How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

healthy food optionsThe statistics are sobering; more than two-thirds of the American population is overweight or obese, and one in three children is now overweight or obese. To make matters worse, the number of obese Americans keeps climbing.

As a result, many people want to start eating healthier foods, but some think that to eat healthy, they have to spend more money. Believe it or not, you can eat healthy on a budget. I do it every day.

Here are some tips you can use to eat healthy on a budget.

The Benefits of Eating Healthy

My body quickly responds when I don’t eat healthy, or follow my fitness routine. My energy goes down, my mood changes, I’m less productive at work, and I start catching every little cold that comes my way. I need to eat healthy, and get enough exercise, for my overall health and well-being. I fall off the wagon from time to time, but I always return to eating healthy and following my workout routine. Once you make the transition to eating healthier foods, you will feel better too.

Eating healthy foods lowers your risk for heart disease, diabetes, being overweight or obese, and certain types of cancer. Avoiding these conditions saves you from heartache and sickness, and also saves you money with lower healthcare costs. Transitioning to a healthy diet also increases your value to employers. You’ll have more energy, an excellent attendance record, and increased productivity.

Eating Healthy at Home

Cooking and eating at home can help you maintain a healthy diet, and is cheap, fun, and much healthier than eating out.

Do most of your grocery shopping in the perimeter of the grocery store. Avoid the middle aisles, including pre-packaged food, frozen meals, and sweets, and spend most of your shopping dollars on fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, seafood, and dairy. If you have to visit any aisle, pick the one with organic foods, beans, and grains, including rice, farrah, and bulgar.

If you want to eat healthy on a budget, start with these foods:

1. Fruits and Vegetables

Put fruits and vegetables on top of your grocery list. Buying fresh fruits and vegetables is less expensive and healthier than buying pre-cut, bagged, and canned produce. You have to do more prep work, but in the long run you can save money, and you know exactly what goes into food preparation. Fruits have a natural sugar that gives you longer-lasting energy than the refined sugars in snack foods. Fruit is also a great source of fiber.

Incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet can be challenging, but it helps to understand your weak points. For example, I have a serious weakness for bread; I reach for bread whenever I’m craving something to eat. I try to use this craving to my advantage.

If I want bread as a treat, I first have to eat some vegetables. I usually go for a dark green salad, drizzled with olive oil and red wine vinegar. I munch some carrots, or chop up a cucumber into rice wine vinegar. After I’ve eaten my veggies, then I can have some bread. I typically find that I no longer want the bread, or that I don’t want as much bread, after I’ve filled up on vegetables.

You can also slip in more fruits and vegetables by eating them as snacks. Instead of pulling out a bag of chips, eat some carrots, fresh broccoli with low-fat ranch dressing, or an apple. You can save money on your fruits and vegetables by purchasing in-season produce.

Epicurious has a wonderful map that shows in-season fruits and vegetables in your area, and you can refer to it before you head to the store. Frozen fruits and vegetables often go on sale, and thanks to modern flash-freezing, they’re just as healthy as fresh produce. Additionally, search for bargains on fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets, which often offer lower prices than grocery stores. You can find a lot of unusual items at farmers’ markets that you cannot find in regular stores.

fruit tape

2. Whole Grains

If you want to eat healthy and lose weight, work more whole grains (considered one of the top superfoods) into your diet. Whole grains have not had their bran and germ removed by the milling process.

According to the Mayo Clinic, eating whole grains lowers your risk of heart disease. Whole grains are chock-full of fiber, which helps keep your digestive system healthy and moving, and expands once inside your stomach, to help you feel full. A weight-loss program should include a high-fiber diet. You can easily work many good sources of fiber into your meals. These small changes don’t have to cost you any extra money. Moreover, when you eat less, you save more money on groceries, too.

If you eat white flour bread, switch to whole grain breads. Instead of buying Saltine crackers, choose whole grain crackers. Eat a lot of white rice? Switch to brown rice. You can easily make these changes, and they won’t cost you a dime.

You can also work more inexpensive, raw grains into your diet. You can buy many grains, like bulgar, couscous, farrah, quinoa, and rice in bulk at larger supermarkets, and natural food stores like Whole Foods. Buying grains in bulk is a wonderful way to save money. Stores that offer natural and organic products, like Whole Foods and New Seasons, and local health food stores, offer a wide variety of grains for the budget-conscious.

3. Proteins

Steak and pork chops are delicious, but pricey, and loaded with saturated fat, a direct contributor to heart disease. We need to eat protein every day, but we don’t need to eat an excessive amount of it. Adult men need 55 grams of protein per day, while adult women need 46 grams. Pregnant or lactating women need 71 grams of protein per day.

