One of the most common post requests I’ve received over the years is how to eat healthy on a budget (psst! if you ever have a post request, I am all ears!) and I figured now was as good a time as any to share my best tips and tricks for being able to afford healthy groceries at the store, especially because fresh produce is so abundant and inexpensive in the summertime. It’s a great time to start trying to save a few bucks!
Since food is my business I admittedly spend quite a bit of money on groceries. BUT, since food is my business I also know the ins and outs of the grocery store, and how/when/where to save money buying healthy food without having to clip coupons. Because if you’re a space case like me, you’ll clip ’em then forget they exist until three years later. Can I get an Amen?
Whether you’re a college student working with a college budget but looking to avoid the freshman 15, cooking for a big family, or just trying to save a little money, there’s many easy ways you can eat healthy on a budget…including these 15!
Eat Inexpensive Foods
It pains me that 20 chicken nuggets cost, like, $1 at the drive thru, while a pound of apples rarely falls below $1.99. It’s no wonder so many people think it’s difficult to eat healthy on a budget! That said, there are plenty of healthy yet inexpensive foods at the grocery store and, while fresh is best, just because a product is canned or boxed doesn’t automatically make it unhealthy (just be certain you’re checking product labels for added sugar, preservatives, and artificial ingredients.)
Learn to love these generally inexpensive yet healthy foods, and if you don’t have Celiac Disease/gluten intolerance/food allergies (aka cross contamination is an issue,) raid the bulk bins as often as you can for great deals on grains, beans, and nuts.
- Canned tuna/salmon
- Canned or dried beans
- Popcorn kernels (get yourself an air popper and never buy overpriced and unhealthy microwave popcorn again!)
- Frozen vegetables
- Canned vegetables
- Frozen fruit
- Canned fruit packed in water
- Cheese blocks (vs pre-shredded)
- Leaf lettuces
- Green peppers
- In-season produce
- Whole chickens
Convenience foods (ie frozen, boxed, or packaged foods/meals,) often cost more than the raw ingredients themselves because companies have taken the time to prep then put them together for you. Convenient: sure. Bloated with sugar, salt, and preservatives: totally. Instead of buying these popular convenience foods, save money, and make them healthier, by making them at home:
- Tortillas – gluten-free or regular. Make a big batch then freeze for later.
- Spaghetti sauce. Make a double (or triple, or quadruple!) batch then portion into Ziplock freezer bags and freeze flat.
- Pancake mix – gluten-free or regular. Again, freeze leftovers for later.
- Frozen Breakfast Burritos
- Peanut butter and Almond butter
- Burger Helpers
- Macaroni and Cheese
- French fries
- Chicken broth
- Chicken nuggets
- Salad dressing
Pick a Spot
I know many people like to visit multiple grocery stores to get the best deals on different products, which is totally fine, but 90% of the time I stick to my regular grocery store and Costco. That said, we live right in the middle of two locations of the same grocery chain and since they’re independently managed, one charges significantly higher prices than the other on many of our routine purchases (the chicken brand we like and a few specialty gluten-free products immediately come to mind.) So even if you’re like me and don’t want to hop around to 3-5 stores per shopping trip, it literally pays to at least know what your surrounding stores charge, and go from there.
Shop on Special Days
Speaking of specialty products, my local grocery store offers 10% off any product purchased within their “health market” on Wednesdays. Might not sound like a lot, but you can save a TON of money on bigger ticket health food items – almond oil, coconut oil, frozen gluten-free bread, organic anything and everything, etc – that otherwise might not fit within your budget.
If your grocery store doesn’t offer a program like this…ASK! In my experience, grocery store managers are extremely eager to separate themselves from the rest and more importantly, create happy, loyal customers.
Buy Whole Chickens
Yep, “buying whole chickens” is getting a category all its own because the savings are HUUUUGE, you guys! From 1 whole chicken, which occasionally costs the same or less than a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts, you can extract 2 chicken breasts, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, and 2 wings, PLUS you can use the leftover bones to make healthy, preservative-free homemade chicken stock. I’m no math whiz, but I’m pretty sure that means a lot of moola left in your wallet.
In case you’re intimidated by breaking down a whole chicken, here’s a video showing how to do it > (I cut mine a little bit differently, but this classic method obviously works too. However you go about it, a big sharp knife is key.)
Shop Ethnic Markets
If you love eating healthier take-out-fake-out recipes like Mongolian Beef Noodle Bowls, Fresh Summer Rolls, and Kale Fried Rice as often as we do, take a trip to your local ethnic market to stock up on supplies. Not only are products like rice noodles, rice, and rice paper ridiculously inexpensive at my local Asian market, but they’ve also got a ton of variety to choose from. You may find some fun new ingredients to try too!
