Strategies for Eating Well on a Budget

three prepared meals of rice, lentils, tomatoes, olives, corn and other vegetables

An all-too-common mantra says, “It’s too expensive to eat healthy.” It’s true that when comparing specific foods like organic fruits with conventional fruits, the former tends to be a few dollars more per pound. And when a shopping cart filled with fresh produce, poultry, and fish is compared with one loaded with boxes of macaroni and cheese, ground hamburger meat, and cookies, the latter will likely ring lower at the cash register.

Certainly, policy improvements and other actions are needed to create a food environment where the healthy choice is the easy and accessible choice. In the meantime, know that creating nutritious meals can be more affordable than one might think. In fact, one meta-analysis looking at the price difference between healthful and less healthful dietary patterns found that diets with healthier foods only cost a bit more—about $1.48 per day. [1]

A note on food affordability and resources that can help

If you (or someone you know) are struggling to afford enough food to keep yourself or your family healthy, there are several options to help. In the U.S. the federal government offers food assistance programs for citizens and legal noncitizens whose income meets certain guidelines and/or who have certain nutritional needs. Additionally, there is a wide network of food pantries nationwide that provide access to some foods and beverages. Several of the federal programs have expanded the types of support they provide given the extra challenges that many are facing during unprecedented levels of unemployment during COVID-19.
Learn more about navigating these resources

From the supermarket to the kitchen, here are some strategies to get the biggest nutrition bang for your buck.

Tips for Supermarket Savings

photo of a supermarket aisle with sale signs over the produce section filled with applesSupermarket savings isn’t just about finding the cheapest sale items. It also means preventing impulse purchases that are caused by enticing food advertising or shopping on an empty stomach (that makes everything look delicious!). Food waste is another money drain when food spoils before it is prepared or eaten and is thrown out. Consider the following tips before heading to the market:

  1. Plan out a few meals you want to prepare the next week and create your shopping list based on these ingredients.
  2. Consider meatless meals. Plant-based proteins are highly nutritious and generally more affordable than meats and fish. If you still crave meat, incorporate smaller amounts as a base for flavor or as a condiment, while focusing on plant proteins like beans or tofu so that you can save on cost, increase volume of the meal, and boost nutrition and heartiness.
  3. Purchase foods and snacks that are satiating and filling. How easy is it to eat a half a package of chips in one sitting? In contrast, how many handfuls of nuts or apples can you eat at one time? Even though a 3-pound bag of apples may cost $4.00 versus $2.50 for a large bag of chips, consider which will satisfy your hunger longer. One study found that unsatiating foods leave people wanting to eat more often, which may translate into greater food costs. [2]
  4. Don’t shop on an empty stomach. Munch on a piece of fruit or some nuts before entering the store.
  5. Allow for flexibility in your shopping list if items like fresh produce or poultry and fish are on sale. If they are foods you enjoy, you might purchase extra quantities and freeze them for later use. Fresh meats, fish, and some produce (bananas, berries, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, corn) freeze well.
  6. Consider purchasing nonperishable staple foods in bulk. Even though it may cost more upfront to buy a “family-sized” package products like whole grains, lentils, and dried beans, the cost per unit is usually cheaper. To determine this, you will need to calculate the price per unit:
    • Find the common unit of measurement when comparing two products. For example, a bag of brown rice may be in pounds.
    • Divide the price of the rice by the total pounds, which is the price per unit. Example: Rice A costs $1.59 for a 1-pound bag ($1.59 per pound), whereas Rice B costs $3.99 for a 5-pound bag (about $0.80 per pound). Rice B is cheaper.
  7. Buy generic or store-brand: you will notice when comparing the ingredients list that similar if not identical ingredients are used. The generic brand is generally cheaper because less money is spent on advertising and creating fancy food labels.
  8. Scan the discounted produce cart that usually sits in a corner; this is filled with produce starting to age but which are still tasty if you can eat them the same day or the next day.
  9. Don’t buy more highly perishable items than you can use in one week (unless you plan to freeze them), or else you run the risk of food spoilage and waste. Learn how to store produce correctly for a longer shelf life, and be aware of highly perishable foods such as ready-to-eat bagged salad greens, mushrooms, berries, avocados, and bananas.
  10. green onions sitting in a jar of water to regrowStretch your fresh herbs, spices, and alliums. These are key ingredients for building flavorful meals, and while alliums like onions and garlic have a longer shelf life, bagged herbs in the supermarket are particularly perishable. Unless a recipe calls for a whole package (e.g. a bunch of basil for pesto), you’ll be left with extra sprigs. Careful storage can help extend the shelf life (e.g. cilantro in a cup of water covered with a bag), but if you don’t plan on using within one week, consider other ways to extend their utility. One idea is to chop and freeze herbs in an ice cube tray filled with olive oil—ready to be popped in a pan to sauté vegetables.
    • Another flavor-builder that can handle the freezer is ginger: store in an airtight bag and when ready to use, peel and grate as much as you like (no need to thaw), returning the remainder to the freezer.
    • If you enjoy fresh scallions (green onions), you can easily regrow them on a sunny windowsill. Place the white root ends in a glass of water (changing out the water about once per week). Once the green ends have regrown, snip what you need and let the rest keep growing.
  11. Use what you have before buying more. Commit to taking inventory of all the food in your kitchen twice a month. Bring forward the buried items and plan meals based on these ingredients.
  12. Eat attentively. Practicing mindfulness during meals can increase enjoyment of the food. You may even be satisfied with smaller portions. Conversely, eating while distracted can lead to feeling hungry again sooner and a higher intake of food later on. [3,4]

