When you’re on a budget, grocery shopping can provide a lot of financial stress. In fact, the idea that healthy food is expensive is one of the most common objections people have about improving their diet. While the cost of food continues to increase, there are some simple strategies that you can implement to help eat healthy on a budget without forgoing finances.
What exactly is “healthy eating”?
Put simply, “healthy eating” is consuming a diet of primarily whole foods that provides a good balance of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) in a calorie intake that supports your overall health, while allowing room for indulgence and treats.
Eating healthy is not about eating perfectly, it’s about eating a nutrient-rich, balanced diet most of the time, not all the time.
And, while there is a common misconception that eating well needs to cost a lot of money, the reality is that eating healthy does not need to be expensive. In fact, you can eat well without stretching your budget with a little know-how. Ultimately, it comes down to planning, comparing, cooking, and minimizing waste.
Tips to Eat Healthy on Budget
Here are 18 ways to eat healthy on a tight budget:
1. Stick to whole foods.
Prioritizing whole foods can help you stick to your budget while prioritizing your health at the same time. Unprocessed whole foods, such as grains, legumes, produce, dairy, and meat, are often less expensive than their fully prepared or highly processed counterparts. For instance, per serving, oats are cheaper than cereal, a block of cheese is cheaper than shredded cheese, and a bag of rice of cheaper than a packet of ready rice. Moreover, calorie per calorie, whole foods are more nutrient-dense than hyper-processed foods, which makes them more satisfying, satiating, and filling overall (1, 2). For instance, although a bag of chips may be less than or similar in price to a bag of apples, snacking on apples is far more nourishing and filling than snacking on chips.
2. Don’t panic over organic.
The debate as to whether to buy organic food is a big and complex one and, while there are definitely benefits to supporting local, organic farmers, whether you choose to buy organic food is a personal choice. It’s important to understand that whole foods – organic or not – are nutrient-dense foods. In fact, several independent studies have shown that, while consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, there are no significant health or nutritional differences between food grown conventionally versus organically (3). So, if you’re trying to eat healthy on a budget, just prioritize whole foods and don’t stress over whether they are organic or not.
3. Don’t go crazy for “superfoods”.
Here’s the deal, there is no such thing as a superfood. The term “superfood” is not a scientific term, it’s a marketing term used to describe foods thought to be exceptionally dense in nutrition. The reality is, ALL whole foods are “super” foods and while, yes, some whole foods are more nutrient-dense than others, all whole foods contain nutrients. Cacao nibs, spirulina, maca, and bee pollen are all wonderful, but if they are not in the budget you don’t need to stress over it. There is no need for a $20 smoothie with fresh dates from Morocco, organic Mexican chia seeds, and salt from the Himalayan mountains, when a simple bowl of oatmeal will do the trick.
4. Don’t freeze over frozen.
Contrary to popular belief, frozen whole food is healthy. Freezing vegetables, as well as fruit, meat, and seafood, is simply a method of food preservation that allows us to store fresh foods, reduce spoilage, and save food for a later time when they are no longer in season. In fact, freezing food is one of the best methods of food preservation as it puts a hold on moisture loss, nutrient loss, and growth of microorganisms. By the time you pick up a fresh vegetable or fruit at the grocery store, it might have already lost between 15-60% of some vitamins, namely vitamin C, depending on when it was picked, when it was shipped, and how long it’s been sitting on the grocery store shelf, while the same vegetable or fruit usually loses no more than 20% of vitamins when frozen (4). Although fresh, local, seasonal produce is always the best option, frozen is a fantastic choice.
5. Buy in bulk.
Buying certain foods, such as whole grains, flour, nuts, and seeds, in bulk can save you a ton money. There are lots of stores that specialize in this alone, as well as plenty of online websites you can purchase from. While there might be a larger initial outlay of money, buying in bulk helps you control the cost per serving, as buying them in small quantities can get quite costly since the packaging alone can cost up to 15% of the price.
6. Buy dry.
Although buying prepared foods can save time in the kitchen, raw ingredients are much more budget-friendly. For instance, serving per serving, a bag of raw black beans is much cheaper than a can of black beans. Purchasing non-perishable foods in their raw format, including beans, lentils, chickpeas, pasta, rice, oats, corn, wheat berries, and barley, is a great way to save money on a tight budget. And the same goes for herbs, as dried herbs work just as well in recipes are fresh herbs, are a fraction of the cost, and keep much longer.
7. Stock up on root veggies.
Root vegetables are so underrated! Root vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips, turnips, and celeriac are incredibly nutritious, filling, versatile, and extremely budget-friendly. A bag of potatoes can last for up to several months in a cool pantry and be included in a wide variety of dishes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while providing a significant of vitamins C, B6, and other nutrients, including fiber, which helps to support digestion and appetite regulation. Root vegetables work well in soups and stews, salads, and roasted as a simple side dish.
8. Buy less popular cuts of meat.
When opting for meats, buy the less popular cuts. Chicken thighs, whole chicken, whole fish, ground meat, stewing cuts, and organ meats are far more affordable than more popular cuts. Ironically, in many cases, the less popular cuts of meat, especially bone-in meats and organ meats, are more nutrient-dense and satiating as well. Plus, if you’re willing to make a long-term investment and get a little creative in the kitchen, buying a whole cow or pig, or opting into a meat share from your local farmer, CSA, or butcher can save you a ton of money.
