Eating a balanced diet has lifelong health benefits, no matter your age or current health status. People with healthy eating patterns tend to live longer and are at lower risk for chronic (long-term) health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. For people with chronic diseases, healthy eating can help manage these conditions and prevent complications. (4)
Nutritious meals are commonly thought to be more expensive than other choices, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Healthy eating on a budget can be accomplished by many by limiting food waste and being intentional about your dietary habits.
5 tips to eat healthy on a budget
Nutritious foods don’t have to break the bank. Consider the following five tips for healthy eating on a budget.
1. Cook meals at home often
One of the simplest ways to eat healthier on a budget is by cooking meals at home often. Frequently eating at home is associated with a greater intake of nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables. (7) Preparing meals at home also allows you to be in control of the ingredients added to your dish. Excess sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy oils are often used in commercial or restaurant food preparation. Eating at home is also generally cheaper per person than eating out on a regular basis. (12)
2. Plan ahead
Creating a meal plan and shopping list can help reduce impulse purchases and keep the grocery bill within budget. Prepare for your grocery shopping trip with the following steps.
Check your current food supply
Healthy meals don’t have to be complicated. Keep things simple by starting with what you already have in your refrigerator and pantry. Make a list of your current stock and consider what recipes you can make with what you already have. Get inspiration by searching the internet, borrowing a cookbook from the library or a friend, or watching your favorite cooking show.
Look for coupons
Getting coupons from the local paper, online, or through a loyalty program can be a helpful way to save money at the grocery store. Consider bulking up on shelf-stable items that are on sale, such as canned beans or brown rice, and using sale items to guide your meal plan for the week. (3)
Plan your recipes
Come up with a meal plan that works for you and your budget. Keep your schedule in mind, as busier days may benefit from keeping meals simple. Consider using recipes with common ingredients that can be used for multiple meals. For example, canned tuna could be used for a tasty tuna sandwich one day, then a warm tuna casserole later in the week. Using different herbs and spices can help make the same ingredient taste different in each dish. (3)
Shop with a list
Once you know what you need from the grocery store, write it down in a list and bring it with you to the grocery store. At the store, stick to your budget by purchasing only what you need on your list. Grocery lists also make shopping easier and faster, and ensure you get all of the ingredients you need in one trip. (3)
3. Compare similar products
At the grocery store there are a lot of different foods to choose from, which can make it difficult to find the most nutritious and cost-effective options. Comparing similar products by assessing their nutritional value and cost per serving can be helpful when trying to choose budget-friendly healthy foods.
Check the unit price
Some grocery items may have a lower retail price (total cost) but a higher unit price. The unit price identifies the cost per serving or weight, such as cost per pound or ounce. A lower unit price indicates a better value, even if the retail price is higher than comparable products. (13) For example, food sold in single-serving packaging often has a higher unit price than the full-size version. Buying the full-size product and creating individual portions at home is one way to save money. (5)
If the unit price isn’t listed, it can be calculated with the following equation:
Unit price = Total price/Total size
Buying foods in larger package sizes, i.e., “in bulk” or family size, is often the way to get the lowest unit price. Save money by buying regularly eaten non-perishable items (e.g., rice, pasta) and freezable items (e.g., meat, frozen vegetables) in bulk.
Look for discount brands
Many grocery stores carry generic or store-brand versions of products that cost less than the name brand. Items like canned vegetables, dairy products, oils, and frozen fruits and vegetables are usually available in a cheaper store-brand version. (5)
Read the Nutrition Facts label
Not all similar products at the grocery store have similar ingredients. Checking the nutrition facts label is another tool for healthy eating on a budget. The Nutrition Facts label is a convenient tool that can be used to assess calories, nutrients, and serving sizes of various foods. Try to avoid processed foods and consider food choices with less saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. (2)
4. Purchase in-season produce
When fresh fruits and vegetables are in season, there is more supply available, resulting in lower prices. (6) Fruits and vegetables that aren’t currently in season can typically be found cheaper in canned or frozen instead of fresh. Certain fresh produce is usually low-cost at anytime throughout the year including:
- Green peppers
- Oranges (10)
Be considerate of how much produce you will eat throughout the week, as fresh produce spoils faster than canned or frozen produce. Try to buy a combination of fresh, frozen, and shelf-stable fruits and vegetables.
5. Incorporate meatless meals
Animal protein, such as lean meats and poultry, is commonly used as a protein source in North American diets. (1) Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays a role in several functions within the body, including muscle and tissue repair and hormone regulation. (9) Protein-packed foods also help keep you satiated (full) longer than carbohydrate or high-fat foods. (8)
However, over the past several years, the price of meat has steadily increased. Since December 2020, prices of beef have risen 14% in the United States. (11) Incorporating meatless meals into your dietary plan can help you save money. There are many non-meat protein foods that can make a good low-cost swap for animal proteins, including:
- Legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, peas)
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy products (e.g., cottage cheese, greek yogurt)
- Nuts and seeds (e.g., almonds)
- Soy products (e.g., edamame, tempeh, tofu) (1)(13)
Download a handout of the top tips for eating healthy on a budget.
The bottom line
Following a healthy dietary pattern can help reduce the risk of certain chronic conditions and promote longevity. Many people believe healthy foods are too expensive, but healthy living can be affordable. Efficiently planning ahead and shopping smart by using coupons and avoiding food waste are a couple of key ways to save money at the grocery store.
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- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2021). Building a healthy vegetarian diet myths and facts. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/vegetarian-and-special-diets/building-a-healthy-vegetarian-diet-myths?rdType=url_edit&rdInfo=meal
- Center for Food Safety. (2022). How to understand and use the Nutrition Facts label. U.S. Food and Drug Administration; FDA. https://www.fda.gov/food/new-nutrition-facts-label/how-understand-and-use-nutrition-facts-label
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021a). 6 tips for eating healthy on a budget. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/healthy-eating-budget.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021b). Why it matters. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/about-nutrition/why-it-matters.html
- Health Canada. (2020). Healthy eating on a budget. Canada Food Guide. https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/tips-for-healthy-eating/healthy-eating-budget/
- MacDonald, J. M. (2003). Demand, information, and competition: why do food prices fall at seasonal demand peaks? The Journal of Industrial Economics, 48(1), 27–45.
- Mills, S., Brown, H., Wrieden, W., White, M., & Adams, J. (2017). Frequency of eating home cooked meals and potential benefits for diet and health: cross-sectional analysis of a population-based cohort study. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14(1), 109.
- Morell, P., & Fiszman, S. (2017). Revisiting the role of protein-induced satiation and satiety. Food Hydrocolloids, 68, 199–210.
- Morris, A. L., & Mohiuddin, S. S. (2022). Biochemistry, nutrients. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
- National Institute on Aging. (2022). Overcoming roadblocks to healthy eating. National Institute on Aging. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/overcoming-roadblocks-healthy-eating
- The White House. (2021). Addressing concentration in the meat-processing industry to lower food prices for American families. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/blog/2021/09/08/addressing-concentration-in-the-meat-processing-industry-to-lower-food-prices-for-american-families/
- Tiwari, A., Aggarwal, A., Tang, W., & Drewnowski, A. (2017). Cooking at home: a strategy to comply with U.S. dietary guidelines at no extra cost. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 52(5), 616–624.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). Shop Smart. MyPlate. https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/healthy-eating-budget/shop-smart