The Ultimate Guide to Eating Healthy on a Budget

Is eating healthy a priority for your family, but you’re worried that it’s too expensive?

You’re not alone.

According to a 2022 survey by FinanceBuzz, 65% of Americans say the cost of healthy foods keeps them from eating a healthy diet. And even though many people want to eat healthier, most adults don’t meet the daily recommendations for fruits and vegetables and eat more than the recommended amounts of added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Keep reading to learn shopping and planning strategies for eating healthy on a budget. 

What Is a Healthy Diet?

There isn’t only one correct way to eat. There are cultural differences, food preferences and restrictions for religious or ethical reasons that influence how we eat. And there are popular fad diets that promise health by following specific food rules.

So what is a “healthy diet” then?

A healthy diet is full of nutritious foods that provide all the vitamins and minerals your body needs. And the best way to build a nutritious diet is by focusing on whole foods that aren’t processed and are packed with sugar and sodium.

But you don’t have to follow a keto, paleo or whole-30 diet to build a diet around whole, processed foods. Most of these lifestyle plans eliminate food groups and are inconvenient and unsustainable long term. And, yes, they can get expensive.

The Mediterranean Diet was rated the best overall diet by U.S. News. It doesn’t have strict food rules and you can find everything you need at your grocery store. The Mediterranean Diet describes the diet of countries in the Mediterranean that traditionally ate diets high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, extra olive oil, and small amounts of fish and dairy.

What makes this lifestyle diet so different than the typical American diet?

It’s high in fiber, monounsaturated fats, and inflammation-fighting antioxidants. And it’s primarily a plant-based diet so it’s low in saturated fats, the unhealthy fat that raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.

Foods found on the Mediterranean Diet

Not only is this way of eating healthier, but it’s also flexible and family- and budget-friendly. You don’t have to change the way your family eats drastically. Instead, fill your pantry and refrigerator with these Mediterranean diet staples.

Fruits and vegetables 

Fresh, canned, or frozen vegetables are all excellent options. Look for fruit canned in water instead of syrup and low-sodium canned vegetables.

Save money: buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. They’re usually cheaper and fresher.

If you buy frozen vegetables, go for the bulk bags of vegetables instead of steam-in-the-bag varieties. They cook for about five minutes in a glass microwave-safe bowl with a paper towel or microwave cover. 

Bowls of various beans & legumes.

Beans and legumes

You can also find many varieties of legumes, such as black beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), kidney beans, lentils, peas, and soybeans. These are all excellent sources of plant-based protein.

Beans and legumes are packed with fiber but go slow if you’re not used to a high-fiber diet. And always make sure you’re drinking plenty of water. 

Look for low-sodium canned beans. Rinsing beans can significantly reduce the sodium content.

Save money: dry beans are cheaper per serving than canned, but the extra work may not be worth the savings. Canned beans are still the cheapest source of protein there is. Look for sales and buy in bulk. Coupons are often available for name-brand beans. You can save money on groceries by making a few bean-based meals a week for lunch or dinner.

Nuts 

Raw nuts without added salt are the best option. Nuts contain good fats and protein. They make excellent snacks, salad toppings, cereal toppings, and homemade granola or roasted nuts.

Save money: find a low-cost source to purchase nuts. For example, trader Joe’s has a huge variety of nuts, and they’re reasonably priced per pound compared to brands sold at the grocery store. You can also find online retailers that sell nuts in bulk. 

Buy raw nuts instead of processed nuts roasted with salt. But, of course, you can always make homemade roasted nuts if raw nuts are too plain for you. That way, you can control the added fat and sodium (and it’s often less expensive).

Lean protein 

Chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, or egg whites are lean animal protein options. Some seafood options high in protein and low in mercury include shrimp, tilapia, cod, Pollock, catfish, and canned light tuna.

Save money: wait for sales on the leaner cuts of meat which tend to be more expensive, including chicken breasts, ground turkey breast, and pork tenderloin. Buy lean cuts of meat and fish in bulk and portion them into individual servings. Freeze what you won’t use right away.

And don’t forget about eggs. They’re an excellent source of protein and are cheaper per serving than most cuts of meat.

Whole grains

Whole grains are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Some good whole-grain options include brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa, and whole-wheat bread. Look for the “100% whole grain” label when buying packaged goods.

Save money: buy whole grains in bulk and store them in sealed containers to keep them fresh.

Low-fat dairy

Low-fat dairy products are a good source of calcium and other nutrients. Choose skim milk, low-fat yogurt, and low-fat cheese.

Save money: buy generic brands of dairy products. They’re often just as good as the name brands but much less expensive. If your family eats a lot of yogurt, make your own at home.

Do Healthy Foods Cost More?

Yes. Shopping along the grocery store’s perimeter for fresh produce, meat, seafood, and dairy can get expensive.  

According to the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines, the average healthy adult eating a 2,000-calorie diet needs about 2 ½ cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 6 oz of grains (half from whole grains), 5 ½ oz of protein, and 3 cups of dairy. 

Plate of food in MyPlate portions

A recent study found that it costs ~$29 more per week to meet MyPlate’s fruit and vegetable recommendations. So that’s $116 more per month and a total of $1508 per year for each person. 

But how much does it really cost?

It depends on how you calculate the unit cost of food.

There are two ways to compare the cost of food: the cost per calorie and the cost per serving or portion size. The cost per calorie is why many people believe eating healthy is more expensive. So, let’s look at the unit cost of food based on calories first. The unit cost of low-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables is higher than energy-dense processed foods.

However, when you measure food based on portion size, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy are less expensive than most protein foods and foods high in saturated fat, sodium, or added sugars. 

