One of the main obstacles that prevent people from eating healthy is cost. Organic food is more expensive that conventional, and healthier options like fresh produce, dairy and meat is more costly than processed and fast food. We know we want to make changes, but how do we do it on a tight budget? Learning how to eat healthy on a budget is possible, it just takes rethinking how we eat and shop. Here are my top tips for how to eat healthy on a budget, so you can finally make those changes you know you want to make.
Find a Market with Healthy options
The first step in how to eat healthy on a budget is to find a market where you can buy healthy food. This is the most important place to begin.
The most affordable health food can be found at Trader Joes market (if you have that close to you), or another large market chain such as Ralphs, Vons, Smiths, Albertsons, Publix or Pete’s Fresh Market etc. Many of these large grocery chains have caught on that we are looking for healthier options and therefore carry organic and natural foods. I think you’d be surprised what you can find there. These stores usually have affordable organic and natural food options and great sales. You can typically find amazing discounts on everything from organic dairy products and nut butters, to gluten-free baking flour and organic produce.
Another few places that have healthy natural specialty foods on discount is Target, Costco and HomeGoods. If you have these close to you, check them out. You can save a lot of money here. Target not only has some organic produce, they also have organic dairy, nut milks, nut butters, healthy granola and baking items, as well as healthy trail mix and pantry staples like olive oil, avocado oil and high-quality vinegar. Target also has discounted natural skincare and household cleaning products.
Costco is a great place to purchase bulk organic frozen fruit and vegetables, healthy oils like coconut oil, organic meat and chicken, nuts and seeds, and healthier snack items like seed crackers. Finally, HomeGoods is one of my favorite secret places to shop for health specialty items. You can find things like cacao powder, protein powder, hemp seeds, goji berries, almond butter, coconut chips, kale chips and other items that you usually only find at pricey health food stores like Whole Foods. At HomeGoods, you can find these items on deep discount for a quarter of retail price.
Tip: many stores are open to recommendations, so don’t shy away from requesting certain natural food brands. I have been able to get quite a few organic food brands introduced into my local grocery store.
This is going to be the next most important thing when learning how to eat healthy on a budget. Shop smart using these tips.
Stick to your shopping list
How many times have you walked into a grocery store and come out with everything in the market EXCEPT what you were looking for. This happens to me all the time. Not only is it frustrating, but you also always seem to end up with the most expensive items in the store. From that truffle oil that was on sale (but still $15!) to that artisan ice cream you just needed to have, you come out of the store sipping on a $5 specialty tea drink thinking how in the world did you just spend $100! This is why you must take the time to write a shopping list and stick to it.
Don’t be fooled by the sale items
When shopping for healthy foods, oftentimes you will be tempted to buy a very expensive, “I would never be able to afford” item because it’s on sale. Be careful here. So often stores put expensive foods on sale, but for hardly any real discount. It seems like it’s affordable when in fact it’s not. Make sure that it is really in your budget before you reach for that luminous sale item.
Did you know that when you buy food you are not only paying for the food item itself, but for its transportation to you? If you look at where your produce comes from, oftentimes it is from halfway around the world! It’s no wonder that the papayas from South America or the asparagus from Central America cost three to four times its usual cost. Buy local instead. You will see the prices are much more affordable. Not only are you saving money, but you are reducing your carbon footprint and helping the earth.
Purchase produce that’s in season
The next trick to how to eat healthy on a budget is to buy in season. When you purchase foods that are being grown at your time of year, you are going to save a lot of money. This goes hand in hand with buying locally, since you will only be eating what is being grown. Buying seasonally may seem frustrating at first when you realize that strawberries are not a winter food, or your beloved grapes are not a spring food, but you will quickly adapt. Eating what is in season is not only a great way to save money, but it is also quite healthy. The foods that are grown in certain seasons are more nourishing to the body than the foods that are not of that season. As the temperatures in fall and winter drop, the food becomes heartier and more warming – think sweet potatoes, winter squash, beets. This helps to nourish the body and prepare for the colder months. As the temperatures in spring and summer rise, the food becomes lighter and more cleansing – think asparagus, fennel, apricots. This helps to cleanse the body and keep the body cool for the hotter months. Eating with the season helps the body to stay balanced.
