It is the unfortunate truth in the U.S. that low income people are more vulnerable to obesity and obesity-related health issues such as diabetes and heart disease. Research into healthy eating has shown that some of the most effective interventions for better health outcomes include dietary changes, but eating healthy on a budget can be difficult if you don’t have some simple tools at your disposal. Here are 14 tips for how you can start eating healthy on a budget.
1. Stick to staples when eating healthy on a budget
When you are stocking your pantry with healthy foods, start with staples like rice and legumes (black beans, kidney beans, lentils, etc.). These can provide the base for endless meals just by changing up the spices and adding different vegetables.
2. Buy in bulk
Many grocery stores are starting to offer a bulk foods section. This is a great place to get deals on not only staples like rice and flour but also to buy small amounts of spice. If you only need a pinch of spice, it makes no sense to blow your budget on an entire bottle of a spice that will languish in your drawer.
3. Save your vegetable scraps
As with staples like rice and beans, a good homemade stock can be the foundation for soups and stews. Veggie stock also adds flavor to simple rice dishes. When you trim celery, peel onions or carrots, or cut greens, save the scraps and add to a bag in the freezer. When the bag is full, use the vegetable scraps to make stock.
4. Practice seasonal meal planning
A meal plan is a great idea, but shopping for out-of-season produce can send your grocery bill to the moon. Eating healthy on a budget means focusing on what is fresh and in season.
5. Buy seasonal produce in bulk and freeze it
If you have freezer space, buy extra produce and freeze it. In the summer, this means taking advantage of the delicious abundance of corn, tomatoes, and green beans. These can be frozen (or canned) for fresh, healthy food year ‘round.
6. Don’t throw anything out
In the U.S., we throw away up to 40% of food annually. This is dollars in the trashcan. Eating healthy on a budget looks to re-purpose food that might otherwise be wasted. Old bananas? Peel and freeze for bread or smoothies. Chicken bones? Make chicken stock. That last little bit of tomato sauce? Freeze in an ice cube tray and add to soups or sauces.
7. Stay plant-based
A plant-based diet is generally cheaper than a diet that includes meat of any kind. There are plenty of delicious vegetarian options that go beyond the standard pasta dishes. Even if you focus on being a weekday vegetarian or start out with Meatless Mondays, this can save you and your family a lot of money.
8. Re-think protein
Animal protein can be one of the most expensive parts of a budget, but there are ways to reduce this cost and still be a carnivore. Always go for organic options, but wait until they are on sale to stock up. Then, select a less expensive cut of meat and use it in a braise, roast, or stew to develop superior flavor and tenderness. Chicken thighs are cheaper and more flavorful than boneless, skinless chicken breasts, and there are many cheaper beef options.
9. Control portion size
You wouldn’t know it to look in a restaurant or magazine, but a serving size of meat is about the size of a deck of playing cards. Animal protein should be the smallest part of your plate. Focus the rest of the plate on vegetables and whole grains.
10. Buy organic selectively
While there is some debate about whether or not organic fruits and vegetables are better for you than conventionally grown, there is no doubt about one thing: organic fruits and vegetables don’t add chemicals to your body. However, some fruits and vegetables don’t absorb the chemicals, so buying organic isn’t always necessary. Use the “dirty dozen” and “clean 15” lists to guide your choices.
11. Prep ahead of time
Much of the food waste in the U.S. comes with the best intentions. We load up on produce but then ignore it as our week gets busier and busier. Make healthy options easier by washing, chopping, and portioning fruits and vegetables when you bring them home. Make it easier to reach for a salad or some berries, and you will!
12. Cook from different cuisines
Mexican, Chinese, and Indian dishes all rely heavily on bold flavors with simple ingredients. A simple online search can yield delicious recipes. Some of them may require unusual spices; head to the bulk section for small amounts when first trying a recipe.
13. Shop at ethnic markets
That $4 soy sauce at the grocery store? In the ethnic market down the street, it’s $1.50. These same deep discounts can be found on other things like noodles, rice, and dried legumes. Take the time to get to know your local ethnic market for some of the best deals around.
14. Make healthy, affordable swaps
Eating healthy on a budget is about price AND nutrition. In this era of fast food and convenience stores, it’s not hard to find affordable food options. If you want to eat healthy cheap, the struggle becomes real. Here are some food swaps that can help you keep that food budget low while incorporating pain healthy foods.