How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

One of the best ways to save money on groceries is to cook from scratch. 

This way, you can control what goes into your meals and snacks and be sure that you’re using healthy ingredients.

Here are some tips for eating healthy on a budget by cooking from scratch:

  • Choose recipes that use inexpensive ingredients. There are plenty of healthy and delicious recipes that use budget-friendly ingredients. Focus on cheap whole foods (plant-based proteins, eggs, whole grains, etc.) and pantry staples (canned beans, rice, pasta, etc.)
  • Stock up on healthy foods when they’re on sale. You’ll have a stocked pantry and freezer of inexpensive vegetables, whole grains, fruits, lean meats, and plant proteins. This way, you’ll always have ingredients on hand, saving money in the long run.
  • Shop smaller chains for specialty items. Sometimes, the big box stores are more expensive for items like organic produce or gluten-free products. Instead, try shopping at smaller chains or online retailers.
  • Buy in bulk (sometimes). When it comes to staples like rice, beans, and flour, buying foods in bulk can save you money. Just be sure to store these items properly so they don’t go bad before you use them. 

Tip: be sure to compare the price per unit when deciding whether to buy in bulk. Bulk size doesn’t mean it’s always a better deal. Sometimes the sale price of the regular size is less than the unit cost of buying bulk.

  • Give store brands a try. Many store-brand products are just as good as the name-brand versions, but they’re usually cheaper. So, next time you’re at the grocery store, compare prices and see if you can save money by going with the store brand.
  • Aim for low sodium. Switch to low-sodium versions of foods you’re already eating. It’s an easy way to make your favorite foods healthier without spending more.
  • Make your condiments and snacks. Pre-made condiments and snacks can be expensive and are often not as healthy as we’d like them to be. Instead, try making your own condiments (like salad dressings and BBQ sauce) and snacks (like energy bars and popcorn).
  • Cut down on alcohol. If you drink alcohol regularly, it can put a dent in your monthly budget. For example, if you buy one $15 bottle of wine a week, you’ll spend $60 a month and a total of $780 in one year. And alcohol is the ultimate energy-dense food. One 5 oz glass of red wine contains approximately 120 calories but lacks macronutrients, vitamins, or nutrients. 
  • Cut out processed snack foods. These snacks often contain sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats. They’re also usually more expensive than whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and nuts. So, if you’re trying to save money and eat healthy, it’s best to avoid these types of snacks.
  • Replace sugar-sweetened drinks with water. Sugary drinks like soda, sports drinks, and juice are expensive and aren’t good for you. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, less than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugar. One 20 oz container of a popular sports drink contains 32 g of added sugar, 65% of the recommended amount (based on a 2,000 diet). That’s a lot more than 10%!
  • Eat more vegetables (for less). Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are a great way to get fresh, local produce at a fraction of the cost. CSAs are an affordable way to add organic vegetables to your family’s diet. If you don’t have local farms that offer CSA shares, try vegetable delivery subscriptions that deliver fresh produce to your door at a reasonable price. Some popular options include Imperfect Foods and Misfits Market.  

Tips to Plan Budget Healthy Family Meals

Have you ever set the goal to eat healthier but felt defeated when most food goes bad before you use it?

Yes. Cooking from scratch can take some time and effort. But with some planning, you can make it work for your schedule.

That’s where meal planning and food prep come into play. Following these tips will make cooking healthy meals for your family less stressful.

Get organized

The first step is to streamline your process by getting organized. Choose a day or two each week to sit down and plan out your meals.

Hands putting batch cooked meals in containers.

Batch cook 

Make larger batches of recipes so you have leftovers for another meal or two. This will save you time and money in the long run.

Make a grocery list

Create a master grocery list of all the staples you need for a stocked pantry. This could include rice, beans, flour, oils, spices, and condiments. Then, make a list of the ingredients you need for each meal you’re planning to make.

Make a budget grocery list by listing sale items in the weekly sales ads.

Plan meals for the week

Meal planning can help you save money by avoiding last-minute trips to the store or ordering expensive takeout.

When you know what you’re going to make for meals, it’s easier to stick to a grocery budget. First, make a list of all the recipes you want to make in the next week or two.

Meal prep

One of the best ways to save time and money is to do as much food prep as possible ahead of time. This could include washing and chopping produce, cooking grains, or prepping protein sources like tofu or chicken.

One of the easiest things you can do ahead of time is to wash and chop produce. This will make it more likely that you’ll actually use them in your meals.

Plant protein sources including soy beans, tofu and nuts.

Eat a variety of protein

If you’re trying to save money, focus on meals with plant-based protein as the main course. Beans, lentils, and tofu are all inexpensive options that can be used in a variety of dishes.

But, if you want to include meat or fish in your meal, look for deals at your local grocery store or butcher. You can also save money by cooking larger batches of protein and using leftovers throughout the week.

Cook one dinner 

Don’t be a short-order cook. Instead, cook one dinner for everyone. If you have picky eaters at home, try making dishes with a few sides to choose from. That way, there’s something for everyone. Cooking one meal saves money, time, and energy.

Use a slow cooker 

One great way to eat healthy on a budget is to use a slow cooker. Slow cookers are inexpensive. They’re a helpful kitchen tool to make meal planning easier. Use the slow cooker when you have time to batch cook on the weekend to make extra meals for the busy week ahead.

Wrap It Up

Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive, and with a little bit of planning, you can save money while still eating nutritious meals. Try some of these tips the next time you go grocery shopping, and see how much money you can save on your food budget.

Do you have budget healthy eating tips that work for your family? Let me know in the comments below.

About Jennifer Messineo, MS, RD

I’m a food loving Registered Dietitian. I help families plan meals, reduce food waste and save money on food!

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