How to Cook and Eat Healthy Meals on a Budget and Serve Nutritious Foods for Less Money
It’s true that you are what you eat, and eating unhealthy food eventually makes you … well unhealthy, there’s no doubt about it.
Added sugar, preservatives, processing chemicals, and other unnatural ingredients in processed foods are causing health problems of epidemic proportions, from heart disease and type-2 diabetes to obesity.
Thanks to our very convincing television commercials, we’re under the incorrect assumption that it’s a bad thing if a meal takes more than 10 minutes to cook or requires more preparation than opening a box.
We’re were being conditioned to believe that making food is a tiresome chore that should be gotten over and done with as quickly and painlessly as possible. As a result, we buy Lunchables for our kids, we reconstitute instant mashed potato flakes, and we whip up our oatmeal in the microwave from a packet of flavored instant oats. But thank goodness all that is changing!
In the name of convenience and under the assumption of value, we have somehow lost our way when it comes to preparing nutritious meals at home from scratch. Many of us don’t even try, believing that whole, healthy food is way out of our price range, and this is partly due to the advent of popular and pricey organic products and marketing-driven, over-priced health food outlets.
The good news is that cooking healthy meals is not only easy to do if you approach it the right way, but surprisingly, it can also be considerably cheaper than eating mass-produced, processed food.
The Grocery Budget
Food is the second highest household expense for most of us, right after the rent or mortgage. How much you budget for groceries depends on factors like your household size, your geographic location, dietary restrictions, and income. Generally speaking, $15 per person per week is a very low grocery budget, while $20 per person per week is considered a fairly reasonable amount.
The average household spends about $30 per person per week. To come up with a workable grocery budget, take a look at your current spending compared to your ideal amount. Find a happy medium that’s frugal without being unreasonable.
Once you have your budget, use these tips to stretch those dollars, and after a couple of months, revisit your budget and adjust it, either one way or the other.
Learn How to Make Healthy Low Cost Soups & Stews
This is a great way to save money that we can learn from past generations. Stews are a great way to stretch a family budget by using more fresh vegetables and smaller pieces of meat. Chili is also a great option for a meal that is not only nutritious but can be made with very little effort and less cash out of your pocket.
Pull out Your CrockPot
Use your crockpot more often and you will see significant savings on your grocery bill. Crockpots are great for those less expensive cuts of meats that cook up tender and juicy by slow clooking all day. By using a larger crockpot, you can cook double the amount of your recipe and freeze half for later use. There are millions of delicious ways to make healthy family meals using a crockpot.
Avoid Processed & Packaged Foods
Processed and packaged foods are much less healthy than whole foods you prepare yourself at home, and they tend to be more expensive ounce for ounce than whole foods. By swapping out your usual processed foods for healthier choices, you’ll spend less money and enjoy better health.
Drink water instead of soda and sugary fruit juice, both of which are high in sugar and low in nutrients. Avoid bottled water, and instead invest in a filter that hooks on to your tap. This can result in huge savings if you rely on bottled water, not to mention it’s good news for the environment!
Learn how to flavor your water with natural ingredients that not only tastes great but is so much better for your health. See why water is important –
Give up your breakfast cereal habit and opt instead for eggs, whole grain toast, or oatmeal. Packaged cereals are expensive and full of sugar, with surprisingly few exceptions, while eggs provide protein, and whole grains promote heart and digestive health.
Make your food from scratch. Almost anything that you can buy already processed can be made from scratch for a lot less money ounce for ounce, from macaroni & cheese and mashed potatoes to pizza and pasta sauce.
Make this Low Cost and Super-Delicious Ground Beef Broccoli and Peanut Sauce Recipe
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans toss out 35 percent of the food they purchase! How many times have you cleaned out the fridge and found mold growing on the leftovers you forgot to eat three weeks ago, or stumbled upon a plastic bag of green slime that was once a fresh head of lettuce?
Wasted food is wasted money, and it’s also a waste of natural resources.
Take that extra time to clean out the fridge and organize the cupboards before you go grocery shopping each week to take stock of what you have on hand, make room for incoming groceries, and make a note of what needs to be used before it expires.
Choose frozen vegetables over fresh and canned when it makes sense. Frozen vegetables have more nutrients than canned varieties, and none of the additives like preservatives and sodium. Frozen veggies are nutritionally very close to fresh vegetables, and they’re typically less expensive. They won’t wilt or rot, and they usually take less time to prepare.
Buy only enough perishable produce for the week, and try to use it up before it goes south. Take leftovers for lunch to save money on dining out, or freeze them for a quick meal on a busy day. If you are making healthy meals it only makes sense that the leftovers are going to be a very healthy lunch option! Read more on how to waste less food.
Produce Your Own Staples
If you have the time and the wherewithal, consider producing your own food. There’s nothing quite as delicious as sustenance that you grew, raised, or created yourself from scratch, and it’s a great way to really get to know your food and save a lot of money in the process.
Invest in a bread machine and bake your own loaves. You’ll avoid the preservatives and refined ingredients found in pre-made bread, your house will smell lovely, and you’ll never have to buy another overpriced loaf of bread again. You can spend a Saturday baking bread for the week, or a weekend baking and freezing loaves for the month.
Grow even a small garden and enjoy fresh produce all summer long. Can or freeze vegetables and vegetable-based stocks, soups, and sauces to use during the winter.
If you have the space and the desire, raise a couple of hens in the back yard for fresh eggs every day. Believe it or not this has become a passion for many people.
Make your own condiments like mayo, ketchup and salad dressing to save money and avoid the expense and the large amounts of added sugar and chemicals that go into processing most store-bought varieties.
