We hear it all the time: “Eating healthy on a budget is impossible!” And the truth is—nope, it’s not. Did you know plenty of healthy foods are actually budget friendly? It’s true! You know what isn’t budget friendly? Processed junk. Yeah, we said it.
And get this . . . we’re not talking about only beans and rice here (although, that’s a perfect example of healthy and cheap). There are plenty of ways you can stick to eating healthy on a budget!
How to Eat Healthy on a Budget in 15 Steps
1. Plan your meals.
That’s right—it’s meal prep time! And guess what? It really isn’t as hard as you might think it is. Making a plan for your meals is kind of like making a plan with your budget. It might take some practice at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be golden!
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Spend one night a week planning the meals you want to make for the next seven days. Depending on when you go grocery shopping, these meals might use up what’s left in your fridge or be based around your grocery shopping list for the week. Either way, just make sure you have a plan and stick to it.
2. Shop for produce that’s in season.
Shopping for a watermelon in December is probably going to cost you—and will it even taste good? We’re willing to bet it probably won’t. Unless you have a pregnant woman in your house who has to have watermelon this very instant, just skip it and shop for fruits and veggies that are actually in season. Your wallet will thank you!
A great place to buy produce in season is your local farmers market. Now, not everything at a farmers market is going to be cheap. But hear us out—you never know what you’re going to find.
Walk around the entire place before you buy anything. This way, you can take note of who has the best-looking food at the best prices. Some vendors will even cut you a deal if you buy multiple items or pay in cash. And if you head to the market later in the day, prices may be marked down to help them sell the last of their items.
You don’t need to do all your produce shopping at a farmers market. Just stick to grabbing a few essentials that fit in your budget. Don’t forget—you can always negotiate prices too.
Bonus tip: Buy extra of the fruits and veggies that are in season and freeze them. You can enjoy them over time and not feel rushed to eat five containers of strawberries before they go bad.
3. Stop buying processed food.
Hey, you know what isn’t healthy and racks up your food budget? Processed food. We’re talking about things like chicken nuggets and pizza pockets, refined sugars, boxed mashed potatoes, frozen dinners, prepackaged meals, cookies, hot dogs, potato chips and other salty snacks. They’re not cheap, and they’re not doing your health any favors, either. And you’re trying to eat healthy here, remember?
A good rule of thumb: Stick to the outer edges of the grocery store when you shop. The closer you go toward the middle aisles, the more processed the food gets.
4. Go meatless.
It’s no secret that eating meat all the time isn’t the healthiest option. Give your body and budget a break and go meatless for a while. Maybe that means you cut it out for the month (gasp) or just go a few nights a week without it. There are other (cheaper!) ways to get protein these days, like dried beans and lentils.
When you do buy meat, just be picky about what you purchase. Stick to lean cuts of meat that are on sale.
5. Make enough food for leftovers.
Making healthy food at home—win. Making healthy food at home with plenty left over for meals during the week—double win. Be on the lookout for meals that can feed you and your family for days on end. Meals like chili, stews and casseroles are going to be your best friends in this department. Slow cooker and Instant Pot recipes are great for this too!
6. Don’t eat out.
Yes, this no-brainer did make our list. Even though we all know this is a huge part of eating healthy on a budget, not enough of us actually make it a priority and stick to it. When you’re super hungry, it’s just a little too easy to swing by the drive-thru or build-your-own-burrito line. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s the wisest decision.
You know what’s an unexpected side effect of following Dave Ramsey’s plan to become debt-free? Losing weight! It’s true. A lot of people who go through Financial Peace University and start living on a budget find they’re not only shedding the debt but they’re also shedding the pounds!
When we started Financial Peace University in July of 2017, we were so incredibly excited to start eliminating debt! After a couple of months of following our budget well, including what we spent on groceries and on carryout food, we found ourselves slowly becoming more and more healthy as we both started to lose weight! Seventy-five pounds down later between my husband and I combined, we are $40,000 down in debt with $19,000 more to go and healthier than we've ever been! — Amanda H.
7. Bring your own lunch and snacks.
Think about it: If you’re packing your own snacks, you’ll probably be more likely to reach for the carrot sticks and hummus. If you wait until you’re standing in front of the work vending machine, your options are basically just potato chips or crackers—and it’s going to cost more too.
8. Stop buying soda.
It’s crazy how easy it is to drink your calories (and drain your budget) just by pumping your body full of soda. Even “healthy” fruit juices can be packed full of sugar.
To save cash (and calories), try switching to water and straight-up black coffee as your beverages of choice. It might sound like weird and unusual torture at first, but you’ll be surprised by the big impact it can have over the long haul.
9. Buy in bulk.
Buying food in bulk can be great, but we fully admit it doesn’t always make sense for your budget or your health. So, let’s just be clear: We’re not talking about the 60-ounce bag of caramel kettle corn here. But if you notice the go-to hummus you eat every single day is $4 for 10 ounces, but it’s $6 for 32 ounces, then maybe that’s worth the bulk buy.
Keep your eyes peeled for good deals, crunch some numbers, and you might just find yourself some bargains!
10. Check the clearance aisle.
Yeah, we’re serious. Did you know most grocery stores have some kind of clearance aisle or dedicated manager’s markdown shelf? There might be random things you don’t need, but every now and again, you can find bread, meat, spices and even produce that the store needs to clear out ASAP. Their markdown is your gain! Just be sure to check expiration dates.
