How To Eat Healthy On A Budget

How to eat healthy on a budget

If you’ve seen all the tricks and the listicles about saving money on groceries, but none of them ever really hit home? Yeah, same here.

You can read all the frugal articles about how oatmeal, bought in bulk, costs pennies per meal, and all the recipes for rice and beans that you want, but they might not be the right way to eat healthy on a budget for you.

And that’s OK.

Everyone has different food preferences, dietary needs and schedules, so what works for someone else might not work for you. That said, it is possible to eat healthily on a budget if you follow a few key steps ‒ and yes, some of them involve a bit of legwork.

It’ll be worth it when you scale down on what is the second-largest budget category for most of us.

Step One: Figure Out What Healthy Is For You

It’s not shocking that a vegetarian who runs marathons is going to have a different version of a healthy diet than a couch potato who loves a good steak.

That said, they can both still eat healthy diets, and so can you ‒ it just takes a bit of work to figure out what healthy involves.

Figure out your calorie requirements

This one is the baseline. Based on your activity level and body composition, how many calories do you need to consume in a day?

This could span a thousand calories or more from the nutrition-label guideline of 2000 calories a day, so make sure you come up with a reasonable number for you.

No one wants to be hangry because they’re on a budget, you know?

Figure out your dietary preferences

Next, think about the foods you like to eat on a regular basis. It might be pie, it might be spicy pickled eggplant on a salad, but think about the foods ‒ and flavours ‒ that you always look forward to. And keep them in mind when you’re planning out the kinds of foods you want to eat.

Address your specific dietary needs

Maybe you’re lactose intolerant, or dealing with some other food intolerances. Maybe you’re choosing to follow a high-protein diet, or a pescatarian diet. Whatever those requirements are, keep them in mind when you’re trying to figure out what you need to eat and when…

And make sure to cut out foods that cause a reaction, because it seems obvious ‒ but foods that your body hates probably aren’t part of a healthy diet for you.

When in doubt, see a pro (if you can)

Based solely on anecdotal evidence, if you have health benefits through work, I bet there’s one you haven’t used: the services of a registered nutritionist or dietician.

If you do have benefits covering those services, seeing a registered pro can be a great way to identify what a healthy diet looks like. They may also be able to help demystify this entire process for you.

Step Two: Plan Your Meals

You’ve gathered all of the information about:

  • what you like to eat,
  • what you need to eat, and
  • what you can’t eat as part of a healthy diet.

...Now it’s time to put that information into action, and make a plan for what you’re going to eat this week.

Figure out what you’re going to eat this week

Make a plan for which recipes you’re going to cook, and how much of each recipe you’re going to make. While you’re doing this, consider…

  • what ingredients you already have on hand,
  • how much time you’ll need to spend prepping each meal,
  • how many leftover meals you want to get out of it, and
  • whether there are any cost-conscious substitutions you can make.

At the end of the process, you should have a list of the exact groceries you need to get to make it through the week – which is your shopping list for the week. (Obviously.)

Plan meals with overlapping ingredients

If you need to buy a ‘Very Specific Ingredient’ for a recipe, make sure that you can buy the exact amount you need to avoid waste.

And in the case that you can’t? Plan for a week of meals that can use up that ingredient.

If you know you’ll need half a head of cabbage for your lunch salads, for example, figure out at least one other meal you can make for dinners that uses up the other half.

You’ll save money and food waste at the same time. Win, win!

Understand portions

What makes for an appropriate portion is highly dependent on you, your body and your energy needs.

That said, if you only need five portions for your lunch, and you make 20…you probably spent more than you needed to on food...and you’re going to be eating that meal for a while.

Make sure to plan for how big your portions are, and how much you need to make at once. And if you do happen to overshoot on portion size, see if the meal you made freezes well. This is usually true of things like soups, but not so true of a fresh salad.

If it doesn't freeze well? Well...maybe you’re eating it for lunch and dinner to avoid waste.

Related: Food Investment: Interview with A Local Farmer

Find recipes that won’t break the bank

The easiest way to save money is before you even get to the store, by making choices for your weekly menu that won’t break the bank.