Cook your Rice, Potatoes and Noodles in Bulk
Nothing is worse than having plenty of healthy foods in your pantry but no time to cook. We all go through this and yes, it’s frustrating. Learn to cook your carbs in bulk so that you have enough for a couple of meals. Brown rice keeps nicely so double or triple the amount you make and store the rest for another day. Steam your potatoes for one night’s meal, saving the leftovers for a delicious hash brown potatoes and scrambled egg dinner a few nights later. Noodles are great to reheat and serve in another tasty dish. Just pop them in some boiling water and they are as good as new.
Don’t Let the Store Fool You
Grocery stores have ways of tricking you into buying the most expensive items and those you don’t really need. Choose one grocery store, ideally a discount store, and stick with it so that you learn the lay of the land. When you make your grocery list, group items together by where they’re located, and head to those sections with blinders on. Staples like produce, dairy, and meat are usually located in the back of the store and around its perimeter so that to get to them, you have to walk past all of the end cap sales and be tempted to buy things you don’t really need.
Look on higher and lower shelves for the store or generic brands of staples like peanut butter, oil, coffee, flour, and sugar. Name brands pay a premium to be placed at eye level, where they’re more visible, tempting, and easy to access.
Keep those blinders on while you’re at the checkout stand, which is rife with last minute, impulsive purchases like batteries, candy, lip balm and other things you really don’t need.
Leave the kids at home. Candy, sugary cereal, and other treats are deviously placed at children’s eye level in the hopes that the little ones will beg and you’ll give in to avoid a scene.
While grocery stores optimize their layout and employ tactics to entice you into purchases that will make them the most profit, they also provide a number of ways for a savvy shopper to save money.
- Check the unit price. Most grocery stores have tags on the shelves below every item that tell you the unit price, ounce for ounce, of each brand to help you comparison shop more effectively without having to remember your basic algebraic equations.
- Enroll in your store’s loyalty card program, which offers discounts to cardholders or lets you redeem points for free groceries.
- Stock up on staples when they go on sale, especially high-priced items like meat, olive oil, and coffee.
- Buy sliced meats and cheeses in the deli, where they’re usually cheaper than the packaged varieties and are often of higher quality with fewer additives.
- Buy in bulk whenever possible. If your usual store doesn’t have a bulk bin, find one that does, and make a monthly trip to stock up on staples like spices, dry beans, rice, pasta, grains, nuts, and flour. Invest in high-quality, airtight containers for storing these items to keep them fresher longer.
- Buy only your food at the grocery store. Save the paper goods and toiletries for the supper stores that give a great value when buying in bulk.
- Don’t be tempted to go organic for all of your produce. Take a look at The Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” and “clean 15” lists, which indicate the worst produce for pesticides and those that are perfectly safe when traditionally grown. Apples, grapes, and leafy greens top the “dirty dozen” list, while avocados, sweet corn, and pineapples are the cleanest non-organic choices.
Buy From the Source
Depending on where you live, you can vastly improve your diet and help protect natural resources by getting your meat, dairy, and produce straight from the farm or ranch.
Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, is steadily growing in popularity in the U.S. This great organization matches local farmers with residents who want fresh, seasonal, and organically grown produce. The price to join a CSA program is typically much lower than the cost of a season’s worth of store-bought produce, and you’ll have locally-grown fruits and vegetables delivered weekly, either to your door or a pickup site.
Look for ranchers in your area who offer a half side of beef or a half hog, and go straight to the source. The cost is comparable to buying meat in the store, perhaps a little more or a little less, depending on what type of meat you usually buy. The quality of the meat, the peace of mind, and the health benefits are worth a little extra money if it works out that way. This option lets you know exactly how your meat was produced. It’s always best to choose humanely raised, grass-fed meat from sustainable ranching operations that don’t use antibiotics and hormones.
Dairy farmers who sustainably and humanely raise their animals often have retail stores where you can purchase wholesome dairy products and eggs. Find a dairy whose grass-fed animals are raised without hormones, antibiotics, and other chemicals.
The cost is about the same as or a little less than the price of factory-produced dairy products, and the health benefits far outweigh the extra trip.
Seek out backyard mini-farmers that raise their own chickens. These actually produce the best eggs at a tremendous savings. You can find them at your local farmers market or just ask around.
Plan Your Weekly Meals!
Planning weekly meals can save you more money at the grocery store than clipping coupons! Making your weekly menu in your head while you’re at the store is a fail safe recipe for a huge grocery bill. Another surefire way to spend more at the store is to stop by on your way home from work to pick up what you need for dinner. You’re tired, you’re hungry, you’re in a hurry, and you end up buying things you may already have on hand, as well as impulsive items you don’t really need. Or you scratch the idea entirely and head for the nearest drive-through window.
Over the weekend, take some relaxed time to plan your menu for the week and make a list of the ingredients you need. If planning menus and making lists are your least favorite chores, consider subscribing to our service that provides you with weekly menus and a detailed shopping list and takes into consideration how you can incorporate leftovers and extra quantities of ingredients into other meals.
A recent New York Times article detailed how our type of service can save time and money, reduce waste, improve health, and simplify dinnertime for busy families.
The Bottom Line
Although shopping wisely is a large part of feeding your family nutritious, home-cooked meals without breaking the bank, it’s not the only factor to consider. Careful meal planning, reducing waste, producing your own food, and going directly to the source whenever possible are just a few of the ways you can slash your grocery bill by as much as half over the course of a year while improving your health and feeding your family delicious, healthy food.