Tips and Tricks to Eat Healthy on a Budget

by Will Chen on 8 February 2009 19 comments
Photo: Jennie R. F.

This is a guest post from Devorah Stone of Carrie & Danielle.

There’s no reason to stop eating healthy, nutritious, tasty food during hard economic times. In fact, now is a great time to experiment with various types of food. So what are you waiting for? Use these tips to get you in the mood.

Your Healthy-Eating, Money-Saving To-Do List

  • Write a grocery list. Always. Never go shopping without one. Plan it carefully, and stick with it.
  • Ask around about the best places to shop.
     
  • Shop at farmer’s markets.
  • Join a co-op, especially if it’s run by volunteers.
  • Think carefully about deals that seem gimmicky, and ask yourself if they’ll really save you money. If they won’t, you might end up buying what you don’t need and won’t use.
  • Cut down on prepared “convenience” foods. They’re not only unhealthy but also expensive.
  • Don’t eat out as often.

Bulk Food in Bins

Shop in the bulk-food section of your grocery store. That way, you can buy what you need without paying for all that packaging. Look at what you normally buy in large amounts, and see if the bulk-bin section sells it. Buy it in a package only if you can’t find it anywhere else in the store. Consider lentils, beans, brown rice, quinoa, and bulgur wheat. Stock up!

Carbs–Cheap, Delicious, and Filling

Carbohydrates are “fill-you-up” food; they’re cheap, and they give you energy. But skip the refined “white” carbs and instead look for the browns: unrefined rye, whole wheat, spelt flour, and brown rice. If you buy them in bulk, you can save even more money. There are lots of simple, tasty recipes that use good unrefined carbs–use them!

Buy Vegetables in Season

In-season veggies are both better and cheaper. Winter is the time to experiment with cabbages, parsnips, broccoli, squash, and root vegetables. Squash in particular is endlessly versatile and usually inexpensive. You can use cabbages for a coleslaw or stuff and bake them for an excellent winter meal.

Instead of white potatoes, try sweet potatoes, which pack more vitamins. Hardy root vegetables are the basis of a good soup, stew, curry, chili, or casserole. Shopping in-season also keeps you in tune with your natural surroundings. When strawberries are in season, they are a treat because they’re not rock-hard and pasty pink.

If you can, start your own vegetable garden–that’s local food at its best. If you don’t have the yard for a garden, find out if there’s a community garden in your area.

Co-ops in Your Neighborhood

Does your town have volunteer groups that run stores, sell in bulk, or buy produce from local farmers? Find out. If a group like this doesn’t exist where you live, consider starting one yourself!

Don’t Compromise on Taste

Eating drab, dull food isn’t the way to go. People on a budget often end up eating nothing but white refined pasta or regular ground meat. Resist fatty foods! They may be cheap, but the hidden costs can add up fast. Being unhealthy and overweight won’t save you any money.

If you’re on a budget, you can still eat well–all it takes is imagination and a sense of adventure. Invest in spices to liven up your meals. Experiment with sauces. Prepare them in large quantities, and freeze or preserve them. Make your own stock and freeze it in containers that will be ready when you want soup or stew. Curries, stews, and stir-fries are great ways to stretch meat or use leftovers.

Try macaroni and cheese with real cheese and whole-wheat or vegetable pasta. Even something as simple as a peanut-butter sandwich can be healthier with whole-wheat bread and real, old-fashioned peanut-butter. Yes, that’s right; comfort food can be healthy!

Use What You Have

“Leftovers” shouldn’t be a dirty word. What you have in your pantry and fridge is your inspiration, and you should use those things before you go out and by something else. Leftover chicken can mean chicken fried rice the next day. Save and use the water from boiling vegetables in soups, stews, and bread.

A Little Help from Your Friends

Get friends and family members to help you out with cooking. Ask them for ideas. Variety is important, and with more than one cook in your family or your household, you won’t get into a rut. Cooking can be a form of entertainment for everyone. Talk to your spouse, your roommates, your friends, or your kids about what they’d like to eat and how they can make it on a budget.

