Many people want to start eating healthier foods, but some think that to eat healthy, they have to spend more money.
It’s true that healthy food can be expensive. A 2013 Harvard study found that a healthy diet costs $1.50 more per day than an unhealthy diet. However, there are plenty of ways to eat healthy without spending a fortune.
The Benefits of Eating Healthy
There are many benefits to eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, including helping you save money in the long run. Either you spend money on quality, healthy food, or you’re going to spend money on health care costs later on. And typically, those health care costs will be much, much higher than what you’d pay at the grocery store.
In addition, a healthy diet gives your immune system the nutrients it needs to function correctly, so you might be able to avoid a doctor visit when the flu spreads.
Eating healthy foods also lowers your risk for long-term illnesses like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and certain types of cancer. Avoiding these conditions saves you money with lower health care costs and will lead to a better quality of life.
A healthy diet will also help you maintain a healthy weight, which will also help you save money long-term. According to a 2008 analysis published in Obesity Reviews, direct medical costs for an obese individual averaged $1,723. And these costs keep rising dramatically. A 2017 analysis published in the Journal of General Medicine estimates that obesity costs the average adult $3,508 per year.
How to Eat Healthy on a Budget
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you consider changing your diet. It can help to focus on making one small change at a time. Don’t try to overhaul your family’s eating habits all at once — this is a recipe for failure. Instead, change one habit, food, or purchase a week and see how it goes.
1. Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
The amount of fruits and vegetables you need depends on your age, sex, and physical activity level. However, the USDA recommends that adults need 1 to 2 cups of fruit per day and 1 to 3 cups of vegetables.
There are many ways you can up your fruit and vegetable consumption.
Slip in more fruits and vegetables during the day 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.
Drink Your Veggies
Vegetable drinks, such as V8, provide two full servings of vegetables in every 11-ounce can. Drinking a can a day is an easy way to increase your veggie intake. If the taste of V8 doesn’t appeal to you, try adding some Tabasco sauce to spice it up.
V8 is more expensive than regular tomato juice, so wait for it to go on sale and stock up when it does, or look for coupons. You can also sometimes find lower prices online through Amazon or Walmart, or at warehouse stores like Costco.
In-season produce is less expensive than food that’s grown somewhere else and then shipped to the store. Epicurious has a useful map that shows in-season fruits and vegetables in your area. Refer to it before you head to the store.
Use Frozen Produce
According to a report by NPR, frozen fruits and vegetables are just as healthy as fresh produce. They also have a much longer shelf-life, which is a huge benefit for busy families who don’t have time to make frequent trips to the store to buy fresh produce.
Another benefit is that frozen fruits and vegetables often go on sale. If you invest in a stand-alone freezer, you can stock up on frozen items when they go on sale and save even more.
You can also save money if you balance fresh and frozen produce around the seasons. For instance, it’s often less expensive to eat fresh produce in the summer because it’s in-season, and some stores source these foods from local farms. It’s usually cheaper to eat frozen vegetables in the winter because much of the fresh produce that’s in stock has to be shipped in from warmer climates.
Pro tip: You can also plan your meals ahead and freeze enough for the entire month. MyFreezEasy will give you meal plans and show you how to successfully cut meal prep time and cost.
Shop at a Farmers Market
Search for fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. Typically, prices at farmers markets are lower than what you’d pay at the grocery store, but not always. Plus, locally grown produce is often healthier because it’s fresh and often organic.
You can find many unusual items at farmers markets that you can’t find in regular stores, like wasabi radishes or kohlrabi. Trying new fruits and vegetables is fun and can make eating healthy more interesting.
To save money, try shopping at the farmers market during the last 15 to 30 minutes before they close. Many vendors will be willing to sell unsold food at a discount simply so they don’t have to take it back home or risk it going to waste.
You can also use companies like Farm Fresh To You to have organic fruits and vegetables shipped to your door any time of the year. You can save $10 off your first four boxes when you use code EATFRESH40.
2. Eat More Whole Grains
According to the USDA, any food made with oats, cornmeal, wheat, rice, barley, or other cereal grain is considered a grain product. And grains are divided into two categories: refined grains and whole grains.
