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Eating Well on a Food Budget

In the current economy, many of us are living on a budget and looking for ways to reduce food expenses while still enjoying tasty, nutritious meals. With the right tips and a little planning, it is possible to enjoy healthy food on the cheap. The more you focus on purchasing local, unprocessed food and preparing meals at home, the healthier and tastier your meals will be, the better you’ll feel, and the more money you’ll save.

You can save money and still enjoy healthy, delicious food

Making smart choices saves money. Evaluate how you spend your money on food. What unnecessary items do you purchase? Do you eat out often? The first way to save money on food is to limit or cut out unnecessary food spending. Some specific ways to do this:

  • Cut the junk. Evaluate how much money you are spending on items such as soda (regular or diet), cookies, crackers, prepackaged meals, processed foods, etc. Limit or completely cut out these unhealthy foods. Your wallet and your body will thank you.
  • Eat out less. Even just reducing your meals out by 1 or 2 times per week can save you about $15 - $25 per week. This is an easy way to save money and even have some extra to spend on higher quality foods.
  • Stick to your grocery list. The more prepared you are when you get to the store the less impulse purchases you will make. So write out a grocery list and stick to it!
  • Shop the perimeter of the store first. This way you will fill your cart with healthy whole foods like fresh produce and meat, leaving less room for the "junk food fillers" and thus saving money.
  • Cook large portions. It saves time to cook once and eat multiple times. One idea is to make a big pot of soup at the beginning of the week or whenever you go food shopping. When you don't feel like cooking, help yourself to a hearty bowlful along with a green salad. This makes a nutritious but inexpensive lunch or dinner anytime.
  • Beware of hidden sugars. Many packaged or processed foods contain high levels of hidden sugar. They may be easy to prepare and fill your family up for cheap, but too much sugar causes rapid swings in energy and blood sugar, and can contribute to many serious health problems. Hidden sugar may be listed as corn syrup, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane juice, fructose, dextrose, or maltose. Avoid foods such as instant mashed potatoes, white bread, canned soups and vegetables, refined pasta, and sugary cereals. Satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally sweet food such as fruit, peppers, and sweet potatoes.

Know your good carbs from your bad carbs

Healthy carbs (sometimes known as good carbs) include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Healthy carbs are digested slowly, providing long-lasting energy and keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable.

Unhealthy carbs (or bad carbs) are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients. Unhealthy carbs digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and only short-lived energy.

Purchasing the healthiest food possible

When eating on the cheap it is still important to think about the quality/purity of the food you purchase. How foods are grown or raised has an impact on their quality and an impact your health. Organically grown food reduces the potential health and environmental hazards posed by pesticides, genetically modified food, irradiation, and additives. An investment in your food now could save you money on health bills later.

Here are a few ways to stretch your money when purchasing high quality, organic foods:

  • Buy the highest quality possible for the foods you eat the most. This way you reduce your exposure to things such as pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics, while increasing the nutritional value of your food. Organic foods have higher levels of antioxidants and various vitamins and minerals such as vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, and iron.
  • Use excess food money to buy higher quality food. If possible, focus on purchasing organic/grass-fed/free-range sources of meat and dairy in order to avoid the possibility of high concentrations of antibiotics and hormones being passed on to you.
  • Educate yourself. When you know which fruits and vegetables have the most chemical residue (and which have the least) you can choose to buy certain things organic (or from local farmers who do not use chemicals), and others conventionally grown.

Eating well on the cheap tip #1: Shop wisely

The conventional grocery store is not the only place to buy food. Many other venues may offer a significantly cheaper way to purchase food. Search out different types of stores and markets in your area and compare prices. It can save you a lot of money.

  • Discount stores. Warehouse or club stores like Costco and Sam's offer great bargains. Just be sure to only purchase what you will use. Seasonal produce is often cheaper at these stores, as are foods such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts and reduced-fat cheese. Due to the very large portions you will need to carefully plan how you will use all of the food to avoid waste. It can be helpful to freeze some products in smaller, more manageable portion sizes.
  • Search out Farmers' Markets. Many cities, as well as small towns, host weekly Farmers' Markets. Local farmers bring their wares to specific locations, typically open-air street markets, and sell fresh food directly to you, often for less than you'd pay in the grocery store or supermarket. If you go towards the end of the market, some venders may sell their remaining perishable items at a discount. Bonus: you are supporting your local economy, the environment, and it's a great opportunity to socialize and get to know like-minded people in your neighborhood who might want to join a CSA (community supported agriculture) group or start a buying club with you.
  • Ethnic markets and corner stores are worth looking into. Many of them feature an impressive, affordable selection of fruits and vegetables, as well as some other products.
  • Purchase generic/store brands. When you shop at conventional grocery stores, compare the unit prices on items. Often the store brand or generic brand will be cheaper than the name brand for the same quality product. Also, join the savings clubs to save some additional money.

Eating well on the cheap tip #2: Find cheaper protein options

One of most effective ways to save money on food is to learn how to purchase protein in the most affordable way.

