Healthy Eating On A Budget: 5 Tips + A Grocery List + Recipes!

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Healthy eating on a budget may sound paradoxical since items at health food stores are often quite pricey, but trust me. It can be done!

For twelve years, I supported my healthy lifestyle on a teacher’s salary. But here’s the real clincher: I also lived in NYC—one of the most expensive cities on the planet!—and my closest grocery store was Whole Foods (or as some call it, “Whole Paycheck”).

Throughout my years of healthy eating on a budget, I’ve taken detailed mental notes. Now, I wanna share everything I’ve learned with YOU!

By the end of this post, you’ll be equipped with everything you need to make healthy eating on a budget happen!

Healthy Eating On A Budget: The Proof

I just made a very purposeful Whole Foods run during which I tallied up every item I bought. (I’m pretty sure my fellow shoppers just loved my calculator and me…NOT.)

I was determined to spend under $100 on an assortment of items that I can combine to make 25+ of the healthiest, easiest meals/snacks.

Note: I already have oils, seasonings, condiments, etc., on hand. Obviously, buying all of these pantry and fridge staples would cost more. For the purpose of this post, I’ll assume you also have basic cooking oils and seasonings on hand! Another important note: I went grocery shopping with the assumption that I’d be prepping meals/snacks for one. If I were shopping for more than just myself, I’d need to buy larger quantities of each item.

Here’s what I bought:

  • 1 bag frozen green beans – $2.29
  • 1 bag frozen Brussels sprouts – $1.29
  • 1 bag frozen broccoli – $1.69
  • 1 bag frozen green peas – $2.69
  • 3 lb bag of fresh sweet potatoes – $2.39
  • 1 bag black chia seeds – $10.99
  • 1 Malk cashew milk – $5.49
  • 1 bag fresh organic baby carrots – $2.99
  • 1 lb organic ground beef – $6.99
  • 1/2 lb raw almonds – $6.26
  • 1/2 lb raw pecans – $5.20
  • 1 package Applegate chicken sausages (4 links) – $8.99
  • A dozen large brown eggs – $2.99
  • 3 cans Wildplanet tuna – $3.99 each
  • 1 jar Artisana raw cashew butter – $18.99
  • 2 Theo dark chocolate bars – $3.79 each

In total, I spent $99.46. SUCCESS!

Healthy Eating On A Budget: A Simple Meal

All of that shopping wore me out, so I whipped up a quick brunch for myself when I got home. Guess how much brunch cost? $3.15!

I would have spent more at Taco Bell!

When I say “whipped up,” I’m not lying. I’m a self-proclaimed “non-chef,” so anything I cook needs to be easy peasy with minimal cleanup. I made eggs, sausage, and green beans in under 10 minutes using only a cast iron skillet.

I’m sure your cooking skills are more advanced than mine and you can figure out how I made everything, but, in case you’re wondering, here were my steps:

  1. Turn stove to medium heat and pull out your favorite skillet. (I’m obsessed with my Lodge cast iron pan, which you can find linked on the My Favorite Things! page of my site.)
  2. Add about a tablespoon of avocado oil to pan and wait for it to heat up a bit. (Throughout this entire guide, I’m going to reference avocado, olive, and coconut oils; I only cook with these fruit oils. To read why I don’t ever use vegetable oils, check out my post “Canola Oil vs Vegetable Oil: Which Is Healthiest?”)
  3. Place frozen veggies and a sausage (or two!) side by side in pan.
  4. Once the veggies and sausage(s) are hot all the way through, pour them onto plate and crack eggs (I used two) into skillet.
  5. When the eggs are cooked to your liking, add them to plate and douse everything with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Voila!

I’ve been working on this post for hours and I’m still full. My brunch may not have looked like much, but that’s related to one of my secrets for healthy eating on a budget (more on that in a bit).

And, it doesn’t matter than it wasn’t fancy because it contained protein, healthy fats, and soooo many nutrients!

