10 Tips for Eating Healthy on a Tight Budget
It is possible to eat well without breaking the bank. Here's how.
Eating healthy is not just about organic foods and expensive grains with peculiar names. It's also not artisanal handmade foods that could sink your budget or fish from far-off places that promise healthy fats and a steep bill.
Indeed, you don't have to spend a lot of money to eat healthy. Actually, some of the most inexpensive and most ordinary foods are the healthiest. If you're willing to sharpen your shopping strategy, do a little kitchen prep, and get creative with cooking, you can save a bundle. These tips and recipes will get you started.
1. Prep your own.
Peeling and chopping vegetables, cutting meat into cubes for skewers or stews, and washing your own salad greens do take some time. But, to save on dough, these are no-brainers. Cut down on prep time by keeping things simple, making only one or two dishes for a meal. As you get more experience in the kitchen, you'll gain speed and efficiency and wonder why you ever actually paid extra for pre-chopped onions.
2. Shop smart.
Skipping between multiple stores may seem like a good way to shop sales, but you could end up spending more on gas and losing valuable time. Instead, take your entire list to a store that offers a large variety of seasonal produce, lean proteins, and must-have pantry staples at low prices. Check your local store often, as seasonal offerings change regularly.
3. Be flexible when you shop.
If you're planning to make ground beef chili, but you get to the grocery store and ground turkey is on sale, switch up the recipe, and save some cash. Likewise, it won't matter too much if your salads this week are made with spinach or romaine, if you snack on oranges or pears, or if your veggie side dish is broccoli or green beans. Look for what's on sale at your preferred store, and as long as you're making a healthy choice, you may as well make a cheaper choice, too.
4. Canned is OK.
Fresh seafood is one of the healthiest foods you can eat — and also one of the most expensive. There's nothing wrong with canned salmon and tuna. You get the same nutrients as you do from fresh, along with the convenience that it's already cooked. Plus, you can keep it in your pantry for months. Other excellent healthy canned food choices include beans (rinse them before using to remove about 40 percent of the sodium), tomatoes, reduced-sodium broths, and fruits packed in water. This recipe for Yummy Lemon Salmon Burgers proves how inventive you can be with a simple can of fish.
5. Frozen is good, too!
In many cases, frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy than fresh ones. Sometimes, they're actually even better. That's because many of the healthful nutrients in fresh produce can be lost in transportation from farm to grocery shelf. Frozen foods, on the other hand, are typically frozen within hours of coming in from the fields. That locks in nutrients at their peak.
Choose wisely, and buy plain vegetables without sauces and fruits without added sugar. Toss frozen vegetables into soups, stews, or stir-fries, or season them with salt, pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil for a simple side dish. Turn frozen fruits into smoothies, or serve them thawed over plain low-fat Greek yogurt for a protein-packed breakfast or snack.
Start using your frozen stockpile with this super healthy recipe for Garlic Chicken Fried Brown Rice that uses frozen peas, leftover brown rice, and chicken breast. And to start the day, this Strawberry Oatmeal Breakfast Smoothie, which uses frozen strawberries, is a complete meal in a glass.
6. Brown rice and beans.
These foods may sound boring and flavorless, but they're far from it. As creative and frugal cooks from Mexico to India to Italy know, these staples are amazingly versatile and incredibly delicious. Canned beans are a great deal and they're recipe ready, but to save even more money, you can cook your own dried beans. Brown rice, unlike white rice, is a whole grain with its naturally occurring fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants intact, so it's always the better choice. To get started, try Easy Texas Chili with pinto beans or Escarole and Bean Soup with navy beans.
7. Brown bag it.
Eating out for lunch, especially if you're trying to stick to healthier options, can be pricey, but packing a healthy lunch takes only a few minutes in the morning. Don't fall for single portion packs of cut-up fruits and veggies, applesauce, dried fruits, and nuts. They're convenient, but you can portion your own and save a lot of money. Get yourself a trendy insulated tote and a few sizes of partitioned containers, and you're ready to pack a budget-friendly (and delicious) lunch in style.
Related: Our Top 10 Healthy Lunch Ideas
8. Lean on pricey ingredients when their flavors go the furthest.
If you're eating healthy, you'll welcome a big punch of flavor from foods that may cost a little more, but a tiny amount of them can make a recipe more satisfying. Feta cheese, goat cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh rosemary (which lasts at least a week or more and can be used in all kinds of dishes), capers, olives, maple syrup, fresh ginger, nuts, and dark roasted sesame oil are just a few of the foods where a very small amount can transform the taste of a dish. This Asian Ginger Dressing which tastes great on (cheap!) cabbage salad uses just a bit of fresh grated ginger.
9. Your freezer is your friend.
Meats and poultry are probably the most expensive items in your food budget, so it pays to stock up when they're on sale. But what if your family is small? No worries. Break down large packages of chicken pieces, pork chops, steaks, or ground beef or turkey into the number of servings you need for your family for one meal and then freeze them. Use heavy-duty freezer bags to ensure the foods stay fresh. Chicken and turkey can be frozen up to 9 months, steaks and chops for 12 months, and ground beef lasts for 4 months.
10. Build a plentiful pantry.
Some foods last for years in your pantry, so there's no reason not to stock up when you find a deal on whole-wheat pasta; whole grains like brown rice, oats, barley, and bulgur; fruits canned in water; canned beans; tomatoes; and broths, to name a few. Be sure to rotate foods, putting what you just bought in the back of the cupboard. And check your stash before you shop so you're not buying too much of any one item, even if it is on sale. With pantry basics on hand, you're always prepared to cook up a meal on the fly, which saves the cost of ordering unhealthy pizza or going out for fast food. That's an even greater savings in the long run.