While shopping for organic superfoods may cost more than your grocery budget allows, it’s still possible to load up on staples at an affordable price.
“Many clients I have worked with have the false notion that eating healthy requires expensive ingredients, all organic choices, and vegan-only recipes,” says Roger Adams, Ph.D., nutrition and weight loss expert and founder of Eat Right Fitness. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. “Healthy and budget-friendly ingredients don’t have to be expensive and recipes don’t have to be detailed or complicated,” he explains.
So if you’re ready to take your nutrition to the next-level without seeing a major dip in your bank account, follow these expert-approved strategies for eating healthy on a budget.
First things first: Before you head out to the grocery store, take a good look at what’s in your fridge. This ensures you don’t buy something you already have and that good food doesn’t go to waste.
“If you can’t find that box of quinoa when you want to cook it or if that wild salmon fillet gets pushed to the back of the fridge without being cooked, it’s all wasted money,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., nutrition expert and author of Eating in Color.
For this reason, she recommends going through your fridge weekly and your pantry monthly. “Throw out or compost what’s gone bad and move the items that need to be used up to the front, where you can see them.”
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One aisle you’ll certainly want to familiarize yourself with is the frozen food section. As Largeman-Roth puts it, the freezer is your friend.
Fun fact: Frozen fruits and vegetables are actually just as nutritious as fresh ones, according to a study in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.
“Frozen food, especially produce, is awesome because it’s picked at the peak of ripeness and the process locks in nutrients,” she says. “Fresh produce that gets shipped cross country and then sits in the produce aisle for a few days can lose nutrients by the time you get around to cooking it.”
Frozen foods also come in handy if you’re cooking for just yourself, or if you just don’t have the need to prep the entire bag of broccoli at once. You can just use what you’re going to eat and pop the rest back in the freezer. Most frozen fruits and vegetables can last up to eight months in the freezer, and certain meats, like chicken or turkey, can last up to one year in the freezer.
“Frozen also helps to cut down on prep time and food waste—if you just want broccoli florets, you don’t have to deal with cutting up the whole head of broccoli and figuring out what to do with the stems,” Largeman-Roth adds.
Instead of reaching for pre-sliced chicken breast that’s ready to cook, consider opting for cheaper cuts that may require a bit more work on your end.
For instance, Adams suggests roasting your own whole chicken. “Whole chickens are usually very budget-friendly and relatively easy to cook,” he says. “Find a simple recipe online for roasted chicken and you will have a tasty meal at a fraction of the cost.”
If you’d rather not go the whole-chicken route, you can instead choose to buy skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts, which are typically less pricey than the skinless, boneless kind.
“By cooking the chicken with the bone in and skin on, you will actually discover it’s less dry and has more flavor without adding significant calories during the cooking process,” says Adams.
The best things to buy from these retailers are frozen proteins, which tend to be the largest expense on most people’s grocery bill. “This allows you to buy a larger family pack, freeze what you don’t immediately need, and save money on a bulk purchase,” says Adams.
You can also cook in bulk and freeze your meals. Erin Palinkski-Wade, R.D.N. and author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies, suggests buying food in large qualities, batch-cook meals—like soups and stews—and freeze portions for another day. “Not only does this help with meal prep and save you time in the kitchen, but it can keep costs down,” she adds.
Canned foods such as black beans, whole-kernel corn, tomato products, tuna, and chicken are staples to a healthy diet, since they contain fiber, protein, and other key vitamins and nutrients. Plus, they have a long shelf life, says Adams.
Adams recommends stocking up on these types of foods on each grocery-store run so that you always have more than enough in your pantry. “This way you can easily add quality nutrients to your meals at a fraction of the cost and effort instead of having to fix them fresh,” he says.
If you’re a frequent gym goer, beef, chicken, and fish probably tops your grocery list. After all, you need to get your protein fix if you want to build and maintain lean muscle.
But don’t completely rule out plant-based proteins. Not only are they more affordable than animal proteins, but adding more plants into your diet can be an easy way to improve your body weight and cardiovascular health, says Palinkski-Wade. With fewer calories per ounce, plant-based proteins are also a good source of fiber, which will help you feel full longer.
So find a balance if you’re on a budget. You don’t need to cut out meat completely, but you can occasionally swap out half of your chicken or fish for a serving or beans or lentils for a fiber boost, says Palinski-Wade.
Tomatoes might be your favorite fruit (yes, it’s a fruit!), but unless you live in a warm climate, they won’t be in season during the fall, winter and spring. Additionally, they’ll be more expensive during the out-of-season months since they have to be imported from far-away destinations.
For this reason, Eliza Savage, R.D., in New York City, suggests trying to eat with the seasons and shopping locally. To get a feel for which foods are in season, try checking with your local farmer’s market whenever possible.
“Eating with the seasons can also open opportunities for trying new vegetables and fruits,” she says.
Reach for tomatoes and berries in the summer, beets and apples in the fall, kale and pomegranates in the winter, and artichokes and rhubarb in the spring. (For delicious ways to turn those foods into healthy meals, check out the Metashred Diet from Men’s Health. It’s packed with recipes that will help you reach your fitness goals.)
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While it’s tempting to reach for the latest and greatest energy bars, kale chips, and pickled what-have-you, try to resist the impulse to purchase groceries you don’t truly need. Falling into this trap will cause you to spend more than you budgeted for and leads you to purchase foods that aren’t necessary for a balanced meal.
That’s why Largeman-Roth recommends creating a weekly meal plan. “Figure out which evenings you have time to cook and which nights you’ll be out, then plan around that,” she says. “You might just need to plan three meals a week, making a bit extra if you want leftovers for lunch, then choose your recipes and shop for those.”
You should also account for healthy snacks and staple ingredients, like nuts, cheese, and milk. This way you don’t just have random items in your fridge, but everything you need to eat healthy throughout your day.