Eating Healthy on a Budget
You can’t escape a conversation these days without someone mentioning rising costs – gas, healthcare, household goods, services, and food. Grocery prices have risen over 10% in the past year, and we are all looking for strategies to stretch food dollars without sacrificing nutritional value. Many desire to eat a balanced diet rich in wholesome, health-promoting foods but feel as though they cannot sustainably do so while watching their budget. While it can be true that some health-promoting foods are more expensive than other available options, there are multiple ways to achieve a balanced diet – even with the rising cost of food.
First, it is important to define what an appropriate grocery budget is for your family. This amount may vary throughout the year depending on other factors – such as holidays, travel plans, fluctuations in income, or even if the kids are out of school for a long break! While the amount you spend on groceries is highly personal, the USDA publishes a Cost of Food Reference Guide that can be a good starting point to estimate what is a reasonable amount to spend per person on food. This guide is updated periodically, so look again even if this is a tool you have used previously.
Below are a few creative ways to save money on groceries without compromising quality nutrition.
Cook at home more often than eating out:
This tip is probably no surprise! Groceries, while becoming more expensive, are still more affordable than eating meals prepared outside the home. Some prefer to make dinner multiple times a week while others may rely more heavily on restaurant food or leftovers due to time constraints or lack of a desire to whip up a fresh meal each night. To make it easier to eat at home, consider the following strategies:
- Make a plan! Each week, make a list of all obligations and plans that may influence your mealtime decisions. Write down all sporting practices, clubs, religious meetings, late nights at work, or any other activities that may conflict with dinner time. Then, pick 3-4 nights that you know you have time to prepare a meal and pencil in what will be served. Schedule leftovers on the remaining nights. Alternately, consider batch cooking starches, proteins, and vegetables once weekly that can be mixed and matched into multiple dishes. For example, lightly seasoned baked chicken breasts can be used through the week on salads or in wraps, shredded for taco bowls, or reheated in a stove-top stir fry with veggies and a tasty sauce. Brown rice can be used for the same taco bowls or stir fry! Get creative and choose ingredients and flavors that pair well with each other and can be adapted throughout the week into multiple dishes.
- Be prepared for hunger’s call when on the go! We have ALL had those moments when hunger creeps in and catches us off guard; this can be a problem if we aren’t prepared (who plans for pesky traffic jams, anyway?). There is no need to stop for a quick snack if you are well-equipped with options like granola or protein bars, single-serve packets of nuts, fruit leather, squeezable nut butter or applesauce, and air-popped popcorn. Non-perishable, quick snacks can travel with you throughout the day to ensure your body stays fueled wherever you go and that your budget is followed.
- Look at your monthly card statement and identify spending patterns. Notice what meals you are most likely to purchase from a restaurant and consider why this is. Are you packing lunch but realizing it isn’t satisfying, making it harder to say no to the office lunch order? Are you scrambling to get out the door in the morning, finding it easier to swing through a drive-through instead of sitting down for breakfast at home? Consider any barriers you encounter and how these can be tackled to reduce spending. Maybe this means packing more satisfying, tasty lunches or planning breakfast the night prior! Little changes in routine can provide the boost you may need to stick to our budget and plan.
Shop your home first:
You likely have ingredients in your home that can be used in upcoming meals. While these aren’t “free,” they have already been purchased and are ready for use! Take some time to inventory your pantry, fridge, and freezer and create a list of ingredients you already have. Then, jot down meal ideas that use at least one or two of these ingredients. For example, you may have half a bag of spinach, a can of black beans, two leftover tortillas from last week’s taco night, and some shredded cheese. These can be thrown together with some sliced peppers for an easy lunchtime quesadilla. Not only are you saving money by “shopping” your kitchen first, but this method also reduces food waste. Ask yourself, “Can I go another day with what I have here?”
Consider stocking up on staples when they are on sale to ensure you always have a meal or two that you can piece together in a pinch. Unsure where to start? Here are some staples that may be helpful to have on hand at home:
- Dried grains such as rice, quinoa, wheat berries, oats, buckwheat, millet, and farro
- Nut butter, nuts, and seeds
- Canned beans, corn, and vegetables
- Dried pasta
- Frozen chicken breast, turkey meatballs, and veggie burgers
- Dried lentils
- Frozen veggies and fruits
- Jarred pesto and marinara
Save while shopping:
Almost everyone has some tricks up their sleeve to save on groceries. Here are a few ideas for saving at the store!
