8 Tips for Eating Healthily on a Budget
With obesity rates at an all-time high and the weight loss industry making record profits, it's clear that there is a serious health problem in America. For a number of reasons, modern society has made losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle difficult. One primary reason for this is that many of the things that we do each day are centered around food and eating. Food brings comfort and joy into our lives but can also contribute to a decline in health.
In addition, because of easy access to food, as well as a busy schedule, people have grown accustomed to a lifestyle of conveniences foods and quick-prep meals. However, these tasty, cheap foods generally tend to be unhealthy. They tend to be more calorie dense and are filled with salts, sugars, and plenty of preservatives. Furthermore, cheap foods often lack essential nutrients.
With the temptation of convenient and inexpensive foods all around us, it can certainly be challenging to eat healthily. It doesn't help that big food producers have helped to perpetuate a myth that healthy food needs to be exotic and expensive (organic protein bar anyone?).
Don't ask why healthy food is so expensive, ask why unhealthy food is so cheap.
With a little knowledge and the desire to make the right choices, eating healthily can be achieved on almost any reasonable budget. In this article, I'll offer 8 tips to help you achieve your healthy eating goals without spending a fortune.
1. Choose Locally Produced Food
If possible, shop for produce and meat at nearby farmer's markets, you-pick farms, or locally owned and operated grocers. Locally grown and harvested food is healthier and is usually a less expensive alternative to the neighborhood big-box grocery store. In addition, the food quality will likely be much better than foods produced on a large scale in a foreign land as they will have more flavor and nutritional value as well. For local food growers and purveyors, the cost of the food is often reduced because the supply chain is smaller and they have to invest less resources into transportation, pesticides, and ripening agents. The result is the ability to bring healthier, fresher foods to your area at a lower cost.
2. Buy In-Season Food
When you purchase foods, especially produce, that are in-season, you will save a lot of money. For example, my local grocery store sells strawberries almost all year long. However, the price fluctuates depending on the season. During the winter the price for strawberries may be nearly double that of those sold in the late spring and early summer. Another tip is to purchase in-season vegetables and then freeze them or can them for use weeks or even months later into the future.
The USDA has a great guide explaining the seasons of different fruits and vegetables. If you are looking to save money and understand the seasonality of our foods check out the guide here: https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/seasonal-produce-guide
3. Purchase Frozen Foods
Did I just say to purchase frozen foods? Yes, however, I am not talking about full-fledged meals, hot pockets, and ice cream but rather frozen vegetables instead. Frozen vegetables are often a good choice when you want to save money and stock up at the same time. Check the labeling to verify that the vegetables were flash-frozen at the peak of their season. This will ensure that the flavor and nutritional value of the vegetables is maintained as much as possible.
Frozen vegetables can be used for quick-cook meals and even prepared in a stir-fry or slow cooker. In addition to this, some food producers now package their vegetables in specially designed bags so that they can be quickly steamed in the microwave with almost no effort.
4. Try Different Cuts of Meat
Meat is likely the most expensive component of any meal that you prepare. Even the once holy-grail of inexpensive meat, ground beef, is now often an expensive choice for a meal. And perhaps seen as the healthiest of meats, boneless, skinless chicken breast, is also becoming increasingly expensive as well. In fact, the price of meat will continue to increase because of a growing global demand for this food.
In any case, choosing alternate cuts of meat can reduce cost without necessarily reducing the taste or nutritional value. For example, instead of chicken breasts you can purchase chicken thighs which tend to be cheaper. This may not work for all recipes but in many cases you won't be able to tell the difference. In some recipes that require chicken (such as casseroles or shredded chicken dishes), a whole chicken can be purchased and cooked instead of the breasts. By using a whole chicken you'll get more meat for less money. In general, bone-in meats are also usually less expensive per pound than their bone-out counter parts. The same principles hold true for beef, pork, and other meats as well.
5. Eat More Beans and Other Plant-Based Proteins
One easy way to reduce your grocery bill while still eating healthy is to reduce the consumption of meat. I'm not necessarily saying that you should go vegetarian or vegan, however, replacing your main source of protein with a plant based substitute one or two times a week can make the bills easier to swallow. Chances are that if you make the proper meat substitute, the plant based protein can be more nutrient dense than meat.
