Eating healthier can be a daunting task. From deciding on whether to choose a nutritional supplement to incorporating more fresh — and possibly organic — fruits, vegetables and whole grains, building a healthy eating plan may seem to cost more money at first.
But you might actually be surprised to find out how much money you can save at the grocery store by choosing healthy foods. In fact, a 2021 study published in The Lancet shows that in countries with middle-to-high and high incomes, healthy and sustainable food choices can reduce food spending by 22% to 34%.
These tips can help you eat healthy on a budget:
— Buy frozen fruits and vegetables.
— Plan your grocery trip.
— Freeze leftover meals.
— Try out plant proteins, beans and legumes.
— Skip the supplements.
— Buy in bulk.
— Check out store-brand options.
Buy Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great option because they are inexpensive and convenient.
“Frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are usually cheaper than fresh, plus they last longer and stack up almost identically nutritionally,” says Mia Syn, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in Charleston, South Carolina. “Look for ones packed in water without added salt or sugar.”
They are also just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts.
“There’s an argument to be made that frozen food or frozen produce can be even healthier (than fresh),” says Illa Garcia, a registered dietitian and CEO of The Millennial Nutritionist, a private weight loss coaching practice, based in Fort Worth, Texas. “Whenever fresh produce gets frozen, it’s often picked and then frozen right away. But whenever we eat (fresh produce), like blueberries, they have to be picked a little early so they can ripen.”
Plan Your Grocery Trip
Planning your meals and making a grocery list can be a game changer when it comes to saving money on groceries.
Garcia often recommends that clients try meal prepping one night a week. To do this, create a schedule of what you plan to eat throughout the week, including when you might eat out or order food. This way, you know exactly how much food to buy when you go to the grocery store.
Marisa Moore, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Atlanta, also recommends taking inventory of what you have around the house before you shop for groceries.
“Before heading to the store, check your pantry and fridge,” she says. “Build your grocery list based on what you need to use up first at home.”
This way, you can reduce food waste and avoid sending money down the drain with expired food. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 31% of the food supply in the U.S. becomes food waste, which totals $161 billion worth of food lost or wasted every year. To put this into an individual perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that each person produces 218 pounds of food waste per year.
The USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan for 2021 recommends spending almost 40% of your food budget on fruits and vegetables, 25% on proteins, 14% on dairy and about 16% on grains. Following a plan like this and purchasing whole foods rather than prepared foods can help you reduce your overall food spending.
For example, if a person spends $100 per week on groceries, for optimal nutritional value, they should spend about $40 on vegetables (fresh or frozen), $25 on proteins like chicken, fish or plant proteins, $15 on milk, yogurt and cheese and about $15 on rice, pasta, bread and other grains.
Freeze Leftover Meals
Your freezer can be your secret weapon when it comes to saving money on healthy foods.
To reduce costs on meat, check out the meat counter for cuts that are on sale and freeze them in portion-sized amounts for later use.
“It’s important to check the best by date on protein options to help reduce food waste,” Syn says. Freeze the meat before its best by date and use it as soon as you thaw it.
Try Plant Proteins, Beans and Legumes
Moore highly recommends plant protein for healthy eating on a budget because it’s an inexpensive yet excellent source of protein and fiber.
Look for dried beans, often sold in bags near the rice and grain section of the grocery story.
“You can save a lot by buying these dry and cooking (them) on the stovetop or electric pressure cooker,” Moore says.
While dried beans might not initially look like an enticing dinner option, don’t be fooled. They’re surprisingly easy to transform into delicious meals.
Seven bean soup and other recipe ideas
If you’re looking for an easy, inexpensive meal idea for tonight, try Garcia’s favorite recipe: seven bean soup.
To make it, combine any beans you like — pinto beans, lentils, navy beans, kidney beans or any others — with your favorite broth, some water, spices and tomato paste. Then, she says, put the ingredients into a pressure cooker or slow cooker and let it cook.
For inspiration, Garcia also looks to other cultures for new ways to cook beans.
“If you really like eating foods from different cultures, almost every culture does beans,” she says. “I always get my clients to try edamame or adzuki beans with an Asian stir fry or Mexican food with black beans or pinto beans.”
Beans don’t have to be boring or plain, and for an easy way to incorporate them into your meal, use them to complement any cultural item that you’re already eating.
Skip the Supplements
One of the traps of healthy eating that can end up being a money sink is all of the extra non-food products, like supplements, powders and “health” drinks. Oftentimes these products are marketed as being healthy, but they frequently aren’t necessary for a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Instead of pricey supplements, look for whole foods. For a cheap and healthy grocery list, use these inexpensive food staples:
— Beans and legumes, like lentils, chickpeas or black beans
— Fresh or frozen fruits, like apples and frozen berries.
— Fresh or frozen vegetables, such as green beans, broccoli and spinach.
— Nuts and seeds, like pumpkin seeds, cashews, peanuts and sunflower seeds.
— Whole grains like brown rice and oats.
Buy in Bulk
Many pantry staples are sold in bulk and won’t go bad easily if they’re properly stored. Rice, nuts, beans and other grains can be less expensive to buy in large quantities and used over the course of several months.
Check to see if your local grocery store has bulk aisles where you can purchase a variety of food by weight, including beans, grains, nuts and seeds.
You can also shop items in bulk at big box stores — such as Costco and Walmart — or online at Amazon for wholesale prices. While some of these retailers may have upfront membership costs, the opportunity to purchase bulk items at lower prices may save you money in the long run.
If you’re purchasing bulk foods, it’s important to store them properly. Follow these practices to keep your bulk foods fresh:
— Buy food-safe, airtight containers for your bulk foods.
— Empty the container and wash it before refilling it to avoid old food or mold collecting at the bottom.
— Shut containers after using the ingredient to avoid allowing moisture or germs inside.
Check Out Store-Brand Options
One thing that might be adding to your grocery bill is shopping for name-brand foods. While these items might be enticing on the shelf, the ingredients on the back of the package might be strikingly similar to the plain-looking store-brand product sitting next to it on the shelf.
Depending on the product, food items from store or generic brands are typically just as nutritious as name-brand foods, Syn explains. It’s often possible to look at reviews of store-brand products either on the company’s website or by searching the internet to find out how the store-brand product stacks up against its commercial competitor.
“Just be sure to compare the ingredient list and nutrition label to ensure you are not getting a product with unwanted additives, like sugar,” Syn advises.
While ingredients in processed foods may be different across brands, foods — like frozen fruits and vegetables, beans, canned vegetables, milk and butter — will likely be very similar to name brand products at a lower cost.
Save Money on Healthy Foods Starting Today
— Buy in bulk. Foods that you cook with often can be bought in bulk at big-box stores. Oftentimes these bulk purchases are less expensive in the long run than buying smaller quantities more frequently.
— Go generic. After checking food labels to compare ingredients, try out a generic brand of food instead of the name-brand food you recognize.
— Get creative. Try black bean burgers and homemade sweet potato fries as a healthy take on a classic meal.
— Plan ahead. Make sure to take inventory before you leave for the store, and determine what you need for the week before you go shopping.
— Shop sales. Buy lean meat when it is on sale, and freeze it for later use. Other foods, like fruits and vegetables, can also be frozen if you buy them on sale and freeze them immediately.
Ultimately, eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive. You can both save money on your grocery bill and live more healthily at the same time.
Whether you’re looking to save money, rethinking your food budget or simply looking to eat healthier, cooking at home can help you be in complete control of what you’re eating and spending on food.
“Studies suggest that meals prepared at home are typically lower in calories, saturated fat and sodium than meals prepared outside the home,” Syn says.
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