It doesn’t take much to get the protein you need every day. One egg contains 6 grams of protein. A 3.5 ounce piece of chicken has more than 30 grams of protein. One cup of cooked lentils gives you 18 grams of protein. Protein hides in a lot of places you might not expect.

Here are some cheap and healthy ways to add protein to your diet, without splurging on unhealthy steak or pork chops:

  • 1 cup of milk: 8 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of dried beans: 16 grams of protein
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter: 8 grams of protein
  • 2 slices of whole grain bread: 8 grams of protein
  • 1 ounce of walnuts: 4 grams of protein
  • 1/2 cup of cottage cheese: 16 grams of protein
  • 1 cup of tofu: 16 grams of protein
  • 5 ounces of Greek yogurt: 15 grams of protein

4. Popcorn

I love popcorn. This popular whole grain snack is low-calorie, high in fiber, and cheap. The loose kernels cost less than pre-bagged popcorn, and buying them enables you to skip the extra calories from the butter, as well as the high salt content, of prepackaged popcorn.

When I make popcorn, I pour several tablespoons of kernels into a brown paper lunch sack, and fold up the bag. I put the bag in the microwave for a minute or two; when it’s done, I drizzle some olive oil and a little high-quality salt over the popcorn. Delicious!

5. Dairy

Most of us eat dairy products on a regular basis. Dairy is a major source of calcium, but many dairy products, like cheese, have a high fat content. Keep an eye out for coupons on healthy dairy products, and dairy substitutes. Soy milk is a great milk substitute; it’s high in calcium, and 100% hormone-free. Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are also excellent sources of protein and calcium, and you can frequently find coupons for these products online.

If you have tried soy milk in the past and didn’t like it, try it again. There are many excellent soy milk products available today, and they taste really good. The Silk line of soy products is especially tasty, and available in heart-healthy light versions, too. If you want to make the move to soy milk, but can’t embrace the change, try pouring the milk over cereal, or using it to make healthy blender recipes like smoothies, to get used to the thinner texture. Mixing soy milk with grains or fruit can help you make the transition from dairy to soy products.

soy milk beans

More Ways to Save Money and Eat Healthy

  1. Make your own dips, sauces, salad dressings, soups, and spreads for wraps and sandwiches. When you make these items at home, you can reduce or eliminate the sodium and fat and cut calories found in pre-packaged products. The items are inexpensive to create, and they add spice to your healthy eating plan. When you make these items as you need them, they will be fresh, and you reduce food waste.
  2. Look for creative ways to add fruits, vegetables, and alternative grains into your diet. Instead of eating plain egg whites, make an egg-white omelet with spinach, shallots, and mushrooms. Experiment by making spicy chicken lettuce wraps, gazpacho, peppers stuffed with quinoa, and broiled polenta with tomato sauce.
  3. Try alternative grains. Quinoa, called a “super grain” because of its high protein content, can be used as a savory, or can make a delicious breakfast, when served with bananas and honey. Try quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and other alternative grains to give your body a break from traditional white flour products. Rice pasta and other gluten-free products also offer a unique alternative to foods traditionally made with white or whole wheat flour.
  4. Keep a close eye on the calorie, fat, and sodium counts in canned or packaged foods. The organic aisles in the supermarket offer a bounty of foods made with fewer preservatives, and less sodium. Stock up on organic black beans, low-fat refried beans, whole-grain pasta, and other staples when they go on sale. Consider investing in canning equipment, to can your own fruits, vegetables, and fish (i.e. home canning recipes). When you can your own foods, you know exactly what goes into them, and they taste much, much better than canned foods from the grocery store.
  5. Create a meal plan. Before you shop for healthy, budget-conscious food items listed here, create a meal plan. If you have a specific idea of what you plan to cook, and carry a shopping list at the grocery store, you will spend less money, and stay on track with your healthy eating plan. In addition to creating a meal plan, keep a journal of the foods you eat. The journal helps you monitor your food intake, improve your diet, and stick with healthy foods long-term.

Tips for Making Healthier Restaurant Choices

Before meeting friends or family at a restaurant, have a healthy snack at home. You can stave off cravings, and reduce hunger, by eating an apple or a banana 30 minutes before you leave. This tip also works well during the holiday season, when food-laden parties abound.

You can save money, and stick to your health goals, by following these additional tips when dining out:

1. Do Your Homework on Restaurant Options

Most restaurants have their menu readily available online and some even have nutrition charts posted on their websites. You can also call the restaurant, and ask if they have healthy or low-fat meals available.

