How to Eat Healthy on a Budget
Eating healthy and living that budget life—these things aren’t opposites or enemies. You can do both. Try these 15 ways to eat healthy on a budget to make it happen. Ready, prep, go!
1. Budget for Groceries
Before the month begins, decide how much you’ll spend on groceries. To do that, look back at your last couple of bank statements. What did you spend on food each month? That’ll give you a starting point. As you keep budgeting each month, you’ll have a more solid idea of what you should put in that grocery line. And be patient. It might take you about three months to get it right.
Important callout: You need a budget line for groceries and a separate one for restaurants. Also, eating at home is cheaper, so it’s a great way to save money in your total budget.
Now back to it:
There’s no set rule for how much you should spend on groceries. But we recommend 10–15% of your budget as a whole. Of course, this amount varies based on things like family size, dietary restrictions, or income. (For example, if you make over $200,000 a year, we don’t suggest you spend $2,000 a month here. That’s a bit much.) The average family of four spends between $894–1067 a month on groceries.1
While your grocery budget line won’t change a ton month to month, there are reasons you’d need to adjust it. Think things like holidays, visitors and travel. Sometimes you’ll need to up or lower your grocery line. And don’t forget—that means upping or lowering another budget line so the money evens out. Before the month begins, look ahead and plan for any upcoming events or changes to the schedule that will affect your grocery spending. Then tweak your budget as needed.
2. Plan Your Meals
Meal planning—healthy for your body and your budget. And the best meal plans happen in the kitchen. Start with what you already have, look at recipes, and keep your store’s sales ad handy. (Yup—we’re talking about the old-school newspaper ads with the weekly sales. . . or find the online version.) Yes. All three at once. They work hand in hand in hand. Build your meals around what’s on sale that week and what you already have in your pantry and freezer. You’ll save more and waste less.
3. Make a Grocery List (and Stick to It!)
Once you know your meals for the week, and what ingredients you already have, you can write out everything else you need. The best shopping lists are organized by aisle or at least by store section. This keeps you from going back and forth while shopping (which is one of the best ways to get caught up in junk food temptations).
Then, it’s time to be firm. With yourself. Are you ready? Practice saying these words in your head: It’s not on my list. Remember, you carefully crafted your grocery list and know the store’s sales and coupons already. So you can’t use that “but it’s on sale” excuse to buy something you don’t need.
If you realize you forgot something you needed (because we all do!), that’s fine. But grocery shopping isn’t improv night at the comedy club—it’s no time to go off script.
4. Beat Drive-Thru Temptations
Have a busy week ahead? That’s when you’re tempted to grab greasy fast food on the way home. Know this. Own this. And beat this. As you meal plan, consider those hectic nights ahead of time and put healthy quick-prep dinners on your grocery list. Also, keep some healthy nonperishable snacks in your car to keep the munchies (and grocery budget) under control.
5. Shop Sales and Discounts
Evaluate your grocery store.
Loyalty is a highly desirable quality in friends and employees, but don’t let your loyalty—or your habits—keep you going back to a grocery store you can’t afford.
Look online at store promotions. Ask friends where they go and why. Don’t listen to the ones who say they like the music selection over the loudspeaker—listen to the ones who say they saved hundreds when they switched grocery stores. After you gather all that information, step foot into someplace new. Test it in real life!
Use coupons, apps and sales ads.
Whether you clip them or click them, don’t forget the power of coupons! Most supermarkets have mobile apps full of coupons to help you score some great savings. Download the apps and use them as you make your grocery list.
And don’t forget those sales ads. We talked about using them when meal planning. But they’re worth repeating. And when you find a coupon to use on something already on sale that week—that’s grocery-buying gold.
One place you should definitely use sales ads is for fresh veggies and fruits. If brussels sprouts aren’t on sale, but green beans are, then you’re eating green beans with your baked chicken this week.
Quick note: This doesn’t mean you should ever buy something just because you have a coupon or it’s on sale. If you won’t eat it, you don’t need it. Also, a coupon might not offer you as good of a deal as another brand or the sales ad—so watch all those prices and make sure you’re getting the most out of your money.
6. Buy in Bulk
Bulk purchasing isn’t always the best way to save—but sometimes it is. Ask yourself these four questions:
- Can I eat it before it’ll go bad?
- Is the price per ounce cheaper?
- Do I have space for this larger quantity?
- Will I really use it?
If you can answer yes to all of these questions, then try out buying in bulk to save in bulk.