Refined grains are milled to remove the bran, germ, and endosperm. Milling gives the product a finer texture, but removing the bran and germ means the product has less fiber, iron, and B vitamins. Some examples of refined grains include:
- White rice
- White flour products such as breads and pastries
- Regular pasta
Whole grains are the complete grain, which includes the bran and germ. Whole grains are a great source of fiber, and they contain many other nutrients absent in refined grains. Some examples of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
- Bulgar wheat
- Whole or rolled oats
- Whole wheat
- Whole-grain barley
- Whole-grain sorghum
- Whole-grain corn
- Whole rye
According to the Mayo Clinic, eating whole grains lowers your risk of heart disease. Whole grains are full of fiber, which helps keep your digestive system healthy and moving, and they expand once inside your stomach to help you feel full. The USDA recommends that each person consumes 3 to 8 ounces of grains every day, 50% of which should be whole grains.
Make Easy Switches
There are many ways to work more whole grains into your diet. For example:
- Instead of white rice, buy brown rice.
- Instead of white bread, purchase whole grain bread.
- Instead of regular pasta, try whole-grain pasta.
- When making pancakes or bread, substitute 50% of the white flour with whole-wheat flour.
- Use old-fashioned oats instead of quick one-minute oats for your morning oatmeal.
- Buy whole-grain crackers instead of white flour crackers.
- Make homemade popcorn.
Buy In Bulk
Many supermarkets sell whole grains in bulk, and these can be significantly cheaper than buying them pre-bagged. Next time you’re at the store, compare the price of a prepackaged whole-grain, such as oats, to the bulk variety to see how much you can save.
3. Eat Healthier Proteins
The World Economic Forum reports that Americans eat more meat than any other country in the world. Many people love sitting down to a steak dinner or biting into a juicy hamburger. However, these protein sources are not only unhealthy, but they’re also expensive.
According to the American Heart Association, red meat (from beef, pork, and lamb) has more saturated fat than chicken, fish, and vegetable proteins. And our meat comes at a premium price that only keeps rising. According to CNBC, April 2020 grocery store prices rose 2.6%, the highest increase since February 1974. This jump was led mostly by the price increase in meats, poultry, fish, and eggs, which rose 4.3%, in large part due to panic-buying and supply disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The amount of protein you need varies depending on your age, sex, and activity level. And, you need less protein than you probably think. The USDA states that the average adult needs just 2 to 6.5 ounces of protein each day, or, according to Harvard Health, you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. See this protein calculator to figure out how much protein you need based on your age, sex, height, weight, and activity level.
While most Americans get enough protein each day, the USDA states that we need to choose leaner, healthier proteins, such as those found in fish, chicken, beans, dairy, and whole grains.
Protein hides in a lot of places you might not expect. For example:
- 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
- 1 cup of chicken: 38 grams of protein
- 3 ounces of cod: 19 grams of protein
There are plenty of ways to sneak some cheaper, meatless protein into your diet and increase your daily total. You can also save money with these tips.
The more processed your meat is, the more expensive it’s going to be. A practical way to save money is to buy whole meats and trim them yourself.
For example, according to the USDA’s Retail Price Spreads, one pound of boneless chicken breasts cost $3.15, while a whole chicken costs $1.57 per pound. You could find an easy roast chicken recipe and have dinner on the table for half the price.
Learn What’s Lean
According to the USDA, the leanest cuts of beef are round steaks, roasts (which include eye of round, top round, bottom round, and round tip), top sirloin, and chuck shoulder. The leanest cuts of pork include pork tenderloin, tenderloin, ham, and center loin.
Check your grocery store’s sale flyer every week to see if any of these cuts are on sale.
Tuna is a good source of lean protein, and it costs less per ounce than many other meats. You can often save even more if you purchase canned tuna in bulk.
Eat More Beans and Legumes
Beans and legumes are affordable and high in protein. There are plenty of ways to incorporate more beans into your diet.
- Add black beans or chickpeas to a salad.
- Cook a great vegetarian chili recipe once a week.
- Make black bean burgers instead of hamburgers. Pioneer Woman has a great recipe that’s delicious, cheap, and straightforward to make.
- Grab your slow cooker and make some mean black bean enchiladas.
- Roast chickpeas in the oven. These are an excellent replacement for chips.
For more ideas on incorporating non-meat protein into your diet, invest in a vegetarian or vegan cookbook or borrow one from the library. The classic “Veganomicon” by Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero is a great choice because most recipes are approachable and use ingredients found in most supermarkets. If you have an Instant Pot, “The Vegan Instant Pot Cookbook” by Nisha Vora offers ethnic variety and plenty of delicious, approachable recipes.