The stereotypical sugar-laden, carb-heavy, nutrient-poor breakfast/brunch foods like pancakes, waffles, pastries, donuts, etc., would have had the opposite effect. They would’ve made me hungrier.

Therefore, one secret to affording the healthiest foods is choosing the right ones. I, too, would go broke if I were constantly eating things (refined carbs and sugar, you know who you are!) that required me to eat more to feel satiated!

Healthy Eating On A Budget: Myths vs Reality

When people see me buying/eating my healthy meals and snacks, they often make one (or more!) of the following remarks:

  • Oh, I can’t afford to eat like that. It’s too expensive.
  • I can’t cook.
  • I don’t have time to cook and meal prep.

I’m here to explain to you how/why all of the above are false! Eating healthy doesn’t have to be expensive, and cooking doesn’t need to be time-consuming and/or difficult.

As mentioned, I used to be a little ol’ English teacher (*cough* not a chef!) by day, so I didn’t—and still don’t!—have a ton of extra money lying around for fancy-pants foods.

However, ever since the moment I decided to get fit through food and prioritize my health, I’ve refused to let the fact that I don’t make a lot of money keep me from eating the healthiest meals. (Learn more how you, too, can get fit through food here. To read more about my own story, click here!)

I think of it this way…I really can’t afford not to eat healthy because I’ll either pay for it now or later.

Years of unhealthy eating could lead me straight into chronic illness, pricey medical bills and prescriptions, and more!

Personally, I’d rather avoid all of the hassle that could come from an unhealthy lifestyle…and feel great in the process!

Concerning the “I can’t cook” and “I don’t have time” excuses…

You’ll take the time to learn skills you think are important. Period.

You’ll have time for whatever you prioritize in life. Period.

If social media and TV are your go-tos after work, you certainly won’t have much time to cook. All you need is 20 minutes (seriously!) to whip up an easy, healthy meal. Everyone has 20 minutes.

Still skeptical? Check out my prior post: “Think You Can’t Cook? Think Again! 7 Tips From A Non-Chef”

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Healthy Eating On A Budget: 5 Tips To Make It Happen

Throughout my own health journey, I’ve come up with the following hacks for healthy eating on a budget:

  1. Make a game plan before walking into any grocery store.
  2. Don’t feel the need to make every meal different or complicated. Too much variety and too many ingredients are the enemies of budget-friendly meals.
  3. Buy whole ingredients that you can easily cook together in one skillet, pot, or pan to make meal prep as simple as possible.
  4. Invest in a high-quality olive oil and basic spices.
  5. Join ThriveMarket.com to buy direct-to-consumer goods and save 25-50% on each purchase.

Allow me to elaborate on each of the above…

Tip #1: Make a game plan before walking into any grocery store.

Did you know that grocery stores are designed to make us impulsively purchase the most expensive items as we meander through the aisles? (Read this Business Insider article “15 Ways Supermarkets Trick You Into Spending More Money” to see how they do it. Not cool!) This is why it’s important to make a game plan.

One game plan is adhering to a shopping list. If you take this route, stick to your list! Don’t fall for the store’s traps, like the dreaded shelves of candy right next to the checkout lane.

Another game plan to come up with a sort of grocery shopping mission statement. This sounds corny, but I prefer to do this rather than making a list because it allows for more freedom.

My current mission statement comprises the following:

  • Mostly buy whole foods (like produce and meat) rather than processed, packaged foods.
  • When purchasing processed foods, don’t buy varieties that contain preservatives or highly processed oils. (So, in the average grocery store, my options are slim! This is why I usually just avoid the center aisles of crackers, cookies, cereals, etc.)

In just those two brief sentences, I’ve made the commitment not to buy about 80% of the items in any grocery store. Thus, I don’t need to worry as much about temptation.

