How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

15 Tips for Keeping Costs Low and Nutritional Value High.

When it comes to eating healthy on a budget, let’s get one thing straight from the beginning. It’s not about clipping coupons. Yes, there is some of that, but in general, that isn’t the key to success when it comes to eating healthy in a way that fits your budget. If you’re truly serious about wanting to eat healthier but you need or want to keep costs low, it is possible, but you may have to rethink not only what you eat, but how you eat. As someone who has always kept my family’s food budget low, even with different dietary needs; has been caught by many of the “low-cost” food traps out there; and has managed to figure out how to keep costs low and nutritional value high, I’m happy to share these tips with you.  

photos of Robyn Mooring cooking and of a homemade steak bowl as an example of how to cook healthy on a budget

My Family’s Food Budget

First, in the spirit of transparency, I want to share what my family’s food budget is with you. Overall, we currently keep our food expenses to the USDA’s Low-Cost monthly food budget of $456 for my husband and I and about $300 a month for my 15-year-old still growing, eat everything in the house son. His cost is between the Low- and Moderate-Cost budgets. 

That’s a total food budget of $756 a month for my husband and I to eat healthy, nutritious food and for my son to eat like a growing, athletic, ravenous teenager with somewhat healthy eating habits. A family of four with very young children should cost about the same on the Low-Cost budget and about $125 more a month with slightly older children. (But not teenage boys. They are different beasts altogether.)

Now, onto my tips for how we do this…

Photos of fruits and vegetables and of a receipt lying on top of a bag of groceries as examples of eating healthy on a budget.

Develop a Budget and Stick with It

First and foremost, you need to know what your food budget is for the month. 

How to do this

  1. Do this as part of developing a general budget that takes into account all other fixed and discretionary expenses.
  2. To get a good idea of what to expect your food budget to realistically be, you can use the Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels for 2021 as a guide. 
  3. Consider your food budget as an exercise in abundance, not lack. It’s a tool that allows you to take control of your health and your finances, do the things that you want to do and make sure that the way you’re spending your money aligns with your values.
  4. Look at your food budget as both an adjective and a verb. While budget as an adjective means inexpensive, budget as a verb means that you’re allowing for a specific amount of money to go toward something. This is a big difference in meaning, and I look at budgeting for food as a combination of the two. 

Change Your Mindset

Unless you have unlimited funds to put toward your food, there is going to be a trade-off. Eating healthy on a budget is going to require some time, effort and planning.

How to do this

  1. Decide that putting your food dollars toward healthy options is a priority. 
  2. Recognize that pre-prepared and ultra-processed food is going to be the exception rather than the rule. Your grocery cart and bags are going to be filled with healthy ingredients, not the snacks or meals that you’re going to eat in their final form.

Cook at Home 

One of the easiest ways to eat healthy on a budget is to cook at home the majority of the time. The pandemic forced this on many people, but the pull of the convenience of eating out can easily creep back into our routines. Cooking at home gives you more control over the food that you eat, and it simply costs less. 

How to do this

  1. Don’t eat out more than once a week. ***This is being liberal. I strongly recommend no more than twice a month.
  2. Cook from whole foods as much as possible. While ultra-processed food is often cheaper than whole foods, the effects that it has on our health carry a heavy price both for the short- and long-term. In many cases, you also get more servings and uses from starting with whole foods than you do with ultra-processed food. This ends up costing less in the long run. 
  3. Batch cook. Make most of your meals for the week in one or two cooking sessions. 
  4. Make homemade snacks. Rather than spend $7-$10 a week or more on chips, snack cakes and other packaged snacks, use that money or less to make homemade granola or protein bars or any of the other snack ideas here.
  5. Make ingredients such as seasoning mixessauces and soups from scratch. 
  6. Make cooking a family affair. Get the entire family involved, and it becomes more of a fun activity than a chore.
  7. Find 2-3 healthy recipe websites that reliably offer plenty of options that fit your family’s needs. Check out my suggestions for getting started here

Plan Meals

Meal planning is one of the critical first steps to getting your health and food budget under control. I go into much more detail on why and how you should do this as well as great tools to help you along the way, but here are some quick tips to get you started. 

How to do this

  1. Plan your meals for the entire week or even the month. 
  2. Do this with your calendar so that you know which nights will be busier and on which nights you’ll have more time. 
  3. Include breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks. 
  4. Plan your meals around the sales being offered at your grocery store. Most stores offer a weekly online sales circular, as well as some type of benefits program with special discounts for people who sign up. Use the deals on meat, produce and canned or frozen vegetables to plan your meals. 

Plan for How to Use Leftover Ingredients

Planning for how to use leftover ingredients goes hand in hand with planning your meals.

How to do this

  1. If you know that you’re cooking a dish that only uses half of a can of diced tomatoes, be sure and plan to fix another recipe that uses the other half. Or double your recipe and freeze it for another week.
  2. Mapping out what you’re eating for the entire week allows you to know where leftover ingredients can be used for another dish. 
Photo of a woman's hand typing in a grocery list on her phone while standing in front of the refrigerator as an example of how to eat healthy on a budget.

Make a Shopping List

Making a shopping list will keep you focused in the store or at the farmers’ market. It will keep you from buying things that you don’t need as well as make sure that you get everything that you do. Let’s face it, when it comes time to cook, it’s much easier to get motivated to do it if you know that you have everything you need on hand as opposed to having to go to the store first.