Stretch Ground Meat with Vegetables
Lincoln’s a decent eater but like most toddlers he’s learned to identify the healthy stuff in his meals and eat around it. Ugh! One of my all-time favorite tricks for not only pumping up the health factor of his and our meals, but also stretching ground meat, is to cut it with minced vegetables which, pound for pound, are a fraction of the cost.
Usually I’ll pulse 8oz mushrooms in the food processor until they’re finely minced (you could mince by hand,) saute in a skillet until the water cooks out, then add 1/2 – 3/4lb ground beef or turkey (or whatever) and use the mixture in everything from tacos to spaghetti sauce to lasagna filling. I recently took taco shells, fixings, and taco-seasoned mushroom/ground beef to a friend with a new baby, and her 7 and 2 year old each scarfed down four tacos a piece. WINNING! Not only do mushrooms work great for this, but zucchini and summer squash do too (peel first for really picky eaters who see color and declare the entire dish inedible,) and even minced or grated cauliflower. I use this healthy, money-saving trick all the time.
The title of this section is pretty self explanatory. Freeze. EVERYTHING! Buy extra healthy foods, especially in-season produce, when they go on sale at the grocery store then freeze for later. This requires effort on your part to remember to pull meat, especially, to thaw ahead of time, and to remember what you’ve got in the freezer to avoid waste, but the reward is worth the effort. Here are some of my favorite healthy foods to buy on sale then freeze and/or freeze before they go bad:
- Chicken breasts
- Ground meat
- Salmon filets
- Cheese (shred before freezing)
- Bananas (peel then slice first)
- Lemon/lime juice
- Baby spinach and kale (throw directly into smoothies)
- Chopped onions
- Fresh herbs
- Sweet corn
- Pitted cherries
Buy an Extra Freezer/Deep Freeze
If you’re serious about saving money by freezing healthy foods when they go on sale at the grocery store, an extra fridge/freezer or deep freeze will come in handy. Sometimes you have to spend money to, in this case, save money! Check Facebook swap groups and Craigslist for used options, or wait for year-end/black Friday sales at appliance stores if you want to buy new.
Drink More Water
Know what’s cheap, healthy, and pretty much always available? Tap water. Unless you live in an area where the water is unsafe to drink, purchase a good water bottle and start chugging. Tally up how many times you choose water over a latte, pop, gatorade, etc for a week then add up how much money you saved – I bet you’ll be surprised! Both Lincoln and I never go anywhere without our Klean Kanteens.
Check the Unit Price
This point is twofold.
- Sometimes grocery store sales can be tricky because you see a product marked “2/$5” and think you’re getting a great deal (which, many times you are!) Check the unit price on the sales tag though, as you can occasionally still get a better deal on a different brand that’s not on sale (assuming you’re not brand loyal to whatever you’re buying.)
- If you see a sale marked 10/$10, for instance, 99% of the time you don’t have to actually buy all 10 items to get the deal – the unit price is reduced regardless of the quantity you purchase. Because who needs 10 cans of green beans?
Do as I say and not as I do, as I’m admittedly not great at meal planning and know I could save a TON of money if I tried harder. Meal planning not only reduces time and gas costs (time = money!) because you only need to shop once or twice a week, but you can also plan multi meals that use the same ingredients to reduce waste and the amount of groceries you need to buy. Write your grocery list out before you go shopping, organizing it by department (produce, meat, health market, pantry, etc.) go alone if you can and, as we all know, never go grocery shopping hungry!
Cook in Bulk
One of my biggest pet peeves is the sound of gum being chewed, but in regards to eating healthy on a budget – it’s wasting food. There is nothing that makes me feel worse than throwing away half a bunch of soggy cilantro or a hunk of moldy cheese that I bought for one meal and didn’t know what to do with the rest. It’s throwing money directly into the trash can.
