Let’s get this out of the way: healthy eating doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, healthy eating can actually be cheaper than buying overly processed, additive-laden packaged food. Unfortunately, the general population believes that healthy equals expensive. But oftentimes, that’s not the case. So, why are we conditioned to think that healthy eating isn’t budget-friendly? Today, we’re dismantling the belief that nourishing meals are more expensive. We’re also diving into how to create healthy meals on a budget. I’m sharing my tips and tricks for feeding yourself (and your family) with nutrition in mind. Given food shortages and inflation, it’s more important—than ever—to be intentional about your grocery purchases and dietary habits.
Why we think healthy eating is more expensive
Part of the issue is that we confuse ‘healthy’ with other labels like organic and gluten-free. Just because a package of crackers (or artificial candy) is gluten-free, doesn’t mean that it’s nutrient-dense or inexpensive. The other issue is that healthy food can be associated with higher priced health-food stores. In reality though, a healthy diet is built on whole, unprocessed foods (think fruit, beans, nuts, etc.) which can be found very affordably at most grocery stores. While yes, a Big Mac is cheaper than a pasture-raised burger, and a gas station soda is pennies in comparison to an organic juice, the same notion works in reverse. A fried chicken sandwich is more expensive than a banana. Ultimately, different foods cost different prices. Not all healthy food is expensive and not all unhealthy food is cheap. This misunderstanding poses a risk to our overall health and wellness.
Social inequities in our food system
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that health and social status are inextricably linked. Systemic health and social inequities disproportionately affect racial, ethnic, and poor minorities. Meaning, low-income households are more likely to consume fast food, conventionally-grown ingredients, etc. This is due to factors like grocery prices, accessibility, and education. Although researchers debate over the concept of food deserts, it’s safe to say that as an entire ecosystem—from farm to corner store or supermarket—we have a long way to go. Access to healthier options, as well as access to accurate education around healthy eating, is polarizing.
Are wealthier countries healthier?
Not exactly. Interestingly, research shows that the world’s wealthiest countries (indicated by GDP) are not necessarily the healthiest (indicated by life expectancy). Rather, we want to look at the Blue Zones. The inhabitants of these locations know a thing or two about well-being. In fact, the Blue Zones are identified as having the longest life expectancy and greatest longevity. Where are they located? Think: Greece, Japan, and Costa Rica. Despite global and cultural differences, their similarities speak volumes. For the most part, those living in the Blue Zones consume minimal (yet quality) animal protein, whole grains, fresh vegetables, fruits, olive oil, seeds, and nuts.
Why eating Healthy matters
Eating a balanced diet has lifelong benefits, no matter your age or current health status. Those 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. Nutritious meals are commonly thought to be more expensive than other choices, but that doesn’t have to be the case. How to create healthy meals on a budget can be accomplished by limiting food waste and being intentional about your dietary habits.
how to create healthy meals on a budget
There are a variety of ways to stick to your budget while still creating nutritious, flavorful recipes. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to keep your grocery bill low while still fueling your family with nutrient-dense food. Ultimately, it comes down to planning, comparing options, and knowing what’s the best bang for your nutritional buck.
1. MEAL PLAN
Planning your meals can help you avoid buying packaged items you don’t need or fresh veggies that might go bad. Meal planning also helps you avoid eating out on a regular basis. Find a couple of recipes to make, check your pantry to see what you already have on hand, then make your grocery list. By planning, you’ll spend less money and waste less food. Furthermore, 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.
2. Go meatless
Protein is an essential macronutrient for several functions within the body—muscle growth, tissue repair, hormone regulation, and more. Protein-packed foods also help keep you satiated (full) longer than carbohydrates or fats. However, over the past several years, the price of meat has steadily increased. When it comes to how to create healthy meals on a budget, consider incorporating meatless meals into your weekly meal plan. There are many non-meat protein foods that can make a good low-cost swap for animal proteins, including:
- Organic eggs
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas)
- High-quality dairy products (cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, kefir)
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, pecans, etc.)
- Non-GMO soy products (e.g., edamame, tempeh, tofu)
3. COMPARE OPTIONS
Between e-commerce stores like Thrive Market and Brandless, to discounted organic produce, like Misfits Market, it’s always helpful to spend a few minutes comparing prices. You can also sign up for grocery store apps (like Sprouts) to see what’s on sale. By doing a bit of homework, you can stay within your budget. Another way to compare is by thinking about serving size! Last but not least, Budget Bytes has a ton of tips, tricks, and economical recipes.
4. BUY IN BULK
Buying foods in larger package sizes—“in bulk” (or family size)—is often the way to get the lowest unit price. If you haven’t checked the unit price when buying groceries, now is the time. You should see it listed near the item’s price. Let’s say one bag of rice costs $4.99 and the unit price is $0.50. A larger bag of rice might be $6.99, but its unit price is $0.27. In other words, the larger bag is the way to go. Ultimately, buying in bulk can be more economical. Reason being, it costs manufacturers less to sell the item in larger quantities. I love buying ingredients like nut butter, lentil-based pasta, olive oil, and organic meat at Costco. Some of the cheapest ingredients to buy in bulk are beans, rice, frozen vegetables, and bananas.
5. EMPHASIZE WHOLE FOODS
As a helpful rule, first shop the perimeter of the store. This will make you more likely to fill your cart with fruits, veggies, and protein. In other words, whole foods. While processed foods tend to be less expensive than most fresh foods, that is because the U.S. government subsidizes the producers of those main ingredients (i.e. corn and wheat). In turn, that helps keep crop prices low. However, processed foods and many packaged foods have added sweeteners and higher fat content, along with sodium and other preservatives. Whole foods, on the other hand, contain a vast array of nutrients—like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, that your body needs to function optimally.
6. SHOP THE FROZEN SECTION
Typically just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts, frozen fruits and veggies are less expensive and available year-round. Picked and packaged at their height of ripeness, freezing seals in nutrients (and flavor). With the shelf life being much longer, you can prolong the frozen fruit or veggie’s use. Frozen produce is usually sold in large bags, allowing you to use only what you need and keep the rest in your freezer. When it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables, buy what’s in season! There is more supply available, resulting in lower prices. Keep in mind that seasonal produce will vary by growing conditions and weather. Ask your grocer or check out your local farmers market.