Updated: Jul 8, 2020
There's a common misconception that in order to eat healthy you have to spend a ton of money. Learning how to eat healthy on a budget is an important skill to have, and is easier than you may think. A lot of it is about being creative, planning ahead, and knowing some tips and tricks to help you make smarter, more cost-effective decisions. I'm a strong believer that we need to invest in our health, which translates to investing in quality food that nourishes you. However, there's a way to do this without breaking the bank, and in this blog post I'm sharing some tips and tricks to help you eat better without spending more.
1. Meal Prep
As a nutrition professional that regularly works with clients on making sustainable lifestyle changes I'm a HUGE advocate I am for food prep. Food prep means cooking large quantities of food in batches ahead of time so you have a fridge (and/or freezer) full of pre-cooked meals ready whenever you need them. Not only does this help you avoid getting "hangry" because you never have to wait too long to eat (and are more likely to avoid frantically ordering delivery), you also can easily pack lunches to bring to work to avoid buying them out. Knowing ahead of time what your meal plan is means you can focus on being more efficient the rest of your day. I also find that meal prepping greatly helps clients stay on track with whatever eating plan they are on, and takes the stress out of deciding what to eat every day.
2. Spend the majority of your food budget at the grocery store rather than at restaurants. Many people don't realize actually how much extra money they spend buying food out versus buying food at the grocery store (or farmer's market!) and cooking it themselves.
Not only will you save money by not eating out all the time, you will inevitably eat healthier because you will be able to control exactly what's going into your food. Restaurants usually add excess sugar, unhealthy oils, and processed ingredients from questionable sources, so know you're doing your wallet and your health a favor by avoiding this. Of course eating out is a fun thing to do, but do so in moderation.
3. Make your own coffee Making your own coffee will save you so much money in the long run. Estimates show that If you make coffee at home instead of buying it coffee out, you can save upwards of $800 a year just from that!
4. Know where to shop Being smart about where you spend your grocery money can make a huge difference in how much you spend. If you're lucky enough to live near a Trader Joe's, definitely take advantage of their incredibly low prices on organic produce and other products (just steer clear of all their processed junk they have - it's typically loaded with added sugar, inflammatory oils, gums, and additives, and is also more expensive!). Additionally, Whole Foods 365 has many of the same products as Whole Foods, but for much less money. The problem with Whole Foods 365 is that there are far fewer of them than Whole Foods, so finding them can be a problem. Costco is a great place to load up on bulk foods, and carries an impressive variety of organic and healthier products. Additionally, joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is a wonderful way to support your local farms, and also is more cost-effective than buying from the grocery store. A quick google search can tell you if there are any in your area. If you haven't yet checked out Thrive Market, I highly recommend giving it a try. Thrive is an online store that sells organic and healthy products at wholesale prices, and ships them right to your door. Members get wholesale pricing 25-50% off the best healthy and organic premium products.
5. Be familiar with the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 While I'm sure many of us would like to consume as much organic food as possible for the health of our bodies and our planet, that is not always in line with what our budgets can afford. There is a way around this, and it's called the Dirty Dozen. Every year the Environmental Working Group puts out a Shopper's Guide to inform consumers about the most heavily sprayed produce, and they make a list of the twelve most important foods to purchase organic. If your budget only allows for you to purchase some produce organic, opt for these 12 items: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, and potatoes. They also provide a Clean 15 list, which includes the produce that is minimally sprayed, and therefore is okay to purchase non-organic. In 2020 these include: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, onions, papaya, frozen sweet peas, eggplant, asparagus, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, honeydew melon, and kiwi.
6. How you purchase your food matters If you've never taken advantage of the bulk section at your grocery store, it's a great opportunity to get lower prices on nonperishable foods. The cost of bulk items is typically lower than buying it prepackaged. I like the buy in bulk and then have mason jars at home that I transfer whatever it is I bought into to help keep it fresh. Another tip is to avoid buying prepackaged and precut products. There is almost always an upcharge with these, so opt for the unpackaged produce and whole foods. Not only will you be saving money, but you'll be helping the environment by avoiding the use of plastic.
This is an obvious one, but paying attention to the sales your favorite stores are having is a great way to get higher priced items at a discount. For instance, if a store is having an amazing sale on blueberries, I might buy a bunch and then freeze some of them for smoothies later. Thinking in advance about these things can help you take advantage of sales, and additionally you can plan your meal prep around what's going on sale.
7. Think about the time of year Buying food in season is not only healthier for you because the food is fresher (therefore containing more nutrients), but it will also help you save money. Buying food that is locally grown and seasonal means you're not paying the extra money it takes to ship that food from across the US or the world. This is also better for the planet as well, because you're supporting farms closer to where you live, and the food you're consuming won't have used excessive fossil fuels to get from its farm to your plate.
8. Buy whole foods Purchasing foods in their whole form is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Processed foods are not only less healthy than whole foods, but you're also going to end up paying more for them. For example, try to make your own homemade granola bars, trail mix, hummus, energy balls, roasted chickpeas, or kale chips instead of purchasing prepackaged processed foods. Your wallet and your stomach will thank you!
9. Carry your own reusable water bottle This might not seem like a big deal, but if you added up the amount of money people spend on bottled water it would shock you. Carrying your own reusable bottle ensures that you'll save money not having to buy a bottle out. You can fill it up wherever you go, you're more likely to stay hydrated, it's better for the planet, and you're avoiding the harmful chemicals that leach out of the plastic in plastic bottles.
10. Reduce food waste A recent estimate found that Americans waste the equivalent of $165 Billion (!) each year by throwing out food. Do your part to help reduce food waste. Make sure you're only buying as much as you really need at the grocery store, and be sure you're properly storing your produce so it doesn't prematurely go bad. Plan ahead so you know what you're cooking when, what leftovers you have in the fridge, and when you should eat certain foods by so you're aware of how long they'll last and can plan your meals accordingly. This will get you the most bang for your buck, and will help ensure that you're actually eating all the food you spent your hard-earned money on.
11. Switch up your protein source
If you can tolerate them legumes and organic, non-GMO are both very inexpensive ways to get protein into your diet, and offer additional health benefits as well. Legumes in particular are very high in fiber, folate, and magnesium, all of which are lacking in most people's diets. Make sure to soak, sprout, and cook beans in an alkaline source (I like adding Kombu) to help reduce phytates that inhibit absorption of nutrients and make them easier to digest. Canned fish is also an excellent source of protein, and is typically far less expensive than fresh. Eggs are also an extremely nutrient-dense, inexpensive source of protein.
12. Buy frozen fruits and vegetables
Often frozen produce is less expensive than fresh (especially if it's not in season), and is typically available in larger bags so the unit price is less. This is a great way to have foods on hand for smoothies or other recipes that don't require fresh produce.
13, Check out your local farm work-share programs
Many farms have work-share programs, and allow you to take produce home for free in exchange for working a couple hours a week. If this is something that interests you, get in touch with local farms in your area and see if they're open to this. Additionally, if you have any outdoor space and live in a climate that will allow it, try your hand at gardening and growing your own food! This is the most inexpensive way to eat, and it is extremely rewarding to grow your own food. Additionally, it gives you a deeper appreciation for what goes into every bite at the of your fork. Obviously this is not possible for people living in more urban settings, but it could always be a future goal!
I hope this list helps you see how eating healthy doesn't have to be expensive, and it just takes a little planning ahead and knowledge to do it right. I would love to hear if you can think of any other ways to shop healthy on a budget. Leave a comment below and let me know your favorite ways to shop on a budget!