How You Can Eat Healthy on a Budget

Groceries don't need to be expensive.
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Eating plenty of nutritious foods doesn't have to cost a fortune. With some thought and a bit of planning, you can be eating healthier foods without breaking the bank.

Eating More Meals at Home

Food costs more when someone else prepares and serves it to you. That's no surprise, of course. Restaurant dining is convenient and pleasurable, but it's also pricey, at least if you're going to regular sit-down establishments.

Fast food joints are cheaper than regular restaurants -- but most of them serve food that's less than nutritious, so while it may seem cost effective to eat this way, in the long run, it's not good for your waistline or your health.

Not an experienced cook? That's okay -- cooking doesn't need to be complicated as long as you choose recipes that aren't difficult and stock your kitchen with a few basics.

Planning Your Meals

When you eat at home, you have control over all the ingredients that go into each dish -- and you get to choose the dishes that make up each meal (it's a good thing to be able to wield that sort of power). 

Healthy meals all have a similar pattern: a protein source, some fruits or vegetables, and whole grains or starch. Serve each meal with a healthy beverage. Understanding portion size is important too, both for calorie counting and for meal planning.

Meal planning also helps you save money. When you plan a few days or a week's worth of meals, choose dishes that include ingredients that are on sale (check the newspaper ads or go online to see your local stores' featured sales) or that you've already got on hand. So when the chicken's on sale, think about something like this -- serve simple roast chicken one night and then use the leftovers for homemade chicken soup later in the week.

Saving Money with Smarter Shopping

Careful meal planning goes right into better grocery shopping. The First thing is to decide how many shopping trips you're going to make for the week (and when). That's because you've got two broad categories of food -- stuff that lasts awhile and stuff that goes bad quickly. And most of the healthiest foods go bad quickly unless you store them properly.

Don't buy more fresh fruits and vegetables than you need. Fresh produce goes bad in a few days, and if you don't use it, you'll have to throw it away, and that's just wasting money. So while you might plan a full week's worth of meals, you might want to take two separate shopping trips for the week.

Store Brands, Canned Goods, Bulk Items, and Frozen Foods

Another way to shop smart is to look for the store brands of canned goods and frozen foods. They're less expensive and just as nutritious s the name brands that come with a higher cost, so when they go on sale, pick up some extra. Canned goods last for a long time, and frozen foods are good for at least six months. Also, look for foods you can buy in bulk and store for a long time. Keep a list of your bulk items -- whenever one goes on sale, it's time to stock up.

Also, buy foods in their least prepared state. It's a little more work to cut up a whole chicken -- or even a head of broccoli), but it's cheaper than buying a package of pieces. That goes for most convenience foods as well -- it's usually more cost-effective to prepare your dishes from scratch.

Using a List (and Checking It Twice)

Don't forget the shopping list. This is huge -- if you don't have your list, there's a good chance you'll either buy more than you need or forget something crucial. I make my list on my smart phone, so the chance of me forgetting it is almost zero.

Selecting Seasonal Foods

Another big money saver is to base your menus on whatever fresh fruits and vegetables are in season. For example, choose greens, strawberries, broccoli, and pineapple in the spring; grapefruit, grapes, green beans, peas and tomatoes in the summer; acorn and butternut squash, Swiss chard and turnips in the fall; and citrus fruit, kiwi, kale and Brussels sprouts in the winter. Some items like carrots, apples, bell peppers and potatoes are affordable all year long.

What About Organics and Health Foods?

Health foods and organics are almost always sold at a premium price -- especially the packaged goods. You don't need to spend your money on fancy prepackaged health foods and snacks -- whole fruits and vegetables are less expensive and probably healthier anyway.

And there's this. Organic foods probably aren't any more nutritious than foods grown by conventional methods, so don't feel guilty if you can't afford them. Plus the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S.D.A. set safe levels for pesticide and herbicide residues and regularly inspect foods to be sure they're safe to consume.

How to Get More Help

If you still can't stretch your budget enough to feed your family, check into programs such as the U.S.D.A.'s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or look for local food banks. And check with the local school as far as meal programs for kids.

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Article Sources
  • Produce for Better Health Foundation -- Fruits and Veggies, More Matters. "What Fruits and Vegetables Are In Season?"
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Pesticides and Food: What the Pesticide Residue Limits are on Food." ​
  • "Food Nutrition and Fitness: Healthy Eating."