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How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

By Paul Sisolak
May 6, 2019

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There’s a myth out there: Only the wealthy can eat healthy.

This is perpetuated by false information that unhealthy food is the only affordable option available to consumers on a budget. But did you know that is possible to eat healthy and save money at the same time. All it takes is some budget-friendly meal planning and knowing where to buy cheap yet healthy food.

Here are eight ways to start eating healthy on a budget.

1. Plan Your Meals

Weekly meal planning on a budget entails creating a menu for the week, buying just the necessary ingredients, and cooking at home. This can pay off – for your health and your wallet.

By buying only what you need, you’ll avoid overspending.

“The easiest way to save money on healthy foods is not to spend on items you don’t need or that you already have in your house. Identify exactly what you plan to cook,” says Riley Adams, a CPA and financial blogger at Young and the Invested.

“It’s when you go to the store without a plan that you end up buying extra things that you either didn’t need or won’t use for a while,” says Marissa Szabo, a certified health coach.

For the most effective meal planning, select one day a week to schedule out your meals for the next seven days. Saturday or Sunday tends to work well as you have the weekend to create your list, go grocery shopping and prep for the work week ahead.

“Be strategic with your planning; choose snacks and meals for the week that use a few ingredients several different ways. This will help keep costs down,” says Szabo.

You should also look for sales and use coupons to help structure your weekly meal plan. Depending on what’s on sale, this could influence what you cook for the week.

2. Stick to Your Grocery List

Once you’ve created your first meal plan for the week, the next step is to make a shopping list that includes healthy, whole foods.

Sticking to your grocery list once you enter the store is also important. If you struggle with this, try downloading a grocery list app to resist the temptation to spend money on needless food items and buy only what’s on your list. Some grocery apps to try include Grocery Pal, AnyList, Mealime, Out of Milk, Grocery iQ or Recipe Keeper.

Dr. John Gilmer, vice president of research and development at the iron supplement company Active Iron, also recommends that you don’t go to the store on an empty stomach.

“Most importantly, don’t go to the store hungry. It’s very easy to get side-tracked at the store buying what looks good,” he says.

3. Use a Crock-Pot to Make Healthy Dinner Recipes with Leftovers

A crock-pot is a great way to make soups or casserole-type dishes when you’re beginning to reach the end of your groceries for the week. Wasting leftovers or failing to use products before they expire can also be a big money waster.

One tip is to put all your leftover ingredients into the crock-pot in the morning and start it up. Dinner will then be ready by the time you get home from work — another way to both save money and ease your dinner-time routine.

When making soup, “simply save the scraps from the veggies you prepare, like onion skins, carrot and celery tops, garlic peels, and broccoli stems,” says Szabo.

“Toss it all in a crock-pot and cover it with water. Cook on low for six to eight hours, and you have a ton of broth,” she says.

4. Incorporate Meatless Monday

Meat is expensive and adds to your grocery bill.

For example, the average cost of lean beef was $5.20 as of February 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Pork is priced around $3.30 per pound, and chicken, while a bit cheaper at about $1.50 per pound, can cost up to three dollars per pound for boneless breast cuts.

The less meat you eat, the more money you’ll save on groceries. If you live in a vegetarian-friendly household, by all means, make as many meatless dishes as possible. If you prefer an omnivorous diet, prepare at least one meatless dinner per week.

“Adding a meatless Monday (or whatever day you prefer) to your week will not only help you add more vegetables to your diet, but it can also help you cut your grocery budget,” says weight loss therapist Candice Seti.

“Protein rich options like beans and mushrooms are less expensive than meat and are packed with nutrients,” she says.

Some meatless meals to try:

  • Omelets with either eggs, egg whites, or egg substitutes
  • Stir fry with a meat substitute, like tofu, beans, or bean sprouts
  • Vegetarian paella
  • Black bean burgers
  • Grilled portobello mushroom burgers

5. Stop Eating Out

One of the easiest — if not the easiest — ways to save money on food is to stop eating out. It doesn’t matter if you frequent a fast food dollar menu, or a five-star restaurant every night. Eating out can sap your budget of valuable dollars that you could be saving or spending on more important things, like healthy food at the grocery store.

Home-cooked food is almost always healthier than restaurant food. For starters, you know what’s in the meal. You can also control the amount of salt, fat and carbs you cook with, not to mention your portion sizes.

6. Buy In-Season or Frozen Fruits and Veggies

Organic isn’t always better. Not only does buying organic produce tend to be more expensive, but in-season, local fruits and vegetables can be cost-effective and equally nutrient rich.

“One way to keep on budget is to buy produce in season,” says nutritionist Jeanette Kimszal.

“Foods that are in season tend to be lower in price than those that are out of season. For example, berries are available all year, but in the winter they are often shipped from Mexico and South America. The shipping costs may be passed on to the consumer and tend to be higher in price than other produce in season,” says Kimszal.

Another option? Buy frozen vegetables. They’re cheaper, plus you can portion out the veggies you defrost and cook, and stick the rest in the freezer without fear of them going bad.

“If you are making a smoothie or a stir-fry, frozen fruits and vegetables are a great option,” says Elizabeth Girouard, a certified holistic health coach.

“Most produce is picked at its peak and flash frozen, which retains the nutrients. Since they are picked and packed in season, the cost is more reasonable, particularly for organics,” says Girouard.

7. Shop the Grocery Store’s Perimeter

Ever notice that the fresh foods and healthier choices in the supermarket surround the perimeter — along each wall — of the store?

Always shop these outer areas of your store first. This is where you’ll find the most healthy foods. With that, try to ignore the middle aisles, where packaged and processed foods are found, like canned vegetables with high sodium content, fattening desserts, and carb-loaded snacks and breads.

“Use this plan to navigate the aisles of the grocery shopping, and stick to it,” says Adams of Young and the Invested.

8. Buy Healthy Food in Bulk

Buying certain items in bulk can be cheaper, especially non-perishables and canned items like tuna, beans, or pasta sauce. Boxed items like rice and quinoa can also be purchased in bulk for big savings.

“Nuts, seeds, dried fruit, chia seeds, and much more can have significantly lower prices than packaged versions of those same items,” says Seti, who advocates buying in bulk at Costco, Sam’s Club and other warehouse stores.

“Many warehouse stores are catching on to consumers’ desires for more real, whole foods and are starting to stock options for health-minded shoppers,” she says.

9. Shop at Cheaper Grocery Stores

Costco and Sam’s Club are just two places to shop for cheap, healthy food. But don’t overlook budget-friendly stores like Trader Joe’s, Food4Less, or grocery departments at discount retailers like Walmart and Target.

Personal finance blogger Marc Andre of Vital Dollar likes shopping at Aldi, the German-based discount chain with locations in several states.

“You can save a lot of money by choosing generic brands and/or shopping at discount grocery stores,” he says.

“My wife and I do most of our grocery shopping at Aldi, and they have their own private label brands for generic organic and gluten-free foods. The prices are significantly lower than what you would pay for comparable products from name brands at other grocery stores,” says Andre.

Meghann Featherstun, a registered dietitian, says that shopping the sales at stores like Aldi can make all the difference. From there, you can effectively plan low-cost and healthy meals.

“Sheet pan meals with a protein, plus a healthy starch is a fast, inexpensive, balanced meal,” says Featherstun.

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