Discover New (and Old) Recipes

Chances are, your grandmother’s family’s recipes were economical. Perhaps you remember her talking about pierogis, ribs, curry, or gumbo. Phone up your mom, your grandma, or your aunt. Ask if they have any good recipes to share from the past.

Those meals from long ago may have tasted good, but they probably weren’t all healthy. Right now, there’s more information available than there ever has been before about healthy cooking in general, vegetarianism, and veganism. Go out and find it! Do a few Internet searches or check out a book full of great new recipes at the library. Culinary inspiration is waiting for you just around the corner.

If you follow all these tips, beware–you might end up eating so well that when good times come around again, you won’t go back to your old extravagant ways!

Carrie & Danielle provides daily inspirations for simplifying and beautifying your life. If you enjoyed this article, you may want to subscribe to Carrie & Danielle's feed or check out this related article on 10 Cheap But Healthy Foods.

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Guest's picture
Miss Anne

I shop at the Asian supermarket for cheap rice, but I also get good deals there on random produce like onions (regular supermarket sales have them around $1/pound, the Asian market has them for 20 cents a pound).

We also barter with our neighbors. We have an orange tree and they have a lemon one, so we trade citrus in the winter. In the summer another neighbor has a plum tree and we have a peach one, so we trade then too.

I also split bulk purchases - I might buy a 50# bag of brown rice and give 10 pounds of it to my Mom and 10 pounds of it to my sister, and they might "pay me back" by giving me some of whatever they buy in bulk (eggs, paper goods, flour, ect). You get the advantage of paying the cheaper bulk prices, but you don't have to worry about storage or spoiling.

Guest's picture
lucille

I make tabouli but instead of expensive bulghur wheat I use plain brown lentils. The recipe uses about half a package so about 40 cents worth of lentils in the recipe.

If you use a ton of something like oats or a type of flour ask at the co-op about buying whole bags. Sometimes you will receive an additional discount and certainly save on gas.

Guest's picture
sd

You suggest using the bulk section for items you buy in large quantities. I'd suggest using it for items you buy in very small quantities, too. Especially spices - a recipe may call for a half a teaspoon of cardamom, but in the spice section of the store, you can only pick up a full jar for several bucks, most of which you'll likely not use before the spice is no longer fresh. Instead, head to bulk and get just a smidgen for a few cents! Bulk foods sections in a lot of health food stores will have spices - and they're a lot cheaper than the bottled stuff!

Same goes for any item you might not use a lot of, but is always packaged in larger quantities. For me, that's stuff like raisins, nuts of all sorts, unusual grains, dried fruit, etc.

Guest's picture
Guest

I'll second the comment about buying small quantities of bulk spices. Although most of their food is outrageously overpriced, I'll stop by a local health food store to pick up cheap dry bulk items.

I found they have ground cloves for $1.23/oz while my usual grocery, Bi-lo, sells them for no less than $8.99/oz. (In the latter case, the bottles recently shrank, too.)

I was also amused and pleased to notice some notations on the receipt with the bulk spices- (Plastic bags 0.01 lb)

Guest's picture

Nicely written. The co-op is definitely something that I intend to investigate this year. I'd like to limit my carbs to strictly vegetables and fruits.

Guest's picture

Farmer's markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA - buying a share in a farm's output) are great ways to buy local, healthy, inexpensive food. Read "Animal Vegetable Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver, a book about eating locally.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Is the most fabulous thing I've seen in days.  I'm headed for the fridge for some avacado... right.... now.

Great article!

Linsey Knerl

Carrie Kirby's picture

I have tried various recipes, including one from Wonder Time that promised to be the best in the world, but I have never been able to make homemade mac and cheese that in any way resembles the boxed stuff that the kids so adore. I'm not expecting to get the far-out color, since dye is one of the things I'm trying to avoid by not buying it, but why can't I ever duplicate or even approach the taste or consistency with a real cheese sauce?

