy Guy, where he writes about living a fulfilling life while efficiently managing your money.
So, what’s a hungry and busy person to do? The key is to plan ahead. Take a look at your schedule for the next day and plan out when you can eat — and what you can prep from home. If you aren’t at home for meals, purchasing an inexpensive cooler bag will help give you a wider range of options, in addition to keeping salads cool and crisp.
2. Think snacks instead of meals
On days when you’re on the move, try to reframe your mindset. You may not need to plan for three full “meals,” according to Leonhardt. Instead, pack food that is easy to eat on the run, even if it falls into the snack category. Bananas, apples, protein bars, fiber bars, nuts, crackers and other healthy munchies will help keep you on budget and away from buying high-calorie and expensive foods.
Snacks can be deceiving, so make sure to read the ingredients first. Pick snacks loaded with fiber, whole grains or protein and skip anything with added sugar and high sodium.
3. Include your friends in your plan
If you have plans to dine out with friends, let them know about your budget-friendly approach to meals — and invite them to join in on the adventure. If you’re eating out, suggest splitting a few appetizers or an entree. If you’re heading to a park, a lake, or somewhere that requires bringing your own food, think about what you need and divvy up the preparation. One person can bring the drinks, another person can make sandwiches, and everyone else can pick up sides and desserts. Splitting the menu also splits the cost.
4. Use a list when you shop
It’s basic advice, but it works: make a list and stick to it. You’ll be surprised how much cash you can save during each trip to the grocery store if you avoid the temptation of impulse buys. “Planning prevents problems,” says cook and writer Katie Workman. Plan out your meals and create a list to avoid unnecessary purchases and reduce food waste.
5. Don’t shop when you’re hungry
If you’ve ever been grocery shopping on an empty stomach, this tip will resonate with you: don’t go to the store when you’re hungry. Amy Yaroch, executive director of the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, says shopping while hungry leads people to buy unplanned food. Shopping when you are full, however, can help you stick to your list. Eat a snack with some protein before grocery shopping and use your list to keep you from roaming the aisles and deviating from your plan.
6. Shop for seasonal produce
You might not think about produce seasonally — but you should. Learning the peak seasons for produce can help you save cash. You’re also more likely to get higher-quality fruit and vegetables.
“Winter citrus, spring apricots, summer strawberries, and autumn apples give each season a unique, nostalgic feeling,” says Alex Curtis, who writes about nutrition for 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. Stick to the store’s perimeter first
Start your shopping trip by walking the outer sections of the grocery store. Most grocery stores use the outer aisles for fresh and refrigerated items, while the inner aisles tend to be where non-perishables live. Sticking to the perimeter can help you focus on essentials like fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as lean cuts of chicken and beef. Once you’ve loaded your cart up with those foods, the bags of chips and cookies in the inner aisles may be less tempting.
8. Keep an eye out for sales
Look for discounted fruit and vegetable boxes in the produce aisle, says Heather Russell, dietitian at The Vegan Society. You can also stock up on items with long shelf-lives like pasta sauce, cereal, oatmeal and noodles when they’re on sale. Some grocery stores also offer perks with reward cards, which can translate to greater discounts at checkout. Plan when to use your points on “stock up trips” and budget accordingly. Your pantry — and your wallet — will thank you!
9. Closing time can mean discount time
Stores often mark down produce near the end of the day. You may be able to find veggies like lettuce and corn on the cob at significantly lower prices toward the evening or night. As a bonus, there’s no time for impulse purchases when a store is closing. Grab the essentials on your grocery list, get to the checkout line and reap the rewards of your savvy shopping.
10. Get more nutritional bang for your buck
Foods such as chickpeas, beans, quinoa, brown rice, eggs and spinach are packed with nutrients and can be used to make chili, salads and side dishes like hummus.
They’re also easy on your bank account. Curtis of HelloFresh details the following example:
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 will save $328.50 annually. And beans pack a solid nutritional punch with more fiber and protein, and less fat than a bag of chips.
