Food is more expensive than ever before. In fact, grocery prices jumped 12.2% from June 2021 to June 2022. The cost of food has increased for several reasons, including inflation, labor shortages and pandemic-related supply chain issues.
The good news? You can save on healthy food with a little know-how and a few simple strategies. Continue reading for our top tips for eating healthy on a budget.
What Exactly Is Healthy Eating?
Before we dive into easy ways to save, let’s first talk about what healthy grocery shopping looks like.
At its most basic, healthy eating can be defined as fueling your body with nourishing, whole foods, says Mascha Davis MPH, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Eat Your Vitamins. While she says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to healthy eating, everyone can find a balanced diet that tastes good and feels good for them.
“Unfortunately there is a misconception that healthy eating has to break the bank,” she says. Part of that misbelief has to do with buzzwords on food labels—such as healthy, alternative and organic—that often come with inflated price stickers, according to Davis. But you don’t need to fill your cart with these foods to eat healthily. “Whether you choose frozen, organic or regular blueberries, you are still getting the same benefits,” says Davis. In other words, buying organic can be a healthy option, but it’s not the only way to eat whole, nutritious foods.
Do I Need to Buy Organic?
Organic food typically costs more than conventional, so it’s definitely possible to save some cash if you choose to limit, or avoid, organic foods. While research tends to go back and forth on the health benefits of organic foods vs non organic foods, it’s important to note organic farming often uses insecticides and fungicides with “synthetic substances” that may still be harmful to humans. Additionally, conventional foods are no less nutritious than organic foods, according to a 2019 article in Missouri Medicine.
Eating Healthy on a Budget: Plan Your Meals
“Meal planning is a great way to save money at the store,” says Davis. She suggests picking two to four meals with diverse types of proteins, grains and vegetables to cook at home each week.
Davis recommends deciding which day you’ll make each meal, too. “If you want to prep multiple servings of a meal for leftovers, choose a more relaxed day to cook and stick with it,” she says. “You are less likely to cook a meal spontaneously after a long, busy day.”
Meal planning not only makes it less likely that you’ll resort to pricey takeout food, but research shows it may also help to cut down on food waste.
Stick to Your List
“The most important aspect to eating healthy on a budget is showing up to the store with a plan in mind,” says Davis.
To optimize your budget-friendly grocery list, Davis suggests following these steps:
- Decide which meals you want to cook for the week.
- Write out all the ingredients you need for each recipe.
- See which ingredients you can mix and match from your list. For example, if one recipe calls for a cup of spinach and another calls for a cup of baby kale, just choose one of the greens and use it for both meals.
- Condense your list further by seeing which ingredients you may already have or want to substitute. For instance, if a recipe calls for a grain base, such as brown rice, but you have a different grain in your pantry, opt for the one you have instead.
- Lastly, don’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach. “You are more likely to pick up extra products when you’re hungry,” says Davis. “Try planning your next grocery trip after a meal and see how your aisle strolls change when you are full and satisfied.”
Buy in Bulk
Research shows that when compared to specialty markets or general grocery stores, bulk supermarkets can help people save a significant chunk on grocery costs. Additionally, low-price bulk items are an important factor for some families to be able to afford a healthy diet.
Davis suggests focusing your bulk-buying efforts on foods you can store easily, such as rice, canned goods, pasta and spices. If you buy produce in bulk, she recommends freezing some of it when you get home so it lasts longer. Meat and poultry also make for a great bulk option—just make sure to separate it into smaller portions before freezing.
A word of caution: If your goal is to eat healthy on a budget—not just stock up on budget food—it’s a good idea to pass on buying things like cookies or candy in bulk so you’re not tempted to consume them quickly simply because you have them in your pantry.
Invest in Leftovers
Sure, leftovers save time. But they can also save you money by preventing food waste, especially when you can repurpose or reinvent past meals or individual ingredients.
But just like recipe planning can help prevent you from tossing hard-earned money in the trash (in the form of food that’s gone bad)—it’s important to have a plan for your leftovers, says Davis. If you double a recipe, make sure you’ll be home the next night or following night to enjoy it. You can also make extras of individual base ingredients and turn them into something new the next day. “For example, if you make a grain bowl with veggies and protein one day, maybe the next day you turn those leftovers into a salad or tacos,” says Davis. “Feel free to experiment with your leftovers.”
“If you constantly find yourself cooking and never having a day off, consider increasing the amount you are cooking each meal,” says Davis. “Something as simple as doubling the recipe can save you from cooking on hectic days.”
To successfully store leftovers in a safe and healthy way, invest in a variety of airtight food-grade containers and bags and make sure you put them in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible to prevent harmful bacteria growth. It’s perfectly fine—and advisable—to put hot food right into the refrigerator, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Embrace Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
“Buying frozen produce is one of the easiest money-saving options,” says Davis. And it’s an option that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice nutrition. Research shows that the overall vitamin content of frozen food is often the same—and sometimes even higher—as that of their fresh produce counterparts.
“In some cases, nutrients like beta carotene may decrease in frozen foods,” says Davis, “but there is no disadvantage to purchasing frozen produce—especially when it’s the more inexpensive option.”
Davis also suggests freezing any fresh produce you think you won’t be able to consume in time.
Buy Cheaper Cuts of Meat—Or Less Meat Overall
There are no two ways around it—meat is expensive. Studies show that compared to protein from plant sources, protein from animal sources is not only less environmentally sustainable, it’s costly, too. For those reasons, you may want to consider including some plant-based recipes—using beans, peas, lentils, quinoa, nuts, seeds or soybean products (such as tofu)—in your weekly menu.
“Plant-based protein sources, such as legumes, are packed with protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals,” says Davis. “They are also quite inexpensive and can be purchased in bulk.”
If you’re looking to keep some animal-based protein sources in your diet, Davis suggests making eggs the star of some of your dishes and buying less tender cuts of meat since they’re typically more cost-effective.
Learn to Love the Store Brand
Store-brand (also known as private-label) items are generally just as safe and nutritious as their brand-name counterparts, says Davis. These items—which often include the exact same ingredients—also typically cost less, so you can save even when you swap out just a handful of brand-name products.
Wondering how stores can get away with more budget-friendly price points? “Grocery stores are able to make their own branded foods cheaper than name brands for reasons such as no advertising costs, less research and development and fewer transport complications,” according to Davis.
While eating healthy, nutritious meals on a budget does require a bit of planning and preparation, it does not have to break the bank. In fact, in some instances—such as when it comes to eating beans and other plant-based proteins instead of red meat—eating healthier may actually be better for your wallet than opting for a burger or steak. Additionally, the plethora of recipes as well as meal planning resources that exist on the internet can help even the most novice cook start a delicious, healthy, budget-friendly eating plan in no time.