How to Eat Healthy on a Budget (and Why You Should)

Eating healthy is so important for everyone. Not only do you want to make sure you’re getting in all your vitamins and nutrients, but it’s also going to lead to a happier and healthier lifestyle. This, in turn, leads to fewer missed days of work and fewer expensive doctor’s visits. But if you’re broke you may think, “It’s impossible to eat healthy on a budget.”

It can seem daunting, expensive, and downright near-impossible. Especially if you’re not used to eating healthy.

It’s so vital, eating healthy can even help improve some health conditions (that’s not to say it can replace essential medication – that’s up to your doctor to decide), but it can help improve some of the symptoms and side effects.

Before we get started, I’ll get into a little of why it can be so difficult to eat healthily, low budget or not. Then, I’ll follow it up with the tips and tricks, and a few great resources I use to make this lifestyle change as easy as I can.

Why is it so Hard to Eat Healthfully?

Investigative reporter Michael Moss goes into a lot of detail in his book “Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us” (A book I highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already – it’s one of my favorites.) In his book, Moss goes into great detail about the addictive traits in salt, sugar, and fat, and how the food giants, and makers of all that processed food makes it near impossible to cut the habit.

In an interview with CNN Health, Moss said the following about this type of addiction;

That is the one single word that the food industry hates: “addiction.” They much prefer words like “crave-ability” and “allure.” Some of the top scientists who are very knowledgeable about addiction in the country are very convinced that for some people, the most highly sugared, high fat foods are every bit as addictive as some narcotics.

Their advice to these people is don’t try to eat just a couple Oreo cookies, because you are not going to be able to stop. Sugar uses the same neurological pathways as narcotic [products rely on] to hit the pleasure center of the brain that send out the signals: “eat more, eat more.” That said, the food industry defends itself by saying true narcotic addiction has certain technical thresholds that you just don’t find in food addiction. It’s true, but in some ways getting unhooked on foods is harder than getting unhooked on narcotics, because you can’t go cold turkey. You can’t just stop eating.

The head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Washington says that it’s more difficult for people to control their eating habits than narcotics. She is hugely empathic with overeaters.

Screen shot taken from https://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en-us/about-our-food/nutrition-calculator.html

There is so much more that goes behind it, but to summarize, highly processed foods that contain added sugar fat, and/or salt are just much more addictive, and nearly impossible to cut out. The more we eat, the more we crave. It’s like those chip commercials. You can’t just have one. And it’s not just junk food at the stores. It’s also fast food and cheap meals out. They add the extra salt and fat because it keeps you coming back for more.

The average grown adult should be eating 2000 – 2400 calories a day. But, when you take a look at the average meal at Mcdonald’s, it’s easy to see how fast you can blow that way out of the water with just a single meal.

A standard, if not modest meal at McDonald’s containing a single Big Mac, a large Coca-Cola, and a large fry takes up easily over half the calories of what you should be eating in a day. That’s without any customizations or extra add-ons like bacon, dessert, extra sauce, or for some people, even an extra sandwich or side of nuggets.

Let’s not even get into the details about just how high those three addictive traits are, and how low all the other nutrients are.

Ditch the Processed Foods

Yes, I know, I know, they’re so cheap, you can buy a whole bag of chips sometimes for as low as $1. But, realistically, what purpose is that bag of chips serving you? Remember how I just finished talking about how addictive they are? How hard that cycle is to break? Just look at the above example of how little you’re getting out of those foods. And here’s some food for thought; after you eat that huge meal of over 1000 calories, how long until you’re hungry again? Maybe a couple of hours?

The processed foods really are what kill your ability to eat and remain healthy. Don’t get me wrong, a small treat once in a while is totally fine, but when it becomes multiple meals out a week, that’s where we start getting in the tough spot. The more you eat, the more you crave.