7. Shop Online
Have you looked into buying your groceries online? You can fill your virtual shopping cart from anywhere. Then you pick up your order on your time or have it delivered to you. Now, there may be added costs depending on where you shop—some stores charge for this service, while others don’t. But don’t let the fee discourage you. If you get sidetracked in the actual store and always come home with things not on your list, this option can force you to shop with a plan. You’ll probably save more in the long run, fee or no fee.
Plus, as you fill your online cart, you can easily watch your spending. You can delete some items or look for cheaper options before you check out. That way you aren’t surprised by the total in the end.
8. Buy Generic Brands
Be generic. Not in your personality—in your brand choice. Many times, the off-brand and name-brand items aren’t really all that different when it comes to their actual ingredients or quality. That isn’t always true—and it’s fine be picky about your favorite cereal, chocolate or coffee as long as you budget for it. But give generic brands a chance. Sometimes you’re drawn to a certain brand only because the company spent more on design and marketing—not because they’re delivering a higher-quality product.
9. Don’t Shop Hungry
We know you’ve heard it before, but don’t shop hungry. That’s the surest way to load up on junk food—because everything salty or sweet is a major temptation on an empty stomach. Eat a healthy snack before you head out the door or go shopping right after a meal.
10. Buy Seasonal Produce
The problem with healthy produce is that it goes bad. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy it—just don’t get more than you’ll eat. And get some produce that can ripen on your counter instead of decomposing there. That means you buy some yellow bananas for now, and some green ones for later.
Rotate your produce picks based on what’s on sale and in season. And don’t look down on frozen fruits and veggies. If they have no added sugar or salt, they’re just as healthy!
11. Be (Healthy) Snack Ready
Don’t forget to buy more than just meals. You need healthy snacks on hand for everyone in the house. Keep them at work, too, so you aren’t running to the snack machine when your tummy growls.
12. Use Less Meat
Meat isn’t cheap. So, try a meatless night (or two) each week to save space in the grocery budget. This opens a door for lots of other protein options, including beans, lentils, eggs (so cheap!), chickpeas, green peas (yes, really), quinoa, tempeh or nuts. We’re talking breakfast for dinner with scrambled eggs and whole-wheat pancakes, tons of salad options, soups that fill your belly without emptying your bank account. You get the idea.
13. Don’t Forget the Leftovers
Repurpose leftovers into new dishes.
Once you make a meal, don't forget about it in the fridge until it becomes a moldy science experiment. That wastes food and money. Put your leftovers to good use. Take that extra chicken from taco salad night and throw it into some cheese quesadillas later in the week. That bag of frozen turkey meatballs you served with marinara and zucchini noodles? It had too many meatballs for one meal. So serve the rest with low-sugar BBQ sauce on rice. When you repurpose ingredients or pick items you can use more than once, it keeps you from buying all new things for all new meals every mealtime.
Make tonight’s dinner tomorrow’s lunch.
As you’re putting away the leftovers from dinner, don’t throw the whole casserole dish in the fridge. Portion it out in some good reusable containers so you’ve got lunch for a day or two. Not only will it streamline your mornings, but it will also save your budget and body from fast food temptations.
Freeze leftovers for another day.
If you're staring down a serious amount of leftovers, don’t forget the freezer. If something might go bad before you can eat it again, stick it in the freezer. Then, when you’re meal planning for another week down the road—don’t forget about those frozen meals.
In fact, while you’re writing down all the ingredients for chili (because ground beef and beans are on sale this week!), double that recipe, freeze half, and enjoy the rest a couple weeks later. You can save time and money: two of our favorite things to save.
14. Simplify Your Meals
You can have a delightful dinner without sticking to the old standard of meat and three. Not only is it often cheaper to change things up—it’s also simpler. Make a great soup in the slow cooker and serve with a salad. And what about all that leftover lettuce? How about adding beans, salsa, cheese and chips for a meatless taco salad?
Don’t be afraid of simple suppers! They can taste just as fantastic and be just as healthy as a complicated dinner—all while reducing stress and spending.
15. Balance Your Purchases and Diet
Don’t eat low-quality food just to save money. That’s bad for your health. But don’t blow all your cash because something’s labeled “all natural” or “organic.” You can balance your health and your budget. Just work at it!
If you do want to purchase organic produce, focus on the “dirty dozen” items: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes. The “dirty dozen” is a name for the 12 kinds of produce that usually have the highest amount of pesticides, so if you’re prioritizing which foods to buy organic—splurge on these but skip the rest.
Healthy Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive
Eating healthy on a budget is possible. You just have to be intentional, plan ahead, and stay strong—with your budget and your body. Make it all easier with EveryDollar, the budgeting tool that goes with you from the kitchen to the grocery store and, honestly, everywhere else!