Protein: how to save money and have high quality protein in your diet

Protein is a vital part of a healthy diet. Whether it is from meat or vegetarian sources, our body relies on protein for many of its functions. As we know, meat can be quite expensive. However, many of us in Western countries consume more animal protein than we need so by making a few adjustments to our diets we can save money AND still have plenty of protein in our diet.

  • Purchase less expensive cuts of meat and practice portion control. Not only do you save money on the cut of meat, but you can also stretch the meat for more meals when you make tasty things such as casseroles, sauces, soups, stews, and stir-fries. It is easy to add extra vegetables, beans, and whole grains to create delicious, hearty, and filling meals.
  • Experiment with vegetarian sources of protein. Veggie proteins, such as beans, are quite inexpensive, highly nutritious, easy to prepare, and taste great. Stock up on dried and/or canned beans and lentils. You'll not only save money, but calories too. Other great sources of less expensive, high quality protein are nuts and seeds, as well as eggs. Try going meatless once a week: e.g. "Meatless Mondays."
  • Canned fish and chicken are a great option for things like sandwiches, enchiladas, casseroles, and salads. These items last for a long time on the shelf so can be bought well ahead of time.

Eating well on the cheap tip #3: Buy in bulk

Doing things in bulk saves time and money. Buying in bulk is almost always cheaper. There are many items that can be bought in bulk - grains, dairy products, and meat, for example. You can freeze perishable items, such as meat, milk, and bread, in smaller portions to use as they are needed. It is always a good idea to buy non-perishable items, such as dried beans, grains, and canned foods, in bulk.

  • Shop for produce in season and buy by the bag. When produce is in season it is at its cheapest, as well as its best flavor and nutritional value. It's cheaper to purchase fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapefruit, potatoes, and onions by the bag, not by the piece. You will fill more lunch bags and cover more meals.
  • Check the freezer aisle. Look for the largest packages of vegetables in the frozen foods section. These are great for stir-fries and soups. Frozen and fresh veggies are equally nutritious, still taste good, and often the largest frozen bags will offer the best value.
  • Buy all your grains in bulk (including cereals) and store them in airtight containers. Examples are whole grain brown rice, millet, barley, and rolled oats. Brown Rice can be a little more expensive than white rice, but the higher nutritional value is well worth it. Whole grains are an excellent source of nutrients, including protein.
  • Bulk protein comes in many forms. Meat is often sold in larger packages/portions at a lower price. Split packages up into meal-size portions and freeze for later use. For example, you can buy a whole chicken and have the butcher cut it up for you. Dried legumes (beans) and peas can easily be bought in bulk packages or bulk bins at grocery stores. Canned beans can be bought in flats at warehouse stores. Also look for two-for-one specials on dairy products, which you can store by freezing.

Eating well on the cheap tip #4: Stretch your money when you cook

Preparing large portions of food to use over multiple meals saves time and energy. When cooking, it's also important to think about how to incorporate leftovers into new meals. Finally, presentation has a big effect on the appeal of a meal, so putting a little effort into the way a meal looks can make a huge difference.

Save money by cooking in bulk

It can be a good idea to pick one or two days a week to cook meals that can be eaten on multiple days. Some easy ideas for cooking in bulk:

  • Cook once and eat multiple times. Cook a large meal at the beginning of the week. It is easy to double a recipe so that you have extra to use later in the week for quick lunches or dinners when you don't feel like cooking. You can also freeze half for another day. Add a green salad or other side dish and you have a delicious, easy meal.
  • One-pot dishes, such as soups, stews, or casseroles, are especially good because they generally save preparation time, money, and dishwashing. Plus they make great leftovers. You can even cook one pot of oatmeal and heat up a serving size each morning. Rolled or steel cut oats are nutritious, very inexpensive, and are easily varied by adding seasonal fresh fruit, nuts, or seeds to create a wonderful breakfast. This is both cheaper and more nutritious than dry cereal or flavored packets of instant oatmeal.

Make new meals from previous ones

Another key to saving money on food is to make sure you are not wasting anything. All leftovers can be used for another meal. Once you have a few easy recipes to use for leftovers, they can often become some of the yummiest meals of the week. Some ideas:

  • Soups, stews, or stir-fries: These meals are ideal for using leftovers. Create a base with broth or a sauce, or by sautéing onion or garlic, then add any leftovers you have, such as whole grains, veggies, and meat. A small amount of meat is perfect to add flavor and substance, but be sure to cut it into small pieces so it goes further. You can also be very creative with herbs and spices to create unique flavors. With any recipe, make sure you reheat all leftovers thoroughly.
  • Everything burritos: Most leftovers make very tasty burritos. Simply put everything into a tortilla shell (try to get whole grain) with a little low-fat cheese and enjoy. For example, cut up leftover meat into small pieces, add a can of beans and  any leftover grains and veggies.
  • Experiment with combinations: You may be surprised how many foods with different flavors go well together. For example, try making a large green salad and adding cooked whole grains and veggies on the top, as well as pieces of meat from another meal. Add your favorite healthy dressing and you have a wonderful new dish.

