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How to eat healthy on a budget

Key takeaways

  • Health foods often cost more, which can make it hard to eat healthy on a budget. But there are tricks to make eating well more affordable.
  • Consider limiting restaurant meals, making a plan for everything you buy before it spoils, and buying generic over brand-name items.
  • Foods marketed as "healthy"—such as fresh and organic produce—aren't always worth the extra cost.

Eating a healthy diet and sticking to a budget are often tough to do one at a time. Trying to tackle them together could feel like a losing battle. Anyone who's ever stocked up on produce and watched it wither away knows the struggle. It stings even more if you've splurged on the pricey organic kind.

The good news? With careful meal planning and shopping, you could learn how to eat healthy on a budget. Here are 10 ways to get your diet and finances on track at the same time.

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How to eat healthy on a budget

1. Cook more at home

Chances are, cooking your own meals will be cheaper than buying the same dish at a restaurant. After all, when you go out to eat, you're not just paying for the cost of the ingredients. You're also paying for the labor to prepare and serve your food, the chef's expertise, and the restaurant's rent and utility bills, among other expenses. Add in tax and tip, and it's no wonder the average American spent about $3,640 on restaurant meals in 2022.1

Cooking more at home won't just save you money—it could be healthier than dining out too. According to a recent study from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, less than 0.1% of all restaurant meals eaten by the 35,000 Americans surveyed were of "ideal nutritional quality."2 That could be because restaurants tend to use more salt, fat, and sugar than most home cooks.

2. Start with an inventory before you go shopping

The average American household throws away roughly a third of the food they buy each year.3 That's hundreds of dollars that could be used to pay down debt, invest for the future, or just have some fun.

One good way to reduce food waste? Take stock of all your food before you shop for more. Always look at what's already in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Note anything that's getting close to expiring and make a plan to use it up before it has to be thrown away. This'll also help keep you from buying multiples of the same thing. (Because who needs a third bottle of soy sauce taking up room in the fridge?)

3. Buy store brands

If you're looking to stretch your food budget even further, consider swapping name-brand goods for generic versions. The switch could help you save about 40%, according to CNET.4 So if you spend $400 per month on name-brand groceries, going generic could potentially translate into $160 saved each month—or more than $1,900 per year.

Worried about the downgrade? The difference in taste and quality between name brand and generic brands is probably less noticeable than you might think. This is especially true for staples such as milk and eggs.

4. Buy in bulk

Bulk buying is one of the oldest tricks in the budgeting book for a simple reason: It works. Sometimes the savings come via the manufacturer, as single large packages use fewer materials and therefore cost less money to produce. Other times, retailers discount larger packages to encourage you to buy more. Either way, a LendingTree study found buying in bulk saved shoppers 27% per unit compared to buying smaller amounts of the same item.5

Just don't buy more than you'll eat before the food spoils. Healthy pantry staples—think: nuts, beans, cereals, and whole grains—are considered good bulk buys because they last so long.

5. Embrace frozen produce

Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Study after study has linked higher produce consumption with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and even some cancers.6 Unfortunately, fresh fruits and veggies can be expensive.

Luckily, lower-cost frozen fruits and vegetables could be just as nutrient-dense as their fresh counterparts because they tend to be picked and preserved at peak ripeness. Besides being cheaper, frozen produce lasts longer than fresh, so you're less likely to waste it.

6. Shop seasonally

When produce is in season, it's much cheaper (and more flavorful and nutritious) than when it's out of season. That's because produce that's out of season in your area must be grown somewhere else and shipped to you. The farther something is shipped, the more it could cost to transport and store it—possibly for as long as a year—and the more expensive it could be.

Does that mean you should only eat fresh produce in the summer months? Of course not. But favoring in-season fruit and vegetables whenever possible could benefit your food budget.

Not sure what's in and out of season? Check out the USDA's seasonal produce guide.

7. Look for "ugly" produce

According to the Berkeley Economic Review, 10 million pounds of fresh produce get thrown away each year—and not because they've gone bad. They get tossed because blemishes and other flaws make the fruits and veggies unappealing to shoppers.7

To minimize waste, grocery stores might discount less-than-perfect produce to make people more likely to buy it. Those fruits and veggies are just as nutritious, but could cost 20% to 60% less.8

More of an online shopper? A crop of delivery services ship "ugly" produce right to your door at marked-down prices.

8. Think twice about organics

Many people choose to eat organic foods to reduce their exposure to pesticides. If you've already gone organic, you know it costs more than eating nonorganic—often, a lot more.

Still, you don't have to swear off organics to stick to your budget. But you could go organic only when there's a significant benefit. For instance, you might decide to go organic for produce known to be treated with a lot of pesticides, such as strawberries and spinach. And you might skip the organic versions of avocados, onions, and other produce that aren't intensely treated.

9. Find cheaper sources of protein

Substituting meat for more cost-effective protein sources could help your health. That's because some meats are linked with higher risks for cancer, and death from heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.

And it could help your budget too because meat is often the most expensive ingredient in a meal. For instance, a pound of ground beef cost $5.23 on average in October 2023, while a pound of beans was just $1.63, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.9 That means replacing some or all of the beef with beans every time you make chili could cut your food costs while boosting your fiber intake and lowering your fat consumption.

10. Don't buy foods you don't like just because they're "healthy"

Picture this: You're walking through the produce department when your eyes land on your mortal veggie enemy ... kale. Then, you remember an article you read touting kale as one of the healthiest foods you could eat. Ashamed about your lack of kale consumption, you put a bundle of the leafy greens into your cart, even though you don't like it. You return home and forget about your purchase—until you rediscover it in the back of the fridge 2 weeks later, slimy and unused. Into the compost heap it goes.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you're not doing your wallet or health any favors by buying nutritious foods you won't eat. Instead, pick up spinach, collard greens, or whatever leafy green you like to get similar nutrients to kale. As long as you're eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, there's no reason to torture yourself and bust your budget over superfoods you think are super gross.

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1. Table A, Average income and expenditures of all consumer units, 2020–22, “Consumer Expenditures, 2022,” US Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 8, 2023. 2. Audrey Laganas Jenkins, "On the menu: Study says dining out is a recipe for unhealthy eating for most Americans," Tufts Now, January 29, 2020. 3. Yang Yu and Edward C. Jaenicke, "Estimating Food Waste as Household Production Inefficiency," American Journal of Agricultural Economics, January 23, 2020. 4. Pamela Vachon, "Ever Wonder How Much Cheaper Store-Brand Groceries Are? We Did the Math," CNET, June 22, 2023. 5. Maggie Davis, "Buying in Bulk Could Save Shoppers 27%, on Average—Led by Paper Towels, Water, and Batteries," LendingTree, September 18, 2023. 6. "Vegetables and Fruits," The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 7. BER Staff, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Produce Movement," Berkeley Economic Review, February 16, 2021. 8. Dagny Dukach, "To Sell an Ugly Product, Just Call It That," Harvard Business Review, November-December 2021. 9. "Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, US and Midwest Region," US Bureau of Labor Statistics, October 2023.

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