Low-Carb Diets on a Budget

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If you’re undertaking a new way of eating, such as a low-carb diet, you’re probably wondering how your grocery bill will be affected. However, changing how you eat doesn’t have to be a major monetary investment.

Buying more or less of specific foods, beverages, and other low-carb pantry staples won't necessarily break the bank. Here are a few tips and tricks for eating low-carb on a budget.

Budget Basics

Even if you’re not following a specific diet, being aware of the cost of groceries and trying to stick to a budget is a common experience for many shoppers. If you’re on a low-carb diet, you’ll also want to factor in the nutritional value of the foods you buy as well as eating a varied, balanced, diet.

Convenience, prep, and cooking requirements are also likely to influence your decisions when you’re shopping and planning meals.

Your personal food ethics are another consideration; for example, you may prefer to support organic, local, sustainable, or humane food systems when possible. While a low-carb diet is likely to focus on unprocessed foods (which often support these values), they are not always the least expensive option.

If you’re hoping to save money on groceries, it helps to know the basics: the true staples of a low-carb diet and which are non-essential.

The basic elements of a low-carb diet fall into three categories: protein, vegetables, and fats.

Once you’ve determined the foods that will make up most of your low-carb meals, prioritize those items on your grocery list and be more selective about any extras.

When doing your shopping for each category, there are specific strategies you can use to get the most value and nutrition for your money.

Protein

Meat, fish, and other sources of protein can take up a large chunk of your grocery budget. While protein is an essential part of your diet, you don’t necessarily need to eat a lot of it to get the benefits.

The first step to saving money on a low-carb diet is knowing how much protein you actually need to eat. Start by calculating your protein needs in grams. Once you have the total number, you can break it down into meals.

From there, you can decide how much protein to include at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. That way you’ll know exactly what to look for when reading nutrition labels as you check off items on your shopping list.

Knowing your daily protein requirements will also help you budget for some of the most popular, and expensive, sources: meat and fish. Stock up on less expensive cuts of low-fat meat which can be frozen for future use.

For example, if you frequently include chicken in your meal planning, it may be more cost-effective to buy a whole chicken and portion it out rather than buy individual boneless thighs. Skinless chicken thighs (without the bone) cost about $2.48 per pound. Buying a whole chicken is around $1.28 per pound.

Less-expensive low-carb protein sources are also the ones you’ll likely buy on a weekly basis rather than storing long term. Eggs, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and tofu usually cost far less per gram of protein than meat or fish.

Vegetables

Non-starchy vegetables are a staple of low-carb diets, but if you don’t plan accordingly, buying fresh veggies can be money wasted. If you’ve ever had to toss veggies that wilted in the crisper because you never got around to using them, you know the feeling. If you pay close attention to your personal produce inventory, you can avoid waste.

When you realize you’ve bought more produce than you’re going to use, or your weekly meal plan doesn’t include the fresh Brussels sprouts you bought on sale, freeze them! 

Freezing most vegetables is easy, given the right tools. You’ll need freezer bags or containers that are freezer-safe.

First, wash and dry the veggies you plant to freeze. Depending on the vegetable, you may want to chop it up into smaller pieces before packing. For example, peppers can simply be cut up, dropped in a Ziploc bag, and tossed in the freezer.

Blanching

For most vegetables, especially greens like spinach, wilt them in​ a hot pan or the microwave first. “Blanching” cleans the produce but also serves another purpose: It essentially puts the enzymes in the veggies into a state of hibernation ahead of being frozen, ensuring that when you thaw them out in the future, they’ll retain most of their flavor, texture, and nutrition.

You can blanch vegetables in water or with steam, on the stovetop, or in the microwave. Whichever method you choose, keep in mind It might take a little practice to get the technique right: If you over-blanch your produce, the taste and texture will suffer.

Also, be sure to give your blanched veggies time to cool off before you pack and freeze them.

Let veggies cool off in a pot of cold water for about the same amount of time you took to blanch them.

If you find you’re frequently wasting fresh produce and don’t have time to freeze it yourself, consider buying frozen vegetables. The bagged veggies you get in the freezer aisle at the grocery store have been frozen at the peak of their flavor and nutritional value. While these veggies may not work for a quick salad, they’re a quick, easy, and cheap option for cooked dishes.

