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How to Eat Healthy on a Budget (Dietitian’s Tips)

Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN

One of the #1 questions I get as a registered dietitian is “How do I eat healthy on a budget?” Most people assume that healthy eating is expensive, but not necessarily. You can definitely eat healthy on a budget, but you just have to change your mindset about buying healthy food.

In this post, we will discuss where you can buy healthy foods as well as tips on how to stretch your dollar. By practicing these tips, you can optimize your nutrition while still saving money!

Places to Buy Healthy Food

Healthy food is more available than we may think. You don’t always have to buy healthy food from the grocery store, if you know how to work it.

Place to Buy Healthy Food Healthy food usually available Pros Con
  • Lean poultry
  • Vegetables
  • Salads
  • Salmon and seafood
  • Large portion sizes
  • Some restaurants offer a wide variety of healthy food
  • Typically higher-priced food compared to grocery stores (you pay for the atmosphere and service)
  • May contain unhealthy ingredients like butter and salt
Fast Food Restaurants
  • Salads
  • Plain apple slices
  • Ready-to-eat healthy food
  • Single-serving meals
  • Convenient for on-the-go
  • Very limited in their selection
  • Healthy dishes may be priced higher than unhealthy options
Grocery Store
  • Seafood and fish
  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Lean poultry
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Healthy canned food
  • Offers fresh and frozen varieties of seafood, fruit and veggies
  • Convenience of having all food items in one place
  • Coupons or store rewards are often available
  • Can buy in bulk
  • May be difficult to determine which brands are the cheapest (due to location in the store and product marketing)
  • May not be the freshest produce
Local Markets (varies by location)
  • Eggs
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Corn and potatoes
  • Fresh produce
  • Helping out another member of the community
  • May have a price break if there is a huge surplus of goods
  • Available during limited times of the year
  • May lack variety (people produce what grows well in your area)
Your Garden (varies)
  • Vegetables
  • Potatoes
  • One pack of seeds many have 100s of seeds (save some for next year)
  • You can grow what you want to eat
  • You may have a surplus of produce to can or freeze
  • Lots of effort to plant, grow and harvest
  • Some people may not have the space to garden or the proper climate

How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

Now that you know where healthy food is available, let’s dive into tips on how to eat healthy on a budget. Think about these tips next time you are purchasing food:

Buy frozen fruits and vegetables

Frozen fruits and vegetables retain most (if not all) of the nutrition found in fresh produce, but it tends to be cheaper per serving. Just make sure you get plain frozen produce (i.e. no sauces, flavorings, juices or syrups).

Cook at home more often

Compared to eating out, home cooking is generally way cheaper when you break it down by price per meal. Check out our example of “price per meal” in the last section of this post.

Buy in-season

Depending on where you live, different fruits and vegetables become “in-season” during different times of the year. When something is in-season, it has great nutrition and is usually pretty cheap because there’s tons if it available.

Follow the suggested serving size

When you buy many food items at the grocery store, you will notice a “serving size” measurement on the Nutrition Facts label. If you’re really trying to stretch your dollar, then try eating the suggested serving size of that item, rather than eating whatever portion you want. This is also helpful for controlling your calorie intake for weight loss. However, make sure you are still meeting your calorie requirements.

Buy in bulk

In general, the larger container of a food item you buy, the more you save per serving. Some stores show you the “price per ounce,” however, you can figure out price per ounce by dividing the price by the number of ounces in that container.

Look at store brands

Many grocery stores have their own brand of nearly every food item. Oftentimes they are cheaper than name brands (and have a similar nutrition profile). Don’t spend more money for a name brand!

All-Star Tip: Think About “Price per Meal”

In general, we have to think about how many meals a particular food item will give us. For example, when you go to a fast food place, we generally consider that meal to be 1 meal. If you want to be money savvy with healthy eating, start thinking about “price per meal.” Here’s a breakdown of this concept:

Scenario 1: Grilled chicken sandwich at a fast food place Scenario 2: Grilled chicken sandwich from products at the grocery store
Cost of sandwich: $4.39 Cost of chicken breast: $5.94 for 3-lbs (12 servings)

Cost of buns: $1.68 for 8 buns (8 servings)

Cost of lettuce: $1.48 for 1 head of lettuce (about 8 servings)

Cost of mayo: $5.55 for 30 ounces (60 servings)

Total cost: $4.39 Total cost: $14.65
Number of chicken sandwiches you bought: 1 Number of chicken sandwiches you bought: 8 (plus some food left over)
Price per chicken sandwich = $4.39 (no leftovers) Price per chicken sandwich = $1.83 (plus you have 4 chicken breasts and lots of mayo left over)

Please note, prices may vary. However, based on the data above you are spending more per meal at the fast food place than if you bought all the ingredients at the grocery store. Also, you have some leftover ingredients for other meals when buying food from the grocery store.

Now, if you’re thinking, “But I don’t have enough to spend $14.65 at the grocery store in one trip.” If that’s the case, keep track of how much you are spending at fast food places or restaurants each week. Then use that weekly amount as your grocery budget instead. For example, if you buy 5 fast food grilled chicken sandwiches per week, that’s $21.95 that you can spend each week on groceries instead!