Nutritious and Inexpensive Staples

chopped up peppers and cucumbers along with canned vegetables A combination of fresh and processed foods can make up a healthful shopping list. Processed foods have their pros and cons but they shouldn’t be entirely labeled as unhealthy, since the degree of processing and type of processing affects nutrient content. For example, thanks to processing methods like freezing and canning, we can fill our freezers and stock our pantries with healthy staples like frozen fruits and vegetables, tinned fish, and canned beans. That said, when choosing canned or frozen foods, select options that do not include extra sodium, sugar, or other additives.

Here are some foods that are economical year-round and offer a wide range of nutrients including protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals:

Getting Into the Kitchen 

With these staples in your culinary arsenal, you’re ready to get started on any number of meals. Here are a few ideas:

Veggie burgers

Drain one can black beans and place into a large bowl. Mash the beans with a fork and add in 1 medium cooked sweet potato, ½ cup old-fashioned rolled oats, 1 small diced carrot, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix all ingredients together with a spoon or your hands. Refrigerate for 20 minutes and shape into patties. Add 2 tablespoons oil into a pan and heat on medium-high. When oil is warm, add patties and cook on each side for about 3 minutes. Eat the patties over a bed of greens or assemble on a whole grain bun with your favorite toppings.

Homemade chicken nuggets

Preheat oven to 375 F. Place 1 cup nonfat plain yogurt in a bowl. Place 3 cups crushed plain cornflakes* into another bowl. Cut 1 pound of boneless skinless chicken breast or thighs into 2-inch pieces. Dip each chicken piece into the yogurt and then dredge in cornflakes. Place onto baking sheet and repeat with all chicken pieces. Bake for about 25 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

*May add to the crushed cornflakes 1-2 teaspoons of any herbs and spices; examples are thyme, parsley, onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper.

Three-bean chili

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil on medium-high heat in a large pot. Add 1 large diced onion, 1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder, and 3 tablespoons chili powder and cook until onions soften. Add one 15-ounce can each of drained rinsed black beans, kidney beans, and pinto beans; one 28-ounce can diced tomatoes with the juice; and 2 cups water or low-sodium broth. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Cover pot and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve plain or over cooked brown rice.

Looking for more recipes? Explore our full bank of recipes for cooking at home, or check out these delicious chef-designed dishes from The Culinary Institute of America.* While local costs may vary, all recipes were budgeted to cost $2 or less per serving:

*Recipes courtesy of The Culinary Institute of America, developed for Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives (HKHL), a collaboration between the Harvard Chan School’s Department of Nutrition and The Culinary Institute of America. Most of these recipes align with HKHL Recipe Nutrition Goals (2020).

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