Meal planning will help reduce food waste, but making two or more batches of whatever healthy meal you’re cooking then freezing the extra portions is a wonderful way to not only save time (just defrost, reheat, and eat!) and money by using ingredients that might otherwise go unused, but reduce the urge to order take out or visit the drive thru when you think you’ve got nothing to eat. Some of my favorite healthy meals to make in bulk then freeze for later are:
- Signature Chili
- 30 Minute Vegetable Ragu
- Incredible Italian Meatballs
- Make-Ahead Breakfast Bowls
- Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
- Crock Pot Shredded Beef Enchiladas
- Honey Balsamic BBQ Meatballs
- Best-Ever Black Bean Soup
- Butternut Squash Gnocchi
- Frozen Breakfast Burritos
- Cheesy Chicken Enchiladas with Homemade Gluten-Free Enchilada Sauce
Buy in Bulk
I just read an article that said Costco is the top seller of organic produce in the country. That’s huge. If eating organic is important to you and your family, the price of a Costco membership (especially if it’s at a level where you get points/money back for purchases,) might be worth the savings you’re going to find inside. Enormous boxes of organic baby spinach sell for under $5 (whereas tiny clamshells can sell for $3.99 at the regular store,) and you can find great deals on organic milk, organic meat (their organic ground beef is cheaper than conventional at the regular grocery store,) organic pasta, organic canned, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, organic chicken stock – I could go on and on. If your family isn’t big enough to justify buying in bulk, split a membership and/or products with a friend. My Mom and I have been doing this for years.
By far the biggest savings you’ll find in regards to buying healthy food, is buying and eating in-season. When supply is high, prices are low. Buy summer berries in bulk then freeze to enjoy in the winter. Plan meals around fall squash for vitamin-rich dinners. Visit local Farmer’s Markets for savings you won’t believe. Here are some of my favorite healthy and budget-friendly seasonal recipes:
- Gnocchi and Chicken Sausage Vegetable Skillet
- Garlicky Tomato-Basil Shrimp with Zoodles
- Fresh Summer Rolls with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce
- Pasta Pomodoro
- Chicken with Summer Succotash
- Italian Tomato-Basil Stuffed Zucchini
- Crispy Kale, Bacon and Basil Farmer’s Market Hash
- Pasta with Roasted Spring Vegetables
- Herb and Caper Crusted Salmon
- Roasted Poblano, Sweet Corn and Potato Stoup
- Lemon Pepper Chicken with Artichoke Salsa and Roasted Asparagus
- Roasted Spring Vegetable Cobb Salad
- Fall Shredded Brussels Sprouts Salad
- Very Veggie Spaghetti Squash
- Apple, Almond, Bacon and Brussels Sprouts Salad
- Gluten-Free Penne with Kale, Butternut Squash and Sausage
- Leek and Mushroom Chicken Skillet
- Caramelized Sweet Potato and Kale Fried Wild Rice
- Maple Sweet Potato Hash
- Easy Chicken and Rice Soup
- Vegetable Beef and Rice Soup
- Mushroom and Brussels Sprouts Penne with Crispy Shallots
- Sausage, Pepper and Mushroom Hash
- Cauliflower Fried Rice
What are your favorite tips and tricks for eating healthy on a budget?
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This is a gem of a post and actually has everything and anything as a “how to” as to buying, preparing, and freezing months worth of food prep!
Cheap Healthy Meals On A Budget For Summer | Learn new Top Healthy Cooking 12.18.2016
[…] 15 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Budget – Know what’s cheap … regards to eating healthy on a budget – it’s wasting food. There is nothing that makes me feel worse than throwing away half a bunch of soggy cilantro or a hunk of moldy cheese that I bought for one meal and didn’t … […]
15 Quirky Ways To Spend Less Money On Food – Forbes | SilentMajority.News 11.20.2016
[…] Not able to rely on convenient foods like pizza or bagels, she perfected the art of always having something around to whip up into a quick meal. Her biggest tip: keep low-cost dried goods like pasta, beans or rice on hand at all times. They don’t go bad and are cheap to buy. […]
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[…] 3/4lb in 4oz portions so I can pull out a portion anytime I want to make these avocado toasts. Freezer meals , for the […]
Kelli @ Hungry Hobbh 07.26.2016
Love all of these tips!!!! I also love that you share options for those that need to avoid cross contamination and those that don’t ! I’ll definitely be sharing this post! Great job!
Excellent suggestions. We’d all be healthier if we followed them, as well as richer. I would add a garden or a CSA, both of which will give you lots of good veggies. Really fresh veggies are an eye opener.
Raschell | MissHomemade.com 07.25.2016
Thank you so much for the wonderful information and links to recipes! This is a great post; very informative.
i love this! i’m also terrible at meal planning but when you talk about the cost savings involved makes me realize how much i need to work on it!