I know it is also really hard to go cold turkey, so take small steps. If you usually buy 3-4 bags of chips for your household, try dropping it down to two bags, and as soon as you get home from the store, divide the bag into single portion-sized ziplock bags or containers. Put your sweets in a smaller bowl, and don’t just eat out of the container. That’s what leads to fog eating and overeating. Just remember, it’s okay to have a treat every once in a while, just don’t go overboard.

Trust me, I know how hard all that can be. Try finding a way to work through it, be a personal trainer, a friend or family member, or even an online platform. I personally started using Noom, and had a really good experience with it. I found it really helped me develop a better relationship with food, and have a better understanding of how and what I eat when I eat it. If you use this link, you’ll get 20% off your subscription and a 2-week free trial. It really made a difference for me.

Eat Healthy on a Budget by Choosing In-Season Produce

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the best advice I can give you is to shop in season. When you do, not only do prices tend to be way cheaper, but it’s also a great time to stock up on those extra freezable produce items and store them for the long haul.

I am a big fan of buying in bulk things like garlic, peppers, broccoli and cauliflower, green beans, berries, peaches, and even apples. They all freeze great and are easy to use later in things like stir-fry, steamed vegetables, smoothies, or pies.

Here are some other amazing reasons why it’s great to eat by the seasons and if you’re not positive when is in season what time of year, check out this article here that gives you the low down.

Add in Some Extra Healthy Starches

When it comes to making the more expensive meal items like veggies and meat stretch further, adding in extra starches to your meals really helps to eat healthy on a budget. Try looking into things like rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, pasta, oats, and the like. When you add some of these lower-cost yet filling starches, it will really stretch your food budget that much further.

And if you want to go a step further, you can turn it into a casserole too. Not sure how to make the casserole? Here is the Ultimate Frugal Casserole Formula that Daisy created, and I grew up eating and loving.

One of the benefits I find about going with a casserole instead of 3 separate portions of meat, starch, and vegetable, is that it’s a little easier to have that extra starch without feeling like it. For example, a cup of rice or mashed potatoes on their own seems like a mountain of not-so-exciting fun to overcome. When you have a casserole, even where a serving is more like a cup and a half of your starch, it feels like less, because if you cut your meat and veggies small, you’ll be getting some in every bite that you take. For me at least, I find it is much more satisfying.

Cook from Scratch

More often than not, when you are cooking from scratch, you’re going to be saving a lot of money. There is nothing wrong with buying the odd premade meal from the grocery store, but when you do, chances are, it’s not going to be quite as tasty, and you’ll also be paying a “Convenience Tax.” If you haven’t heard the term before, it refers to paying extra money for something that you can use do or make on your own for cheaper, but because it’s premade and easier to use, or ready to go, you pay extra.

So, not only will you be saving money when you switch to scratch cooking, but you’ll also know exactly what is going into your food. That mean’s you can easily eliminate all those extra processed chemicals that don’t do anyone any good. It also, in most cases is going to taste a heck of a lot better, and it’s way easier than you might imagine. Cooking can scratch can really help you to eat healthy on a budget.

Don’t believe me or not sure how to start? This article goes into much more detail about how to revive the lost art of scratch cooking, why you should do it, and how to get started.

Add a Little (or a Lot) of Soup

While the casseroles I mentioned in the last section are great, soups and stews are, arguably, even better! Soup, in some ways, is very similar to casseroles. You’re using what you have available to you, and making it stretch farther, but when you add some broth to the mix, it makes that casserole stretch that much farther. What could be one serving of casserole could be at least 2 servings of soup (if not more).

And again, you’re going to want to stick to homemade soups more than the store-bought ones if you want to eat healthy on a budget. If you’re not sure how to make a simple soup from scratch with what you have on hand, here is the ultimate frugal soup formula. Another thing to keep in mind is if you’re also making your own bone broth or vegetable broth, you’re going to get way more nutrients than your standard store-bought broth.

