The challenge of eating well on a budget
Eating a healthy diet is crucial to your mental and emotional health, as well as your physical well-being. It can make a big difference in your mood, energy, waist, and how well you think and feel. But at a time when many of us are out of work, facing an uncertain financial future, or living on a tight budget, finding foods that are healthy and affordable can be challenging.
Along with a lack of time, having a limited budget is one of the main barriers to eating a healthy diet. When you’re hungry and asked for time and money, fast, processed food may seem like the best option. While convenience foods are often tasty and filling, they also tend to be loaded with calories, sugar, and preservatives, and lack essential nutrients. And despite what you may have been led to believe, eating fast, processed food is rarely cheaper than eating healthy, homemade food.
Whether you’re in school, living alone, or raising a family on a budget, with these helpful tips you can enjoy healthy food without spending a lot of money. The more you focus on buying local raw foods, preparing meals at home, and reducing waste, the healthier and tastier your diet will be, the better you will feel and the more money you will save.
Eating healthy for less is more than just the cost of food
Even when you eat on a tight budget, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy meals. The pleasure of eating even the simplest meals increases when you share it with other people. Whether you’re cooking for the whole family or living alone, you can find ways to make affordable meals more enjoyable and more beneficial to your health and wellness, making them more social experiences.
Buy with others. Engaging your children in food shopping and preparing meals is a great opportunity to teach them about different foods, how to read food labels, and how to balance a budget. Alternatively, shopping with a friend or roommate can give you a chance to catch up without falling behind on your chores. It’s also a great way to share new meal ideas and save money on discount deals like “buy one, get the second half price.”
Make meals a social experience. The simple act of talking to a friend or loved one at the table can play an important role in relieving stress and increasing mood. Bring the family together and stay updated on everyone’s daily life. If you live alone, invite a friend, coworker, or neighbor. If you can’t physically be in the same space as friends or loved ones at lunchtime, try eating together while video chatting.
Cook with others. Invite a friend to share shopping and cooking responsibilities: one makes the main course, the other dessert, for example. Cooking with others can be a fun way to deepen relationships. Splitting costs can make it cheaper for both of you and being in the company of others can also help you avoid overeating out of boredom or loneliness.
Tip 1: Plan ahead
When it comes to saving money at the grocery store, planning is essential. Use one day each week to plan your meals for the next week. Then make a list of what you need. Also, be sure to scan your refrigerator and cabinets to see what you already have. There are usually a lot of hidden foods in the back that can be used. Just plan to buy what you know you’re going to use, so you don’t end up wasting too much of what you buy.
Plan to eat less. Due to the $ 1 deals advertised by many chains, it may seem like fast food is less expensive than cooking at home. But a meal for two at a fast-food restaurant in the United States, with drinks and chips each, will likely cost between $ 10 and $ 15; for a family of four it’s closer to $ 20 to $ 30. Preparing a simple and healthy beef or roast chicken stew with vegetables, for example, can cost a fraction of that and also leave you leftovers.
Create your shopping list. As you prepare meals during the week, take note of the foods and supplies you need. Check your cabinets, refrigerator and freezer to see what you already have and make note of upcoming expiration dates. You can even download sample shopping lists, so simply check the appropriate boxes (see “Get More Help” below).
Keep a supply of staples. These include ingredients such as olive oil, flour, canned tomatoes, canned fish, frozen vegetables, dried herbs and spices, pasta, rice, and bouillon cubes.
Find cheap and healthy recipes. Whether you live alone or with others, there are many simple and healthy recipes that can help you stay within your budget. Once you have a handful of tried and tested meal ideas, it will be easier for you to plan and shop throughout the week. Get information from your spouse, children, or other family members about what foods they would like to eat.
Prepare meals in advance. Prepare your lunches for the week on a Sunday night, for example, by cutting salads or making sandwich fillings.
Cut the trash. Eliminate unhealthy foods from your list, such as soda, cookies, crackers, prepackaged foods, and processed foods. These foods are full of unhealthy ingredients and offer little in the way of nutrition. Reducing them will help your wallet and your body.
Focus on healthier options. Planning meals based on low-cost but healthy whole foods, those that have been minimally processed, will help you stretch your budget and experience the health benefits of an improved diet.
Tip 2: Make smart food choices
Choosing healthy foods over processed foods doesn’t have to inflate your weekly budget. In fact, it’s worth remembering that junk food often costs you a lot more than the label price. A poor diet can affect your health and generate medical and medication bills, as well as reduce energy and productivity. However, making smart food choices can save you money and protect your health.