Alpha Modish | 15 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Budget – Iowa Girl Eats 07.18.2016
[…] My Favorite Gluten-Free Products Original Article […]
The Sunday Skinny 7/17/16 - Skinny Fitalicious 07.17.2016
[…] 15 Ways To Eat Healthy On A Budget – It really is doable! […]
Great post! I do a lot of these things too. It started when I was a foodie on a student budget and some habits are hard to shake ;). By the way, you don’t need to buy any kind of gadget to make your own popcorn! I just take a pot, heat a little bit of oil (totally optional), throw in some popcorn kennels and close the lid! You’ll know it’s done once the popping slows down, just like with microwave popcorn. Works a charm and it is by far one of my most favourite cheap and light snacks. For an extra kick, sprinkle the finished popcorn with nutritional yeast as well as salt. It gives it a kind of parmesan-y taste!
Oh duh, that was supposed to be popcorn kernels, haha.
Tell me tell me tell me which location of the local store you go to!!! We are most often at Mills Civic and the prices keep creeping up and up. I had no idea each store set their own prices–please share the scoop (in a message, if you’d rather not share here on the page). Thanks in advance! :)
links i love - Nymph In The Woods 07.15.2016
[…] 15 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Budget by Iowa Girl Eats – Great tips! It amazes me how well you can eat on a budget with some practice and knowledge. Draz and I try to stay within a pretty tight food budget and we use a lot of these tips! There are a few I need to get back to doing too! […]
As a college student I’ve gotten pretty good at all these things, but I always read through these kinds of posts to see if there’s anything I’ve never tried! ;) So are you talking about Hy-Vee when you say that different stores have different prices? I didn’t know that. I often hear people say Hy-Vee is too expensive, but I disagree! I find that they always have good sales, and I mostly just buy what’s on sale each week and end up spending less than I would at Aldi/other cheap places!
You got it – HyVee!
I’d love a post on all of your fave items at Costco!
Anna Cigrand 07.14.2016
Love these tips! I’m intrigued about freezing kale and spinach…do you just toss it in a plastic bag and put it in the freezer or is there more to the process?
I also don’t meal plan often, but when I do, I start by looking at what’s on sale that week at the grocery store, what produce is in season, and then build my meal plan around that. I’ve also found that certain things, like Almond Milk and my favorite Almond Butter (no sugar or other additives), are actually cheapest at Target (especially with the 5% off you receive with a Target card).
Yep! For spinach you can just add it right to a Ziplock freezer bag. I usually strip the kale leaves from the stems then tear into big hunks before freezing. Then they go right into the blender from frozen for smoothies!
I don’t think this is a post idea, but it is something that I’ve been wondering about. You used to post tofu recipes relatively often, but there haven’t been any in ages. There isn’t even a tofu option in the drop down search. Any reason for that? I wasn’t sure if it was a change due to Lincoln, Celiac, or something else. Just curious! I make your Thai tofu pizza often!
You’re right! I stopped eating tofu because it gave me sharp stomach pains regardless of the brand. I think the reason those few tofu recipes aren’t registering on the Recipe Index is because they were posted in 2010/2011 (ish?) and the Index starts with recipes posted after that (I believe around 2012.) That said, if you ever find an old recipe you want added so it’s printable, let me know and I’ll be happy to set it up!
Elizabeth Horsley 07.14.2016
Ever since I spent the entire grocery budget in one trip to Costco (everything I got was on the list) I’ve been working on a strategy for making the most of a Costco shopping trip. How do you typically shop there?
I have a list of stuff I only buy at Costco because of the great prices (ground beef, ribs, chicken stock, spinach, paper towels/TP, several frozen items, etc.) then restock once every 1-3 months. You’re right, it’s easy to experience sticker shock at the register but the supply lasts for 2-3 months vs 1-2 weeks.
Look like great ideas but do you post carb free, no ‘white’, for diabetics, that is also budget friendly?
My number one go to question when buying groceries is “how does this effect the earth?”
Red meat, most expensive and most damaging, I limit it to once a month
Dried beans, almost no packaging, soak overnight and cook one hour, use on top of salads, in stirfries and vinaigrette pickled cold salads
Oatmeal in largest quantities- never buy packaged cereals
Once a week I buy a large 10 lbs bag of chicken legs and thighs at Walmart, put in crock pot, season, no need to add water and let them cook all day on low while I am at work. let cool and pick the bones clean. Chicken for the entire week and if something comes up I can always put it in the freezer and use later.
These are just a few, in addition to saving money, after recycling I have almost no garbage for the weekly pickup. If you change your mindset to how am I helping the planet it makes you feel like you are doing your part.
I also compost! coffee grounds, peelings, I try to live with the “God so loved the world”, that means I need to love it also and protect it.
What a great perspective – thanks for sharing, Laura!