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!
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.
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.
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.
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.