6 Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget

Author: Laura Winikka, Medical Student.  Editor: M. Chawla, MD

The idea that healthy eating is expensive is a common misconception. The truth is that we do not actually need to buy those fancy supplements, cook grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish, and shop only at health food stores or the local farmers market. A plant-based diet is based on food staples like whole grains, beans and lentils, vegetables, and fruits, which you can find fresh, frozen, dry, or canned, at pretty much any grocery store near you. Evidence shows that these are the foods that prevent disease. The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine describes how plant-based diets can prevent and, in some cases, reverse heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, as well as promote weight loss and brain health. Luckily, these foods are inexpensive and take fewer resources to produce.

Here are some tips for how to purchase plant-based groceries on a budget, and how to make them into healthful, disease-preventing meals.

1. Buying Cans: Canned foods are not always thought of as being healthy; we often picture canned soup that is high in sodium. In reality, you can buy various canned whole foods like beans, corn, and green beans, often for less than a dollar. As an example, Walmart has store-brand no salt-added black beans for $0.92. We recommend choosing cans that say “low sodium”, and rinsing and draining canned food before preparing. Buying canned food can also save money because they will stay good in the pantry for years. You won’t end up with any wasted food if you don’t eat what you’ve bought within a few days.

2. Buying in Bulk: Buying dry rice, beans, and lentils and cooking them at home is also a great way to eat plant-based on a budget. Boiling these foods on the stove or in a pressure cooker can take some time, so it is easier to cook enough for several meals at a time and leave leftovers in the fridge to eat during the week. You can find these in bags of various sizes, often in the “rice and beans” or “international food” aisle at the store, or in the bulk sections at stores where you can pay by weight. You often can get more for your money when you buy groceries in larger quantities. For dry grains and beans, these can stay in the pantry for years, so you might as well buy a bigger bag for less money per ounce. For vegetables like onions, potatoes, and sometimes tomatoes and garlic, buying the larger bags in the produce section can make sense especially if you are feeding a family. These foods may only last closer to 1-2 weeks. Some items you could try include:

– Brown rice is very versatile and pairs great with beans or lentils, which you can also buy in bulk. For dinner for 5 or your lunches for the week, you can buy one small bag of rice ($0.78 at Walmart and similar at other stores) and of the bean of your choice for around 2 dollars total.
– Sweet potatoes can be purchased in a large bag or on their own for about 1 dollar per large potato. They are tasty, filling, and nutritious! You can easily steam them in the microwave for a quick meal. They also are great chopped and roasted or cooked on the stove.
– Oats: In the cereal aisle, you can find large tubs of rolled oats for 2-3 dollars to make breakfasts or to bake with. These are a great option because unlike instant oatmeal packets, they do not have added sugar.
– Onions and garlic can also be purchased in a bag of 5 or 6. If you have time to chop them, these vegetables can add so much flavor and bring your cooking to the next level. They also have lots of nutrients and can be a great replacement for cooking with butter and salt.

3. Buying frozen food: Frozen food is another group that gets a bad reputation. It is definitely true that you can buy frozen meals, desserts, and snacks whose ingredients do not support health and longevity. However, you can also find fruits and vegetables in the same aisle that have been frozen at the peak of their freshness. For both frozen and canned foods, take a look at the ingredients on the nutrition label before purchasing. Some of these products may have sugar, syrup, butter, or other ingredients added to them, but any grocery store should also have the produce with nothing added. Some items to try include:

– Frozen berries are typically less expensive than fresh berries, and they stay good in your freezer for months. They are great for smoothies, oatmeal or cereal toppings, baking, and more.
– Frozen peas can be bought in large bags for 2-3 dollars. You can steam them, sauté them on the stove with rice, add to pasta, and more.
– Frozen broccoli, cauliflower, or vegetable mixes are easy to steam or sauté and add to any meal.

4. Know when to buy organic: It is true that it is generally better to buy organic foods, but these can also be more expensive and harder to find. The Dirty Dozen lists foods that are typically grown with more pesticides than others. You can use this list to prioritize which foods to buy organic if you have the budget for it. Foods to buy organic include spinach, apples, strawberries, and tomatoes.

5. Use seasonings for extra flavor! With the right spices, you can make delicious food out of your whole grain, bean, and vegetable staples. You can even use seasonings on salad with a little balsamic vinegar instead of trying to find a healthy salad dressing. Buying spices in larger containers can save money in the long run, especially if there are spices that you know you will use all the time, like garlic, black pepper, or your favorite seasoning mix. If you go to a grocery store with a bulk section, you can also get smaller amounts of any spice for a lot less. This is especially helpful if you are trying a new recipe that calls for something that you do not use regularly.

6. Make your groceries into meals: There are thousands of ways to make tasty meals out of plant-based foods. You can find recipes for whole food plant-based versions of all your favorite foods on online websites like Forks over Knives. When you’re not looking to spend a lot of time preparing meals and getting creative in the kitchen, making a “power bowl” is an easy way to make a meal out of your plant-based staples. Layer some whole grains like brown rice, beans or lentils, potato, and cooked or raw vegetables in any combination you like. For extra flavor, add some seasoning, onion, and garlic, or sauces like hummus, hot sauce, or salsa. You can even mix it up by layering it in a tortilla for a burrito, using vegetable broth to make soup, or making a breakfast version with oats, fruit, nuts and seeds, or cinnamon.

For more meal and shopping ideas, check out this blog on Forks over Knives about how one woman planned meals for 10 days on a budget of 5 dollars a day. For more tips and to learn more about how to balance your budget between produce and pantry staples like grains and beans, check out this article from the T. Colin

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