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Eating right when your budget is tight

Last Modified: August 13, 2022

Nutrition & Recipes

healthy eating when budget it tight

This post was written by Alison Johnson, MS, RDN, LD, clinical dietitian, Parkview Health.

With the increasing cost of groceries, many are concerned about how they will continue to eat healthy while living on a budget. But eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive, and you don’t have to settle for cheaper, unhealthy options. In fact, you might be surprised at the nutritious food choices you can make while pinching your pennies. Let’s look at some of my favorite wallet-friendly strategies that will help you eat right, even when your budget is tight.

Plan ahead

It might surprise you, but proper preparation and planning can save you time and money at the grocery store. Try a few of these approaches before going to the store and when walking down the aisles of your local marts.

  • Know what you need: Start by scanning your refrigerator and cabinets to see what you’re out of and what you already have on hand.
  • Smart savings: Don’t forget to check for sales or clip coupons before heading out the door. This step can help you save a bundle with minimal effort.
  • Meal planning magic: When planning your menu for the week, try building meals around items that are on sale. Buying store brand deals and items in bulk can also save you money.
  • Stick to your list: Avoid deviating from your original plan and steer clear of expensive processed snacks such as chips, candy and soda. It is easy to get sidetracked at the store and purchase items that are not needed, leading to unintended spending.
  • Think outside the box: Meat is one of the most expensive items purchased at the grocery store. When you need to purchase meat, buy in bulk, divide it into smaller servings, and freeze the rest for later. If you’re looking to save a little extra cash, try a healthy plant-based alternative, opting for meatless meals a couple of times a week. You can do this by substituting with less-expensive protein sources like beans, legumes, eggs or canned fish.
  • Frugal fruit choices: When it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, it is essential to know what is in season. During the warmer months, berries, peaches and melons are readily available at lower costs. In the winter, apples, pears and oranges are more cost-effective options. If your favorite produce isn’t in season, try purchasing frozen or canned fruit like blueberries or peaches. They are inexpensive options for the winter months.
Put your pantry to work

Don’t be afraid to stock your pantry with dry items and canned goods. They are convenient, inexpensive options when cooking delicious cost-cutting meals. These items can also add bulk to a meal and stretch your recipes, so they go further.

  • Proteins: Canned tuna, salmon, sardines, chicken and beef can all be added to sauces, served over whole grain pasta, brown rice, or vegetables, and even incorporated into soups, stews, stir-fry, casseroles.
  • Legumes: Try using dried or canned beans and lentils as the base for tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas. They are also delicious when added into soups and casseroles, pureed for dips, or when used to make black bean burgers and lentil sloppy joes. Yum!
  • Vegetables: Canned vegetables are a healthy and inexpensive option. You can incorporate them into any recipe to create a well-balanced meal, but make sure you choose low sodium or no added salt options. The possibilities are endless!
  • Fruits: You can add canned fruits into smoothies, pair them with cottage cheese, or even use them as healthy topping options for pancakes, waffles, cereal, yogurt and more! Just make sure you purchase varieties with no added sugar or canned in their own juices.
  • Grains and starches: Try integrating whole grains such as brown or wild rice, whole wheat noodles, whole grain bread, and cereals into your meals and recipes. I enjoy making oatmeal and pairing it with fruit and nuts.
  • Nuts and nut butters: You can use either of these options in baked goods, on top of cereal, in your yogurt or eat them on their own. They are delicious either way!
Be aware of beverages

Sugary beverages such as soda, juice, energy or sports drinks and sweet tea can contain a ton of added sugar. Consuming even one sugary beverage a day can lead to weight gain and an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Not to mention sugar-latent beverages usually cost more too. Instead, reach for healthier drink options like water, unsweet tea, black coffee and low-fat milk.

Cook at home

One of the best money-saving tips I can offer is to cook your meals at home. In most cases, staying in is much cheaper than eating out. So, to capitalize on this strategy, make it one of your healthy habits. Try to have more meals at home rather than eating out at the last minute. This decision benefits your bank account but also provides the added advantage of knowing the exact ingredients in your food.

Another bonus to cooking at home and in larger portions is leftovers. Besides tasting delicious, leftovers can help save you time and money, removing the need for a drive-thru run on a busy day. Bulk or batch cooking also provides an option to freeze smaller amounts so that you can enjoy them at a later date.

Also, please remember that while some individuals or families find it best to plan or prep meals for the entire week, others might find it easier to cook one meal at a time. No matter what strategy you choose, be sure it works for you and your schedule.  

Final thoughts

Bottom line, there are a number of ways to eat nutrient-rich foods while on a tight budget. Meal planning, making smart choices at the grocery store, and cooking at home will help you save time and money while benefiting your overall health.  

For specific tools to assist in meal planning on a budget, visit the MyPlate: Healthy Eating on a Budget page.

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