Take it from someone who once spent $40 on meat for a stew – there are delicious, nutritious recipes out there that won’t break the bank.

Try Budget Bytes to start. It’s a food blog that breaks down the price per serving of each recipe, and has recipes (and adjustments) that can accommodate almost any diet. While the prices listed are in US dollars, the main ingredients in most of the meals tend to be similarly affordable here in Canada.

Pay attention to what’s leftover

Even if you do your best to plan your portions and meals and ingredients, you will find times when you forgot to account for something. Maybe it was a team lunch at work, or an ingredient you assumed would get used up but didn’t.

Even in the worst case scenario that you can’t adjust and make use of the food, take it as a lesson, and use the information to plan ahead for next week.

Step Three: Comparison Shop

While yes, prep work is more than half the battle, the rubber hits the road when you swipe your card or hand over cash at your grocery store, a farmer’s market, a club store or (gasp) a restaurant.

To figure out how to find the best deals and make your money go further, there are a few concrete steps you can take.

Related: Which Grocery Store Has The Lowest Prices?

Keep an eye on prices

How much does your favourite kind of apple cost per pound?

If you don’t know off the top of your head, you should start to keep an eye on the prices you’re currently paying for the foods you eat on a regular basis.

No, you don’t need to be ready to compete on The Price is Right, but you do need to be able to spot a good deal when you see one – and to do that, you need to know what the regular price is for those things.

Use apps to your advantage

Luckily, you don’t need to spend hours scouring local flyers, or visiting multiple grocery stores to price-check the groceries you’re going to buy anyways.

With grocery apps, you can search through all the flyers in your area for the things you need, so you can quickly see where you can score the best price on chicken this week.

Since you now know what a “regular” price for chicken is, you’ll also be able to tell when a deal is good enough to justify going a bit out of your way to get the sale price, and when it’s just not worth the extra 15 minutes travel time.

(There’s no point driving an extra hour to get $3 in savings, in my opinion.)

Know which stores will price match

The easiest way to get a good deal and stick with your regular stores is to know which stores will price match. You get the best deal, and you don’t have to go out of your way to get it, which is pretty much the best case scenario.

All you really need to do is ask, and pull up the other deal on your phone when you hit the cash register.

As of today, some Canadian grocery stores that will price match include FreshCo, No Frills, Walmart and Real Canadian Superstore. If your regular store isn’t on that list, it’s worth checking on their website, and even (omg) calling to ask.

(Pssst. We’ve listed a summary of price matching policies of 24 Canadian stores.)

Step Four: Buy in Bulk Where Appropriate

I’m not here to argue that buying in bulk is always a good idea, because that’s 100% not the case, and I’ll stand by that statement.

If you’re single, or you eat a lot of highly perishable foods – or both – buying in bulk might not be the money-saver everyone says it is.

But…it’s worth at least keeping an eye on the following things to see if maybe you could save some dough on staples by stocking up at a bulk food store.

Evaluate your storage options

If you live in a tiny house, or even just a regular-sized condo, you might not have pantry space for days.

Before you go hard at Costco, make sure that you know exactly how much room you have to store your scores. Because if that giant box of oatmeal needs to live on your counter for the four months it takes you to finish it, you’re not going to be happy about it. I promise.

Compare the cost of buying in bulk

Once you know you’ve got the space to accommodate some bulk food shopping, and that the bulk items aren’t going to go bad before you can eat them…

It’s time to compare prices before signing up for that Costco membership, or schlepping out to the only Costco in town.

Related: Costco’s Crazy Return Policy

Some items will be bonafide deals, but others might be only slightly cheaper than you can get on sale at your local store, in which case it becomes really hard to justify the cost of joining a bulk food store and getting there on a semi-regular basis.

Only buy what fits into your plan

This seems like a hit-you-over-the-head obvious point, but it bears repeating:

Buying something in bulk because “it’s a good deal” is never going to help you stick to your food budget if you don’t eat it.

That’s why it always pays to look back at your plan, and your grocery list, before springing for the 24-pack of canned tuna.

If you plan on making ham sandwiches, that tuna isn’t going to do you much good.

