Many people are struggling financially and with the rising food costs, it makes it incredibly difficult to eat healthfully. Unfortunately, our current food environment is one of the biggest reasons why people have excess weight and cardiometabolic related health issues.
Common Problems when Eating on a Budget
Most people eat a diet full of ultra-refined and processed foods, especially when they’re on a budget. We have an abundance of these foods, and they are readily available everywhere you go. They taste good, are easy to fix, fast and tend to be cheaper.
These foods can cause a lot of issues, including increasing systemic inflammation and affecting our hormones negatively, which can lead to weight gain, increased visceral fat deposits, constant hunger, overeating, strong cravings, increased disease risk and earlier death.
Our bodies tend to absorb more calories from them and our taste buds can start to prefer them over whole foods, making us not want to eat ‘healthier’.
Many times when you are financially strained, you also are stressed and have little time, which makes it even easier to rely on ultra-refined and processed foods.
You have to really fight against it and plan ahead if you want to do better. It is possible, but it takes a lot of work!
How to Eat Healthy on a Budget
Here are some tips to get started:
- Save money by limiting the “extras”. Many people who are on a budget, still buy “junk” food, like fast food, soda, chips, cookies, etc. Sometimes, people do this because it makes them feel good temporarily when they consume them. However, it’s very easy to compulsively overeat these items.
- Try to limit purchasing the trigger foods. If there are any items that you know you can’t control yourself with it can be best to stop bringing them in the house for a time period.
- If you can, try to cook whole foods versus freezer items like garlic bread, pizzas, French fries, chicken nuggets, etc. I know they are so easy and convenient, but you can really save money by cooking more from scratch.
- The ultra-refined, processed food tends to be the cheapest, like the ramen noodles, pasta, rice, breads, cereals etc. Most people eat large portions of these to feel full. If you use these foods, work on portion control of these items and choose the highest fiber version you can.
- Even though it is best to decrease the amount of processed foods, you can still keep some available. It could be healthier frozen TV dinners or cans of soup. Sometimes, you may not feel like cooking and those can be really great to have on hand. Otherwise, you may be tempted to pick up fast food, which can blow your budget and your nutrition goals.
- Make meals that stretch longer like soup, stew, stir-fry, chili, egg bakes etc.
- Freeze leftovers when you can, to help you to control your portions better and to stretch your dollar.
- Cook things in a healthier way, such as slow cooker, air fryer, baked, grilled & sauteed versus fried.
- Don’t buy anything you know you won’t eat! If you know you won’t eat the bag of baby carrots, just don’t get it! Try to minimize food waste.
- Find recipes that are more cost effective. If you go to diabetesfoodhub.org, you can filter the recipes by clicking ‘Browse Recipes’, then ‘Filter Recipes’ and under the heading ‘Meal Types’ find ones that are ‘Budget Friendly’ or go to recipes.heart.org and check the ‘Budget Friendly’ under the ‘Lifestyles’ section.
- Fasting can be a helpful tool. It’s not for everyone, but some people find they can save money and improve their health by fasting and eating scheduled meals, instead of ‘grazing’ all day.
- For some people, a plant-based diet can be cost effective, because it can rely on less expensive foods, such as oats, potatoes, bananas, lentils, tofu, etc.
- Believe it or not, but a low carbohydrate diet can be cost effective and helpful for weight management for some people. This may seem counterintuitive because a lot of foods we commonly think of that are eaten on a low carbohydrate diet like meat and dairy tend to be pricier, however some people find that overall, they have much lower hunger levels allowing them to eat less and of course they avoid a lot of the ultra-refined/processed ‘filler’ foods. It’s definitely a personal choice, but it can be a useful tool.
Best Foods to Buy on a Budget
Focus on cheaper, healthy items and buy in season and in bulk, when you can:
- Choose lower cost beverages, such as water, unsweetened tea or homemade coffee
- Some cheaper staple foods include: eggs, oats, beans, peas, lentils, potatoes, peanut butter, chicken, turkey, tuna, banana, canned fruit packed in its own juice, cabbage, carrots, onions, frozen or canned veggies, etc.
- Buy foods that you can use for multiple different meals. If you plan meals with similar ingredients, you won’t be wasting ingredients for 1 time usage. For example, roasted chicken can be used to make many different meals. You could make tacos, salad, quesadilla, pasta dishes, stir fry, soups, etc.
Frugal Meal Planning Tips
To help meal plan, I recommend using the plate method due to its simplicity. Download this free guide on how to use it. You would fill ½ your plate or bowl with non-starchy vegetables, ¼ with a protein source and the last ¼ with carbohydrate food, if desired.
The positives of the plate method is that it is easy and simple to use. It provides health benefits, because most people overeat refined carbohydrate foods. For example, instead of having pasta, bread & corn, you would choose 1 and balance the meal with protein and vegetables.
You can use less expensive foods in those food groups and it will help you to eat in a healthier way to help with your weight, blood pressure and blood sugar.
Some examples of cheaper options for the different food groups:
- Non-starchy vegetables: cabbage, green beans, carrots, okra, etc.
- Protein: peas, beans, lentils, eggs, chicken, turkey, tuna, ground meat, etc.
- Carbohydrate: rice, potato, pasta, bread, banana, etc.
Of course, for some meals, you don’t need to have all 3 ingredients (vegetable, protein and carbohydrate). For example, you may choose to have a budget friendly breakfast of low sugar oatmeal, which is perfectly fine! This is just to help plan when you want to eat a ‘full’ meal.
It is very challenging to eat healthfully when on a budget. However, it is possible to make improvements to our diet. It doesn’t have to be a perfect diet or 100% whole foods. That is not always realistic, especially when people are stressed and have no time.
Just try to look at your current eating habits and routine and find some potential areas where you can make some improvements.