Have you ever checked out at the supermarket and gasped at the bill? It doesn’t have to cost more to eat healthy. Even though fruits, veggies, and lean meats are generally stamped with a higher price tag, there are plenty of creative ways to eat delicious, nutritious foods without breaking the bank.
Healthy eating is important for both physical and mental health. The food you eat supplies many types of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins which deliver the energy your body needs, explains Madalyn Vasquez, registered dietitian at Summit Health. When we do not fill our plates with the right foods it can lead us to feel hungrier more often and increase our food cravings.
Ms. Vasquez’s philosophy is that all food fits. She advises patients that the healthiest diets are filled with variety. “Oftentimes there is misinformation in the media that we should cut certain foods out of our diet entirely,” she explains, “but what is most important is that we eat a balanced diet and do not miss the opportunity to have certain nutrients that our bodies need.”
With the proper preparation and planning you can eat a range of nutritious foods without digging deep into your pockets. Here are five tips Ms. Vasquez advises will help you plan healthy meals on a budget.
1. Stick with seasonal and shop local. Focus on foods that are in season. If you try to get strawberries and blueberries in the winter, you are going to feel it in your wallet. Think about the time of year and load your cart with fruits and veggies. In addition to costing less, seasonal produce also lasts longer.
Ms. Vasquez’s tip: Farmers’ markets are a great resource for seasonal produce and often more affordable than the grocery store.
2. Buy canned or frozen produce. “There is a misconception that everything needs to be fresh to be healthy,” explains Ms. Vasquez. “Many canned or frozen products have the same amount of nutrients as fresh foods.” Frozen spinach may be less tasty than a farm stand bundle of greens, but it has just as much fiber and vitamins. In fact, frozen vegetables, in particular, tend to preserve their nutrition because they are frozen very quickly after being harvested. Canned beans, salmon, and tuna are good sources of protein.
Ms. Vasquez’s tip: The key to selecting healthy canned or frozen produce is to read the label carefully. One of the downfalls of pre-packed fruits and veggies or canned tuna is that they are doused in unnecessary sauces or add. These juices or syrups contain added sugar and extra sodium. You want to aim to minimize the amount of added sugars and sodium. Read the label for low sodium options or fruits containing 100 percent fruit juice.
3. Plan ahead. Everyone needs a game plan when they shop for food. Make a list ahead of time and do not visit the supermarket on an empty stomach. “When we go to the grocery store without a plan of action, we have a tendency to pick up random things without thinking about what we should be buying or eating,” says Ms. Vasquez.
Ms. Vasquez’s tip: Plan out your meals for the week. Organize each plate by including a protein, starch, and veggie. This will help you eat healthier and reduce the amount of time and money you spend at the supermarket.
4. Sub in plant-based proteins. When we want protein on our plate we typically turn to meat. But there are many less expensive ways to meet our protein intake. Plant-based foods, which come primarily from plants, are both cost-effective and healthy. "Instead of buying meat for every meal, supplement now and then with a plant-based protein," says Ms. Vasquez. Examples can be beans or legumes. Dried beans and legumes are usually quite inexpensive and a great source of healthy calories.
Ms. Vasquez’s tip: Focusing on plant-based foods does not mean you have to be vegan or vegetarian. If you want to save some cash, simply alternate plant-based foods with meat and dairy a few times a week.
5. Buy non-perishable items. One of the best ways to be healthy on a budget is to utilize foods that last longer. Perishable foods like meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products spoil faster and are more difficult to reuse. Stock your pantry with non-perishable foods and fill your fridge with items that will stay fresh long enough to be used in several meals a week.
Ms. Vasquez’s tip: Keep household staples like beans, eggs, peanut butter, canned tuna, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, or rice in your fridge and pantry.
Bonus Tip: Avoid going to the grocery store when you are hungry because it can lead to impulse purchases of expensive and low nutrient dense foods.
Looking for a healthy, cost-friendly recipe? Check out this Mediterranean white bean soup that Ms. Vasquez has made and enjoyed several times.