Choose whole foods. Convenience foods can save you time, but will cost you more. For example, buying a block of cheese and slicing or grating it yourself is cheaper than buying slices of processed cheese or bags of grated cheese, and it helps you avoid additives to prevent caking, etc. Similarly, buying a head of lettuce and washing and chopping it yourself is cheaper than buying bagged salads, and will often stay fresher longer.
Buy frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen fruits and vegetables are as nutritious as their fresh counterparts and still taste good, but are often less expensive. If you have freezer space, larger frozen bags tend to offer the best value.
Purchase of generic / store brands. When you buy from conventional supermarkets, the store or generic brand will often be cheaper than the brand for the same quality product.
Find simple ways to save money all day. Instead of having a morning coffee on the way to work or school, for example, make your coffee at home. Instead of buying breakfast or lunch, prepare yours using leftovers or homemade salads, sandwiches, or hard-boiled eggs.
Buy in large quantities. Buying non-perishable products, such as dried beans and canned fish, in bulk can save you money and shopping time. If you have space, you can store bulk purchased grains and cereals in airtight containers and freeze perishable items, such as meat and bread, in smaller portions to use as needed. Alternatively, you can split them up with a friend, saving both of you.
Buy seasonal products and buy per bag. When the product is in season, it is cheaper, as well as the tastiest and most nutritious. It’s often also cheaper to buy fruits and vegetables like apples, oranges, grapefruits, potatoes, and onions in bags, not pieces, as long as you can eat everything before it goes out.
Watch out for hidden sugars. Many packaged foods contain high levels of hidden sugar that can cause rapid changes in energy and blood sugar, and contribute to serious health problems. Avoid foods like instant mashed potatoes, white bread, canned soups, and sugary cereals.
Drink water instead of soda. It’s free and you can easily add variety by flavoring your water with fruits like lemon, lime, or orange.
Can you eat organic on a budget?
Even when shopping on a budget, it’s important to think about the quality of the food you buy. While organically grown food reduces the potential health and environmental risks posed by pesticides, genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and additives, they can often cost more than conventionally grown food. However, there may still be ways to enjoy the best quality and stay within your budget:
- Opt for locally grown food. Some small local farmers use organic methods but are not certified organic due to the cost involved. Visit a farmers market and talk to them to find out if their products are organic in anything but the name.
- Buy organic products only for the foods you eat the most. It will reduce your exposure to pesticides and antibiotics, while increasing the quality of your food.
- Be selective. Some fruits and vegetables have more chemical residues than others. In general, if you eat the skin (such as apples, strawberries, cucumbers) choose organic. For products like bananas, pineapple, or avocados, stick to cheaper, conventionally grown items.
- Compare prices. Compare organic products and compare costs at the grocery store, farmers market, online retailers, and food cooperatives.
- Remember: organic is not always as healthy. Having an organic label on baked goods, desserts, and snacks can make them sound healthier, but even organic processed foods are still high in sugar, salt, fat, or calories. Always read the labels carefully.
Tip 3: Buy wisely
The neighborhood grocery store is not the only place to shop. Sometimes other places can offer significantly cheaper ways to buy healthy food.
Discount stores. Department stores or clubs like Costco offer great bargains for seasonal produce and foods like chicken and cheese. To avoid waste, freeze large portions in smaller, more manageable sizes.
Look at the farmers markets. Many places host weekly farmers markets where local farmers sell fresh food directly, often cheaper than the grocery store. Towards the end of the market, some vendors sell the remaining perishables at a discount.
Join a CSA (community supported agriculture) group. A CSA is a great way to receive seasonal local food directly from a farmer. Buying clubs can also help make shopping a more social experience.
Ethnic markets and corner shops are worth a look. Many have an impressive and affordable selection of fruits and vegetables, as well as other products.
Online retailers. There are many websites available that offer grocery deliveries, which can save you a lot of time and, in some cases, money as well. Some online retailers offer discounted rates at traditional grocery stores, while others (like Thrive Market in the US) also focus on healthy and unprocessed foods. Always consider shipping charges or membership fees when comparing prices.
Wherever you choose to shop, these tips can help you stay within your budget.
- Buy the perimeter of the store first. This way, you’ll spend more than your budget on healthy whole foods like fruits and vegetables, leaving less money for expensive and unhealthy foods that often line the center aisles.
