Eating Right on a Budget
When you are eating for health and weight loss, you might start to notice something: healthy eating can hurt your wallet! Some of the most visible and convenient-looking healthy choices are also among the most expensive. It would be nice to pick up ready-to-eat salads and hot soup for lunch, and order gourmet meal kits with all the ingredients for dinner, but that’s not always practical.
Cook for Yourself
A restaurant can mark up the cost of the food you get by 5 or more times the amount you would pay if you made it yourself. For example, the ingredients for a green salad with grilled chicken might cost $2 if you bought them at a supermarket, but the salad itself could cost $10 in a restaurant – before you order a drink or a cup of soup to go with it. By the way, eating out is usually bad for your waistline, too, since you are likely to eat more calories on days you eat out than days you do not.
Take a deep breath before you say, “I never eat out!” Are you sure? When was the last time you grabbed a coffee on the way to work, went out with coworkers or friends for lunch, or took your family to a restaurant or ordered in because you needed a break? Keep a log for a few days to see if you really do eat out more than you thought. If so, challenge yourself to cut back once or twice a week.
Make your own green tea Frappuccino with almond milk, green tea, and sugar-free vanilla pudding mix and save about $4 each time.
Save $10 or more each time you pack a sack lunch instead of ordering an entrée or salad.
Save $20 or more if your family of four eats homemade stir fry instead of getting Chinese takeout.
Don’t worry if you’re not a chef!
Start with simple things, such as celery sticks with peanut butter (directions: cut celery. Dip into PB!).
Ask for help. You are sure to have at least one friend who would be thrilled to teach you a few simple dishes; you just may not know it until you ask.
Build on what you know. For example, start with a cheese sandwich (directions: put cheese on bread!), change it into grilled cheese by toasting it; add sauce before toasting it to make it a pizza; and top it with your favorites – a chicken and broccoli pizza sure sounds gourmet!
You do not need to be a rocket scientist to know that throwing food away does not help your food budget, but what happens when you cannot face another bite of that chicken you cooked two days ago, or that value pack of shredded cheese now seems like a curse, not a blessing, or those in-season tomatoes are now looking like they should have been eaten yesterday? Repurpose them!
The trick is to find new and creative – and healthy – ways to use your ingredients so they do not become boring. For example, grilled chicken on Thursday night can top your Greek salad at lunch on Friday. Add it to stir fry for Friday night’s dinner, and put the leftovers with peanut sauce in a lettuce wrap for Saturday’s lunch. Take the rest of your chicken and make soup with any vegetables you have left over from the week.
Cut Your Costs on Proteins and Veggies
Proteins and veggies are the foundation of healthy eating, but they can be unaffordable if you are not careful. These tips can help you get your nutrition without spending as much.
Look for value packs of chicken, fish and ground turkey, and stock up during sales. Store the extras in the freezer raw or cooked so you can add them to recipes, or make stew, chili, soup, or other meals that you can use later.
Consider plant-based protein sources such as beans, tofu, and peanut butter. They are less expensive and often healthier than meat.
Look for markdowns on meats, poultry, fish, and dairy products.
Stock up on canned tuna and salmon so heart-healthy omega-3 fats are on hand anytime.
Buy vegetables that are on sale – they are not only cheaper, but usually higher quality because they are in season.
Fill up your freezer, with frozen veggies or fresh veggies that you cook, if you buy in bulk to save money.
Choose the less expensive of similar options; for example, Italian eggplant is often less than half the cost of Japanese, and regular cucumbers can be one-third the price of English.
Be Flexible with Menus
Plan your meals ahead of time, but leave some wiggle room. Finalize your weekly meal plans and recipes when you see what is on sale that week at the store. For example:
Make tacos with shredded chicken instead of ground turkey if chicken is on sale.
Take apples in your lunches for a few days if they’re cheaper than oranges.
Mix nuts and fruit into cottage cheese if it’s less expensive than yogurt.
Make bean and cheese instead of shredded chicken stuffed peppers if chicken prices are through the roof.
When eggs are on sale, but meat is not, consider eggs for breakfast (omelets!), lunch (hard-boiled in a chopped salad), and dinner (sweet potato and green bean frittata, anyone?).
And really, does it matter if you serve zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, or eggplant as a side dish, as long as you’re getting a nutritious veggie?
Thankfully, the rest of the foods in your healthy diet can easily be low-cost. Here are some tips to keep your nutritious diet lower in cost.
Buy in-season or frozen fruits. Buy them whole instead of pre-cut or pre-sliced, or choose frozen, especially for berries, peaches, and mangos.
Buy foods in bulk rather than single-serving or 100-calorie packets to cut costs by half or more. This applies to oatmeal, nuts, whole-grain cereal, snacks, and even cheese (consider cheese sticks versus block cheese).
Look for the store brand instead of the national brand on packaged products, such as canned, frozen, or refrigerated. The food is not only usually of the same quality; it is often the identical product from the same factory with a different label stuck on it!
Do Your Own Processing
In general, the more prepared foods are, the more expensive they are. Bagged salads and pre-cut vegetables and fruit can cost up to 5 times or more than whole ones. For example, a 1-lb. bag of baby carrots can cost $1.49, while you might be able to get 2 to 5 lb. of whole carrots from the same store for $0.99. By the way, when you cut your own fruit and vegetables, you will also get fresher, more nutritious produce.
Other ways you can “process” your own foods are:
Make your own hummus instead of buying it.
Roast your own chicken for $0.79/lb. instead of buying a rotisserie chicken for $3/lb.
Add cinnamon to steel cut oats instead of buying single-serve packets of cinnamon oatmeal.