11. Buy generic.
If you’ve been around here for more than five seconds, you’ve probably heard us sing the praises of opting for generic items instead of name-brand products. And there’s good reason for it—more often than not, generic items are cheaper and taste just as good as their competitors.
But are they just as healthy? The answer here is simple: You’ll need to read the labels and check.
12. Don’t buy everything organic.
“It’s organic! It’s better for you! Price doesn’t matter! Buy it now!” Sound familiar? Listen, we aren’t here to argue with health-food gurus about the benefits of organic products. But just keep in mind you don’t have to buy everything organic.
A great rule of thumb is to buy organic fruits and vegetables if you eat the skin (think apples, strawberries, cucumbers, zucchini). For produce that you have to peel or cut open (oranges, watermelon, cantaloupe, avocados), you don’t have to go organic.
And if you really want to do a deeper dive, check out something called the Dirty Dozen. It’s a list of the top 12 worst fruits and veggies covered with pesticides. Yuck! Two words to combat that: veggie wash.
If you still want to go organic but can’t stomach the cost, look for organic fruits and vegetables in the frozen aisle. You can get way more bang for your buck there! And what about the vitamins and nutrients in frozen produce? Despite what Grandma always said, one study found that frozen fruits and veggies don’t lose their nutritional value!1
13. Stay away from high-priced ingredients.
You’ve stopped going out to eat and are pretty proud of yourself. Not only are you saving money and dropping pounds but you’re becoming something of a wiz in the kitchen too. You can’t wait to impress your friends with your Bluefin Tuna Tartare recipe.
But hold it there, Julia Child. Make sure you’re not buying pricey specialty ingredients that you’ll only use once in these to-die-for recipes. Things like specialty cheeses, spices and meats can really send your grocery budget overboard.
14. Dilute your drinks.
So, you’ve (reluctantly) sacrificed the soda, but you’ve replaced it with juice and kombucha. Okay . . . points for being healthier, but those drinks are still going to add up in your grocery budget.
To save you some dough, try to stretch them out by diluting your kombucha with mineral water (it’ll still be fizzy) and cutting the juice with water (it’ll cut the sugar too).
15. Buy ingredients you can repurpose.
This one is super fun and makes having leftovers feel less left over. Let’s say you decided to cook up a whole chicken for dinner one night. You and your fam eat some slices of meat, but there’s a ton of chicken left over. Nice!
The next night, take that leftover chicken, shred it up, and make tacos. On day three, toss the bones in the Instant Pot and make some bone broth to use as the base of the soup you eat that night.
Boom! You just got three meals (and maybe even some leftovers for lunch) out of that one whole chicken!
Cheap Foods for Eating Healthy on a Budget
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: Rice and beans are healthy for you, and they’re pretty dang cheap too. Cook up a veggie medley on the side, and you’ve got yourself a super inexpensive and healthy meal. You can even get fancy and do black beans and brown rice. Throw in some salsa and have yourself a fiesta.
But you don’t have to survive on just beans and rice to master eating healthy on a budget. Here are some budget-friendly ingredients to add to your grocery list:
- Multigrain pasta
- Multigrain bread
- Russet potatoes
- Cottage cheese
- Dried lentils
- Baby carrots
- Brown rice
- Chicken breast
- Sweet potatoes
- Peanut butter
- Dried beans
- Frozen fruits
- Frozen vegetables
How Do You Budget for Food When You’re on a Diet?
Keto. Paleo. Whole30. Gluten free. Vegan. There are plenty of different diets to follow out there—and they all can impact your budget. Whether you’re following a specific diet because you want to lose 15 pounds, because of a food allergy, or just because it makes you feel better, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Look for places that offer cheaper versions of the food you need. Gluten-free bread is expensive, but stores like Costco and Aldi have cheaper options than many other specialty stores.
- Avoid diets that make you purchase “their food.” If you find it’s truly a must-have to eat a company-based product in order to stick to the diet, then add a line item to your budget specifically for your special diet. This is where you’ll budget for those shakes and bars that companies sell.
- If you can, stick to simple and skip the fad diets. Eat less sugar, drink more water, up the protein, cut the carbs, and eat more fruits and veggies.
Best Places to Buy Cheap Groceries
There’s no denying marketing works—even food marketing. Somehow, we’ve gotten it into our heads that in order to “eat healthy,” we have to shop for groceries at the well-known, specialty “healthy grocery stores” (you know the places).
Those kinds of stores might have things on sale, sure. But there’s no need to do all your grocery shopping for the week there. And guess what! Lots of other stores sell fruits, veggies and other healthy food items at slashed prices too. Here are the top 13 American grocery stores with the cheapest prices!2 You can use this as your go-to grocery store list when eating healthy on a budget:
2. Market Basket
3. WinCo Foods
4. Food 4 Less
7. Trader Joe’s
8. Walmart Neighborhood Market
13. Sam’s Club
Eating Healthy on a Budget—You’ve Got This!
We know it doesn’t always feel like it, but eating healthy on a budget is totally doable! Just like everything else that truly matters in life, it requires being intentional, planning ahead and making the tough choices. But don’t let that scare you away from giving it a go. Give these tips and tricks a shot and see if you find it easier to figure out how to eat healthy on a budget. You can do it!
Ready to kick butt in 2020 with your healthy-eating and budgeting goals? You can do it! Let our free budgeting app, EveryDollar, help get you there. But going to the gym all year long? Well, that one is on you, pal (but we believe in you!).