One of the best protein replacements for meat are beans and other legumes. For example, pinto beans are commonplace and a staple in many diets. They can be bought in bulk for long term storage and are very inexpensive. If you purchase them in bulk, you may be able to find them as cheap as $1.00 per pound. In addition, dried pinto beans are very easy to cook. Regardless of your choice of plant protein, beans and legumes can be used to make a variety of healthy recipes from soups to salads and even slow-cooker meals.
6. Start Canning Your Food
Before refrigerators were commonplace and there was a grocery store on every corner, canning foods used to be a staple of living. Canning foods for long term preservation was a necessity of life to help get people through the harsh winters of many parts of America. Today, canning may not be necessary for our survival, however it can be a great way to preserve food before it goes bad ultimately saving you money.
Canning is usually reserved for fruits and some vegetables, however, meats can even be canned if done properly. Besides saving money, some of the other benefits of canning include having complete control of what you put in the jars as well as having the ability to preserve home grown or locally sourced foods. When canning your own foods you can avoid using excess amounts of sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other preservatives that often get put into commercially canned foods. Furthermore, glass jars are better for storage than metal cans are. Metal cans are often lined with an anti-corrosion chemical that can leach into the food over time.
I have fond memories of my great grandmother canning fruits and other foods. To start canning yourself you'll need to make an initial investment in canning equipment to make. This includes purchasing heat-treated glass mason jars, lids, and even a pressure canner. However, the cost savings resulting from keeping food longer can make the investment worth it. For a great testimony on the benefits of canning, I recommend you check out this webpage: Is Home Canning Really Worth it? Does it Save Money to Can at Home?
7. Spend Time Meal Prepping
Meal prepping a is great way to stave off the cravings for "convenience" foods while also leveraging the benefits of buying things in bulk. To meal prep you will likely need to spend a few hours on a weekend to cook and pre-prepare meals for use later. Meals can be stored in Tupperware-like containers, bento boxes (basically versatile boxes with inner compartments), or even zip-top plastic bags and then frozen or refrigerated for future use.
If you've got a big family, or if you are just really busy, meal prepping can be a lifesaver during the busy work/school week. If you make frequent use of the slow cooker, pre-prepare ingredients and store them in freezer bags for easy meals on busy days. The use of bento boxes is a great way to bring a pre prepared meal for lunch to work each day. These boxes usually have compartments that separate foods, are water tight, and can be used in a microwave. Meal prepping with bento boxes is like having a bunch of frozen meals ready to take to work each day. However, with meal prepping you get to control the proportions as well as the ingredients.
8. Grow Your Own Food
There's likely no other better way to eat healthy at a discount than to grow and harvest your own food. The rewards that come from homegrown produce are too numerous to list here. Primarily, homegrown foods offer the most nutritional value that you can get in produce since you can pick the vegetables when they are fully ripe and then eat them the same day. Homegrown foods also have the advantage of being cleaner since it's not likely you will be dousing them with pesticides and other chemicals. These things are of course in addition to the fact that home grown food often tastes significantly better than what you can buy elsewhere.
When you grow your own food you will have a sense of ownership in the process giving you even more incentive to eat healthy. I remember that my great grandfather always took such pride in the foods that he grew in his garden. As I child I would help him de-weed his garden, pull ripe carrots from the ground, and remove peas from the pod. By involving me in the process it made eating the meal that was prepared at the end of the day much more enjoyable.
To start your own garden you don't necessarily need a lot of land. Some vegetables like tomatoes or bell peppers can be grown in large pots. Citrus trees and certain berry bushes can be planted in a variety of climates. Other food bearing plants, such as many herbs, can even be grown indoors. In addition, you can purchase indoor terrariums and growing stations designed to help you grow a wide variety of vegetables indoors. Of course, food grown outdoors is often the best option since it allows the sun to provide it's full radiance as an energy source for the plants to grow. In either case, having your own garden is a great way to eat healthy on a budget.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
Does it make good economic and healthy living sense to buy and use a chest or upright freezer?
That is a great question. If utilized properly, I believe using a freezer to store food is economical. It depends on how big your family is and how much freezable food you buy. It's also important to ensure that the benefits of owning a freezer are taken advantage of properly. The cost savings from a freezer comes from the ability to store groceries purchased in bulk. In addition, a having a freezer will allow you to capitalize on sale prices of freezable food and make fewer trips to the grocery store.
Because of this question, I've written an entire article (complete with a mathematical analysis) on this subject. Check it out here to get a more detailed answer to this question: https://toughnickel.com/frugal-living/Does-Storing...
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