Buy in Bulk
Have you ever noticed the section of bulk bins at the market? Use it. Buying in bulk can save you a lot of money, even if it is at a health food store like Whole Foods. You can find most all grains, oats, beans, legumes, and nuts and seeds here. Many stores even offer bulk baking flours (almond flour, oat flour), spices and seasonings. This can be especially helpful when buying spices for recipes. Instead of paying $6 for a whole jar of a specialty spice, you can spend under $1 to get those few teaspoons that you need. The same goes for buying other ingredients for a recipe. Oftentimes you only need say 1 cup of quinoa and 1/2 cup of black beans. By buying in bulk you only purchase what you need.
Find a Healthy Online Discount Resource
The second place you can shop is online. This is really great for those of you who don’t have access to the healthy market options above. Online stores are a great place to buy healthy snack items and specialty foods like protein powders. A couple places to look are Thrive Market and Vitacost. I personally subscribe to Thrive Market and use it for everything from gluten-free crackers and baking flours, to protein powder and nut butters, to household cleaning items and personal care products. You’d be surprised at the great deals you can find here.
Learn how to Prioritize
The next thing you need to do is prioritize. Prioritize where you spend your money. I would first make the decision to buy organic meat/poultry, dairy and eggs. This way you avoid hormone, antibiotics and GMO foods, which I believe are the most important toxins to eliminate for health. Added hormones in animal products can lead to hormone imbalance, an increased risk of infertility and cancer. Added antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance, and GMO foods can lead to liver and kidney damage, infertility and other health issues.
I realize that buying organic meat/poultry and dairy is much more expensive than conventional, but its impact is great. Not only are you avoiding seriously harmful toxins, you are helping to support the humane treatment of animals, and protecting our environment.
As for fish, go for wild-caught. Wild caught fish ensures that you are not eating farm-raised. Farm-raised has high concentrations of antibiotics, pesticides and lower levels of healthy nutrients.
Eat more Vegetarian: Get your protein from plants!
A great secret to saving money is to eat less meat. As we mentioned before, if we are buying organic meat/poultry, dairy and eggs, our cost for these products are going to rise. These foods are always the most expensive, so let’s treat them as delicacies like they used to in the old days. Instead of eating animal products at every meal, try only once a day, or five times a week instead of seven. Also, decrease your portion size. Most Americans eat far too much meat in the first place, so with finances as a motivation, cut back. This is not only going to help keep money in your wallet, but it will also help you to increase your intake of other nutrient-rich, health-enhancing plant-based foods.
Focus on your protein needs from plant sources such as legumes, beans, grains, mushrooms, nuts and seeds. Use my Plant-based Protein Chart to figure out where to get protein from. The best news is that these items, especially legumes, beans and grains, are very affordable. Making this switch alone will lower your shopping bill.
When to Buy Organic, When to Not
Did you know that there is an easy way to decide which fruits and vegetables you NEED to buy organic and which ones you don’t? Yep, thanks to the EWG, we have lists of which foods are the most and the least sprayed with pesticides. These lists come in little cards that you can keep in your wallet so that you always know which ones to buy organic and which ones conventional. Grab the cards here.
Tip: If you do buy conventional produce, get a good fruit and veggie wash spray. I use this one. Use the spray to clean your produce well. This can help to wash off some of the pesticides.
Dirty Dozen (highly sprayed with pesticides) – buy organic
- cherry tomatoes
- sweet bell peppers
- hot peppers
- collard greens
- summer squash**corn, papaya, and summer squash are often genetically modified seed. Buy organic to avoid GMO.
Medium (moderately sprayed with pesticides) – buy organic when possible
- snap peas
- green beans
- winter squash
- summer squash
- green onions
Clean Produce (least sprayed with pesticides) – can buy conventional
- sweet potato
- honeydew melon
Watch for GMOs – only buy organic
Another thing to watch out for is non-organic soy and corn. These two crops are almost all GMO (genetically modified) in the United States. Corn and soy is in nearly all packaged foods, prepared foods and dressings, so make sure to only buy those organic or with a “non-GMO” label, or search for an option without corn or soy.
A few items to be cautious when buying are; corn tortillas, tortilla chips, breakfast cereal, corn meal (polenta), vegetable oil (soy oil), salad dressing, mayonnaise, soy milk, tofu, tempeh, miso, nutrition/protein bars, protein shakes, veggie burgers, crackers, gluten-free baking mixes, pie crusts, pizza crusts and candy. This is a very modified list so make sure to always look at labels. If it mentions corn or soy, go organic or non-GMO.