11. Check out the store brands
The Vegan Society’s Russell says in-house brands can save you a bunch, especially on products like fortified milk and peanut butter. According to MoneyCrashers, store brands are almost always cheaper and frequently equal in quality to larger and more well-known brands. On average, you can save 20-25% by reaching for the generic version of a product instead of the name brand. Many grocers back up their items further by offering a money-back guarantee.
12.Browse through the ethnic sections
Chrissy Carroll, a registered dietician who blogs about health and fitness at Snacking in Sneakers, says beans and brown rice often cost less in sections devoted to International, Asian or Mexican foods. You can also find bargains — and discover fantastic new food items — at ethnic grocery stores.
13. Buy in bulk
Online retailers often sell foods such as beans, lentils and nuts at lower prices. If you buy beans 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 — and on budget.
Wholesale stores like Costco or Sam’s Club offer significant savings when you buy in bulk. Just make sure you’re looking at the price per unit and not overpaying for a larger — but more expensive — bag of nuts.
14. Check out the frozen section
Tired of your fruits and veggies spoiling before you eat them? Frozen produce can solve the problem. Frozen fruits and veggies last longer and can give your dish an extra shot of healthy nutrients. Stir some frozen spinach into your pasta sauce or add some frozen mango to your morning smoothie.
If you worry that the freezer will affect the nutritional value of your food, you can rest easy. Frozen foods can be an equally healthy bet. “Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh produce,” says nutritionist Lisa Richards of The Candida Diet. “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. Say no to the soda aisle
Your body needs water, so why not make it your drink of choice? You can save a lot of money by sticking to good old H2O. If you really need the fizz or caffeine bump you get from soda, you may want to consider buying a SodaStream dispenser, suggests Trent Hamm, who blogs about budgeting at The Simple Dollar. Tea and coffee can also be cheaper sources of caffeine than soda.
16. Shop your pantry
Think you need to make a grocery run? Try scanning the shelves of your pantry and fridge first. With just a few ingredients, you can often whip up a delicious stir fry, a pizza or another meal, says food blogger Beth Moncel, whose website offers bundles of healthy, low-cost recipes. If you’re feeling uninspired by the food items in your house, hop on Pinterest or do a quick Google search. You won’t believe the ideas you’ll get from searching “how can I cook a whole chicken?”
17. Turn random food items into a meal
Speaking of online searches, if you have a random assortment of food you’d like to use, SuperCook can help you turn it into a meal. Believe it or not, you can make a meal with canned tuna, broccoli and ketchup. Just type the ingredients you have on hand into the site, and it will generate recipes accordingly.
18. Become a supermarket sleuth
To get the best deals, it pays to do some research. Great deals can be found online or in a supermarket mailer. Look for two-for-one deals, promotions for new products and price cuts on everyday items. You might even be able to get the store to match the discounted prices of their competitors. Some stores don’t require a coupon or club card to take advantage of the deals — you just need to know about it.
19. Beware of enticing packages
When shopping it can be all too easy to spend big money on tiny containers of fancy snacks. Even though the packaging might be adorable, it’s likely an overpriced, processed food. Break that habit, and you save immediately.
20. Calculate the cost-per-calorie
Peter Adeny, who blogs about budgeting as Mr. Money Mustache, started skipping out-of-season blueberries after calculating that at $5.99 for a tiny handful in a 4-oz container, those 64 calories cost about 9 cents each. He still eats blueberries, but only when they are in season and more affordable. You can find his cost-per-calorie estimates here to help you with meal planning on a budget.
21. Find healthy options if you need support
Many cities and towns have community dinners, and local farmers markets may accept vouchers from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps. If you and your family need a little extra support, reach out to local groups in your community. You might be able to help around a local farm in exchange for boxes of fruits and veggies.
22. Get to know your community butcher
“If you're passionate about certain types of meat, such as grass-fed or local meat, look into local farms that allow you to purchase a portion of a cow,” says Carroll. Building a relationship with local butchers can help you get cheaper cuts of meat for stews and soups and keep you in the loop for discounts and flash-sale items.
