Budget Eating

Think you can’t afford to eat healthy? Think again.  Just try these tips and your grocery bill can go from $100.00 to $50.00 by taking advantage of in-store specials, coupons and buying the right foods.  As you read my tips for budget eating, keep in mind these principles: Know your meal plan, control your portions, and eat ordinary foods.

  • Eat regular foods. Just because you’re trying to eat healthy, doesn’t mean that all your foods need to be low-carb, sugar-free, or fat-free. Sure, there is a place for some of these foods, but you can eat 100% whole wheat bread instead of low-carb bread. Don’t cook separate meals for yourself and the rest of the family; you can all eat the same healthy foods.
  • Stick to a weekly meal plan. You’ve heard it before, and the task seems overwhelming, but one trip to the grocery store each week instead of four does save money. When thinking about your meal plan, don’t think of seven big dinners for the week; rather, think three dinners and then some creative “planned leftovers.” Leftover chicken is fine to have again the next day. Just pair it with a different starch and vegetable, and you have another meal. Or, make chicken quesadillas out of the leftover chicken.  You can even plan meals by including items that are on sale. Check out the store circular and take advantage of those sales. Many grocery stores even list them online if you don’t get the newspaper.
    Purchase store brands. You may be loyal to a few product brands but try the store brands or generics. It may not seem like you’ve saved a lot of money each time you buy the lower-priced store brand, but it adds up over time.
  • Clip coupons. This seems tedious but the savings are well worth your time. Many grocery stores double coupons up to fifty cents, and some still double up to a .99 cents or a dollar. I find free products almost every week by using doubled coupons.
  • Grow your own veggies and fruit. Nothing beats fresh fruits and vegetables, especially from your own backyard. Seeds and plants are cheap and the result is economical healthy eating. Even if you only grow basil, you can use it to make pesto sauce!  If gardening isn’t for you, or if you don’t have the space, try your local farmer’s market.
  • Explore thrifty dining. You can still eat out healthy on a budget. Just know the menu prices before you go — again, many restaurants post sample menus online. And when you eat out, don’t go all out: Most of the time, we leave a restaurant feeling too full after drinks, appetizers, entrée, and dessert.  On the other hand, don’t fall for the dollar menu that may be full of high fat items.  Also, stay away from meal deals if they only include French fries and you can’t sub a salad.
  • Stick to a shopping list.  It will help you avoid impulse buying which can be expensive.
  • Have a snack before you grocery shop so you won’t buy things out of hunger.
  • Fill your shopping cart with plenty of fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish, lean meats, whole wheat bread and non and low fat dairy. Staying away from pre-cut and pre-packaged items also saves you money.   This means, you will have to trim and dice your own chicken or potatoes rather than buying chicken nuggets or frozen french fries.  Often times it’s cheaper to buy, for an example, these whole broccoli pieces rather than just the broccoli crowns.
  • Buy large packages and divide the items in small containers. This is less expensive than more convenient but costlier lunch size items. It also pays to read the labels on the shelves. These tags will tell us how much we’re paying per ounce. For whole grain bread, it’s pretty hefty bread, you’re getting quite a bit of whole grains and you’re only paying 14.1 cents per ounce.
  • Read the nutrition labels on the packages too. If you just compare the labels, generic brands are often as good.  Often times store brands such as Wal-Mart’s Great Value are less expensive than brand names. Take advantage of club card discounts, especially if you shop consistently at the same chain.

Here are some ways you can improve your family’s health without ruining your budget:
Eliminate junk food. You may have to do your grocery shopping alone, since children (and sometimes spouses!) are often the ones who request the junk foods. A trip to my local supermarket showed these prices for typical junk foods and beverages:

Case of name brand soft drinks-$5.99
20 ounce bag of potato chips-$4.19
Box of snack cakes-$1.99
Package of 8 toaster-tarts-$2. 39 (each one contains 20 grams of sugar)
Package of chocolate chip cookies-$3.59
Half-gallon of ice cream-$3.99
Box of pre-sweetened cereal-$3.19
8 juice boxes-$2.94 (each contains 26 grams of sugar)
1 box of 12 glazed doughnuts-$3.99

The total amount for the above items was $ 32.26

With that amount of money, here is what you could purchase instead: (this cost the exact same amount!)

Lemons and limes to flavor water $1.75
2 boxes of light microwave popcorn (store brand) $3.00
1 bag of apples $2.69
1 watermelon $3.50
1 loaf of 100% whole wheat bread $1.99
1 container of natural peanut butter (store brand) $1.99
1 gallon of organic soy milk $3.69
1 box of generic corn flakes $1.69
1 box of generic cheerios $1.99
100% orange juice $1.99
2 lbs of 90% lean ground beef $6.99
1 pack whole wheat hamburger buns $.99

Here’s how to make the changes:

  • Water or rice milk instead of soft drinks. (You can still enjoy your favorite beverage when you go out to a sporting event, movie, etc. Just stick with the smallest size to save money AND calories!).
  • Buy whole fruit instead of chips, cookies, doughnuts or snack cakes. One large banana equals 2 servings; 1 pound of grapes equals several servings; other fruit should be purchased in season in your area. Apples are less expensive in the fall. If you live in the south, oranges, lemons and grapefruit may be plentiful in your area, so use lots of them. Melons are usually less expensive in the summer months.
  • Limit juice to 1/2 cup per day, or if you eat 2-3 servings of fruit a day, just don’t even buy juice, you don’t need it!  If you still need juice, instead of juice boxes or bottles, look for natural juice in half gallon cartons or bottles. If your kids want to drink their juice from individual serving bottles, buy your own plastic bottles and straws at the dollar store and wash them out at night.
  • Buy fruits in quantity when they are in season and freeze extras. When strawberries and blueberries are plentiful, I always buy several pounds and freeze in plastic zipper bags. Wash the fruit well; remove any spoiled pieces, dry thoroughly on paper towels, and freeze. Be sure to squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible to prevent freezer burn. You can also purchase frozen fruits out-of-season. Just check the labels to make sure they were not dowsed in sugar prior to freezing.
  • Look for pick-your-own farms that allow you to pick your own fruit for less. Take the whole family and enjoy some fresh air and exercise!
  • Eat yogurt instead of ice cream for snacks. I know that Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart superstores frequently have low prices for yogurt. Stock up with enough to last several days. To save even more, buy large cartons of plain yogurt and add your own fresh fruit.
  • Skip the pre-sweetened cereal and replace with oatmeal or other hot cereal. A large box of 1-minute oatmeal contains 30 servings and costs $1.99 for the generic kind (oatmeal is oatmeal!). Each serving contains 4 grams of fiber. Add fresh/frozen fruit or a teaspoon of natural jelly (100 percent fruit) or a teaspoon of local honey for sweetener.
  • Buy fresh vegetables in season, grow your own (tomatoes can be grown in pots on the patio if you don’t have a yard or garden), or purchase frozen vegetables. Vegetables are frozen at the peak of ripeness and contain as many vitamins and minerals as fresh. Instead of using rich sauces, steam your veggies and season with fresh herbs-which you can also grow easily in pots on your window sill or patio. Stock up on frozen vegetables when your grocery store has a sale.
  • Meats and beans are good sources of protein. Lean meats are more expensive than meats with lots of fat, but still substantially less expensive than paying high medical bills incurred from consuming a high fat, less nutritive diet. Here are other ways to save on protein foods:
  • Watch your portion sizes. Even an adult male, 35 years old who exercises more than 1 hour a day (in addition to regular routine) only needs 7 ounces of meat or beans a day spread over 3 meals. Cook only enough of those foods to give everyone the recommended amount. For a family of 5, 1 pound of ground chuck would be enough to give Dad 4 ounces, Mom 3 ounces, a 10 year old boy and 8 year old twin girls 3 ounces each. Those are the serving sizes recommended by the new USDA guidelines. (A 3-ounce portion of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.)
  • Skip the bacon. Bacon is expensive, very high in fat, and offers little or no nutritional value.
  • Use beans frequently as a meat substitute. There are many varieties, they can be prepared in a crock-pot so that dinner is ready when you get home, and they contain lots of fiber to improve regularity. The USDA recommends eating beans 4 times per week. If you have a problem with gas after eating beans, try washing them, covering with water, bringing water to a boil, then draining off water and refilling pot. You can also use Beano — a natural plant enzyme — if you have problems with gas.
  • Fish is also a great source of protein, make that a staple in your diet.  Just be sure to grill, bake or broil, do not fry your fish!
  • Purchase chicken or turkey on sale and freeze. Again, be aware of healthful portion sizes. Some chicken breasts are large enough for 2-3 servings. Don’t cook more than you need.
  • Peanut butter is inexpensive and popular with almost everyone. Use it for sandwiches instead of hotdogs or lunch meat, and buy natural peanut butter. It does need to be refrigerated, since the oil rises to the top at room temperature, but it does not contain the unhealthy partially-hydrogenated fats that are in other peanut butters.  Try storing it upside down after you have stirred it to keep it mixed.
  • Fill up with foods that have a high water content. Salad greens, watermelon, and sugar free gelatin are some good examples. Serve a green salad at the beginning of each dinner, topped with a small amount of vinegar and oil, or a squeeze of lemon juice.
  • Whole wheat bread is normally more expensive than white bread, but since white bread usually has little, if any fiber or nutritional value, it is worth the extra money. If you have a bakery outlet nearby, stock up on day-old bread and freeze. I live near a Marita outlet store, and a loaf of whole wheat bread costs 99 cents. If your family doesn’t like the coarse texture of most whole wheat breads, try different brands until you find one you find acceptable. Make sure the label says 100 percent whole grain and lists the first ingredient as whole wheat flour.
  • If you live in a small town or rural area and do not have a large supermarket or discount grocery nearby, consider making a trip once a month to a larger town to stock up on lower-priced non-perishable foods.


Here’s to your health!
Joanne Rinker MS, RD, CDE, LDN