Eating Healthy on a Budget

FT Contributor  | 

Eating healthy is a goal that’s appealing, but hard to meet for many people — especially if you’re on a tight budget. It can seem like healthy, fresh food either isn’t available or is too expensive to buy. Fast food is often cheaper, more convenient, and more readily available. However, when you consider the potentially negative health effects of fast food, healthy choices can turn out to be cheaper in the long run.

Eating healthy on a budget is not impossible, but it does take some work. By creating and sticking to a food budget, planning ahead and meal prepping, and approaching your grocery shopping with a solid plan, you will be on your way to eating healthy on a tight budget.

Creating a Food Budget

Creating a strict budget to track your food spending is one of the best ways to make sure you’re stretching your dollar as far as it can go. A great place to start is to examine how much money you currently spend on food per month, and to break that down into categories. How much do you spend at the grocery store? How much did you spend eating out at restaurants last month? Whether you’re striving to get out of debt or are simply wanting to tighten up your finances, knowing these numbers is essential for creating a healthy food budget moving forward.

Review Your Budget

Once you know how much of your monthly income you can spend on food, you can break it down into regular groceries and restaurants or eating out (if your budget allows for this type of treat). The average American spends 9-12 percent of their income on food (which is less than people living in most other countries). Hold yourself accountable at the end of each month by reviewing your spending and making sure it lines up with your goals.

Healthy Meal Prep & Planning Ahead

Knowing what you’re eating for the week and then planning around those meals and snacks is an essential part of eating healthy on a budget. When you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to make quick decisions that cost precious money.

We’ve all been there — you finish your morning errands and before you realize it, it’s lunch time and you’re starving! Good thing there’s a great deli around the corner. It won’t hurt to just swing by for a quick sandwich and maybe some fries. And you know what? Better grab an afternoon coffee, too, since there’s more to be done before the day’s over. It’s usually much harder to eat healthy when you’re on the go and without a plan.

Know What to Eat

So what is “healthy eating”? Everyone’s body is different and needs different things, but in general, if you’re eating mostly whole foods, you’re doing pretty well. This usually means that when you go to the grocery store, you circle around the perimeter (fresh fruits, veggies, and meats) rather than filling your cart with packaged and processed items from the middle aisles.

Plan Ahead Before Shopping

Before going to the store, you should always have a detailed list. Decide what meals you’ll cook for the week, and then buy only what you need for those meals and snacks. When possible, try to choose recipes that use some of the same ingredients so nothing goes to waste.

Set a Weekly Meal Prep Day

Choosing a meal prep day can be really helpful, too. On Sunday afternoons, for example, you could spend a few hours chopping and roasting veggies, pre cooking grains, or making a big batch of something and putting it in the freezer so all you have to do is thaw it out for dinner during the week when you’re strapped for time.

Grocery Shopping on a Budget

Grocery shopping without going crazy on spending is difficult. All around you, delicious things in shiny, enticing packages are calling out to you to buy them. Unfortunately, often times the most tempting snacks and treats don’t provide any nourishment or nutritional value — they are bad for you and bad for your wallet. Many a shopper has avoided meeting a budget when confronted by the cookie aisle.

Because grocery shopping is one time when it’s difficult but necessary to stick to your budget, following these tips for frugal living can help you have more money available for food staples and healthy meal ingredients.

Buy Frozen Foods

Frozen fruits and veggies are a great option when you’re on a budget, as they’re frozen at the peak of ripeness and often cheaper than their fresh counterparts. Frozen foods are also great because they’re often pre-chopped to save you time, and you don’t have to worry about them going bad in the fridge. Can’t use the whole bag of frozen veggies in one dinner? No problem, just toss it back in the freezer to use later.

Buy in Bulk

Knowing when to spend a larger amount of money on certain items is important, too. Buying in bulk, for example, is likely to be a larger up front cost, but one that will save you money over time. Co-ops are a great place to visit the bulk aisles, and many will give you dividends back at the end of the year if you’re a member.

Eat In-Season

Eating locally and in season is another great way to keep your food budget in check. In-season foods are generally cheaper than out-of-season crops that must be shipped far and wide. As much as East Coasters love a good avocado during winter, items like this are expensive, out of season, and not local.

Farmers markets are great places to buy local, in-season food at fair prices. Since there’s no third party involved, many foods will be cheaper than they are at the grocery store. Additionally, local and organic foods are healthier for the environment and for you, which makes them a better choice for your dollar.

Eating healthy on a tight budget is possible, and even fun. It can help you get creative, try new things, and shape up your finances so you have more freedom and stability. Creating a budget, planning and meal prepping, and knowing how to approach food shopping are the keys to successful healthy eating without breaking the bank.


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This post was updated September 18, 2018. It was originally published September 17, 2018.