Today, many of us are living on a budget and looking for ways to reduce food expenses. With these tips, you can save money while still enjoying tasty, nutritious meals.
Piggy bank with folded cash bill nestled in slot, in front of bagged produce, pomegranate, and apple, frugal budget food shopping
The challenge of eating well on a budget
Eating a healthy diet is crucial to your mental and emotional health as well as your physical wellbeing. It can make a huge difference to your mood, energy, waistline, and how well you think and feel. But at a time when so many of us are out of work, facing an uncertain financial future, or living on a tight budget, finding food that is both wholesome and affordable can be a challenge.
Along with a lack of time, having a limited budget is one the major barriers to eating a healthy diet. When you’re hungry and pushed for time and money, processed and fast food can seem like the best options. While convenience foods are often tasty and filling, they also tend to be loaded with calories, sugar, and preservatives, and lacking in essential nutrients. And despite what you may have been lead to believe, eating processed and fast food is rarely cheaper than eating healthy, home-cooked meals.
Whether you’re at school, living on your own, or raising a family on a budget, with these useful tips you can enjoy healthy food without breaking the bank. The more you focus on purchasing local, unprocessed food, preparing meals at home, and reducing waste, the healthier and tastier your diet will be, the better you’ll feel, and the more money you’ll save.
Eating healthy for less is about more than just the cost of food
Even when you’re eating on a tight budget, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy mealtimes. The pleasure of eating even the simplest of meals increases when you share it with other people. Whether you cook for the whole family or live alone, you can find ways to make inexpensive meals more enjoyable—and more beneficial to your health and wellness—by making them more social experiences.
Shop with others. Getting your kids involved in shopping for groceries and preparing meals is a great opportunity to teach them about different foods, how to read food labels, and how to balance a budget. Alternately, shopping with a friend or roommate can give you a chance to catch up without falling behind on your chores. It’s also a great way to share new meal ideas and save money on discount deals like “buy one, get the second half price.”
Make mealtimes a social experience. The simple act of talking to a friend or loved over the dinner table can play a big role in relieving stress and boosting mood. Gather the family together and stay up to date on everyone’s daily lives. If you live alone, invite a friend, coworker, or neighbor over. If it’s not possible to be physically in the same space as friends or loved ones at a mealtime, try eating together while video chatting.
Cook with others. Invite a friend to share shopping and cooking responsibilities—one prepares the entrée, the other dessert, for example. Cooking with others can be a fun way to deepen relationships. Splitting the costs can make it cheaper for both of you and being in the company of others can also help you avoid overeating out of boredom or loneliness.
Eat healthy for less tip 1: Plan ahead
Saving money on food involves revising your shopping habits, eliminating waste, and focusing on healthier choices—and that can require a little planning ahead. There are a number of websites and smartphone apps that can help you create and track a budget for food and groceries. Or you can simply start with a well-thought-out shopping list. Sticking to a shopping list can help you avoid impulse buys that can quickly break your budget.
Plan on eating out less. Because of $1 deals advertised at many chains, it may seem that fast food is less expensive than cooking at home. But a meal for two at a fast-food restaurant in the U.S., with drinks and a side of fries each, is still likely to cost $10 to $15; for a family of four it’s closer to $20 to $30. Preparing a simple, healthy beef stew or roast chicken with vegetables, for example, can cost a fraction of that and leave you with leftovers as well.
Create your shopping list. As you prepare meals throughout the week, make a note of food and supplies you need. Check your cupboards, refrigerator, and freezer to see what you already have and make a note of any upcoming expiration dates. You can even download sample shopping lists so you simply need to check the appropriate boxes (see “Get more help” below).
Keep a supply of staples. These include such ingredients as olive oil, flour, canned tomatoes, canned fish, frozen veg, dried herbs and spices, pasta, rice, and stock cubes.
Find cheap and healthy recipes. Whether you live alone or with others, there are plenty of simple, healthy recipes that can help you stay within your budget. Once you have a handful of tried and tested meal ideas, you’ll find it easier to plan and shop for the week. Get input from your spouse, children, or other family members about which meals they’d like to eat.
Prep meals ahead. Prepare your lunches for the week on a Sunday evening, for example, by chopping salads or making sandwich fillings.
Cut the junk. Eliminate unhealthy foods from your list, such as soda, cookies, crackers, prepackaged meals, and processed foods. These foods are packed with unhealthy ingredients and offer little in the way of nutrition. Cutting back on them will help your wallet and your body.
Focus on healthier choices. Planning meals based on inexpensive but healthy whole foods—those that have been minimally processed—will help you stretch your budget and experience the health benefits of an improved diet.
Tip 2: Make smart food choices
Choosing healthy food over processed meals doesn’t have to inflate your weekly budget. In fact, it’s worth remembering that junk food often costs you much more than the price on the sticker. A poor diet can take a toll on your health and lead to increased medical and drug bills as well as reduced energy and productivity. Making smart food choices, though, can save you money and protect your health.
Choose whole foods. Convenience foods can save you time, but will cost you more. For example, buying a block of cheese and slicing or grating it yourself is cheaper than buying processed cheese slices or bags of grated cheese—and helps you avoid additives to prevent caking, etc. Similarly, buying a head of lettuce and washing and chopping it yourself is cheaper than purchasing bagged salad—and will often stay fresher for longer.
Buy frozen fruits and vegetables. Frozen fruits and veggies are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts and still taste good, but are often less expensive. If you have freezer room, the largest frozen bags tend to offer the best value.
Purchase generic/store brands. When you shop at conventional grocery stores, the store or generic brand will often be cheaper than the name brand for the same quality product.
Look for simple ways to save money throughout the day. Instead of picking up a morning coffee on your way to work or school, for example, make your coffee at home. Instead of buying breakfast or lunch, prepare your own using leftovers or home-made salads, sandwiches, or boiled eggs.
Buy in bulk. Buying non-perishable items, such as dried beans and canned fish, in bulk can save you money as well as shopping time. If you have the space, you can store bulk-bought grains and cereals in airtight containers and freeze perishable items, such as meat and bread, in smaller portions to use as needed. Alternately, you can split them with a friend—saving you both money.
Shop for produce in season and buy by the bag. When produce is in season it is at its cheapest, as well as its tastiest and most nutritious. It’s also often cheaper to purchase fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapefruit, potatoes, and onions by the bag, not by the piece—as long as you’ll be able to eat it all before it goes off.
Beware of hidden sugars. Many packaged foods contain high levels of hidden sugar that can cause rapid swings in energy and blood sugar, and contribute to serious health problems. Avoid foods such as instant mashed potatoes, white bread, canned soups, and sugary cereals.
Drink water instead of soda. It’s free and you can easily add variety by flavoring your water with fruit such as lemon, lime, or orange.
Know your good carbs from your bad carbs
Healthy (or good) carbs are digested slowly, providing you with long-lasting energy throughout the day and keeping your blood sugar and insulin levels stable. Unhealthy (refined or bad) carbs, on the other hand, digest quickly and cause spikes in blood sugar levels and only short-lived energy.
Healthy carbs include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
Unhealthy carbs are foods such as white flour, refined sugar, and white rice that have been stripped of all bran, fiber, and nutrients.
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