Money Smarts Blog


Healthy Eating on a Budget

Aug 15, 2019 | Jamie Miller

Dad and daughter grocery shopping

The health food industry has a reputation for being pricey, and with good reason. Workout classes, equipment and even the clothes are expensive. Trendy health foods can cost as much as a fancy dinner (you want to charge me how much for that bowl of blended fruit!?). And highly processed so-called “diet” foods are among the most expensive items in the grocery store. It is possible to navigate around these obstacles to a healthy lifestyle, and we’ll show you how. Here are 9 tips to help you eat healthier on a budget, and be sure to check out our budget calculator or use our budget spreadsheet for additional help with saving.

  1. Buy only whole foods

    That’s whole foods, lowercase, not Whole Foods. And by “whole foods,” we mean foods that have not been processed or combined with additives. Yes, sometimes they’re more expensive than their processed counterparts. However, when you stop purchasing processed foods, you have a whole lot more money to put toward fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish, brown rice and quinoa—all the yummy things your body actually needs. If you’re unsure whether you buy  processed or whole foods, a good indicator is their location in the grocery store. The outer perimeter tends to have the whole foods. The aisles usually contain more processed items. Also, check the ingredients list. There should be very few ingredients with mostly recognizable and easy to pronounce names.

  2. Shop in-season or buy frozen produce

    Let’s think back to the coldest winter day when we were all dreaming of packing up our bags and heading somewhere tropical for the next three months. Did we do that? No. Because travel is expensive. It’s expensive for your food too. If an item is out of season, the grocery store ships it in from a distant place, and this involves trucks, refrigeration, storage, logistics, and more, all of which are passed down on the price tag. Forgo your winter kiwi and pineapple to save some cash. Or, if that’s just too much to bear, try frozen produce and proteins instead. Frozen fruits make great smoothies and healthy desserts. Frozen vegetables can be just as tasty as fresh when prepared the right way. And, heating up a frozen chicken breast or piece of salmon is a quick, easy, healthy and less expensive dinner option. Bonus: Frozen foods last longer, which prevents waste and saves you money.

  3. Grow your own food

    Who doesn’t dream of picking tomatoes off the vine in their backyard to throw into a fresh salad? For those of us who didn’t grow up with vegetable gardens, the idea might seem farfetched, but planting and growing your own produce is actually fun, sustainable and cheap. Bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers are great starter plants. Also consider growing your own herbs; basil, chives and thyme are a few crowd pleasers that take a meal from decent to spectacular in just a sprinkle.

  4. Become a coupon collector

    Yes, you can still open a newspaper and cut coupons, just like Mom used to. However, there are a few modern options, as well. Coupon apps are great budgeting tools, and there’s no need to go out and buy a little accordion coupon file. With The Hy-Vee App you can select digital coupons that are linked directly to your Perks Card for extra savings. Coupons.com is item-specific, so you’re not tied to any one store. Also consider cash-back apps, such as Ibotta. Users either upload their receipts to the app or upload their credit cards,—similar to Apply Pay—and the app does the work for you. Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target are just a few of their partners. And it’s not grocery-specific, so you can save money on other purchases to put toward your new healthy lifestyle.

  5. Buy cheaper cuts and types of meat

    We get it, frozen protein isn’t your thing. Your next option is to go with less expensive cuts of meat. Prime rib is probably off the menu, but lean ground beef with the right seasonings and mixed with bright vegetables can be equally satisfying. Chicken is always a great option and healthier than red meat. Chicken thighs tend to be less expensive than breast and much juicer. Also consider cutting back on the amount of meat you’re eating, which preserves your budget for better cuts on fewer days.

  6. Keep your fridge organized and repurpose leftovers

    You might think we’re trying to sneak in a spring-cleaning tip here, but we’re actually not. A messy fridge is a fridge filled with wasted food and money. Keep things organized to be sure you know exactly what you have. You don't want to reach into the vegetable bin again only to pull out something you think might have been asparagus once upon a time. Keep perishable items and leftovers toward the front, so you remember to use them before the stuff in the jars and bottles, which have longer shelf lives (and are likely processed).

  7. Go with store brands

    I have a friend who is a personal finance professor. On the first day of class each semester, she brings in two batches of rice krispy treats for her students to blind taste: one is made with name-brand Rice Krispies, and the other is made with the grocery-store brand. Inevitably, every year, her students vote the grocery-store brand as the tastiest batch. They’re always shocked they didn’t prefer the batch with the name brand they grew up with. No, we’re not suggesting you add grocery-store-brand rice krispy treats to your healthy diet. In fact, please don’t do that. But we are suggesting that many people have a thing about store-brand items, and really, it’s unfounded. Blind taste tests (and the ingredients lists) have shown over and over that there is little to no difference between the store brand and its pricier counterpart. So, give store-brand olive oil, grains and frozen products a chance, and save some money while you’re at it.

  8. Buy in bulk

    Oh, Costco. What would we do without you? It’s a bare-bones shopping experience, but bulk grocery stores cut corners for a reason: to save you money. After you’ve been eating healthier for a few weeks, you’ll notice there are a couple items that seem to go with every meal—likely quinoa, brown rice, chia seeds, dried coconut or olive oil, just to name a few. Once you identify your go-to non-perishables, buy them in bulk. However, be sure to avoid waste—if you do buy a perishable, make sure it’s something you can freeze – hello, individually packaged chicken breasts. To maximize your savings, combine this with tip #7.

  9. Price Compare

    Yes, it takes a lot of time to compare prices at three or four grocery stores, but we promise it will be worth it for your wallet. With online catalogs and grocery store apps, price shopping doesn’t mean driving from store to store. Once you have your meals in mind, look online to find out what’s on sale and where. (Pro tip: plan your meals around what’s on sale.) You’ll find several items with drastically different prices at each store. Some weeks you’ll be able to visit multiple stores, and others it will just be too much, but keep it in mind when you have the time. 

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