Oh, and did I mention, the only things you really need to make homemade broth are things you’re probably already throwing out? If you’re unsure, here is an article about the benefits and how to make your own bone broth. If you’re more interested in making veggie broth, the easiest way to do it is to take the leftover scraps from prepping your veggies, think peels, cores, stems of things like cauliflower or broccoli, the tops, and greens of vegetables you don’t usually eat, and boil them in a pot full of water for a few hours on low. (Just make sure you’ve washed the part’s your throwing in first.)

I try to make at least one hearty soup a week, more if it’s cold or winter season. It just stretches the budget that much further.

Meal Planning

In my household, there are myself and three other full-grown adults. It’s a great big house, so there’s lots of room to spare, but we’re always trying to lessen the cost of our grocery bill where we can. We also try to eat healthy (some more than others, but the dinners are usually spot-on). So, we take advantage of meal planning. and we’ve settled into a great routine.

To start off, we take the time every Sunday (a day we all don’t work), and sit down and plan our meals for the week. We write it down and stick it on our Weekly Planner whiteboard that has its own place front and center, hanging on our kitchen wall.

We do a quick check of the fridge, both freezers, and the pantry, and see what we have. And from that, we make a meal plan. The first step is to see if there are any ingredients in the fridge that might go bad in the next few days. If so, we come up with meals to use first or freeze them.

Then we take a look at the meat we’ve got in the freezer and use that as a starting point. We’ve got to the point where when a certain type of meat goes on sale, we’ve got enough in our grocery budget to buy extra to help save on future bills. As a matter of fact, we barely buy meat unless it is on sale (but I’ll touch more on that in a bit.)

Then we just build our meals around that. We tend to do at least one roast a week, be it beef, pork, or chicken. We will often do some type of stirfry, a couple of casseroles, and at least one soup.

Shop with a List (and Stick to it!)

Shopping with a list is something I do every week. After planning out my aforementioned meal plan, I write down a list of everything that I need. I take a tally of everything in the house and go from there.

Most weeks I try to buy new items of everything that I need. I do keep a small stockpile, but I save it for those weeks or months where money is really tight. Just make sure you cycle your goods so you’re using older ones first. Not sure how to build a stockpile? I totally recommend the book Prepper’s Pantry by Daisy Luther. It’s full of great advice on how to build that stockpile quickly, cheaply, and in a way that can be customized for any household. The Stockpile Cafe is another great book by her that has some of the best recipes to make from things in your stockpile.

Anyway, back to the list. It is so important to plan out your trip so that you can eat healthy on a budget. Here are some of the ways it helps;

  • It lessens impulse shopping – when you stick to your list, and only the things on the list, you’re less likely to buy a bunch of extra things that you either don’t need or may go bad. (Leave yourself a little wiggle room as occasionally there is an item or two you might be out of that you forgot to add, but only pick it up if it’s essential).
  • You can get everything in one trip – you don’t have to worry about forgetting an item or two and having to brave the store multiple times in the same week (which often leads to extra impulse shopping)
  • It makes it fun for kids – If you have a child of reading age that’s shopping with you, hand them the list and get them to check everything off. Make it like a scavenger hunt to find everything on the list. Plus, it has the bonus of giving a ligament reason to your little one for not buying a treat if it isn’t on the list.
  • You can take a look at the flyers beforehand so you know what’s on sale, and where, so you can make the most out of your buck.

Meal Prep to Eat Healthy on a Budget

Meal prepping not only saves you time but also makes it less likely that you’re going to waste any food. And, I don’t know about you, but some days, I really don’t want to put the effort into prepping and cooking a whole meal. Especially on those off days where I’m exhausted. On those days, I also find it near impossible not to just throw in the towel, order some takeout or stop at a drive-thru on my way home from work. Neither of which is healthy or cheap. When it’s almost all ready to go, and I know all I have to do is assemble and back or pan-fry or BBQ, it helps just that little extra bit with my willpower.

