There are as many different diet plans as there are people, it seems. Throughout my 29 (okay, fine, 42, whatever) years, I’ve seen the cabbage soup diet, the grapefruit diet, the change-your-plate-size diet, and many, many diets based on dubious supplement shakes.
I often see diets based on frozen foods shipped to the consumer. Some diets focus on eating as specific groups of people do/did — like the Mediterranean and Paleo diets. Some focus on ethical concerns. Vegans and vegetarians, for instance, often eat as they do because of the cruelty sometimes exposed in the meat industry (I don’t look, because I neeeeeeed meat).
Some, like myself, are forced to eat gluten free because of health issues like celiac disease. Diabetics are restricted on sugar and carbs. Food allergies and sensitivities restrict the diets of many Americans. I’ve been told by more than a few people that my celiac disease is a made-up disorder, and that it only exists in the US because of our lifestyle.
While I can assure you that celiac disease is all too real, I won’t argue that most Americans have awful dietary habits. We eat too much processed food, and we consume way too many packaged foods designed for convenience.
With an economy like ours, it’s no wonder. From what I see when I’m at the grocery store, it’s a whole lot cheaper to buy a box of Tuna Helper, a can of tuna, and a can of peas, than it is to buy fresh, wild-caught salmon with a salad of fresh arugula with organic heirloom tomatoes and quinoa salad, along with homemade vinaigrette made with Italian-grown, cold-pressed, highest-quality olives. I haven’t gone to the store and checked my numbers, but I’m making an educated guess that the difference between these two meals is something like $5 for the tuna meal and $40 for the salmon option.
If you’re not rolling in dough, this probably isn’t just a matter of priorities. When after bills, your grocery budget amounts to a few hundred dollars a month, healthy eating can look like a cruel joke.
Assuming you can’t afford a weekly trek to Sprouts, I’m sharing my best tips, as a yoga teacher (no income) and wife of a preacher (small income). I’m no nutritionist, so these tips are purely anecdotal and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. I assume you know that already, though, since you’re super brilliant and amazing.
Also, please note that I’m not advocating for any specific diet here, but I do come from a background of low-carbing.
Tips for Eating Better on a Budget:
- Frozen is better than canned. If you’re buying veggies, fresh is always best, duh, but sometimes those fresh veggies aren’t practical — not just because they can cost a ton, but because when they’re out of season, they can get even more expensive. You can feel better knowing that you helped save the planet by not having fresh veggies trucked in from a country where your veggies are in season.
- Skip the organic. Don’t kill me, organic-loving friends. But really, if I have to choose between not buying veggies at all and buying organic? Save it. I’ll buy the non-organic. I’m not a big believer in organic anyway, which makes me a pariah among the woo-woo granola crowd, but I survive. Somehow.
- Avoid boxed meals. I know it’s hard, but you can re-create that cheeseburger mac stuff with a cheap bag of macaroni noodles and some real cheddar cheese, plus a few spices.
- Buy generic! No, really! Who cares what brand it is? I don’t. I buy very, very few name-brand items. Consider name-brand stuff a splurge, and only buy it if you notice a marked difference in quality.
- Try new things. Ever notice how beloved avocados can be three for 99 cents one month, and in another month they’re $3.99? EACH? Yeah, me too. Those are the times when I skip avocados and try out turnips or something. For real, go with what’s in season. Kids complaining? Try introducing something new alongside something they love, or at least tolerate. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
- Meat has a “what’s in season,” too. I don’t know much about the meat industry because, well, I don’t want to know. Anyway, check out pork. It’s super cheap right now! Chicken thighs are cheaper than breasts and oh, so much tastier. Frozen salmon from Walmart is really not all that bad, and priced really well. And the grocery store usually puts things on sale right before they go bad. This is why i have a freezer.
- Substitute. Right now, my usual go-to cheap staple of ground beef is astronomically high, and I have been scrambling to find a replacement. Ground turkey is pretty good, or extend your beef by mixing ground beef and turkey together works nicely. Just remember, ground turkey is super lean, so you can get the fatter beef to make a good ground beef consistency.
- Shop the bag-it-yourself stores. Aldi is my favorite. They have lots of weird stuff, but they also have great deals on meat, veggies and dairy, which are pretty much all I buy. Just don’t forget your quarter for the cart rental, because they also save you money by not paying a cart dude. Take your bags, too, or you’ll have a bunch of random, weird-cut boxes to carry home your groceries.
- Asian markets or Latin mercados are great places to get super fun, experimental foods for cheap. Some staples are cheap in these stores, too. Plus, I find that my kids are more likely to try new things if the label is written in a foreign language.
- Get googling. There are so many “healthy food on a budget” recipe websites out there. Add a few to your arsenal. If your partner/kids are interested, let them help you pick new recipes. If they’re invested, they’re more likely to try something new.
- Make a plan. None of this is possible without a plan. What do you consider eating better? What do you consider an unhealthy food? Get in touch with a dietitian or find a good book on healthy eating, and go from there. And remember, healthy eating isn’t always about losing weight, but it often leads to it. So if you have kids who don’t need to lose weight, be sure to…
- Keep snacks for the rest of the family that you HATE. Seriously, don’t set yourself up for failure. If your favorite foods are Pringles and Chips A’hoy, don’t keep buying them “for the kids.” Instead, buy those nasty dill pickle chips they love (but you don’t), and get the cookies they like but you think smell like toothpaste.
- Change your budget. Yes, I have to add this one, because sometimes we put a certain monetary value on eating, and let me tell you — that is something that we can change. Do you smoke? Drink soda? Get coffee or gas station snack foods? Do you go out to eat a lot? Getting rid of some of those things can increase your monthly grocery budget enough to allow you to splurge on more healthy food!
If you’ve read through all this and think I’m irresponsible for suggesting non-organic veggies and Walmart salmon, your grocery budget is good enough. Keep on keeping on!
If you’ve read it and found a nugget or two that you hadn’t thought of, YAY! I’m so excited that I was able to help you out! If you have any other suggestions for eating healthier on a budget, please let me know. I’d love to hear them! In the mean time, sign up for my free New YOU REVolution workshop on New Year’s Day to learn how to keep eating healthy throughout the rest of the year!
Written by Jena Barber, who takes pride in her freezer and pantry full of non-organic, generic goodies.