23. Grow your own produce
Growing your own food can ensure that you have tasty, fresh options straight from your backyard or windowsill, suggests Curtis of HelloFresh. For help creating a windowsill herb garden, check out this helpful tutorial. If you want to grow more, dig a plot in your backyard or find out if your community has a neighborhood garden.
24. Consider a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program
Look into joining a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to supplement the farmers in your area. It can save you money — and give you the chance to try out new produce like swiss chard.
J.D. Roth, who writes about saving money at Get Rich Slowly, says he pays $24 through his local CSA for enough fruit, vegetables and eggs to last two people for a week. Some programs include easy recipes to help you turn less-familiar items into a delicious dish.
25. Store your produce the right way
Celebrity chef Rachael Ray sought advice from gourmet market Citarella about how to store produce so it lasts longer. To prevent greens from wilting, keep them away from apples, mushrooms, avocados, peaches and other foods that emit ethylene, a gas that can cause your other produce to spoil more quickly. Keeping your produce in paper bags instead of plastic can also improve air circulation and longevity — and in turn, extend your food budget.
26. Break out the slow cooker
Slow cookers are the unsung hero of the kitchen. The magic lies in its ability to help make savory meals with affordable ingredients while you do something else. Toss a few ingredients in before you head to work, and the crockpot will have a budget-friendly meal ready when you are. Slow cookers are also a great way to make a hearty meal for a Meatless Monday. “Make simple one-pot meals in a slow cooker that aren’t overly focused on meat,” says Mark Schatzker, author of “The Dorito Effect.
27. Make extras and freeze leftovers
Cooking batches of healthy food can improve your chances of eating well on a budget. You’ll have more nutritious, low-cost meals on hand and relieve you of the chore of cooking every single night. When cooking in large quantities, curries and stews are good candidates. You can also freeze leftovers and reheat them in the microwave or oven when you’re ready.
28. Repurpose food scraps
Carrot tops taste great blended in pesto, Carroll says. Extra taco meat can top off sweet potatoes for leftover lunches. And parmesan nubs can be tossed into soup for extra flavor. For more ideas, check out these smart ways to reuse food scraps and leftovers.
29. Learn new cooking techniques
Cookbook author and esteemed chef Alice Waters says that learning how to braise meat allows you to buy less expensive cuts. Sous vide is another option that involves vacuum-sealing food and cooking it in a pot of water at a specific temperature. Learning how to use knives safely and efficiently can also help you save perfectly good pieces of veggies and meat. Expand your skills and you’ll be better prepared to craft healthy meals. You might even pick up cooking as your new hobby!
30. Add veggies and protein to power up your ramen
Ramen may have gotten you through your student days, so why not keep eating it? Toss the flavor pack and kick it up a few notches with veggies or protein on hand. Simply add spinach, broccoli, eggs, or any of the other nutrient-dense foods suggested by Serious Eats, and you’ll have a savory meal in minutes.
FAQ: Eating Healthy on a Budget
It can be tricky to find a balance between watching both your waist and your wallet. If you’re unsure where to get started, check out a few of our top FAQs for budget-friendly, healthy menu planning.
- What are the cheapest and most nutritious foods?
- If you’re looking for something fast and easy, try oatmeal. It’s good for your heart and easy on your budget. Eggs and canned tuna are high in protein, and vitamin-packed bananas are typically the most inexpensive fruit.
- What are the three Ps for eating healthy on a budget?
- Plan: create your menu, write the list, search for deals
- Purchase: buy what you need at the best price
- Prepare: make it easy for you to choose healthy food you have
- How can I eat for $50 a week?
- We all have weeks that we need to really stretch our food budget. If this is a tight week for you, don’t despair — you can still find nutritious food to enjoy. According to the USDA, a family of two spends about $120 each week on food. This guide by a registered dietitian is a great start to learning about how to menu plan for $50 a week.
- How do I start eating healthy?
- The best way to start eating healthy is to stay dedicated. Start with small changes. Switch out your daily Diet Coke for a water with a squeeze of lemon or make a salad instead of ordering takeout.
With a little bit of effort and planning ahead, you’ll be eating healthy on a budget in no time.