How to Eat Healthy on a Budget
When it comes to food, you might feel like you have two choices: you can eat foods that are inexpensive or you can eat foods that are healthy. You can save money or you can watch your waistline. You can eat like a pauper and live like a king, or you can eat like a king and live like a pauper.
Did you know you don’t have to choose? With a little extra know-how, you can eat a healthy diet on a budget!
And, listen, we get it. Adulting is hard. You have enough on your plate without also trying to maintain a balanced budget and diet. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to enjoy healthy, affordable meals at home without adding to your workload.
To make the most of your budget without sacrificing your diet, think of creating healthy, affordable meals as a three-step process: planning, purchasing and preparing. With this in mind, we’ve rounded up some of the best tips for eating well on a budget. Each step plays an important role, and all contribute to the final result: a healthier, happier you. Bon appétit!
Step 1: Plan Before You Shop
Don’t skip this first step! Every poor grocery-buying decision is made on an empty stomach by a shopper without a plan. Instead take a few minutes to do the following before heading to the store:
Schedule your meals. Want to save money on groceries? The key is to stop wandering the aisles aimlessly, grabbing a bag of chips here and some ice cream there. Instead, prioritize your grocery purchases by scheduling out your meals for the week ahead. Sure, you’ll spend a little more time up front, but trust us, when the afternoon munchies hit, you’ll be glad to know a healthy dinner is within easy reach.
Plan to buy what’s on your list—and only what’s on your list—to cut down on waste and to ensure you’ll have what you need for the busy week to come.
Consider your budget. We suggest spending between 10% and 15% of your budget on food. What does that look like? Let’s say you bring home $3,000 a month. You’ll want to allocate somewhere between $300 and $450 for groceries. For easy math, we’ll assume you spend $400 per month and go to the grocery store once a week. That means you have an average of $100 to spend on each trip.
Check to see how you spent last week and how much money you have left for the remainder of the month. Shop accordingly. And remember, if it isn’t on the list—or doesn’t fit in the budget—it shouldn’t go in your cart.
Evaluate your grocery store. Going to the same grocery store week after week is convenient. You know the layout and can zip in and out, but think about it: Could you go somewhere more affordable? Maybe another store or even a wholesale club is less expensive. Find out your store’s coupon policy and watch for weekly specials, and then compare to other stores. And if you find deals like buy-one-get-one on healthy snacks or protein, stock up and fill the freezer! You might even benefit from a visit to the dollar store for typically expensive staples like spices.¹
If you’re tempted to buy more than what’s on your list, we suggest ordering online. Plenty of companies offer delivery right to your front door, or your local grocery store may offer curbside pickup. It’s a great way to stock up on healthy foods and only buy what you need without the temptation of impulse buys.
Step 2: Purchase Groceries the Smart Way
Once you plan out meals within your budget, it’s time to go shopping and make your purchases. Place one item in your cart that’s a little on the pricey side and it seems like no big deal. But a shopping cart full? Well, that’s different. You can eat healthy on a budget if you look for the following:
Buy generic brands. Did you know chefs save money by choosing generic brands? We’re talking soups, dips, baking supplies, jams and jellies, condiments and sauces, frozen and canned vegetables, nuts, candy, cheese, milk, butter and more.² Hey, if it’s good enough for a professional chef, it’s good enough for your kitchen, too.
Eat more whole foods. Whole foods (think less processed) in larger quantities offer more servings at a lower price per serving. For example, a block of cheese is a much better buy than a bag of pre-shredded cheese. Plus, nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and whole grains are better for you than processed foods like cookies and crackers.³Choose seasonal fresh produce. Studies show that fresh foods have more nutrients than foods picked and shipped days or weeks before.⁴ Sometimes grocery stores have specials on local items, like corn in the summer or brussels sprouts in the fall. If you can’t find seasonal items at the grocery store, stop by a farmers market to score the freshest fruits and veggies from local farms!