Finally, it helps to come up with a grocery store road map. Which sections will you visit first? Which sections will you avoid altogether? These are the sections of the store I always visit first:

  • DAIRY
    • Even though eggs aren’t a dairy product, they’re in the dairy section!
    • Eggs are always on my list.
    • Read my post “The Health Benefits Of Eggs: 7 Reasons Eggs Rock” to find out why.
    • Today, I also bought Malk cashew milk. I like the Malk brand because it only contains three ingredients: filtered water, organic sprouted cashews, and Himalayan salt.
  • FROZEN
  • MEAT
    • As Dr. Mark Hyman puts it, we should consider meat a condiment, or a “condi-meat,” meaning the majority of our meals should consist of vegetables.
    • Also, in my opinion, quality should always come into play when buying meat. I only purchase grass-fed + grass-finished, pastured, and/or organic varieties. These are usually pricier, but I willingly pay more in order to support the humane treatment of animals as well as regenerative agricultural practices. (To learn why I support “regenerative agriculture,” check out this TED Talk: “Regenerative agriculture—a solution to climate change.”)
    • In today’s grocery haul, I picked up chicken sausages and ground beef.
  • PRODUCE
    • At this point, I consider which frozen veggies I already purchased and supplement with fresh.
    • Also, I decide which items I’ll buy organic. If my budget allows, I’ll buy everything organic; this is the best way to go. However, in the months I’m more strapped for cash, I follow the Environmental Working Group’s recommendations, which I outlined in my post “The Dirty Dozen: Produce You Should ALWAYS Buy Organic.”
    • Today, I bought baby carrots and sweet potatoes.
  • CANNED
    • Fish is chock full of the oh-so-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, but fresh fish is often pricey.
    • To learn more about the health benefits of omega-3s, read my post “Eating Enough Of This? Your Brain Health Depends On It…”
    • I usually buy a few cans of Wild Planet fish. I like this brand because they use sustainable fishing methods.
    • Today, I bought three cans of skipjack wild tuna.

Once I’ve visited those sections, I assess my additional needs. On this recent shopping trip, I snagged the following:

  • Two bars of Theo 85% dark chocolate.
    • I like the Theo brand because they only include whole ingredients—no preservatives!—in their bars.
  • A bag of chia seeds.
  • Artisana cashew butter.
    • Just like Theo, Artisana only uses the purest ingredients—no highly processed oils!—in their nut butters.
  • Raw pecans and almonds.
    • The roasted varieties often contain highly processed oils (like canola oil).

As mentioned, I never mindlessly meander down the candy/cookie/chip aisle. When I don’t see items like Chips Ahoy!, I’m less likely to rationalize buying them.

Summary of Tip #1: Once you realize that you’re the target of grocery store marketing tactics, you can be a smarter shopper. From now on, show up equipped with a list, mission statement, and/or mental road map!

Tip #2: Don’t feel the need to make every meal fancy or complicated.

Too much variety and too many ingredients are the enemies of budget-friendly meals.

In August 2018, The New York Times published an interesting article “Food Quality Trumps Variety, Experts Say” with this tagline: “People whose diets contained the greatest variety of foods tended to eat many nutritious foods, but also many junk foods.” In it, Dr. Marcia Otto, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology, human genetics, and environmental sciences, states, “We want the general public to know that it’s O.K. if your diet is not very diverse if you’re focusing on healthy foods and trying to minimize consumption of unhealthy foods.”

This is great news for the budget-conscious shopper!

Often, I eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and/or dinner multiple days of the week. It’s just easier and more affordable to do so. One night’s leftovers can become the next day’s lunch, so 10 minutes of meal prep translates into two meals! Like I said, easy peasy is this non-chef’s motto!

I can mix and match the items from today’s grocery haul to make all sorts of different meals/snacks this week, but some may overlap…which is okay!

