A Comprehensive Guide to Eating Healthy on a Budget

Aly Walansky
Photo: Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Photo: Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

There’s no magic formula to eating on a budget. Like anything else, it takes a little planning, creativity, and good old-fashioned work. But when you consider the rewards—better health and more money!—we can almost guarantee that you’ll find it’s worth the effort. No doubt you’ll still have days when you fall back on that quick-fix packaged food, but if you look at cooking as an adventure, you’ll also have plenty of days when you find yourself pleased with what you’ve accomplished. Superfoods are much more varied than you might think, says Rene Ficek, a Registered Dietitian and Lead Nutrition Expert at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating, and believe it or not, some of them can actually be found at super reasonable prices. It may not be as difficult to eat healthy on a budget as you think.

Beans and Lentils
Whether canned or dried, these fibrous foods make nutritious, hearty soups, and can be also act as a main course with the addition of fresh vegetables or rice, says Ficek. Research shows eating beans can help control your blood sugar, keep your weight down, and reduce risk of heart disease.

Brown Rice
Brown rice makes a great, filling addition to a leftover meal and veggies. Although brown rice is slightly more expensive than white, the nutritional payoff is well worth it, says Ficek. Another inexpensive, easy-to-fix grain, millet, is best when bought fresh. Simply rinse and toast before using it in recipes.

Semi-homemade soups can’t be beat for nutrition and convenience, especially since you can use canned or packet soups as your base, then add your own veggies and leftover meat. Feel free to experiment with adding your own herbs and spices, says Ficek.

Eggs have gotten a bad rap in the past for being high in cholesterol, but the latest research tells us that we don’t necessarily need to avoid them. The hard truth: If you need to lower your cholesterol, lowering your body fat overall will prove much more effective than simply tossing out the yolk. Dietary cholesterol isn’t bound to blood cholesterol, and the yolk contains half the protein and vitamins A, D, and E in the entire egg, says Ficek.

Frozen Chicken Breasts 
Chicken breasts are very versatile and provide us lots of healthy, lean protein, says Ficek. Frozen breasts are much cheaper than fresh, but it’s best to consume the chicken breast within 2 months of freezing for optimal tenderness and taste.

Surprise—you don’t have to spend big bucks on fancy teas to get a potent health punch. Regular black tea can easily fit the bill. Why? Even your standard brand is packed with flavonoids, the protective compounds that neutralize health-damaging particles called free radicals to maintain cell health.

Go Mobile
Rachel Holland, founder of SurvivingTheStores.com and a Savings.com DealPro, likes to use Favado to find the best deals on her foods of choice. The app enables you to compare sales and prices across a range of grocery stores, including Whole Foods, Sprouts, and Trader Joe’s, and set up alerts for when your favorite ingredients or healthy brands go on sale at your grocery store. From SnipSnap to Coupons, there are tons of apps that will alert you if there is a coupon at the store you are currently shopping in, says Shelley Carella, head of marketing and community at Yummly.

Buy Local
Buying from your neighborhood organic farmer can save you a bundle, and buying direct from those wholesalers will guarantee you the lowest prices, says Holland. If you are unsure where to find local farmers in your area, just check out Local Harvest to track ‘em down near you.

Buy in Season
Buying fruit and vegetables out of season, whether organic or not, will always cost more. Out-of-season selections carry the added cost of transportation and energy, so be sure to purchase in season produce for the lowest prices. If you cannot live without blueberries in your morning oatmeal, then buy in bulk during blueberry season and freeze them, says Holland.

Skip Convenience Foods
Supermarkets can be sinister: They know that the average person is short on time, which is why they cash in on pre-sliced veggies, trimmed-and-cleaned chicken breasts, and pre-cooked everything. What making foods from scratch demands in time often saves you in money, says celebrity nutritionist JJ Virgin. Pre-chopped produce comes with a hefty markup of 40-percent, so avoid veggie trays and take the time to prepare produce yourself. Not only will you save money, but you’ll save flavor, too; freshly sliced apples, carrots, and the like are far tastier than the pre-sliced stuff, says Perez.

Eat More Plant-Based Foods 
Yes, they’re delicious, but grass-fed beef and wild-caught fish don’t come cheap. Stretch your food dollar by loading more of your plate with inexpensive, filling leafy and cruciferous veggies, good fats like avocado, and slow-release high-fiber carbs like quinoa and legumes, says Virgin.

Load Your Plate with Fiber
Fiber delays gastric emptying, balances blood sugar, curbs cravings, and makes you feel full faster, says Virgin—what’s not to love? Aim for two or three inexpensive, high-fiber foods at every meal. Excellent choices include avocado, legumes, nuts, seeds, and leafy greens.

Buy Organic Selectively
Not all produce needs to be purchased organic, as thick, removable skins protect some fruits and veggies from pesticides and other chemicals, says Kendal Perez, Savings Expert with CouponSherpa.com. The Clean 15 represents the produce you’re safe to purchase non-organic, saving your health and your wallet. On the other hand, the Dirty Dozen Plus is a list of fruits and veggies you should only buy organic if pesticides are a concern.

Consider Frozen
While healthy fruits and vegetables are available year-round in most parts of the U.S., prices vary based on the season. If you’re craving strawberries in December, for example, they are going to be pricey. However, frozen produce is always a good deal, and just as healthy as the fresh stuff. In fact, frozen produce is flash frozen at peak ripeness, providing you with all the nutrients at a fraction of the cost, says Perez.

Choose Healthy Fats
Get healthy fats from plant-based whole foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives, and minimize the amounts of extracted oils and processed fats used when cooking, says Whole Foods Market‘s Registered Dietitian, Allison Enke.

Plan Ahead
Planning meals before the week starts will keep you from falling into the habit of ordering in or making bad food choices just because they’re quick and easy, says Enke. Check sales, locate healthy recipes, and create a shopping list for all the dishes you’ll make that week. After shopping, invest some time in slicing and prepping fruits and vegetables for the week and refrigerate in re-sealable containers. Cook pantry staples such as chickpeas, lentils, quinoa, and brown rice in large batches when you have some time for fast and healthy meals later.

Stock Up During Sale Time
If you have room for storage, stocking up on healthy items during sale time is awesome, says Perez. For example, nuts will be on sale as we head into the holiday season, and they make a great source of fiber, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and more. Most perishable foods can be frozen for later, too.

Go Big on Flavor
An easy way to make a delicious dinner without adding calories or cost is by incorporating spices, seasonings, and seasoned vinegars into your cooking repertoire, says Enke. A little goes a long way with these ingredients that need to be purchased very infrequently and can last for long periods of time on your shelf.

Eat Out Less
Dining out is a big part of weight gain and unhealthy eating, and does nothing for your bank account, either. Try to eat at home as often as possible, and bring your own lunch to work, suggests Perez. Cutting down on dining expenses will no doubt cut down on calories, too.

Read more: 20 Sneaky Ways to Eat Healthier