Instead of: Iceberg lettuce
At less than a dollar a head in season, iceberg lettuce is cheap and seems filling. But the truth is that eating a bowl of iceberg lettuce is more like drinking a glass of water. Iceberg lettuce is 96% water, with the rest being some fiber and minimal nutrients.
Try: Fresh spinach or other greens in season
Shopping for greens in season is the best way to eat healthy cheap. Plus, the nutritional value of dark leafy greens cannot be beat. Consider these numbers:
- Kale: Contains vitamins A, C, K, plus calcium, folate, and potassium. Kale fights inflammation in the body and is thus a great choice for chronic pain.
- Spinach: Has fewer than 20 calories per cup with all of the same benefits of kale, plus the added benefit of being just as nutritious in its frozen state (so available cheaply year ‘round!).
Fall and spring is the best time for these two dark, leafy greens. Try a quick kale, fennel, and apple salad for lunch. Chop one apple and one small fennel bulb into ½” pieces (or thin slices if you have a mandolin). Squeeze a bit of lemon juice on the apple to prevent browning, then toss one bunch or bag of washed kale with the apples and fennel in a bowl.
In a jar, combine ½ cup of apple cider, two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar, four teaspoons of olive oil, one teaspoon of honey, and some black pepper. If you like your salad dressing thicker, add a squeeze of Dijon mustard. Cap the jar tightly, then shake well to combine. Pour dressing onto salad and toss.
Instead of: White rice
White rice is cheap and filling, but this is where most of the benefit ends. While there are worse things you could eat, white rice has been implicated in an increased chance of both Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Try: Brown rice
This simple swap couldn’t be easier or more affordable. With a difference in taste that only the most discerning palate could pick up, brown rice is a great way to eat healthy cheap, for more than just one reason. Make a huge pot of brown rice at the beginning of the week and use it as an add-in to soups or as a side dish.
You can also whip up delicious veggie fried rice that incorporates vegetable leftovers from the week. Try this “Day Before Pay Day Fried Rice”: sauté an onion in a splash of olive oil (pain-healthy fats!) then add a handful of chopped carrots, celery, and any other crunchy vegetable you have left over. When these begin to get tender-crisp, add in garlic and ginger (if you have it), then stir in some frozen peas, leftover roasted broccoli, and that last half of a roasted chicken breast (or an egg or two). Season to taste with low-sodium soy sauce to bring together a fast, delicious meal.
Instead of: White potatoes
White potatoes are a workhorse of a vegetable, allowing millions of people around the world to eat healthy cheap. It’s true that they are high in potassium and are an excellent source of vitamin C and B6, but sometimes we sabotage our healthy eating in the preparation. French fries or loaded baked potatoes add fat, salt, and calories to an otherwise healthy food.
Try: Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes offer a nutritional punch and a burst of flavor that makes adding butter and sour cream unnecessary. Sweet potatoes come pre-loaded with fiber, vitamin A, magnesium, calcium, and even protein. Vitamin A and magnesium are both anti-inflammatory, which can help with everything from muscle to joint pain.
For a delicious meal, heat one tablespoon of olive oil. Sauté half a chopped onion in the oil and add one chopped garlic clove. Peel and chop two sweet potatoes, and open, rinse, and drain one can of chickpeas, plus one can of light coconut milk and one can of tomatoes. Add coconut milk and tomatoes to the pan and bring to a boil, then add sweet potatoes. Cover and keep at a low boil until the sweet potatoes are nearly tender (about 15 minutes), then add chickpeas to heat through. Remove lid and cook for another five minutes until chickpeas are heated and the sauce reduces a bit. Serve over brown rice for a delicious meal for four.
Instead of: Fruit juice
Juicing is a hot food trend that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Sure, a glass of fresh-squeezed green juice provides a boost of nutrients, but 30 minutes later you are hungry again. Plus, at upwards of $7 for a 12-ounce bottle of juice, this is one food trend that will not be sustainable for long if you are trying to eat healthy cheap.
Try: Whole fruit
For a burst of energy that sticks around past the hour mark, always choose whole fruit over juice. Whole fruit has all of the nutrients you get in a glass of juice but with the added benefit of fiber that helps keep you fuller, longer and a price tag that won’t break the bank.
Missing variety? Try a simple combination of whole fruits, like banapple (chopped up apples and bananas) or a bowl of mixed berries. Eating a rainbow of fruits offers you a host of antioxidant and pain-fighting benefits, plus a wider variety of vitamins.
While it requires more preparation and thought, eating healthy on a budget is not only possible but also delicious. For more ideas for eating healthy on a budget, check of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website.