Step Five: Evaluate Your Progress

As you keep tabs on your grocery spending, it’s worth noting that optimizing your grocery budget isn’t something that happens overnight.

You’ll need to keep an eye on things like how your new, healthy meal plans make you feel, whether you like the food, and yes, how much you’re actually spending on food.

If you notice that sure, the meals are healthy, but you hate them, or that you’re left with way more food than you can reasonably eat – it’s time to go back to the drawing board and adjust your plan.

The same advice applies if you’re still going way over your budget: what substitutions or adjustments can you make to your plan and your shopping habits to fit your healthy meal plan into your budget?

It might be a process, but it’s 100% possible. You just need to put in the work.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The content here reflects the author's opinion alone, and is not endorsed or sponsored by a bank, credit card issuer, rewards program or other entity.

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JOAN MELNICK's picture

I try to ride my bike to the grocery store and what I purchase has to be "LIGHT WEIGHT". I have found items that include water when you purchase them are heavy
I purchase dehydrated as much as possible. For instance, powdered milk, frozen juice concentrate, Healthy Soups for emergency when I do not make my own come in dehydrated versions.
If you can add your own liquids why pay for them? Purchase sugar free flavour crystals for drinks

January 16, 2018 @ 11:52 am
Marpy's picture

Not only do I eat healthy on a budget but I also eat well on a budget. I prefer calling it eating well for cheep as I never had a budget for food. The 2 biggest contributers to eating well for low cost are:

1) stocking up when on sale or in season. I buy strip loin steak at the supermarket for $5.99 a pound or less and freeze it. Same for Prime chicken breasts at $2.99 a pound. You could also do well buying the whole chicken on sale for cheep and cut it up. Pork loin can be had for $1.99 a pound. In the fall, you can get 10 pounds of onions or beets for $1.99. As long as you have a cold cellar or even a basement cold spot these will last through the winter. Slicing and freezing pepper bought for cheap also works well as we use these in various dishes throughout the year. 0.99 cents a pound or less is a lot better than $2.99 or more out of season. I don't do it because its to much work and prices, especially on sale are reasonable but you could get into canning vegetable. By my thinking , canned beans, corn, tomatoes etc. can be found for under $1.00 so why bother.

2) staying away from prepared foods. - not only are prepared foods bad for you because of all the salt, preservatives and chemicals they contain. but they are also very expensive as compared to making your own. most days I put together a very good meal (meat, vegetable and salad in under one hour from start to on the table.

Another way to save money is to grow your own. This does take time and so you have to like gardening.but you do not have to be good at it. I like gardening but I am not good at it and have a 15 foot by 15 ft garden.I grow the basics - tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and zucchini. This year, I went from August to mid November without having to buy any tomatoes and we eat tomatoes every day in our salad as well as other ways. We also got lots of the other stuff as well.

January 16, 2018 @ 4:59 pm
Stephen Weyman
Stephen Weyman's picture

Great tips Marpy. Again goes to show much money you can save with a little planning ahead.

January 17, 2018 @ 11:13 am
North'n'Loans's picture

I think that eating healthily will repay a hundredfold in the future no matter how much money you put into this. Your health is worth all the money you can put in it because this is what determines whether you will be happy in the future and whether you have a family and a career to be healthy enough to build. Healthy eating may cost a lot but medicine costs even more if you think about it. So it is better to start taking care of your body now.

January 30, 2018 @ 7:48 am
Claudette's picture

These are good tips to follow. All it takes a little bit of planning and some keen eyes on flyers.

I have meat eating people here and found ingenious ways to stretch some of the pricier options quite easily. (We don't eat factory produced meat, so pasture fed animals are more expensive to consume). It's less challenging in the colder months as I do use the crockpot/slowcooker quite often.

To make meat sauce for spaghetti for example, I may use my food processor and thicken the sauce with affordable alternative options like beans or chickpeas, kale or other greens, hemp hearts...that kind of thing.

To make Mexican inspired dishes with ground beef, chicken or pork I stretch it with an addition of quinoa....

There are many ideas on the web.

Pending on where you shop, you can get many things like this at a bulk place.

February 01, 2018 @ 1:56 pm

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