- Don’t buy when you are hungry. It is much more difficult to maintain your shopping list and avoid impulse or unhealthy purchases when you are hungry. Eat a healthy snack before shopping.
- Take advantage of sales. If you have shelf or freezer space, stock commodities or products you use frequently when they go on sale.
- Be smart with coupons. Coupons can offer tempting discounts, but they’re often for unhealthy packaged and processed foods. Don’t fall into the trap of buying junk food just because the price has dropped.
- Join a supermarket savings club for more discounts and savings.
Tip 4: Find cheaper protein options
Your body depends on protein for many of its functions. It is an important source of energy and supports your mood and brain function. However, the cost of some meat and fish protein sources can put real pressure on your food budget. By making some dietary adjustments, you can save money and still enjoy plenty of protein in your diet.
Buy less expensive cuts of meat. The cheapest cuts of meat can taste delicious and stretch even further when cooked slowly. Try using chicken thighs instead of breasts, or beef stew instead of a cut of steak to make tasty casseroles, soups, casseroles, and stir-fries.
Bulk meat dishes with other ingredients. Add rice, pasta, fresh or frozen vegetables, beans, or whole grains to meat to prepare delicious and hearty meals. Combine ground beef with black beans in tacos, for example, add whole grains to the meatloaf or add lots of vegetables to a stir-fried chicken.
Experiment with vegetarian sources of protein. Running out of meat one or more days per week does not mean losing protein, but it can mean substantial savings. Vegetable proteins like soy, tofu, beans, and lentils can be tasty, easy to prepare, and inexpensive. Stock up on dried and / or canned beans and lentils, nuts, and seeds.
Remember: Eggs are not just for breakfast. Vegetarian omelets and frittatas, for example, make quick, healthy meals that are high in protein and inexpensive. Add a side of rice, beans, or salad for a satisfying lunch or dinner.
Enjoy probiotics. Yogurt, soft cheeses, and kefir are inexpensive sources of protein and calcium, and also contain probiotics or “good” bacteria that can improve your digestive health. Non-dairy probiotic foods include sauerkraut, vegetables that have been pickled in brine instead of vinegar, miso soup, and tempeh.
Use canned fish or chicken as a cheap and healthy option for things like sandwiches, enchiladas, casseroles, and salads.
Tip 5: Stretch your money when you cook
Preparing large portions of food for use in multiple meals can save you time and energy, as well as money.
Cook once and eat several times. Cook a large meal at the beginning of the week so you have more to use later in the week when you don’t feel like cooking.
Single-pot dishes such as soups, stews, or casseroles save preparation time, money, and dishwashing. Freeze leftovers or reuse for lunches. For a cheap and nutritious breakfast, cook a pot of oatmeal and heat one serving each morning; Vary it by adding fruit, nuts, or seeds.
Make new foods from old ones
Instead of throwing away or forgetting leftovers in the back of the fridge, get creative and use them to make new meals.
- Soups, stews or stir-fries. Create a base with broth or sauce, or by sautéing onion or garlic, then add the leftovers you have. A small amount of meat is perfect for adding flavor and substance. You can also experiment with herbs and spices to create unique flavors.
- All burritos. Most leftovers make very tasty burritos. Just put everything in an omelette (try to get whole grains) with a little cheese or sauce and enjoy.
- Experiment with combinations. You’ll be amazed at how many different flavored foods pair well. For example, try making a large green salad and add cooked whole grains and vegetables on top, as well as pieces of meat from another meal.
Tip 6: Make sweets healthy and affordable
Eating well on a budget does not mean refusing a whim or cutting all desserts. Most of us crave sweets from time to time. But instead of expensive, sugary processed desserts like cakes, cookies, and muffins, there are healthier ways to satisfy those with a sweet tooth.
Popsicles. Freeze your own 100% fruit juice popsicles. If you don’t have a popsicle tray, use an ice cube tray with plastic spoons as handles.
Home baked items. Oatmeal cookies with rolled oats are a good example of a healthier homemade dessert. Try reducing the amount of sugar that any recipe requires – many desserts taste just as good.
Yogurt. Buy a large container of plain yogurt and make each serving unique by adding seasonal fruit.
Frozen treats. Try freezing grapes or berries or cutting bananas or peaches into pieces and then freezing them. For an amazing dessert, pour dark chocolate sauce over the fruit.
Dark chocolate. Many of us have chocolate cravings, and dark chocolate is quite rich in antioxidants. Enjoy an occasional square of dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more is best).