One of the main things I hear from people when talking about healthy eating, or eating clean, is that it is too expensive, or that they can’t afford it. Whilst that might be true for some people who really do live on very, very little money, most people would be surprised at how it doesn’t have to cost any more than buying junk food – it just takes a little bit of preparation. Oh, so that’s the downside you are thinking. Well, yeah, it will take a little extra time to eat healthily on a budget, but you didn’t think getting healthy was going to come without any effort did you? Too often, people use their budget as an excuse not to buy healthy food. I actually spend less money now on food than I did when I was overweight, as I am making things myself, planning ahead and looking for the best produce.
Also, if I do spend a little extra one week, it is because I have bought something really good quality, not because I went overboard on the biscuits. When I first started eating healthily, I will admit, it did cost me a little more – but that is because I was not planning ahead and I was seduced by all the new and healthy things. 2 years on, I have a bit more of a plan, but it is always a work in progress.
Here are my tips for healthy eating on a budget:
- Cook everything from scratch – this is the thing that has saved me the most money. Yes, it is going to take you a little longer, but you are trying to get healthy, right? I used to buy weight watchers ready meals because they were “healthy”, but they were costing me a fortune. Sometimes I was just buying a pasta dish that was ready made. How easy is that to make yourself! Making it myself not only saved me money, but made it a lot healthier than a ready made meal as it had no added salt and sugar. You don’t have to cook from scratch every day, most people don’t have time for that, so do some food preparation once a week.
- Prep your food once a week – here is a video I made on what food I prep once a week. It saves me so much time and money. You don’t have to prepare everything, but having grains and beans cooked up, and some vegetables chopped will save you a lot of time in the week. If also allows you to cook up lots of stuff you bought cheaply.
- Buy meat from a local butcher – this normally works out cheaper as you can buy meat in bigger packs and then freeze what you don’t need right away.
- Buy a whole chicken and cut it up to keep in the fridge – this can then be added to a variety of meals throughout the week. Don’t forget to use the carcass to make a chicken stock for soups too.
- Eat more vegetarian meals – meat is expensive, no matter where you buy it from, so try eating a few more vegetarian meals a week. Replace meat for beans and you will save quite a bit of money and you will definitely be getting enough protein.
- When you do eat meat, bulk out dishes with beans and lentils – so you don’t have to use as much meat.
- Buy fruit and vegetables from a local market, preferably a farmers market – not only is it great to buy locally as you are supporting your community and eating fresher food, it is usually much cheaper as well. My market is about 50% cheaper than my supermarket for fruit and vegetables. Also, try going later in the day when they are trying to get rid of their produce, as they will usually lower the price.
- Save vegetable cuttings – put them in a bag in a freezer as and when you have them. Once the bag is full, you can make a vegetable stock with them.
- Eggs are cheap, tasty and healthy – but always try to go for Free Range. You can also do so much with eggs.
- Eat seasonally – eating out of season can really push your budget over the edge, so be aware of what is in season for where you live. This is obviously different depending on where you live. I use this seasonal planner to check what is in season here in the UK. At the moment it is mostly salad items, so I am eating a lot of salad.
- Plan all meals – I plan my meals once I have bought everything, not before. Once you have bought the things that were on offer/reduced, you know what ingredients you have to use and you can then plan all your meals around that. I don’t do this for every meal though. There are some new recipes that I want to try each week, so I buy the ingredients for those too, even if they are not on offer, but I try to make sure it is seasonal.
- Have oats for breakfast – It might not be the most interesting breakfast, but they are cheap (especially if you buy in bulk) and they are healthy. You can also add so many different things to make them more exciting.
- Coupons are your friend – for those of you in the USA, you are so lucky when it comes to coupons, they seem to be in abundance. So use them! But, don’t buy things you don’t need just because you have a coupon for it. Even though coupons are a little harder to find over here in the UK, they are there if you find them. Sign up to the mailing lists of expensive products that you like, as they occasionally send out coupons (but a lot of junk email too) and also check on their websites for coupons or offers. There are also online forums where people post the latest coupons that I find really handy. These forums also post supermarket glitches. I recently bought 10 bottles of fabric softener for 90% off as there was an error. Even nicer smelling clothes for the rest of the year for us! If you are in the UK, I use the Money Saving Expert forum for all that. For those of you in the USA, The Coupon Cupboard is a good one too. Unfortunately, you rarely find coupons for fresh produce, it is normally toilet roll and toothpaste, but saving money in other areas means more money for the fresh produce.
- Find out when your local supermarket reduces food – this is great for buying meat, which you can freeze in portions. If you know someone who works for a supermarket, ask them when they reduce items. Or, try going into the store at different times of the day to see if they are reducing items. In my local supermarket, they reduce things at 10am and then they mark what is left down a second time at around 8pm.
- Know your herbs and spices – you can buy dried herbs and spices very cheaply in bulk, and they can really transform a dish on a budget. Just read up on what ones work well with what foods. I add chilli to a lot of cheap dishes.
- Use a slow cooker – you can make so many cheap and healthy dishes in one of these, and all you have to do is throw it all in and leave it to cook.
- Make your own snacks - rather than buy pre-packaged ones.
- Drink only water, rather than sugary squash and fizzy drinks – I have the occasional tea or coffee, but generally it is just water. Water doesn’t have to be boring – try adding fresh lemon juice to jazz it up a bit. You’ll be surprised how much you save by cutting out drinks from your shopping list.
- Chicken is not your only protein source – I would love to be able to eat chicken breast every day. I love it and there are so many things you can do with it, but it is expensive. Other cheaper ways to get protein include beans, tuna, Greek yoghurt, eggs and nuts. Also – frozen chicken breasts or frozen fish normally work out cheaper. With frozen fish though, make sure it is just fish and not one of those fish portions that has butter, salt and herbs added.
