Eating Healthy on the Cheap

I wouldn’t say I’m exactly a pro at either eating well or living within my means, but I have been keeping a close eye on what goes in my body and leaves my bank account for a while now, so I figured I’d pass along some tips for trying to build and maintain healthy habits without breaking the bank.

I firmly believe that adhering to a diet of mostly healthy foods with a few delicious exceptions thrown in is the single best thing you can do for your life. The old saying is true. You really are what you eat. So, you should probably eat wonderful things.

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Making the transition to a healthier lifestyle isn’t easy though. There’s lot of hurdles to overcome. One of the biggest misconceptions about healthy eating is that it has to be expensive. Often people who are trying to eat better make the mistake of heading to Whole Foods and loading up on everything within sight so long as it’s labeled “Organic.” Then, they get to check out and find they’ve spent an entire paycheck on groceries for a week. It doesn’t have to be like this though. Good for your foods do not have to be expensive, and on the flip side, pricey organic foods are not always good for you. Do you know how many brands of organic cookies* Whole Foods sells?

The important thing is to pick foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. That means picking fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean meats and milk products with limited processing. When buying processed food, like bread or cereal, be conscious of the labels. Go for foods with fewer ingredients and ingredients you can actually pronounce when possible. It sounds too basic to be true, but it’s really that simple.

That being said, here are some of my favorite tips for stocking up on healthy faves and saving money:

  1. For fruits and veggies, buying organic can add up really fast. If you’re watching your budget but want to stay healthy try and stick to organic for the Dirty Dozen and don’t sweat the other stuff.
  2. Go frozen. Fresh fruits and veggies are really tricky because they’re not always cheap and they don’t always last. The good news is, there is absolutely nothing wrong (and a lot of things right) about buying frozen. Frozen fruits and veggies are picked and frozen at their peak ripeness which makes them often more nutritionally sound than their fresh cousins. They’re usually cheaper, and they last a lot longer (like 3-6 months longer). Frozen fruits are great as is in smoothies or tasty defrosted and mixed in cereal or oatmeal, and steamed frozen veggies are easy and nutritious side dish (or main course!) when you’re in a pinch.
  3. For meat, I won’t suggest that you try going vegetarian or vegan. That’s a decision that’s up to each individual to make. I will suggest you consider going veg one day a week or even a few meals a day. Lots of people follow Meatless Monday or Vegetarian Before Dinner. You’ll probably be surprised at how much you don’t miss meat or how many great non-meat protein sources their are out there (mmm hummus, kidney beans and almond butter). For me, eliminating red meat and pork from my diet ended up saving me a lot at the grocery store, but that’s a personal choice and there’s nothing unhealthy about eating lean red meat and pork in appropriate quantities.
  4. For whole grains, buy in bulk when possible. Packaging makes up a large portion of the mark up cost in supermarkets, so if your grocery store allows (most Whole Foods do) buy your grains in bulk. There are plenty of references online for how to cook these grains, so store them in airtight containers and save a few bucks.
  5. Do the processing yourself. Following the above tip, food manufacturers will always charge more for more work being done on their end, so cut out the middle man! Buy foods you use often (like yogurt) in bulk and break them into smaller portions yourself. Snack packs are wildly over priced, and all that packaging isn’t easy on the environment. Follow this rule for fruits and veggies too. The pre-cut, pre-packaged stuff is easier, but it’s also pricier and may not last as long. Save a buck and do the work yourself.
  6. Make your own. In addition to being expensive and hard on the environment, pre-consumer processing introduces ingredients into your foods that you may not be comfortable with. By making your own foods as often as possible, you get to control the ingredients and quality. Some great examples of things you could save money on by making your own are salad dressings, soups, breads, nut butters, hummus, and baked goods. For some of these (like cookies) the initial investment (flour sugar, salt, baking soda, eggs, vanilla) may be pricier than the pre-made variety, but you’ll yield a lot more bang for your buck.
  7. Buy local. Check out any farmer’s markets in your area. Their produce is usually fresher (because it’s had to travel less) and cheaper (because there are no transportation, packaging or marketing costs) than in the supermarket, and you’re supporting your local economy.
  8. Watch for sales and stock up. Check the internet, check your circulars and make sure to get the store card of any grocery store you frequent. There are always great deals to be found. I never buy a product just because it’s on sale, but I do keep my eyes out for sales of things I love and use frequently that have a good shelf life like chicken/veggie stocks, canned goods, frozen goods and dried beans or grains.
  9. Be prepared and willing to shop around. I almost never go to less than two stores when doing my weekly shopping. When I’m new to an area, I do some research to see who has the cheapest milk or the best produce, and I shop accordingly. It takes a bit more time, but the savings make up the difference. I’ve also learned to shop everywhere. I am an exercise in contradiction as my two favorite places to shop are farmer’s markets and Walmart. I know a lot of people have a lot of opinions about Walmart, but for me, eating healthy, delicious, gluten free foods without the big W would be almost prohibitively expensive, so I shop there too. They have a big organic produce section. They carry soy, rice and almond milk, and they are hands down the most affordable option I’ve found for buying gluten free. You have to find what works for you, but just know that there are stores other than Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods when you’re looking to eat healthy.
  10. Do some planning. Eating well on a budget means planning. Don’t worry though; it’s not so bad. Once a week, Chris and I sit down and scope out our week. We decide if or when we’re going out, and we plan dinners for the other nights. I post these plans weekly. I get recipe ideas from magazines, pinterest and food blogs. Based on my plan, I make a list of what I need. I never go to the store without a list. That’s just asking for trouble. I set aside some time when I get home to wash all my fruits and veggies, do some chopping and freeze stuff I won’t be eating right away. When I know I’ve got a busy week, I’ll even make and freeze something big and hardy like soups, stews or chili to be defrosted throughout the week for quick and easy (and cheap!) dinners.

Bonus tip! For some cardio, while you’re doing all this planning and shopping, park farther from the entrance to the store than you’d like and make multiple trips up and down the stairs with all those groceries.

I believe very strongly in eating good, whole, delicious foods. It’s something I’d never compromise on, but I’m also a 24 year old living in an expensive area of the country, so my budget matters to me. It takes a bit of work, but it’s nice to know I can eat what I love and afford to live at the same time.

*Edited by Chris to add:  Kate’s lying if she says she never visits the cookie aisle as my most frequent contribution to our shopping trips is along the lines of “Should I get the Stella Dora Swiss Fudge cookies or a box of pop tarts?” and “You know what, let’s just get both.” Better safe than sorry.

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