Get Out Your Slow Cooker
Your slow cooker can be an invaluable companion in the kitchen because it allows you to turn inexpensive cuts of meat, like roasts and sirloins, into delicious and healthy meals for your family. You can also purchase less meat and stretch it farther by adding more beans, vegetables, and rice.
There are plenty of easy slow cooker recipes that will help you save money and eat a healthier diet.
4. Make Homemade Sauces
It’s relatively easy and affordable to make homemade 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 the calories found in prepackaged products.
Homemade sauces and dips are inexpensive to make, and they add spice to your healthy eating plan. When you make these items as you need them, they’re fresh and better tasting. It might also help you reduce food waste because you’ll only make as much as you need or as much as you can eat within a few days.
5. Make Homemade Popcorn
This popular whole-grain snack is low in calories, high in fiber, and cheap. The loose kernels cost much 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.
Making stovetop popcorn at home is easy and fun. My family and I use coconut oil and sea salt on our popcorn at home, and it’s far more delicious than any popcorn I’ve purchased in a bag. Try this recipe from popular food blogger Cookie + Kate to start making stovetop popcorn.
6. Make Homemade Granola
Granola is full of heart-healthy whole grains and plenty of nuts and dried fruits, which makes it a perfect breakfast or snack.
Store-bought granola is incredibly expensive, and most of the time it’s loaded with plenty of added sugar. Fortunately, it’s easy and inexpensive to make granola at home. You can also customize the recipe to reduce your sugar intake and add whatever nuts and dried fruits you like. Most of the time, you can make granola using ingredients you already have in your pantry.
Cookie + Kate’s Healthy Granola Recipe is one of the best, and there are dozens of ways to customize it. You can change out the nuts, nix or mix the sweeteners, swap the dried fruits, change up the spices, and even add extras like chocolate chips or toasted coconut. Once you see how easy and affordable it is to make homemade granola, you’ll never go back to buying it in a bag.
Tips for Making Healthier Restaurant Choices
Everyone needs a break from cooking at home, and it’s fun to go out to eat with family and friends. However, the food you eat at restaurants is often higher in calories, sodium, and saturated fats. It’s also more expensive than what you’d pay to cook the same meal at home.
However, eating out is a treat. There are ways to save money and make healthier choices when you visit a restaurant.
1. Eat Before You Go Out
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 are scheduled every week.
2. 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.
Restaurant and fast food meals often contain high amounts of fat, salt, and calories. Even when restaurants reveal calorie counts for meals, USA Today reports that they often underestimate them by as much as 20%.
3. Look for a Healthy or Smaller-Portion Section on the Menu
Most restaurants have added a special section to their menus that makes finding healthy choices easier than ever. If the menu doesn’t highlight heart-healthy or low-fat options, order grilled chicken or broiled fish, and 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 money by dividing the food at a restaurant. Ask for a to-go box, and divide the food into two portions before you eat. This ensures you won’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.
4. Go to Independently Owned Restaurants
Restaurant chains such as Denny’s, Chili’s, and Applebee’s often serve gigantic portions. You can get reasonably sized meals at smaller, independently-run restaurants. You might get a healthier meal since many smaller restaurants, especially those in bigger cities, source fresh produce locally.
Because many of the smaller restaurants use fresh, local produce, the food often tastes better. Larger chains often don’t go through the trouble and expense to source food locally. Instead, they may use lower-quality ingredients and rely on salt and fat to improve the taste of the food.
5. Practice Moderation
Restaurants often serve you more food than you 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 they can cook your meal with oil instead of butter. Try substituting french fries with a dish of fruit or a salad.
6. Try Mediterranean Restaurants
Mediterranean restaurants are a budget-conscious dieter’s best friend. Hummus, tabbouleh, whole-wheat pita bread, Greek salads, chicken kebabs, and rice are delicious, 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.
Many people are looking for ways to eat healthy on a budget. Although eating healthy can be more expensive than buying less-healthy, prepackaged food, there are plenty of ways to cut costs and stick to your grocery budget.
An added benefit to healthy eating is that it can boost your immune system and give you more energy.
What healthy foods are you cooking and eating at home right now?