Healthy budget-friendly foods
It’s really not your imagination. Food prices – from milk to meat to produce – have gone up this past year.1 And if you’re trying to save money, you may feel like you need to make some sacrifices. But nutritious food doesn’t have to be one of them.
A wide variety of healthy meals can be more affordable than you might think, says Rhyan Geiger, R.D.N., a nutritionist and owner of Phoenix Vegan Dietitian in Phoenix, Arizona.
You can put nutritious meals on the table that are both easy on your wallet and satisfying. The trick is knowing what to buy, when to buy it, and how to prep and store it.
Here are some ideas for making these foods a part of your weekly meal plan.
Beans and legumes
Plant-based proteins such as lentils and beans are filling and affordable. If a recipe calls for ground beef, use lentils instead.2 Both lentils and beans have plenty of protein, which helps give you energy. They’re also a good source of fiber, which helps keep you feeling full. Here’s how to get the most out of them:
- Stock up on canned beans when they’re on sale. Canned goods can be stored for a long time. They’re a useful ingredient to have on hand, so take advantage of sales.
- Use a pressure cooker. This appliance can cut down on cooking time, says Geiger. You don’t have to soak dried beans for hours before you can prepare them.
- Cook in bulk. This will also save you time. Both lentils and beans freeze well. Prepare a double batch of a favorite recipe, then freeze it in individual containers. You’ll have healthier meals ready for the nights you can’t – or don’t want to – cook.
Fruits and vegetables
Produce is filled with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that may help prevent diseases. You might think fruits and veggies are too pricey, but these ideas can keep the cost down:
- Buy produce that’s in season. That’s when they tend to be least expensive.2 Asparagus, for example, is more affordable in the spring. Blueberries cost less during the summer. Root vegetables and leafy greens tend to be winter foods.
- Buy frozen or canned when it’s on sale. Both have as many vitamins as fresh produce. To make sure they are as healthy as they can be, choose products that don’t have added sugar or sodium.3
- Freeze your own produce. The grocery store isn’t the only place to get frozen foods, says Geiger. Broccoli, cauliflower, berries, pineapple and bananas all freeze well. Buy them when they’re on sale. You can freeze any vegetable, as long as you lightly steam it first.
- Check the discounted produce bin. Some supermarkets put older fruits and vegetables in a discount section or cart.4 You can get good deals if you plan to use the food that day. If not, you are better off buying canned or frozen produce.
Whole grains include brown rice, oatmeal and whole-grain breads. It may be tempting to buy quick-cooking rice and other grains. But often they aren’t made from whole grains, which contain more heart-healthy fiber.
Geiger says to avoid quick-cook alternatives, especially if their ingredients list is long. “They aren’t the healthiest option, and they can be more expensive,” she adds. Consider these choices instead:
- Buy grains from the bulk section of the supermarket. Not only are they less expensive but it also cuts down on packaging, says Geiger. Grains such as quinoa or brown rice can be cooked and then frozen in batches to help save time and money.
- Choose store-brand or generic grains and cereals. They’re often the same quality as the name-brand ones — and may save you 20% to 30%.2Also look for store-brand frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.
Meat and seafood
You can find deals on meat, but the real trick is to use it lightly when cooking. If you make a stir-fry, stew, or chili, for instance, vegetables and beans can make up most of the dish. That makes the meat stretch further, so it’s more affordable.5Here’s how to find less expensive options:
- Choose the least expensive cuts. Chicken thighs or drumsticks with the skin on generally cost less than skinless chicken breasts. You can take the skin off before cooking to cut down on the fat and calories.4
- Experiment with ground turkey. It generally costs less than ground beef and can be used in the same recipes.6 There’s a very good chance that no one will even notice. Look for options that say 90% lean on the label for lower-calorie meals.4
- Try canned sardines, salmon and tuna. Fresh seafood can be expensive, but canned fish is not. Canned fish is also nutritious and can stay in your cupboard until you’re ready to use it.4
Dairy is a great source of protein and calcium. These minerals help to keep your bones and teeth strong. To help save money and find the healthier choices in the dairy aisle, try these tips:7
- Think big. A tub of yogurt is cheaper than individual containers. So is a gallon of milk.
- Skip flavored yogurts. They are high in added sugar. Go for plain yogurt and flavor it yourself with fresh or frozen fruit.
- Buy nonfat powdered milk. It won’t spoil, so you don’t waste money pouring it down the drain. Use it instead of fresh dairy in smoothies, soups and sauces.
- Freeze cheese, milk and yogurt. Yes, these can be frozen too, which can keep them fresh past their expiration date.
Other money-saving strategies
Making a list of what you need before you go to the store may make shopping more affordable. That way, you only spend money on what you need to buy. It also saves time, since you won’t wander through all the aisles, advises the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.3 If possible, make a weekly meal plan. Thinking that through makes it easier to create a shopping list.2
Also, don’t be shy about using food pantries and other community programs, says Geiger. These services exist to help people who need it. They can reduce your food costs to help keep you healthier.