Food presentation: Make meals look festive and inviting

Remember that presentation makes a huge difference in the appeal of a meal. Eating on a budget can still be elegant, romantic, fun, and of course tasty. Some easy ways to spice up the table:

  • Colorful meals: Using small amounts of contrasting colors can be pleasing on the eye. Add some bright green herbs or some yellow frozen corn to a dish of black beans or lentils, for example, and save some to sprinkle on top for a garnish. Use carrots, red tomatoes, or red and yellow peppers to brighten a green leafy salad.
  • Inviting table setting: There are many creative ways to set your table so that it is inviting and beautiful. Place a candle or some fresh flowers in the center of the table. Use a colorful tablecloth or place mats. Fold colorful napkins at each place setting.
  • Involve the kids: Invite children to set the table. Let them decorate it in their own unique way.

Eating well on the cheap tip #5: Dessert can be affordable, healthy, and delicious

Dessert can be affordable, healthy, and deliciousCutting out sugary junk food does not mean that you have to cut out all desserts. We all enjoy sweet treats, so it is important to know how to include scrumptious, healthy, and affordable desserts in your menu. Instead of expensive, processed desserts packed with sugar, such as cakes, cookies, pastries, and muffins, try ending a meal with delicious fresh fruit or by making your own healthier and more affordable desserts.

  • Popsicles. Freeze your own 100% fruit juice popsicles. If you don't have a Popsicle tray you can use an ice-cube tray and freeze with small plastic spoons as handles.
  • Home baked items. Oatmeal cookies with rolled oats (whole grains) are a good example of a healthier, home baked dessert. Try reducing the amount of sugar any recipe calls for – many desserts taste just as good with less sugar.
  • Yogurt. Buy a large container of plain yogurt and make each serving unique by adding a little sweetener such as honey or seasonal fruit. You can even make your own frozen yogurt, too.
  • Frozen treats such as fruit, yogurt, and smoothies. Try freezing grapes or berries or cutting bananas or peaches into pieces and then freezing. For an amazing dessert pour a little dark chocolate sauce over the frozen fruit.
  • Chocolate. Many of us have chocolate cravings. Dark chocolate is actually quite high in anti-oxidants so enjoy the occasional square of dark chocolate (70% or higher is best) as a wonderful treat.

Related Articles

Healthy Eating

Healthy Eating – Learn easy ways to stick to a healthy diet to boost your energy, sharpen your memory, and stabilize your mood.

Healthy Recipes

Healthy Recipes – Instead of eating out, try making fast, delicious meals at home that are easy to prepare and healthy to eat.

Cooking for One

Cooking for One – Find meal ideas that make cooking for yourself as inexpensive as eating at fast food restaurants—but much healthier.

The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet – Get started on a diet that can help fight against heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, and cognitive decline.

Choosing Healthy Fats

Choosing Healthy Fats – A guide to replacing bad fats with good fats that promote health and emotional well-being.

Organic Foods

Organic Foods – Learn how to navigate the maze of organic food labels and make the healthiest choices.

Resources & References

Cheap healthy foods

Meal Planning: Healthy Eating On A Budget – This article has useful tips on budget food shopping. (The Diet Channel)

Eat Like A King On A Budget: A Healthy Diet Doesn't Have To Be Expensive – This article gives straightforward tips on healthy eating on a budget. (The Diet Channel)

Resources for healthy and alternative shopping 

Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce – Helpful chart ranking the 12 fruits and vegetables that are highest and lowest in pesticide residue, including a downloadable wallet-size shopping guide or smar tphone app. (Foodnews.org)

Community Supported Agriculture Farms Database – A searchable database of CSA farms by state. (Alternative Farming Systems Information Center/USDA)

Local Harvest: Real Food, Real Farmers, Real Community – A great resource for finding local growers, farmer's markets, and CSAs in your area.

Coop Directory Service: Find A Natural Food Coop Near You – Searchable database of food cooperative distributors and information on how to start a buying club. (Coop Directory)

The role of sugar and salt in a cheap, healthy diet

Sodium Content of Your Food – How sodium affects your body and how to cut down on dietary sodium. Included tips on reading nutrition labels, and suggestions for cooking and shopping. (University of Maine – PDF)

Sugar Stacks – Photos showing the amount of sugar in different foods. (Sugar Stacks)

The Dangers of Sugar and Salt – Article detailing evidence that too much of these ingredients can harm health. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Facts on Sugar and Salt – Includes how to interpret food labels. (Harvard School of Public Health)

Authors: Maya W. Paul, Robert Segal, M.A., and Melinda Smith, M.A. Last updated: May 2013.

©Helpguide.org. All rights reserved. This reprint is for information only and NOT a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Helpguide.org is an ad-free non-profit resource for supporting better mental health and lifestyle choices for adults and children.

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