Grow Your Own

Another tip is to buy seasonally. Check out your local co-op, farm stand, or farmer’s market. You might even consider growing veggies yourself. If the idea of a full vegetable garden is overwhelming, or you just lack the space, that doesn’t mean you have to give up the idea of putting your green thumb to work. Many vegetables can be grown from scraps.

Herbs are easy to grow in containers and can be grown indoors, making them a doable option even if you don’t have a yard. If you’re more concerned about investing time, keep in mind some vegetables, like zucchini, require very little care until you’re ready to eat them.

Fats

The benefits of healthy fats found in olive oil, or high-oleic forms sunflower or safflower oils, are an important fat source in any diet. If you’re trying to eat low-carb on a budget, though, the cost of these oils may be a source of meal-planning frustration.

Oils like corn oil and regular safflower oil are less expensive, but they don’t have the same nutritional value.

Other dietary sources of healthy fats, such as avocados, coconut oil, coconut milk, and nuts, will vary in cost depending on the season and where you live.

Other Low-Carb Diet Staples

Once you’ve accounted for the basics of a low-carb diet, it’s time to start looking at the other products you routinely buy. You may discover you don’t need to buy as much or that you can get more meals for your money by turning leftovers into snacks or focusing on foods that can provide more than one low-carb meal.

Beverages

Soft drinks, bottled water, coffee, ice tea, or other beverages can eat up your grocery and carb budget, as well as fill your trash bin or recycling.

Plain water in a reusable water bottle is the primary low-cost, no-carb option. If you don’t find plain water appealing, it’s easy to jazz it up with some sliced fruit or sprigs of fresh mint.

If you like sparkling water or seltzer and drink it often, consider getting a device to carbonate your own water at home.

For coffee and tea, if you have a favorite brew or blend, consider buying in bulk. It’s usually more cost-effective to buy coffee whole bean, grinding them as you go to help maintain the quality and freshness.

Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds can vary a great deal in terms of cost, depending on which types you buy and how you buy them. For example, a pound of walnuts in the shell costs about $2.55 per pound. If you buy them shelled, it's almost double the cost at $4.46 per pound.

The most expensive nuts include Brazil nuts, pine nuts, pecan halves, and Macadamia nuts. Cashews and almonds (raw, shelled, and in the shell) are popular and mid-cost options. The least expensive options are usually peanuts, which can be a good protein source as long as you buy them unsalted and watch your portion sizes.

Most nuts and nut mixes typically cost far less per pound in the bulk section of the supermarket or health food store. You may also be able to find them for less, and in larger quantities, at warehouse stores.

Nuts and seeds are great snacks on their own and can be pre-portioned in snack-sized baggies or containers. They're also easy, nutritious, and tasty additions to salads, pasta dishes, and low-carb baked goods.

Pre-Packaged Snacks, Bars, and Mixes

Having bars, shakes, and other packaged low-carb items on hand will help you stay on track between planned meals—especially when you’re traveling or rushing around between work, errands, and social events.

Unit Price

When you're buying packaged goods, especially snacks that come in multi-packs, be sure to look at the unit price, too. Each item on the store shelf will have the displayed price as well as the product's unit price.

When you have the option of buying an item as a single or a pack, checking the cost per unit can help you decide which is the better deal.

For example, many brands of nut butter can be purchased as a single packet or a box of packets. If you want to buy enough packets to pack with your lunch each day, it may be more cost-effective to buy a box with 10 packets than seven single-serve packets.

Make Your Own

While you may be able to buy some of your favorites in bulk, one of the best steps you can take to save money and have more control over the nutritional content of the food you consume is to learn how to make some of your favorite snacks at home.

Boxes of high-quality protein bars can be expensive. With the right raw ingredients and a little creativity, you can find or create recipes to make them at home.

If you make low-carb friendly granola at home, you’ll also have more control over portion size.

A low-carb trail mix made with bulk bin or sale items from your local supermarket will be far less expensive than the packaged, name-brand variety, and just as convenient to toss in your bag or reach for in the car.

Go Generic

If you do want to buy pre-packaged low-carb snacks, check the ingredients on some of the “off-brand” or generic versions. Many of them use similar, if not exact, ingredients as name-brand versions and may even have been made in the same factory.

Giving the store brand version of a product you buy frequently a try is worth a shot. You might even find that you like the taste of generic brands better, or just as much, as the more expensive brand.

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