9. Eat more plant-based meals.
In addition to buying less popular cuts of meat, eating less meat overall can help you eat healthy on a budget. Swapping your favorite meat proteins for plant-based protein, such as tofu, beans, or lentils, can allow you to create a similar meal for a fraction of the cost. For instance, a humble cup of dry beans can easily cook into a 6-serving bean soup, while some lentils can create an 8-serving vegetarian shepherd’s pie even a meat-lover will enjoy.
10. Take inventory.
Before you buy anything new, take inventory of what you already have. Before you make a meal plan or grocery list, check the fridge, cupboards, and pantry to review what you already have on hand and consider what you can cook with those ingredients. Not only will this help to ensure that you’re not purchasing duplicates, but with a little creativity you may be able to create a meal with the onion, carrots, lentils, frozen spinach, and spices in the kitchen, and forgo an additional grocery store purchase altogether.
11. Make a plan but stay flexible.
Before you start haphazardly buying bell peppers and lettuce, sit down and make a meal plan for the week. Even if it’s rough, having a general idea of how many meals you need to create and what you’re going to cook will help to ensure that you don’t buy more than you need, you use everything you buy, and you save money in the process. Plan to buy ingredients that can be used across multiple meals, but remain flexible in case you find a great deal. Don’t stress over buying broccoli or asparagus, ground chicken or ground turkey, they’re all real food, just pick the cheapest option. Moreover, creating a plan can help to limit impulse buys of extra items, even prepared healthy snacks, that you don’t necessarily need.
12. Forgo brand names.
Brand names are nothing to worry about when it comes to food. All food manufacturers must follow the same food standards and regulations and store brand items (also known as private label) are often the same quality as brand-name items. Opting for store brands, which frequently include the exact same ingredients as brand names, is a great way to eat healthily and save money on a tight budget. Plus, keep an eye out for sales and use coupons whenever possible.
13. Shop internationally.
Ethnic grocery stores and the international aisle in conventional grocery stores are full of amazing and inexpensive finds. You can often find items such as grains, nuts, seeds, and sauces at a fraction of the cost without skimping on quality. For example, items like tahini, hummus, hot sauces, and spices can be double to triple the cost at major grocery store chains.
14. Buy what’s in season.
In many cases, seasonal produce is less expensive than out-of-season produce. Fruits and vegetables that are grown and sold locally are generally more plentiful, so they can be sold at a lower price point, while off-season produce typically has a higher price point as it needs to be flown in from different regions. In addition to having a lower cost, seasonal produce tends to be more nutrient-dense and provides the exact nutrients your body needs for that season. When things are in season buy them in bulk and freeze them for later; there is nothing more enjoyable than pulling local frozen blueberries out of the freezer in the dead of winter. Not to mention, there are many social and economic benefits of shopping locally.
15. Limit food waste by getting creative.
Each year, 119 billion pounds of food is wasted in the United States, 39% of which is made in our homes (5). Put simply, wasted food is wasted money, so limiting food waste is a simple yet effective way to make eating healthy more budget-friendly. In addition to taking an inventory of your kitchen before you shop and only buying what you need, appropriately storing or freezing leftovers and finding creative ways to use leftovers can help you limit food waste. So instead of throwing out that last bit of soup, freeze it and enjoy it another day, and instead of disposing of those few bits of cooked vegetables from dinner, save them and turn into a frittata or add them as toppings to a pizza.
16. Cook at home.
Let’s be honest, cooking at home is much cheaper than dining out and, in addition to saving money, it can help you eat much healthier too. While there are many healthy restaurant options, and you can certainly dine out from time to time, cooking your own meals put you in more control of the ingredients you use and calories you consume. Although $20 may buy a big hearty meal, you are not in control of the ingredients restaurants use – including the amount of added oil and sugar – and you can make multiple meals at home for the same price.
17. Eat similar meals and ingredients.
Eating the same, or similar, meals every day is a great way to save money. Although it is important to eat a variety of macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fat – to ensure you’re consuming a variety of micronutrients – vitamins and minerals – you don’t need to eat a massive variety of foods to do that. You can consume all the nutrients your body needs in a limited number of foods by choosing them wisely and creating balanced meals. For example, eating oats for breakfast every day and topping them with different fruits depending on the season or buying a big bag of green peas and cooking them in several different dishes throughout the week can help to reduce costs, as well as mealtime decision-making. In fact, research shows that eating the same or similar meals helps to increase consistency and dietary adherence, making healthy eating and dieting much easier (6, 7).
18. Be mindful of portion sizes.
Unpopular truth – eating more food than you need increases how much money you spend on food. There’s no denying it, portion sizes have significantly increased over the years and research consistently shows that we are eating more, even when we are not hungry (8, 9). In addition to being a helpful strategy for consuming balanced meals with an adequate amount of each macronutrient, paying attention to portion sizes has the potential to help you eat healthy without going over budget. On average, Americans are consuming far more calories each day than is recommended and, according to one study, normalizing portions could reduce calorie intake by almost one-third, about 527 calories per day (10). Moreover, being mindful of your hunger cues, by using a tool such as the hunger-fullness scale, can help to ensure that you’re honoring your body’s natural signals while supporting your health and your finances at the same time.
The Bottom Line
It is possible to support your finances without forgoing nutrition. By planning your meals, buying in bulk, and cooking at home with less popular cuts of meat and plant-based proteins you can eat healthy on a tight budget. Don’t stress over buying fancy, organic, superfoods, just stick to the basics by keeping meals simple, being a little creative and resourceful, and, most importantly, prioritizing whole foods.