Never meal prepped before? Well, what I will often do is do my grocery shopping early in the day on Sunday, and just spend a few hours prepping. Sometimes it’s pre-measuring seasoning, washing and chopping all my fruits and veggies, and having them ready to go at a moment’s notice. (I find that having these items ready also helps me choose a healthy snack more frequently because it’s just as fast as reaching for a sugar-filled granola bar.) I’ll also portion out my meat, marinade the ones that need to be marinated in a Tupperware or ziplock bag in the fridge. What isn’t going to be eaten right away, I still make sure to portion it into an appropriate amount for my household for a meal. It saves on waste and leftovers that don’t always get eaten. Here’s another article about meal prepping.

Add Extra Beans to Your Diet

Beans are a delicious, cheap, and filling protein. I practically grew up on beans and I loved it. They were honestly one of my favorite things to eat, and to this day, I still eat them numerous times a week. (Black beans are my favorite if you were wondering.) With bean prices as low as they tend to be, switch up beans for a different main protein like beef or chicken, even just once or twice a week can save you a fortune.

Now, if you’d like, you can buy the beans that are ready to go, and in a can, and they honestly aren’t that expensive – where I am, about $1 a can for the no-name brand. If you want to save even more though, get the dried ones in a bag. Yes, I know, it’s a bit more effort, but, they’re not going to have any preservatives this way, and you’ll probably get about 6 times as many beans (if not more), for only a dollar or two more. Oh, and did I mention they take up way less space and are way lighter this way?

If you’re uncertain about what to do with them, here are 11 delicious ways to use dry beans.

A Few Extra Tips to Eat Healthy on a Budget

While I’ve already listed many great tips and tricks to save a fortune on your healthy eating and grocery shopping, there are just a few more I wanted to point out.

Price Matching and Couponing

Depending on where you live, you can find and use lots of coupons, or some stores may even allow you to price match with a flyer. If you’re strategic, you can save a load using these two methods. I personally use the Flipp app, which easily allows me to create a grocery list, and price match all in one. Plus, I can share my grocery list with the other members of my household so people can add to it at any time from their phones.

Make your Proteins Last Longer

Did you know you can turn one single chicken into a full week of dinners? I know, crazy. In her article, Kristie Mae goes into just how to make that magic happen with a vastly different meal every night, and a list of the few groceries you’ll need to make it happen. Get Creative with it! See how far you can stretch your protein and still be satisfied

Use Reward Sytems

Many grocery stores in Canada and the US have reward or points systems that reward you for buying more. Most of the time they’re free, it only takes a few minutes to sign up, and is a matter of a quick scan or swipe to collect every shopping trip. When it means free groceries, that’s nothing!

A few different stores that have points include Kroger, Whole Foods, Target, PC Optimum (in Canada), and I’m sure there are many more depending on where you live.

Check Out the Frozen Produce

This is something I do frequently, especially in the winter months where produce prices tend to spike. A lot of my vegetables (and some of my fruit) tend to be frozen. It’s easier, less prep work, and, often, a cheaper option. I almost exclusively buy green beans frozen. A few others I usually get are broccoli, cauliflower, corn, peas, peppers, stir-fry vegetable mix. I also get frozen fruit for smoothies or baking. Lots of things like berries, peaches, pineapple, and a few more. You can get canned of a lot of these items too, but I prefer frozen. They tend to be a lot fresher, have no preservatives, and, they don’t taste like they’ve been overcooked.

Get Cash Back from the Things You Buy

Have you heard of iBotta? It’s an application where you can scan your receipt after shopping and earn money back just from the items you purchased. Sometimes you may only earn 5 or 10 cents, sometimes a few dollars, but when it comes to money, every little bit counts. It takes 10 seconds to scan your receipt, and for the chance to lessen your bill, why not give it a shot!