Stock up on frozen and canned foods. For out-of-season produce, remember this: a recent study found frozen vegetables to be just as nutritious as fresh vegetables.⁵ And like canned goods, frozen ingredients last longer than fresh and are easily incorporated into many meals.
Have nutritious staples on hand. Seek out superfoods like canned beans, frozen peas, dark green leafy vegetables, yogurt, quinoa, hot peppers, garlic and onions, berries, broccoli and cauliflower, cinnamon and tea.⁶ And don’t forget other cheap, healthy staples such as eggs, sweet potatoes, canned tomatoes, bananas, ground beef or turkey, canned tuna or salmon, and whole grain pastas and breads. If you have these items on hand, it’s easy to whip up a quick, tasty meal.
Buy healthy treats. Indulge your sweet tooth in a smart way. Think high quality but low quantity. If you want chocolate often, buy a giant bar of dark chocolate, but eat just one square when the craving hits. If salty is what you crave, try making popcorn the old-fashioned and economical way—on the stovetop—and add your own salt or other flavorings.
Step 3: Prepare Healthy Meals on a Budget
You’ve spent a lot of time planning your budget and purchasing ingredients, and now it’s time to prepare some healthy meals! The kitchen is where it all comes together. Make the most of what you buy by remembering these tips:
Simplify. Dinner doesn’t have to be a complex meal. Offer an appropriate amount of protein (experts suggest a three-ounce serving of meat), a pile of vegetables, and a whole grain like quinoa or brown rice.⁷ Add a small serving of dairy, and you’re good to go!
Use less meat. Meat can be expensive, so give other sources of protein a time to shine. Try black bean tacos, veggie soups, or a yummy frittata with a green salad.
Use the low and slow method. When shopping for meat, opt for cheaper—and tougher—cuts. If you have a little time, tougher cuts are no problem because you have a trick up your sleeve: all it takes is a liquid braise and a few hours in the oven or slow cooker at low temperature. It’ll be so good no one will care what you paid for it.⁸
Stretch each meal. Make meals last longer by adding a nutritious staple to a favorite recipe. You can add brown rice to chili and soups, frozen vegetables to your favorite pasta dish, or even rinsed and mashed black beans to your regular burger recipe.⁹
Love your leftovers. Allow your leftovers to inspire new dishes. You might use leftover pasta sauce as a base for a soup or stew, use old bread for easy French toast or croutons, add that leftover piece of chicken to your lunch salad, or mix last night’s rice into tomorrow night’s bean burrito.¹⁰ Chili one night can become nachos the next—you get the idea!
Remember the freezer is your friend. Double recipes, so you can serve half and freeze half. You can even store unused bread, cheese, herbs and other ingredients in the freezer in vacuum-sealed bags without worry for months on end.¹¹
See? Get your three-part process going—planning, purchasing and preparing—and you really can eat healthy on a budget.
Still Struggling? Retrain Your Brain to Eat Healthy for Less
A recent study found that most people equate expensive food with healthy food. The problem comes, explains researcher Rebecca Reczek, when those same people make purchases truly believing that eating healthy means paying more money.¹²
She calls this a “lay theory,” meaning we blindly accept the connection between high cost and healthy foods regardless of whether it actually exists. It helps us feel like we’re heading into the store with some useful knowledge in hand. Rebecca says, “It makes it easier for us when we’re shopping to use this lay theory, and just assume we’re getting something healthier when we pay more. But we don’t have to be led astray. We can compare nutrition labels, and we can do research before we go to the grocery store. We can use facts rather than our intuition.”¹³
Want to retrain your brain when it comes to food and money? Rely on facts, like cost and labels, not feelings.
Create a Budget for Groceries
Of course, one of the best ways to get your mind in the cheap-but-healthy eats game is to create a budget and track your expenses. You can add a category for groceries in EveryDollar to help you stick to your budget and your healthy eating habits.