Learn how to eat healthy on a budget with smart planning, shopping and cooking.
When I was about 9 years old, my friend invited me to the pool her family belonged to. As a guest I was given a silver button to wear on my swimsuit – to prove that I was legit. After dutifully pinning it onto my suit, my friend’s mom said “Don’t lose that – if you do, it will cost me a week’s groceries and we’ll be stuck eating mac ‘n cheese all week.”
Whoa. A week’s groceries. That’s a lot of money. And a lot of pressure for a little girl at the pool.
So after every dive or swirl or jump or splash….I checked for the button. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for my friend and her family eating crap for a week.
Why Healthy Food Matters
That was a real wakeup call for me about family food budgets. They are a big deal! My family watched our pennies too but just because you have a strict food budget, doesn’t mean you can’t eat healthy, nourishing food. There’s almost always a way to avoid eating packaged mac ‘n cheese all week.
I believe eating healthy food is the most important element to a healthy lifestyle. Eating is something we do (at least) three times a day, every day. It’s what fuels our bodies to get the exercise we need, nourishes our brains to support our mental health, and builds up our immune system to fight off sickness. Food affects the way we feel, the way we look, our energy level and our general health.
On the flip side, junk food doesn’t help your health, it hurts it. I didn’t want that for my friend – and I don’t want it for you either!
How to Eat Healthy On a Budget
I’m standing on my soap box to say that it IS possible to eat healthy without spending a fortune. With a bit of determination, and some smart planning and shopping, you can buy healthy, organic food to nourish your family without breaking the bank.
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Buy in bulk
When you buy from the bulk bins you skip both the packaging and the marketing – why waste your money on things that don’t add value? Hit up the bulk section for dry goods like flour, oats, grains, beans, pasta & nuts. Many stores also sell oils, nut butters, honey and other wet or liquid foods in bulk. And don’t forget the spices, which are often in smaller bulk jars nearby.
Many conventional grocery stores have bulk bins these days. If you’re nervous about tare weights and PLU numbers, read my post on how to shop the bulk bins with confidence. Just beware – not everything in there is healthy – I see a lot of candy in the bulk bins these days!
Real life: At my local food co-op, organic oats and rice are considerably less expensive in bulk than they are in a package. Plus I can buy exactly the amount I need!
Plan to cook
Unless you can afford to hit up the deli at Whole Foods every day, you’re going to need to do some cooking. And healthy cooking is a lot easier if you plan. No, you don’t need an elaborate meal plan for the entire week, but planning out recipes and shopping lists will help you manage your budget, get you motivated to make healthy meals and keep you from relying on take-out yet again.
Real life: This easy breakfast idea recipe from my blog is a great place to start! Mango Chia Overnight Oats
Shop at warehouse clubs and value-driven stores
Warehouse clubs like Costco have jumped onto the organic bandwagon in a big way. Just be careful to buy things you will actually use and not more than your family can eat. Certain value-driven stores like Aldi and Trader Joes have some very good prices on organic and healthy foods.
Look for the store-brand, which usually cost less than popular brand names. If you don’t have these stores near you, Thrive Market is an online membership club with fantastic prices on packaged natural and organic products. Or check out other places to shop for organic food online.
(Learn more about Thrive Market and how to get the lowest prices + FREE products in each order!)
Real life: Costco sells organic chicken in 3 packs at a much lower price per pound than regular grocery stores. The packs can be separated easily so I toss a couple in the freezer for later use. Thrive Market also carries sustainable meat and seafood.
Buy in season
Just because a particular fruit or vegetable is available all year round, doesn’t mean it’s smart to buy it. When produce is not in season, you’ve probably noticed it’s more expensive. So stock up on organic peaches and plums in the summer when you can afford them, and go for other fruits the rest of the year. And remember to use the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen to help you understand when buying organic is most important.
Real life: In peak season I often find organic strawberries for the same price (or only slightly higher) than conventional. You can bet I stock up then!
Grow your own
Organic produce still a bit too pricey? Consider growing your own. It will almost certainly be less expensive and extra healthy from all that love you put into it! Container gardens are great when space is limited. Herbs and lettuces are especially easy to grow in pots.
Real life: A packet of basil seeds costs a lot less than a package of basil from the grocery store – not to mention that a plant will produce a lot more basil!
Buy directly from a farmer
Buying direct from the farm means no middleman and lower transportation costs. This could be purchasing a share of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), shopping at local farmer’s market, or going on a fun visit to a farm. Either way, you’ll save money and feel closer to your food.
Real life: With a CSA share, you pay the farmer at the beginning of the season, but then reap the benefits later with fresh produce and often eggs, meat or dairy delivered weekly. I’ve found this to be a great value over similar quality food purchased at a store.
By keeping your pantry, fridge and freezer stocked with healthy basics, you’ll be ready to cook a healthy meal and avoid another call to the pizza place. Some of the things you’ll always find in my house include chicken stock, organic olive oil and coconut oil, beans, rice and other grains, nuts, seeds and dried fruit, baking supplies, frozen fruit, lots of herbs and spices, plus a basic assortment of fresh produce and dairy products.
Real life: When it comes to cooking, I’m less of a planner and more of a wing-it type. But with a well-stocked kitchen, I can pull it off!
Eat less meat
Save some bucks by skipping meat once or twice a week and substituting low-cost beans and grains combined with healthy vegetables. No need to go completely vegetarian, but I bet you’ll find that saving money never tasted so good!
Real life: Can’t get the family to give up meat completely? Try using it more as a flavoring as opposed to the main course – i.e. corn chowder with bacon – or using less – like a stir fry with mostly veggies and only a little bit of meat.
So are you curious what happened to the guest button at the pool? I must have checked it a thousand times. At one point I didn’t see it and my heart jumped into my throat. I imagined diving to the bottom of the pool to find it. But it was still attached to my swimsuit and I didn’t lose it!! To this day, I am annoyed that my fun was sort of ruined by that darned thing – but hey, I kept my friend from eating junk food for the week – so it was a healthy WIN!
Do you have any tricks for eating healthy on a budget? Please share!