Just Because it’s on Sale Doesn’t Mean You Need It

Sometimes I struggle a lot with this one. I am all for a good sale, but sometimes I buy things that I really don’t need just because of those little letters. Sale. Just because that price tag is low, doesn’t mean there is a legitimate need for it in your house or fridge. If it’s something you’ll definitely use, like chicken, then, by all means, buy a few extra packs if you have room. But if it’ll go bad, or will just sit in your cupboard for the next 6 months until a local food drive, don’t waste your money.

Conclusion

Well, I think by now, you’ve got a pretty good list of tips and tricks to help you out. Making the switch in lifestyle may not be the easiest, but it’s totally worth it. The longer you do it, the easier it’ll get. And all this isn’t to say you can never eat a bag of chips or a burger at Wendy’s ever again. Just keep in mind, all things in moderation. Break the cycle of bad habits and use these tools to your best advantage. Save every penny you can.

And, at the end of the day, just remember, you might have slip-ups, you might backtrack a little, and it might not be the easiest, but trust me, it’ll be worth it once you get to where you’re going.

Do you have any tips or tricks you use that I didn’t list above? If so, I’d love to hear them. I’m always looking for more ways I can save!

How to Eat Healthy on a Budget (and Why You Should)
Chloe Morgan

Chloe Morgan

Chloe Morgan grew up living with a tight budget. In her late teens and early 20’s all the lessons she’d learned started to slip, like it does for many college age students on their own for the first time, and with their first credit card. As she’s gotten older, she’s started to deal with the repercussions and has taken on a frugal way of living, keeping her costs low, as she pays off debt and saves for her future.

6 thoughts on “How to Eat Healthy on a Budget (and Why You Should)”

  1. Some random thoughts in no particular order

    There’s another food saving method I didn’t see mentioned, that being dehydration. Besides not being vulnerable to a freezer going out for a longer power outage than you’re equipped to handle, dehydrated foods preserve a lot more of their nutrition than canning, for example. Tammy Gangloff, the guiding light for the dehydrate2store.com website and at least one related book, says that while canning saves about 50% of a food’s nutrition, the dehydration process saves more than 90%. So there are three advantages: 1) the light weight advantage for travel, 2) the absence of vulnerability to power outages, and 3) the far greater nutritional preservation benefit that is so seldom mentioned.

    I realize this article is aimed at the younger generations who can still eat just about anything. As one ages and various medical issues arise, the various conflicting medical opinions on what foods should be avoided and which ones should be embraced tend to complicate one’s food choices. Medical education in today’s American medical school tends to overlook wise food choices for either ailment repair or for longevity. It takes some digging into the holistic / naturopathic community to explore those issues in greater detail — which mainstream medical organizations and government tends to demean.

    One example of such knowledge comes from the just released book “Radical Longevity…” whose author I listened to on late night radio only a few nights ago. It covers some food choices that are especially interesting from around the world in cultures where living well over a hundred is very common. One’s cheapskate instincts might suggest waiting until six months have passed beyond the May 2021 publisher’s release date because then that book will be fair game for free interlibrary loan access. That’s in addition to the Kindle and print versions access on Amazon.

    Radical Longevity: The Powerful Plan to Sharpen Your Brain, Strengthen Your Body, and Reverse the Symptoms of Aging Hardcover – May 11, 2021
    by Ann Louise Gittleman PhD CNS

    https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Longevity-Powerful-Strengthen-Symptoms/dp/0738286168/ref=sr_1_3?crid=2NB8LTCGT0L42&dchild=1&keywords=radical+longevity%2C+ann+louise+gittleman&qid=1623873379&s=books&sprefix=radical%2Caps%2C186&sr=1-3

    Finally, I might suggest a way to know whether a power outage that shut down your freezer but has since returned power … was out long enough to ruin your frozen foods or came back in time to save them. It’s a well publicized trick to fill a jar about 3/4 full of water, let it freeze solid in your freezer and then put a quarter on top of the ice. The theory is that if the power was out long enough that the ice melted enough that the quarter sank either partway or all the way to the bottom, your nearby foods were probably goners.