Get more from your health foods: The healthiest cheap foods
Did you know that not all “superfoods” cost and arm and a leg? Yep, there are quite a few superfoods – foods that are outrageously high in health enhancing nutrients – that are affordable. Here is a list of foods that you can incorporate into your daily diet without breaking the bank. Try to add these in to boost your daily nutrition.
- sea salt
- brown rice
- wheat germ
- flax seed
- dried coconut shreds
- pumpkin seeds
- green tea
- dark leafy greens – kale, collards, spinach
Wasted Food is Wasted Money
How many of you buy a bunch of food at the grocery store that inevitably rots and goes into the trash bin? Ya, I thought so. Many of us buy food that goes uneaten, which is money wasted. In order to avoid this, plan your meals for the week. Every Sunday make a list of the meals you are going to eat, whether at home or out, so you can plan accordingly.
If you are making a meal at home, count on eating it for lunch the next day. If you eat out, plan on taking part home to be eaten at dinner, or as lunch the following day. This simple extra step can really help to save money. Plus, it is a great incentive for not overeating. If you see each meal that you eat as your meal for the next day too, you will stop overindulging and start listening to your hunger signals.
Another step to take is to always use the food in your home. Instead of buying more food, check your cupboards and refrigerator for anything that might become a potential meal. You would be surprised what you can come up with! If you have some beans in the cupboard, a small piece of avocado and a tomato in the refrigerator, and a sweet potato in the pantry, you have the makings for a real healthy meal. This is going to save a lot of money, because you are using what you already have, and believe me, there is almost always something hiding in the kitchen!
The easiest way to start seeing these “potential meals” is to think of bowls. Anything that goes into the bowl is fair game. No need to make separate, but complete dishes, you just need a bunch of ingredients and a little seasoning. Check out my guide to get started.
Stop buying specialty drinks – make them at home
I must admit this one is the hardest for me. Whenever I go grocery shopping, or get busy doing errands, there is nothing I want more than a specialty drink. Iced green tea, Kombucha, fresh green juice, you name it, I want it. But, as we know these drinks can get really expensive! Ranging from $3-$7+ even buying one of these a few times a week makes a difference. So start getting in the practice of making them at home.
Purchasing a box of tea and making your own ice tea at home is far more affordable than buying one at a tea shop. Same goes for coffee. Another idea is to make your own fresh juice at home, or your own juice spritzers. Buy some sparkling water and real juice concentrate (no sugar, just juice – cranberry or pomegranate) and mix them together. Making your own healthy lemonade is another good one. Simply juice a few lemons into a glass of water and add a few drops of stevia. Voila! Throw these drinks into a to-go container and don’t leave the house without it. That is where the temptation comes in.
Eat at Home + Pack your Meals
We finally get to it, eat at home – the one piece of advice that is essential for learning how to eat healthy on a budget. There is no way to do this without making the majority of your meals at home. This is because restaurant eating is never as healthy as you think it is (even if you are just ordering a salad), and we always are tempted to spend more money when we eat out (it’s only $1 extra for avocado!). That is why we must must must make our food at home.
The key way to do this is to plan your meals. The good news is that plant-based eating is far simpler to prepare than meat-based dishes, and cheaper too! Most days I eat salads for lunch, and my husband and I eat grain and veggie bowls, or soups or stews. These are all easy to make, and are just as good the next day. Using leftovers for lunch the next day is the best way to save money from eating out at a restaurant. Plus, it is far healthier. To get some inspiration, head over to my Resources page for a list of healthy recipe blogs. Here is a list of foods that I find are great dinner options that translate into great lunches the next day:
- burrito bowls
- salads (keep dressing on the side)
- soup or stew
- brown rice pasta primavera
- curry bowls
- soba noodles and veggies
- mezze plates – hummus, olives, cucumber, falafel, tabbouleh, roasted eggplant/peppers
Finally, plan on packing your snacks too. This goes for the weekends as well. Most of us don’t plan on getting hungry in between meals, but guess what, we always do. Pack homemade trail mix, a piece of fruit or a bar when you leave the house. This way you always have a back up plan for when hunger calls and can avoid spending money on something that is almost always not the healthiest choice. Packing your snacks is a great way to save money, and to prevent those blood sugar mood swings! Parents, I know you get this one. To find the healthiest food and protein bars, check out my post here.
So there you go! Hopefully these tips will help you to start improving your health while staying on a budget. If anyone has some tips of their own, don’t be shy! We would love to know! Share in the comments below.