20 Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget

It can seem nearly impossible these days to eat healthy without breaking the bank.  If you’re like me, your bills are growing while your free time is shrinking.  Sure, it’s cheap and easy to heat up a pre-packaged processed meal every night… but you’re not going to be around for long subsisting on nothing but Hot Pockets.  Some simple changes in your grocery shopping and eating habits can have you living happy and healthy without draining your bank account.

tips for eating helathy on a budget

So here are 20 simple tips to help you eat healthy while you save your hard-earned cash:

  1. Drink Water - Put away the sodas and juices.  Drinking water is healthier and virtually free.  Of course, don’t waste your money on bottled water - just use a Brita filter.  If you need something more than water, try mixing up some Propel or have a glass of fat free milk.
  2. Shop Grocery Store Specials - You should sign up for your grocery’s rewards/savings card and use coupons whenever possible.  You can print online grocery coupons or cut them from the newspaper.  Many stores even print coupons for products you typically buy and give them to you with your receipt - use these!  Also, check out the specials in the weekly circular, which are available in your local newspaper and (usually) at your grocer’s website.
  3. Avoid Eating Out - Eating out typically costs much more than eating at home and is almost never healthy.  Brown bag your lunch and forget about the sub shop.  Even that "healthy" wrap isn’t as healthy as you think.  And when you do go out, skip the appetizer and dessert.
  4. Buy Generic Brands - Most grocery stores have their own generic brand for popular products that is virtually the same as the name brand.  Save your money: don’t pay for the marketing and packaging.
  5. Eat In-Season Fruits and Vegetables - Where I shop, the price of blueberries can change from as low as $1/pint all the way up to $4/half pint.  That means blueberries are 8 times as expensive when out of season.  Yikes!  For produce with fluctuating seasonal prices, stick to the in-season products.  Not only are they cheaper, but in-season fruits and veggies usually taste better and last longer.
  6. Buy Meat on Sale & Freeze - Consuming lean protein is critical to eating healthy.  Unfortunately, lean meats (a great source of lean protein) can be the among the most expensive items on your shopping list.  Fortunately, most grocery stores run regular sales on lean meats, such as chicken breast, ground beef, ground turkey, and fish.  Buy more than you need when the price is good and put what you don’t need now in the freezer. Most frozen meat will stay fresh for at least 6 months and maybe much longer.
  7. Grow Your Own - OK, maybe this tip isn’t so easy.  But if you have the means and put in a little effort, growing your own food can save you money and be a rewarding experience.   And if gas prices go up (as I expect them too) then the savings from home grown fruits and veggies will be even more pronounced.  Back when gas prices were around $4/gallon, transportation costs drove the cost of a single tomato (baseball sized) to around $4 where I live.  Who can afford to pay $4 for a tomato? My Mom has a backyard garden where she grows delicious, organic tomatoes that cost her only pennies.
  8. Shop Local Farms - If there are farms or farmers markets  nearby, try shopping there for great deals on fresh food.  You can often get food cheaper here since there is no supermarket or other middle-man to mark up the prices.
  9. Shop Multiple Stores - Test the different stores in the area and shop at the one with the lowest prices.  Sometimes, it saves to shop at 2 or even 3 separate stores.  I used to save a ton of cash by making weekly trips to the grocery store, meat market and health food store.  Now, my fiancée goes to one grocery store (where bread and milk is cheaper) and I go to a different grocery store (where fruits and vegetables are cheaper).
  10. Buy in Bulk - Avoid single serving products in favor of larger bulk items.  Buying in bulk will almost always save you.  So instead of buying four 8 oz. individual yogurts for $1 each, buy one  32 oz. yogurt for $3.  Individual snack packs for crackers, chips, cookies, etc. are a double whammy - to your health and your finances.
  11. Buy Frozen Produce - You can save a lot by buying frozen fruits, vegetables, and even meat or fish.  The savings can really add up on out-of-season items.
  12. Join a Food Co-Op or Buyers Club - Similar to shopping at a local farm, a food co-op or food buyers club can cut out the middle man and pass the savings on to you.
  13. Plan Your Shopping - Set aside time each week to do your shopping and head to the grocery store with a grocery list - or at least a general plan on what to buy.  This will help you avoid making poor decisions while you are there.  And definitely don’t shop on an empty stomach.  This can lead to buying unhealthy items -maybe you can’t resist buying those double stuff Oreos.  In some cases, it can even lead to buying too healthy.  Oh sure, 5 pounds of beet salad sounds great now.  But you need to be realistic as to what you are actually going to want to eat so it doesn’t go to waste.  Hunger can cloud your perception.
  14. Restrict Portion Size - This is pretty simple, smaller portions on your plate lead to bigger portions in your wallet.  Eating more frequent, smaller meals and snacks will help you avoid gorging on huge, unhealthy meals.
  15. Cook Multiple Servings & Save - The time cost of preparing healthy meals can be as big an obstacle to consistently eating healthy as the actual price of the food.  If you are cooking a meal that takes a good deal of time and/or effort, cook more food than you need and save the rest as leftovers.  When I cook pasta for myself I always use a full box.  This can give me 3, 4 or even 5 meals.  It saves a lot of time and helps me avoid eating out because I have a full meal already prepared.
  16. Compare Package Sizes - Don’t be fooled by package size.  Many products are packaged to look like they contain more food than they actually do.  Get in the habit of checking package sizes and serving sizes when comparing similar products.  You can hunt out best value products in the grocery aisles pretty easily with just a little effort.
  17. Go Meatless - As I mentioned earlier, lean meats can be among the most expensive items in your shopping cart.  Consider replacing meats with beans or other legumes in recipes as they will provide almost the same amount of protein at a substantially reduced cost.  Going vegetarian is a great way to save money, though not an realistic option for most of us carnivores.  However, going vegetarian one day a week might be a more reasonable way to save money and even help the environment.
  18. Smart Organic Purchases - Most of us, if given a choice would buy organic food over non-organic.  However, there’s no getting around that organic is going to cost more.  If you want to buy organic products, you should figure out how much is it worth to you to buy organic.  For example, my grocery store sells a half gallon of organic milk for about $1.50 more than non-organic.  I buy about 1 half gallon of milk per week so this means that I would pay $78 more per year to drink organic milk. ($1.50 X 52 weeks = $78)For me, it’s worth the extra $78/year for organic milk.Also, I buy organic meats, eggs and some fruit.  But for many other fruits and vegetables that I buy, the price for organic is too high for me to justify.  So, if you insist on buying organic, you should determine how much it's going to cost you so you can make a informed decision of which foods you should buy organic and which foods you don’t need to buy organic.
  19. Don’t Throw Out Anything - The easiest way to save money on your grocery bill is to avoid throwing out all food.  One trick is to store perishable items at the front of your refrigerator so you don’t forget about them and let them go bad.  Before something goes bad, try adding it to another recipe or even learn to make amazing meals with leftovers.
  20. Learn How to Cook - Last, but definitely not least, is to learn how to cook.  Unlike many unhealthy foods, healthy food is not going to prepare itself.  To eat healthy on any sort of budget, you are going to have to learn how to prepare your own meals.  It takes time and effort to prepare meals that are both healthy and delicious.  To consistently eat healthy over the long run, you’ll need to be able to cook food that actually tastes good.  Luckily for us all, there are plenty of health-conscious cookbooks and websites available to help.

I hope you enjoyed these tips and good luck!

Photo courtesy of muammerokumus.

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