    Two problems with those instructions: 1) using a glass jar is a bad idea. It’s wiser to use a flexible plastic container such as Tupperware might supply. That way any ice expansion won’t crack a glass jar. 2) After the ice freezes in your flexible plastic container and you’ve put that quarter on top of the ice, you need to put a tight fitting lid on top. That will keep the ice from potentially evaporating away during the many months (or years) it’s in your freezer … which would destroy the usefulness of your warning quarter system as it languishes on the bottom.

    –Lewis

    1. I was going to mention dehydration too. We have a very large dehydrator, normally used for preparing wilderness camping foods. However, i use it regularly for processing veggies, fruit, meat jerky and homemade protein bars. If a large bag of peppers or apples is a better buy than singles, I just slice and dry what I know the 2 of us won’t use up while they are fresh. Mushrooms on sale are perfect dryer candidates and it is even worthwhile to dry some frozen produce or seafood. All still work well in soups, casseroles or a fruit cobbler.

  2. Great article! Portion control is a huge aid to all of these things. By the way, if readers want a free place that gives you a good community, portion advice, good recipes, and nutrition information, try My Fitness Pal. It’s free for everything but the premium service and you can do fine without that.

    One thing about eating more whole foods, that is things are that are less processed, is that they fill you up better. This is true no matter what dietary needs you have, with the possible exception of some patients who are on dialysis and have to eat a lot more processed foods.

    If you have a good freezer, I love frozen foods, especially because they are typically picked at the peak of ripeness and can sometimes hold their nutrition better. Agreed with the advice on dehydration the poster above mentioned, too.

    Cutting out the junk that wasn’t really satisfying me anyway is a major factor in losing 96 pounds and counting. You really can give that stuff up if you want to and after a while real foods start tasting really good.

  3. I don’t have electricity so no freezer or fancy dehydrator. I can in jars or sun dry food. I make bone broth and vegetable broth using trimmings. I grow a family size garden to feed us from and sell from. I raise chickens, rabbits, and ducks for protein sources. I’m adding more fruit this year. Tree fruits elderberries and other bushes will take time. Blackberries, raspberries and strawberries will bear some fruit this year. I’ve added hazel nuts this year also.

    I try to plan and prepare as much as possible ahead. It sure helps with time. Since injuring a knee again and my husband’s Alzheimers is getting worse I signed us up for free senior meals on wheels. Free hot lunches delivered to the front door – really does help. Frozen or fresh vegetables, a main dish, a bread, 1/2 pints of chocolate milk for my husband and 2% milk for me. Sometimes a small desert. Smaller senior meaIs but plenty for us. One main meal provided is a big help. I realize it’s not for everyone and the truth is we could still eat without it but its giving my injury time to heal better and really helping with the budget. My husband is enjoying a bigger variety that we can afford. Since I’m getting around slower I’m getting more done in the garden with one prepared meal.

  4. Our Kroger store has marked down produce. If chosen wisely it can save money. It can be eaten soon, frozen or dehydrated. I check the sales and purchase from that. Also meats are usually marked down in the early morning. Ask the meat department where they place them . They are perfectly fine even if they aren’t bright pink. And after cooked you’ll never know the difference. Having a well stocked pantry can save lots of money. This is accomplished by buying extras of commonly eaten foods when they are on sale or in the mark downs. Using coupons with the sale or mark downs saves even more money. When you make it yourself you can adjust the sugar content and other less desirable ingredients. Using a crock pot, instapot or pressure cooker can save time also and still produce delicious and healthy foods.

    1. Smiths is a Kroger store. I used those discounts when I could. Fruits or Veggies bagged in $.99 units. Marked down meats often were still pink but close to the sell by date or baked goods at usually half price. It really helped with a budget.
      Today I live nearest a Walmart 15+ miles away. I watch for marked down items and buy any baked goods such as a rare fruit pie deeply discounted on a small rack in the grocery area. Mostly I try to grow what we eat.

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