How to do this

  1. Once you’ve planned your meals, make sure that you have every ingredient that you’ll need. If you don’t, add them to your shopping list. 
  2. Do one larger shopping trip a month where you stock up on staples based on a list of the standard items that you use. Feel free to access my free Food Inventory and Shopping List template here.
  3. Have a general idea of the price of each item before you shop. You can keep a record of it in your shopping list so that it’s always there for you to reference. Knowing the prices gives you an idea of how much the entire trip will cost ahead of time. If you see that it’s going over your budget, you can make adjustments before you even enter the store. 

Buy in Bulk

Items that are good for buying in bulk when you’re eating healthy on a budget include the following. 

  • Whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa)
  • Legumes
  • Frozen vegetables
  • Healthy flours
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Know What to Buy Organic

While it’s good to buy organic as much as possible, it may not always make the most sense financially. That’s why it’s important to know which produce is and isn’t the most heavily sprayed with chemicals. 

How to do this

  1. The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen List helps to take the guess work out of trying to figure what’s worth the extra cost of organic. If it’s on the list, buy organic.  
  2. On the flip side, the Clean 15 List lets you know which conventionally grown produce is probably okay to eat.

Reduce the Amount of Meat That You Eat

If you eat meat, chances are that you could and should reduce the amount that you eat. This is both for financial reasons and for your health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends eating 3.5 to 4 ounces of meat, poultry and eggs a day. That is not for every meal. That is a day. Or you can look at it as 26 ounces a week for a 2,000 calorie a day healthy eating pattern. Whichever way you look at it, you could probably do with a lot less meat, which in turn, will benefit your bank account. If you need suggestions for how to prepare more plant-based meals, I offer a look at what I consider to be the best vegan recipe blogs and websites here.

How to do this

  1. If you currently eat meat 2-3 meals a day, cut back to one. 
  2. If you currently eat meat every day, have 3 days a week that are meatless. 
  3. Eat more legumes.
  4. Eat high-protein pasta made from legumes such as lentil, edamame and mung bean. 
  5. Use the money that you save to buy meat that has been sustainably and humanely raised. 

Eat with the Seasons

Whether you buy your food from the farmers’ market or the grocery store, eating what’s in season is going to be the least expensive way to buy fresh produce. If you want to go more in-depth on why this is so important and how to do it, be sure and read my post on eating seasonally

How to do this

  1. Look at the sales ads for your grocery store. The foods that are in season will usually be on sale or at least will be cheaper than other produce. 
  2. Go to the farmers’ market. Everything there is in season. It’s also important to learn which of the vendors grow their items conventionally and which are only organic. Again, not everything has to be organic. 

Keep it Simple

Our taste buds have become so accustomed to artificial and intense flavors that it’s easy to think of a simply prepared meat, vegetable and whole grain meal as being bland. It’s not though! You don’t have to use a bunch of exotic ingredients or artificial flavors to make a meal taste delicious. Keep it simple – the way nature intended it, and your taste buds will adjust. 

How to do this

  1. Learn to use spices to flavor your food. 
  2. Learn to grow and use herbs to flavor your food. 

Buy Frozen

The term “frozen food” takes on a whole new meaning when we’re talking about eating healthy on a budget. In this sense, you’re going to bypass the frozen “TV dinners” and head straight for the good stuff.  

How to do this

  1. Buy frozen produce. While buying fresh produce seems like it would be far superior to frozen, there’s probably not as much difference in the nutritional value as you may think. Dietician Kim Barrier says that fresh fruits and vegetables start losing some of their nutrients once picked, so the longer they’re in transport to the grocery and/or sit in the produce section the more they lose. “Frozen fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are picked at peak season and immediately processed, which locks in the nutrients.”  In addition to being less expensive, frozen produce can also be more accessible than fresh. 
  2. Buy meat that’s already frozen. This is also often cheaper than buying fresh. 
Photo of leftover food in a container, ready to be frozen.

Freeze Leftovers and Use Them

Wasted food is wasted money.  Freezing leftovers is by far one of the easiest ways to eat healthy on a budget. 

How to do this

  1. Freeze leftovers in individual portion sizes so that you only thaw what you need. 
  2. Have one week a month where you eat frozen leftovers at least once or twice. This will keep your freezer cleaned out and give you one or two “free” meals at the same time. 

Buy Generic or Store Brand

If you’re eating healthier, you’re automatically eliminating most ultra-processed foods. That means that what you’re buying from a store is primarily whole foods. In these cases, you’re usually not going to notice a taste difference if you buy generic or a store brand. 

How to do this

  1. Look for whether the store offers organic options for store brand items where that’s needed. 
  2. Test store brand items out in small quantities before stocking up on them to make sure that you’re satisfied with the taste and quality. 

Use Coupons

See how far down the list this is when it comes to eating healthy on a budget? That’s because, for the most part, coupons are for ultra-processed food. 

How to do this

  1. Eliminating all ultra-processed food can be difficult. For those few items that you do buy in this category, keep an eye out for coupons.
  2. Use coupons to buy quality household products made with healthier ingredients and materials. 

Bottom Line on Eating Healthy on a Budget

While you may not be able to incorporate all of these tips, implementing even a few of them will go a long way toward making eating healthy on a budget a possibility. The suggestions here were intended to give a quick and easy high-level glimpse at how to do each of these things. For many of them, I go into more depth and detail in other posts. Be sure and check those out by clicking on the associated links included throughout this post. 

One thought on “How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

  1. When it comes to eating healthy, not to mention saving money, shopping with a plan in mind is integral. This will help shoppers stay on track, buying only what they need without frivolous spending in the process.

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