Depending on the size and popularity of the restaurant, you may find online reviews with healthy meal suggestions. Two great websites to review include Yelp and Urbanspoon. Restaurant and fast food meals often include high amounts of fat, salt, and calories. Even when restaurants reveal calorie counts for meals, USA Today reports that they often underestimate these numbers by as much as 20%.

2. Look for a Smaller Portion Section on the Menu

By now, most restaurants know that many people watch what they eat, and have thus added a special section to their menus, which makes finding the right food easier than ever.

For example, T.G.I. Friday’s offers a “Right Portion Right Price” menu for those who want to eat healthy, while also saving money. Richard Snead, president and chief executive officer of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide, parent of T.G.I. Friday’s restaurants, said “This is a category issue stemming from consumer demand. The category needs to listen.”

If the menu doesn’t highlight heart-healthy or low-fat options, order grilled chicken or broiled fish. Avoid fried foods and cream-based salad dressings, sauces, and soups. Your server can provide more details about healthy options on the menu.

You can also ask for a child-sized portion at many restaurants. Some restaurants, including Olive Garden, allow diners to order a lunch portion for dinner. Most restaurants offer oversized portions, so order a lunch-sized portion or a children’s meal to save money and stay on track with your healthy eating plan.

You can also save calories, and a bit of money, by halving the food at a restaurant. Ask for a to-go box, and divide the food into two portions before you begin eating. This ensures that you don’t overindulge, and that you have leftovers for lunch the following day. Decline the server’s offer of a bread basket, and fill up on salad instead.

3. Go to Independently Owned Restaurants

Restaurant chains such as Denny’s, Chili’s, and Big Boy serve gigantic portions. You can get reasonably-sized meals at smaller, independently-run restaurants. You also might get a healthier meal, since many smaller restaurants, especially those in bigger cities, source their fresh produce locally whenever they can.

Also, because many of the smaller restaurants use fresh, local produce, the food tastes better. Larger chains often don’t take the time or go through the trouble and expense to source food locally; they use lower-quality ingredients, and rely on salt and fat to improve the taste of the food. Avoid all-you-can-eat restaurants, where healthy food choices are supplanted by foods high in calories, fat, and sodium.

4. Practice Moderation

Restaurants serve you more food than you actually need. Try to practice moderation whenever you dine out, and don’t feel pressured to eat everything. Resist bread, soup, and dessert, and eat more salad, instead. Ask your server if a dish can be prepared with oil instead of butter, and substitute a plain baked potato, a dish of fruit, or a salad for French fries.

5. Try Mediterranean Restaurants

Mediterranean restaurants are a budget-conscious dieter’s best friend. Hummus, tabbouleh, whole wheat pita bread, Greek salads, and chicken kebabs and rice are heart-healthy standard fare. The food is high in protein, and inexpensive, especially if you order appetizer portions instead of full meals. Always verify calorie counts online or in a restaurant before ordering your meal.

family eating healthy

Website Resources

Many online resources offer more information for budget-conscious people who want to eat healthy:

  1. E-mealz. This site makes it simple for anybody to save time and money, while still preparing healthy meals. The site breaks down sample menus into many categories, including type of diet, number of people dining, and grocery stores. E-mealz gives you a grocery list based on the meals you choose, so you can easily navigate through the grocery store, and find the items you need to prepare the meals.
  2. If you want to go to a restaurant, but don’t know which restaurants offer healthy options, this website has a number of options. Enter your zip code, and the website shows you nearby restaurants, complete with the healthiest items on the menus, and related nutrition information.
  3. Mayo Clinic’s Healthy Recipes. If you need healthy recipes, rely on an organization with years of knowledge and experience. The Mayo Clinic’s website features hundreds of recipes, and allows site visitors to browse recipes using a variety of categories.
  4. Cheap Healthy Good. This website provides a comprehensive database of cheap and healthy recipes. Every recipe includes a complete breakdown of the costs to make the dish. Genius.

Final Word

It can be difficult to eat healthy all the time, and I don’t know if it’s smart to do that anyway; following a restrictive diet can lead to binge-eating. Almost everyone wants some pizza or a burger once in a while. However, we’ll live healthier, and longer, if we approach those foods as treats, rather than nightly dinner options. Eating healthy doesn’t have to cost a fortune. In fact, most healthy foods are actually quite inexpensive.

Have you found it easy or difficult to eat healthy on a budget? What are your favorite recipes.

  • David/Yourfinances101

    The more fresh fruits and vegetables that you can get into your diet, the more money you can save.

    Especially when substituting these instead of meat and chicken and so forth.

