How to Fill up Your Wallet Instead of Your Arteries: Healthy Eating on a Budget

Eating Healthy on a BudgetOne of my favorite topics to discuss is how to eat healthy on a budget.  Many people hold the belief that eating healthy is expensive.  Eating healthy can be expensive, but that doesn’t mean it has to be.

Arguably the most expensive chunk of our grocery bill tends to be meat items:  chicken, beef, pork, etc.  Something to consider, not only to help your budget but also to help your health, is the implementation of meatless meals throughout the week.  I’m not saying that meat is “bad” or that thou shalt go vegan.  All I’m saying is that you can experiment with making your chili without hamburger (the beans provide plenty of protein!) and see what you think.  I’ve found that adding a bit of quinoa to my chili pot adds some thickening when I don’t use hamburger, and I save about $4-6 by leaving out the meat.

A few ideas for relatively inexpensive
sources of good-quality protein:

  • Canned wild-caught fish like sardines, salmon, tuna, mackerel. The bonus feature of canned salmon is that it is not only a great source of protein and omega-3-rich fat, but it also contains a whopping amount of calcium.  The same goes for sardines.
  • Dry beans – dirt cheap if you’re willing to do a teensy bit-o-prep. More here.
  • Canned beans or peas. Don’t freak about about the salt.  Not many people actually require an intense salt restriction; but if you do, there are “no salt added” versions.
  • Dry lentils. There are some really cool recipes for meatless “meatballs” made of lentils.  The same goes for lentil stews and chilis.
  • Whole grains. I know they are high in the oh-so-dreaded carbs, but 100% whole grains like rolled oats and quinoa have a decent amount of protein all by themselves.  A 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa has about 4 grams of protein.  My favorite bread has around 5 grams of protein per slice.  Winning!  My favorite waffle mix also can be made high in protein.  I like to make an entire batch all at once, and freeze them as homemade toaster waffles that can be heated up on busy weekday mornings.
  • Natural peanut butter. And, by “natural,” I mean the only ingredients are peanuts and salt.  You can make your own if you have a high-powered food processor or blender.  Just dump in whole, shelled peanuts and let ‘er rip.  Good-quality nut butter will seem like an investment up front (some jars go for $6+) but consider how many servings you get (or are supposed to get) from one jar.  All the same rules apply for any nut butter – it’s not limited to peanuts.  Get crazy.  Keep in mind that choosy moms would never choose Jif.  Several popular brands of peanut butter marketed toward kids contain gobs of shortening and sugar added.  Read ingredients, people!
  • Eggs.  They are great sources of protein, and often you can find certain brands on sale.  At $3 for a dozen, that is about a quarter per egg.  They’re not bad for you.

One of the other tips I feel strongly about is cooking real foods at home.  If you think you don’t have time, at least read this before resigning to prep boxed meals.  One example of how cooking simple from-scratch meals can be cost-effective while being healthier is recreating something like Hamburger Helper (HH).  A box of HH typically costs around $2.  A pound of the least expensive hamburger tends to cost around $4.  So, whipping up a not-good-for-you meal of boxed HH would cost around $6 and might feed 3-4 people depending on hunger levels.  That amounts to roughly $2 per person.

budgetHere’s an idea though…what if you made homemade HH from scratch?  It’s easier than you think (here is one version).  Cost breakdown:  hamburger ($4), a box of whole grain elbow macaroni ($1.50), milk (about $0.30 for the amount you need), shredded cheese ($2), and maybe $4 for incidentals (most of the other ingredients are probably things you have in your pantry already, but just in case).  So the total so far of the homemade HH is up to roughly $12.  Sounds like it is WAY more expensive than the boxed stuff, right?  Wrong.  This $12 homemade meal makes a larger volume of food, and could likely feed at least 6 people.  That amounts to around $2 per person.  Yes, it is the same cost as the boxed junk example…but without preservatives, fillers, dyes, and other artificial junk.  And, our homemade version uses 100% whole grain pasta, which adds nutrients and fiber to your belly.  Nuke a few cans of green beans with this yummy homemade HH meal, and you have a decent, inexpensive, nutrient-rich, family meal.


A few more of my favorite
healthy eating on a budget tips:

  • Buy in bulk. This works quite well if you have a warehouse membership, but it can be done at the regular grocery store too.  Buying things like ground beef or chicken pieces in bigger packages often costs you less per pound.  When you get home, you can repackage into smaller baggies and freeze.
  • If the organic, grass-fed, wild-caught, or whatever “healthy” version of that food is twice the cost of the conventional kind, sometimes you have to choose your battles.  If you can afford better quality food, then buy it; but if you can’t afford it, buy the versions of food that make sense in your life and in your budget.
  • Canned and frozen vegetables can save money because they last longer. I like to recommend a variety of fruits and vegetables—buy only the amount of fresh produce you think you can reasonably eat in a week, but also buy frozen and canned.  When you plow through the fresh stuff, you still have frozen and canned to get you through until your next grocery trip.  Less wasted fresh produce that went bad before getting eaten = money saved.
  • Add vegetables to your soups and casseroles to increase the number of servings in that meal but also to add nutrients at the same time!  A bag of baby spinach cooked into your spaghetti and meat sauce can stretch that meal to serve at least 1-2 more people.  Plus you added gobs of nutrients and fiber.
  • Plan your cooking agenda based on what is on sale! If 100% whole grain bread is on sale, buy several loaves and freeze (if you have the space, that is).
  • Consider what is an appropriate amount of food for one meal. For example, an 8 ounce steak should make 2 meals, not 1.  If you practice building a healthy plate, the money you save on reducing your meat portion can be spent on increasing your vegetable portion.

There are so many branches from this conversation, this post could become endless!  I will digress for now; but I hope you found some different perspectives that will help you improve your health while you save some money.

Let me know how it goes!

xoxo – Casey

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