BREAKFAST OPTIONS:

  • Chia pudding topped with a tablespoon of cashew butter and/or chopped nuts (I like this recipe, but I use Malk cashew milk instead of almond milk and no sweetener!)
  • Eggs (hard boiled, fried, in an omelette…the sky’s the limit! Click here for my perfect, easy-peel hard boiled egg recipe.)
  • Chicken sausage

LUNCH OPTIONS:

For lunch, I’ll pack any combination of the following in my glass bento box (find it on the My Favorite Things! page of my site):

  • Leftovers from dinner (my personal favorite!)
  • Hard boiled eggs (click here for my perfect, easy-peel hard boiled egg recipe)
  • Baby carrots
  • Roasted sweet potatoes (click here for my easy roasted veggie recipe)
  • Squares of dark chocolate
  • Tuna salad (click here for my canned tuna/chicken/salmon salad recipe)
  • Raw pecans
  • Raw almonds
  • Chia pudding topped with a tablespoon of cashew butter and/or chopped nuts (I like this recipe, but I use Malk cashew milk instead of almond milk and no sweetener!)

SNACK OPTIONS:

  • Hard boiled eggs (click here for my perfect, easy-peel hard boiled egg recipe)
  • Baby carrots
  • Squares of dark chocolate
  • Raw pecans
  • Raw almonds
  • A square of dark chocolate covered in cashew butter (my personal favorite!)
  • A tablespoon of cashew butter on its own
  • Tuna salad (click here for my canned tuna/chicken/salmon salad recipe)

DINNER OPTIONS:

  • Ground beef and/or chicken sausage + any mixture of the frozen veggies (Brussels sprouts, peas, green beans, and/or broccoli) sauteed together in a pan
  • Ground beef and/or chicken sausage + any mixture of the frozen veggies (Brussels sprouts, peas, green beans, and/or broccoli) cooked together on a sheet pan
  • Roasted sweet potatoes (click here for recipe) + ground beef and/or sausage
  • A big bowl of roasted veggies doused in olive oil, salt, and pepper (top it with tuna salad; find tuna/chicken/salmon salad recipe here)
  • A veggie, tuna, ground beef, and/or sausage omelette
  • Chicken sausage + eggs + veggies (like the meal I made for brunch today!)

You get the idea!

Summary of Tip #2: Figure out which vegetables, meats, and snacks you love most; mix and match ’em into different combinations. One week, you may eat the same meal a few times, but that’s okay. The next week, you can buy different veggies, meats, and snacks so that you don’t get bored.

3. Buy whole ingredients that you can easily cook together in one skillet, pot, or pan to make meal prep as simple as possible.

I sort of tackled this one above, but I’ll elaborate…

Essentially, buy a ton of veggies (frozen + fresh) and some meat. Throw it all together in different combinations each night using either a skillet or a pan.

I love this method because…

  • It’s. So. Easy.
  • Cleanup is a breeze!
  • When you eat nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, meat, and eggs, you stay full for a long time.

For more ideas from actual chefs, Google “sheet pan meals” or “one skillet meals.” You’ll get hundreds of results/ideas!

Summary of Tip #3: Buy whole ingredients like eggs, veggies, and meat that you can throw together into one skillet or pan to make an assortment of meals.

4. Invest in a high-quality olive oil and basic spices.

Right now, you’re probably spending a lot of money on dressings, marinades, sauces, etc. Well, guess what? All you need to season anything is a high-quality olive oil and basic spices!

A “high-quality” olive oil really matters if you’re going to use it on fish, meat, poultry, veggies, etc. You can definitely taste the difference between an average and a top-notch oil. Even though you may spend a bit more on a bottle of olive oil than you usually would, you’ll save money in the long run since you won’t need to buy a bunch of extra dressings and sauces.

Further, your health gains will skyrocket! Olive oil is one of the purest, healthiest things you can eat. Most conventional dressings and sauces are filled with highly processed oils, sugar, and preservatives.

(To learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about olive oil—as well as some of the best brands to buy—visit my post “Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil Good For You? An Expert Explains.”)

Alongside your olive oil, pick up some basic spices. I pretty much just use Redmond’s Real Salt, white pepper, and “Hot” Old Bay on everything. (To find links to these basic seasonings, visit the My Favorite Things! page of my site and scroll to “My Favorite Spices.”)

Summary of Tip #4: You don’t need to get crazy with the seasonings! A high-quality olive oil and some basic spices go a long way.