- Avoid anything in a tin, jar or box – not only will it be unhealthier because of all the stuff they add to it, but you are paying for the packaging. Wasted money!
- Pick and choose your battles – if you are on a budget, you can’t do/buy everything that you want, so you have to make some sacrifices somewhere. For some, that might be organic foods. If you really can’t afford them, don’t buy them. But, be aware that some foods have higher amounts of pesticides than others, so some organic foods (like strawberries and spinach) are worth buying organic if you can, and others are not. This is the dirty dozen. If you can’t buy organic, wash, scrub and peel stuff as much as you can.
- Make your own bread - flour is very cheap and with making your own bread, you can control what goes in it. When I make bread, I make 4 times as much dough and then portion it out and freeze the remaining dough in single loaf portions. Then, when I want bread, I defrost the dough and carry on from there. It’s all about planning ahead. I do this with tortillas and pizza dough too.
- Grow your own fruit and vegetables if you can – this might be a bit expensive initially, but can save you money in the future. If you don’t have a garden, there are still things you can grow in the house in containers. You could also get involved in a community garden project or make friends with people who grow lots of things.
- Buy a massive bag of potatoes – they can be used to bulk out loads of dishes, like soups and stews or made into oven chips, mashed potatoes, roast etc. Don’t be scared to eat potatoes – they are good for you. Just in moderation, like everything.
- Make a huge batch of healthy biscuits and freeze them – get one out at a time to put in lunch boxes etc. These are massively cheaper than buying them in a store, and who doesn’t like freshly baked biscuits? Again, it doesn’t have to take long, just half an hour on a Sunday to make a batch for the week ahead.
- Frozen fruit and vegetables are cheaper than fresh, and not much difference in nutritional value – it also hasn’t had lots of people touching it and it isn’t sitting in the shop for ages, it is frozen pretty soon after being picked. Frozen onion and garlic for example, is much cheaper than fresh, and you don’t have to chop it! It won’t go off either, so there is no waste
- Be experimental – you could eat the same meals week after week for very little money, but that would get boring. If you enjoy cooking, then you will have a much more varied diet and it can still be budget friendly.
- Portion control is key – most of us are eating way more than we should be, and that is where we could be saving money. Take a look at this portion guide.
- Don’t waste food – plan what you are going to do with everything you buy. I cringe when I think of how much food we used to throw away. It is literally throwing money down the drain. A little bit of planning means this doesn’t have to happen. If you see something in the fridge that is going to go off soon, either plan to use it that day, or freeze it. Use this guide to see what freezes well and what doesn’t.
- Buy in bulk - I go to my local health store and I stock up on huge bags of beans and grains. I know this might not be an option for all of you if space is limited, but any extra space you have (like under a bed or in the garage) could be used to store them. You can even buy the smaller bulk bags. If you really don’t have any room, perhaps you and some friends could buy the bulk items between you and split them – that way you are all saving money. I buy a variety of beans, couscous, bulgur wheat, quinoa, brown rice and many other things in bulk. The added advantage of buying beans this way is that you are not getting all the added crap like salt that comes with tinned beans.
- When looking at prices for things, look at the price per unit/measure (grams, oz, litres etc) rather than the actual price for the item – sometimes, when you think you are getting a good deal (maybe it is on offer), it actually works out cheaper to buy something else when you look at it per 100g.
- Shop around – I don’t buy all my food from one shop, I buy different things from the places I know I can get them cheapest from. But, I don’t drive and I walk everywhere, so I am okay doing this and I am not wasting money on petrol (or increasing my carbon footprint) driving to 5 different stores just to save a little money. My supermarket and fruit and vegetable market are right next to each other, so that is easy, and the health store is only a 20 minute walk away. Also – carrying all the bags back is a bit of an arm workout.
- Cook in bulk and freeze in portions – if I am making something like a lasagne, any pasta dish, casserole, or actually pretty much anything, I always make double and then freeze the leftovers in individual portions. I then have cheap, healthy and convenient food in the freezer. Doing this with soup is good too. I let soup cool and then put it in zip lock bags to go in the freezer, as it saves space. I usually spend an hour or so on a Sunday making up big batches of a couple of dishes to freeze for the week ahead.
- If you have a large freezer, when things are on offer or reduced, buy them and freeze them – for example, if there are loads of bananas reduced because they are brown, I buy as many as I can, peel them, wrap them and then put them in the freezer and they are perfect for smoothies or snacks. We are lucky that we have room for a freezer in our kitchen, but even if we didn’t I would put it in the bedroom if I had to. They are the best things for eating on a budget.
- Cut back on takeaway – you can make healthier alternatives yourself.
- Eat out less often – this is where the majority of our budget went. Whether it was eating out at fast food places, ordering in, or going to far too many restaurants, we were spending a lot of money on food that we were not cooking. We do still go out to restaurants occasionally now, but it is to nice places that we have been looking forward to going to, not just a spontaneous trip because we can’t be bothered to cook. That is not a luxury we can afford, as we would much rather put that money to something else, like healthier food at home, or saving up for an amazing holiday. It’s all about priorities. Also, you have less control over what you are eating when you are out.
Take a look at your budget and if you are going to Starbucks 4 times a week, going out to dinner once a week and ordering in a couple of times a week, these are all things you could cut back on to save money for your food shopping. If you are buying lots of packaged foods for convenience, cutting those out is a great place to start. The common theme amongst these points is planning. It will take a little extra time, but it will save you money and you can eat healthy foods. I always say, if you have time to be on the internet, you have a little extra time to plan your food.
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