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.  

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…

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. 

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. 

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. 

How to Eat Healthy While Traveling by Car

9 Tips to Take on the Road for Holiday Travel or Anytime.

If you’re going to be traveling this holiday season, you very well may have decided to go by car in order to have more control over your surroundings and situation. If that’s the case, continuing to maintain healthy eating habits while you travel will help you to feel your best and ensure that if you are exposed to any viruses, your body is in a good place to tackle them head on. As someone who has done this both successfully and learned the hard way why it is so important, I’m sharing my top 9 tips for how to eat healthy while traveling by car for holiday travel or anytime. 

Photo by Harrison Haines from Pexels

Please Note: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases made through some of the links included in this post. You can read my disclosure policy here.

Keep eating as normally as possible while on the road

Continuing to eat healthy while traveling is quite simply less of a shock to your system than loading up on convenience store and fast food if that’s not something that you’re used to. While I’m usually fairly good about this, I did the opposite recently and was not in a good place by the return trip home. I did not plan ahead and thought that I would be able to find plenty to eat along the way. There was plenty to eat, but it was not healthy, and my digestive system suffered. 

Take a cooler

A large cooler is a healthy traveler’s best friend. I’ve taken food for an entire week before while living out of a hotel room and been just fine. It allows you to take plenty of food for the road as well as if you need to buy and store items when you arrive at your destination. Pre-made salads, hummus, beans, cut up chicken and vegetables are suddenly an option just by having a good cooler. It also lets you store sandwich meat, which isn’t necessarily the healthiest choice but is better than much of the fast food that you might get. 

Use ice packs, not bags of ice

It took me a while to figure this one out, but ice packs are much easier, cleaner and less expensive than packing your cooler full of ice. The brand that I highly recommend is Cooler Shock (affiliate link). I have 4 of their 10 x 10 mid-size freeze packs, and they really do stay cold for the advertised 24 – 48 hours. 

Stay in a hotel with microwave and mini-fridge

If you’re staying in a hotel, make sure when you’re making your reservation that it has a microwave and mini-fridge. If you do this, eating healthy while traveling is easy. That’s especially true in 2020, when most hotels that might usually serve hot breakfast options are having to serve items that can easily be packed to go instead. If you need some ideas on how to best make use of your microwave and mini-fridge, be sure to check out The Fun Sized Life’s 30 Healthy Meals to Make in a Hotel Room While You Travel

Take lots of snacks

Whether you usually snack or not, you can count on doing it more than normal while traveling. That’s why it’s important to have plenty of healthy options on hand for everyone that’s traveling with you. Not only is this healthier for you overall, it’s also much cheaper than buying snacks at a convenience store. My general rule of thumb is to take twice as many snacks than I feel like I would normally need because as I mentioned, we simply snack more when traveling, especially by car. 

Take refillable water bottles

Toting around cases of plastic water bottles may seem like the easiest option when traveling, but it’s not good for our health and it’s certainly not good for the environment. Taking two large refillable water bottles per person is a much better way to do it. These can be filled up at the beginning of the day and stored in the cooler. They can then be refilled as needed at restaurants or convenience stores. While I love Klean Kanteen’s Classic Stainless Steel 40-ounce Water Bottle (affiliate link), I can also recommend Takeya’s Insulated Stainless Steel Water Bottle(affiliate link). My son has one of these, and it literally still has ice in it the next day. 

Plan stops for meals

If you’re going to stop for a meal or go through a drive-thru, plan ahead enough that you can gauge where you’re going to be at the approximate time that you’ll want to stop. That way, you can look ahead to see what types of restaurants are available that serve healthy or healthier options. You can even place a “to go” order that will be ready when you arrive as opposed to having to settle on whatever is available at the exit where you happen to stop. 

Take griddle

If you have a griddle, your ability to eat healthy while traveling just expanded greatly. While you don’t want to cook anything that will give off a lot of smoke in a hotel room, scrambled eggs, protein pancakes, whole wheat toast and healthy hash browns are all potential meals. If you have a car outlet adapter, you can even pull off at a park or rest area, plug in and make your meal there as well. 

Stay in a hotel with a kitchenette

If you’re in a hotel with a kitchenette, the sky is the limit when it comes to eating healthy while traveling. While I would limit fixing major meals to when you are not on a rushed timeline, making simple meals can be a time and money saver in addition to a way to eat healthy. My recommendation is to buy the food you’ll need ahead of time and store anything perishable in your cooler so that you can simply pull it out when you arrive at your hotel. After a long day of traveling, the last thing that you’ll want to do is to stop at a grocery store and then fix your food. 

Bottom Line on Eating Healthy While Traveling

The goal of eating healthy while traveling is not to be too strict with yourself. If you can only do it part of the time, that’s certainly better than not doing it at all. The goal is that you’re able to feel your best and enjoy the experience. 

If you have any other tips for eating healthy while traveling, feel free to add them in the comments, so that we can all learn from each other.