- Make your grocery list ahead of time (based on upcoming meals and planned around ingredients you already have) and stick to the list. Impulse buying can add up quickly and can often derail our carefully crafted plans! If you struggle with sticking to a list and find a few items sneak their way into your cart each week, start small by allowing yourself one item not on your list each week. Many stores also have free store pickup, opening the door for more opportunities to stick to your list.
- Check the price per unit for items on your list. You may only need three apples for a baked oatmeal recipe, but a three-pound bag may be cheaper than purchasing individual fruit. Apples can last weeks in the fridge; purchasing in bulk will stretch your dollar further and leave some for snacks! Bulk grains, bags of potatoes and onions, and dairy products like yogurt are often cheaper than smaller quantities.
- Store brands are often cheaper than their name-brand counterparts. Many store items like nuts, dried grains, and canned goods are identical in flavor and nutrition at a fraction of the cost. Always double-check the label to make sure an alternative product fits your needs.
- Keep track of in-store spending by rounding up to the next dollar as you shop. For example, you may have a strict $100 weekly grocery budget and need to make sure you do not go over this amount. As you add items to your cart, mentally or physically track spending by rounding up to the next dollar for each item. A $0.89 can of black beans becomes $1.00, a $1.75 box of quinoa becomes $2.00, and so forth. Once you get to the register you will automatically be under budget and have room for the tax upon checkout.
- Be flexible with preferred varieties of produce. Look around your produce section and notice price variations between varieties of the same type of fruit or vegetable. Consider swapping your preferred apple type for a cheaper option, bagged baby carrots for a bag of whole carrots, and even English cucumbers for a cheaper, standard variety. These swaps can result in savings without reducing the number of fresh fruits and vegetables you purchase.
- Don’t forget your store loyalty card! Many grocery stores offer a free store loyalty card that allows you to save on everyday purchases. Check with your store to see what programs they offer, including any discounts for students, military, healthcare workers, and teachers.
- Frozen and canned produce can be just as healthy. At the end of the day, it is important to get in your fruits and veggies regardless of if they are canned, frozen, or fresh. Frozen produce is picked at peak freshness and flash-frozen to preserve nutritional value. Frozen fruits are delicious in smoothies, on top of yogurt or oatmeal, or added to baked goods. Frozen vegetables can be steamed quickly in the microwave, boiled, or even roasted in the oven after thawing and draining any excess liquid. Canned vegetables are a healthful option, too, especially the low-sodium or no salt added varieties! Often, canned and frozen vegetables are similar in price and far cheaper than fresh options. Schedule these options into your weekly plan to reduce grocery costs and save prep time.
- Don’t just shop for groceries, shop for a grocery store! We compared prices at a variety of stores in the Raleigh-Durham area and found Walmart, Aldi, Target, and Food Lion to be the most affordable. Pay attention to how much your favorite items typically cost and compare between stores. You can do this both in-store and online to gain valuable information on where to buy your staple items. While time-consuming, some may choose to shop at a few different stores to score the best prices.
- Cooking for one or two? Choose items that can be re-purposed through the week. Cooking for one or two has some challenges, especially if you are easily bored with leftovers! Consider purchasing items that can be re-purposed through the week to keep things interesting and keep costs down. For example, you may plan Greek yogurt parfaits for snacks this week but also have a recipe picked out that calls for sour cream. Instead of purchasing both, you could purchase a large, multi-serving container of plain Greek yogurt to use in the recipe and your parfaits! Similarly, salad kits can be added to wraps or sandwiches and as a side salad at dinner. A bag of mini peppers can be used for snacks with a fun dip and added to a sheet pan chicken fajita meal . . . the opportunities are endless!
Maybe the best tip we can offer? Work with a professional! The Registered Dietitians here at Summerfield help patients every day with personalized meal planning and strategies to extend their food dollars. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your appointment and get started!