  • Forest

    It took a few years to master but I eat healthily out of habit now and definitely on the cheap… If I had a bigger budget there would be some foods I would purchase more often (such as certain exotic fruits) but I like my diet.

    One thing about fruit and veg, don’t just pick them up assuming they are cheap, make sure you buy in season for the best prices.

  • Karmella

    I love farmers markets in the spring and summer – fresh and not too expensive, and it makes it more fun. Asian markets almost always have really good produce prices and a wide variety, so if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby check it out.

    I have finally learned to be okay with frozen broccoli – it saves me from having fresh go bad, and it’s inexpensive.

    I make my own microwave popcorn, just using regular kernels airpopped in a paper bag (like a lunch bag with the top folded over). It’s quick and easy and I can control how much I make, plus even if I add butter it’s not nearly as bad as if I had just used regular store bought microwave popcorn.

  • Mac

    Eating healthy can be quite difficult when the cheapest and easiest to buy foods are from McDonald’s. I do my best in eating somewhat healthy during my lunches at work, like adding carrots and apples/bananas to my usual (dull) sandwich & chips each day.

    For eating out, I actually avoid the smaller portions as it’s usually not the best value. A large meal can be split and used for leftovers the next day, thereby essentially cutting the cost of the meal in half. Just did this earlier today with a foot-long sub. Not the most healthy, but everything in moderation.

    • ninjasrolled

      I’m not sure where you live, but if you have a Starbucks near, you could completely forgo McDonalds and hit Starbucks for breakfast or lunch instead. They have been doing a fantastic job of stocking great sandwiches, pasta salads, tofu and lettuce wraps, chicken and hummus plates, juice smoothies, protein plates with apples and cheese and even salami plates for less than $7, and ALL with nutrition information. Even their baked goods are guaranteed to be all natural made with real sugar and no preservatives – so I can even feel good about indulging my sweet tooth once in a while there. I am by no means trying to shill for SB, but when I hear that people don’t have time to eat properly and therefore go to a burger-and-fries joint, I positively cringe! There are fast healthy alternatives out there. Even 7-11 has a great sandwich selection in most cities.

      • Heather

        I haven’t stepped into a Starbucks in years; I had no idea they were doing all of that! Pretty impressive; thanks for letting all of us know! I might have to go check them out for lunch one day.

      • Indianadana

        I think that this is good information but it is still more expensive than Mc Donalds. It just IS. Paying the extra money to eat healthier is worth it in the long run but the reality is that it is still substanially more expensive.

  • Claudia

    any ideas for saving money when you eat organic (which is the way I am headed)?

    • Sally Aquire

      Sounds like a good idea for a spin-off post as I’m sure other people would love to read some tips on this too. If Chris sees this, maybe he could suggest it for a future post?

      • Claudia

        I think it would make a GREAT article but then again, I am biased. :)

        • Chris

          Sure thing! This is a great idea for a future post. I’ll keep it in mind!

  • gina

    A tip I was given once that has been so helpful when dining out it to order your dinner and ask them to box half of it BEFORE it comes to you. That way you won’t be tempted and you have a 2nd meal to eat at home!

  • Christina

    I love fresh fruits… I don’t usually eat vegetable but when I decided to live a healthy life, I did and aside from having a healthy lifestyle it save me a lot…so if you really want to save extra prepare your own food and go for fruits and vegetables. Great article.

  • Emily

    I don’t agree that food at fast food restaurants is cheaper. If you shop sales, you can find fresh produce at really good prices. We shouldn’t use the easy excuse of fast food is cheaper to avoid doing a little leg work to make sure our family is healthy. What good would it do me to feed them hamburgers and nuggets because it’s cheap only to have my children struggle with obesity or my husband to die of a heart attack or stroke because of all the sodium. In the long run, fast food is just too costly.

  • Megan

    Loved this post! Thanks for the websites at the end!

  • The Traveling Yogi

    Thank you for the Epicurious mention and its ‘in-season produce map of the US’. I just checked it out and am so appreciative for it, especially while traveling. I wish they had a global version as well. Usually, in-season fruits and vegetables are much less expensive than when out of season, another way to save money! In-season and local fruits and veggies are also fresher and cheaper when eating organic. Eating in-season and local just makes sense, for many reasons!

    • Heather

      Thanks for reading! Glad it helped. :)

  • Forex Analyst

    All very good tips. It can be a bit expensive eating a healthy diet, but with proper planning the costs can be significantly reduced. One tip I use is to eat a meal every day consisting mainly of eggs, which are dirt cheap.

  • Driscoll Ford

    The length of time you can leave your money to compound. The longer your money can remain uninterrupted, the bigger your fortune can grow. It’s no different than planting a tree.