I blog at www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

Guest's picture

Dude, you combined my two fav. topics. Food and Money. Sprinkle in a little bit of health and you have an instant eye catcher. Well Done.

-Nate

Guest's picture
Beth

Great tips! But you forgot one: opt for cheaper sources of protein. That means skipping the meat a couple of meals a week and opting for tofu, beans or lentils instead (which are a fraction of the cost of meat!)

I loved the tip about old and new recipes. The thing I love about old recipes is that they don't rely on unhealthy convenience foods the way a lot of today's "fast" recipes do.

One place I will spend my grocery dollars: Really good (and healthy) salad dressing. It totally makes a salad.

Guest's picture
Courtney

I am having trouble finding the right bulk food places in my area. The normal grocery stores don't sell the bulk items I need, like dried beans, flour, and sugar, only candy and nuts. I have done a Google search, but really haven't gotten the info I need. We live in Indiana, about 40 miles from Chicago.

Anybody have store recommendations, or search ideas?

Thanks!

Guest's picture

A great way to pack a lot of vegetables into a meal at low cost is to look at "mixed meals" -- which often require little or no protein/meat. Things like soups, pot pie, casseroles, frittatas, the curries and gumbos you mentioned, fried rice, pizza, etc. Get creative -- check out your fridge or freezer, chop things up, cook the veggies in some butter or oil, add a cooked grain and explore new ways to eat on the cheap. And remember that "healthy" foods are best, but if you must have your fat or whatever, "nutritious" (foods with fiber, veggies, etc.) are a great second choice.

Guest's picture
Guest

Carrie~
Homemade macaroni and cheese isn't really meant to taste like the stuff out of the box. Alton Brown has a stove top macaroni and cheese that is supposed to be creamier than old-fashioned mac and cheese. Maybe that would be more what you are looking for? I haven't tried it, but here's the recipe:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/stove-top-mac-n-cheese-re...

I agree with finding a CSA. I spend about the same amount on veggies with a CSA, but I get the bonus of them being organic versus conventional. Plus, I enjoy the surprise and have fun figuring out what to do with my weekly box.

Guest's picture

Great stuff, i'm always trying to cut down on my grocery bills.

I've even starting growing a lot of my food myself...hard work but so satisfying, and it keep s you fit :o)

ric

Guest's picture
Messenger

I was thinking about this just the other day. I started my frugal life mission to cut my budget hard and had to scour the supermarket for things I could eat on a high protein diet. meat can be expensive, but my eyes caught that some of the poor people's foods (chicken livers, calf hearts, etc.) could be gotten on the cheap and made easily. I wrote what I learned (and a fast calf heart recipe) at Frugal Life: Day 3 on my blog.

Guest's picture
Guest

@Carrie Kirby

You can use annato (achiote in Spanish) to get that orange color in Mac and Cheese. The flavor is very light and it really gives food a nice color. It is a red seed. You can find it at Latino supermarkets. I found out that annato is what the Annie's all natural mac and cheese brand uses to give their product color. The boxed mac and cheese my parents gave me is nasty to me now that I have eaten whole foods for so many years.

Guest's picture
SarahKate

I'm actually writing a series on meals that are cheap, but still tasty and healthy on my blog this month (www.abercrombieandfeast.com). All of the ideas here have given me lots of new things to think about. Thanks!

Guest's picture
Guest

For a great dinner that's ready at the end of the day use your crock pot! There are many recipes available on-line, in the library, in magazines etc. It's not just for stew any more. I make baked potatoes, roasted chicken and right now BBQ chicken is bubbling away. I can't believe that in all these blogs about healthy eating no one ever mentions the crock pot.

Guest's picture
jarissa

I am a teenager and i'm usually home alone and dont have really much of anything but junk food. Things look good to eat, but i'm really just too lazy to cook anything so i'm always microwaving things and eating junk food. I'm not "fat" but I dont exercise and i'm scared over the years that my metabolism will drop A LOT. Any tips?