5. Join ThriveMarket.com to buy direct-to-consumer goods and save 25-50% on each purchase.

My final secret weapon for cheap, healthy eating is the direct-to-consumer site ThriveMarket.com. To read my in-depth review of Thrive Market, click here.

Essentially, a Thrive membership is like a Costco membership for high-quality, organic food. Or, you could think of it as the Whole Foods for people who aren’t rich…like me!

Here is a side-by-side comparison of prices at conventional health food stores vs. ThriveMarket.com:

Picture of other health food savings vs Thrive Market savings

When buying any packaged item, I always read the ingredients first to make sure they match my requirements. (You’ll find more items that meet these specifications in a Whole Foods or on Thrive than you will at any conventional supermarket.) Here they are:

Here are some of my Thrive favorites by category:

NUT BUTTER

*At Whole Foods today, this was $18.99; on Thrive, it’s usually around $13.50! When you don’t buy items containing preservatives and cheap oils, you end up spending more, but I’m okay with that. Again, the way I see it, I’ll either spend money prioritizing my health now or spend money on doctor bills and prescriptions later. My Thrive membership definitely helps me to save $$$$ on high-quality items!

NUTS + SEEDS

CHOCOLATE

CHIPS + CRACKERS + PORK RINDS

OATS + GRANOLA

CANNED FISH

MEAT

Again, the above are just many of my go-tos, but there are hundreds of phenomenal products on Thrive.

That being said, Thrive also sells some sugar-laden items that contain preservatives and low-quality oils. It’s always good to read the Ingredients list of anything before you buy it; don’t blindly trust the store/site. From a lot of personal shopping experience, I can promise you it’s easier to find cheaper, higher-quality packaged items on Thrive than it is in any grocery store!

Thrive also sells 100% grass-fed beef, pasture-raised pork, organic chicken, and sustainable seafood, shampoo, lotion, vitamins and supplements, clean wines, and MORE! (To find out why I only buy clean wines, read my post “You Buy Everything Else Organic…So Why Not Wine?”)

Summary of Tip #5: A ThriveMarket.com membership can save you over $1,000 each year on the highest-quality fridge, freezer, and pantry staples!

Healthy Eating On A Budget: 3 Final Thoughts

Before I close, I want to share a few final thoughts.

1. Healthy eating—like anything else!—requires budgeting.

When I made the choice to prioritize the healthiest foods, I decided in that same moment that I would cut back on superfluous purchases.

In the past, I spent much more money on clothing, makeup, hair products, etc. Now, before I buy something new, I make sure I really need it.

Since I’ve cut back on spending in many areas, I have a bit extra to spend on high-quality food. New shoes certainly won’t bring me as much joy as feeling/looking great will!

2. Takeout. Is. Pricey.

If I buy even one takeout meal in NYC, it can cost upwards of $15. The less money I spend on takeout, the more money I can put towards healthy groceries.

Does this mean I never get takeout? Absolutely not.

However, it does mean I’ve made a real habit out of taking my lunch to work each day.

It’s really not difficult to throw a couple of hard-boiled eggs, some nuts, a few carrots, and pieces of dark chocolate into my bento lunch container.

That lunch costs me about $3, but lunch from a local establishment could easily cost $8-10. By taking my lunch each weekday, I’m able to save $25+ a week, which I can apply to my grocery budget. How amazing is that?!

3. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

If you truly want to optimize your health by filling your fridge, freezer, and pantry with the best foods, you can do it. Nothing is stopping you, so don’t let little excuses seep into your mind and cause you to rationalize the purchase of poor-quality groceries.

And…there you have it! Now, you’re ready to eat healthy on a budget in order to get fit through food!

Thoughts? Questions? Please share below!


Hi, I’m Brooke, Certified Transformational Nutrition Coach and founder of The Health Investment. I teach you sustainable skills for healthy eating so that you can get fit through food and actually enjoy the process! Click here to learn how!!

⇒ To optimize every aspect of your health, visit My Favorite Things! There, you’ll find links to healthy packaged foods, toxin-free products, and overall wellness boosters.

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