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Eat Healthy, Cheap

Often times, it seems that healthy food costs a lot more than junk food. But sticking to a budget and living frugally doesn’t have to mean forgoing eating healthfully. After all, what good is health without wealth?

We all know why we should eat right. A healthy diet:

  • Provides energy to work and play
  • Prevents chronic disease
  • Builds stronger bodies
  • May help us live longer

How can you eat healthfully without breaking your budget? It’s not easy, but it doesn’t take a PhD in nutrition science to put together a frugal but healthy shopping list.

What should we eat? Again, eating healthfully isn’t difficult—we just need to pick the right foods. My favorite piece of nutrition advice is to shop on the perimeter of the grocery store. Avoid the aisles, where all the processed food (i.e. junk food) lives. It’s simple, and it works. The foods you’ll find on the outside of the grocery store include:

  • Vegetables, low in calories and packed with thousands of nutrients. The greener the better.
  • Fruit, containing loads of vitamins
  • Protein, which our muscles need for strength.
  • Good fats like those found in fish, nuts, and lean meat.
  • Whole grains.
  • Water.

Now let’s get into some tips for eating health on a budget.

1. Learn to make smoothies. Smoothies made with low fat plain yogurt, whey protein powder, and an endless combination of fruits and/or vegetables provide lots of nutrition on the go. A batch that costs between $5 and $10 to make will give you two or three super healthy meals

2. Drink water from the tap. Our bodies need 64 ounces of water (or more) a day, depending on how much we weigh and how many calories we expend. Although we can get our needed water from food and other beverages, soda and juices contain lots of refined sugars which pack on pounds—and they cost money. Water, from the tap, is either free or very inexpensive. And in most of the world, tap water is safe. If it tastes funky, invest in a Brita Filter. I had a friend who drank several full calories sodas a day. By switching to water alone he dropped 15 or 20 pounds in a couple months. And he probably saved $50 a month, too!

3. Learn to love eggs, tuna, and beans. These three foods are all packed with protein and super cheap. Buy dry beans in bags over cans and alternate these proteins with some chicken or turkey (more expensive but also health) and whey powder in smoothies and such.

4. Buy frozen. When single, one of my biggest excuses to eat poorly was that any fresh, health food that I would buy would go bad before I could eat it—especially fresh vegetables. Buying frozen vegetables and berries (which are packed with good nutrients) solves that problem. Frozen veggies are inexpensive and actually taste pretty darn good—in my opinion better than canned ones.

5. Buy generic. Generic supermarket brands are often about 10% cheaper than name brands and often taste the same. You really do pay for the marketing.

6. Shrink your portions. Most of us eat way too much in one sitting anyway. Not only do we eat more calories than we need, we eat up more of our hard-earned money too! Stretch one meal into two or three. This is especially useful when you eat out, because restaurant portions are always way too big anyway!

7. Take (a few) supplements. If you’re on a budget, chances are you won’t get all of the fresh fruits and vegetables you need, meaning you’ll be missing some vitamins. A multivitamin is a good insurance policy to make sure you get everything you need no matter your diet. Fish oil capsules are another good way to get needed omega 3 fatty acids which have been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce body fat. Just be careful you don’t go overboard; it’s easy to spend a small fortune in a vitamin store, and there is little scientific proof that swallowing a fistful of daily pills will make you a super-person. One thing’s for sure, it will never replace a balanced diet.

Did I miss your favorite frugal healthy eating tip? Please share it in a comment!

Published or updated on February 2, 2009

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About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.


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  1. Steven says:

    Another great way to eat cheaply is to buy your food in bulk from warehouse stores, such as Sam’s Club. While 90% of the stuff in warehouse stores is cheaper (and a much bigger package) than the Walmart alternative, there are somethings that aren’t cheaper, so know your deals.

  2. Very nice post on nutrition. Hope to learn more from you.

  3. Susan Epperson says:

    I never ate tuna until I was out of college living on my own and pinching pennies. I had a roommate who would cook a batch of mac and cheese, and throw in some peas and tuna. It’s a great way to ease yourself into a good source of protein and Omegas.

    And, don’t forget the beans and rice. It’s so simple (blk beans, a little butter, a little garlic and a little cumin), but it’s delicious!! You can keep it simple, or dress it up with salsa, cheese, avocado, grilled meats. It’s a quick, easy and cheap meal.

  4. Jessc098 says:

    Another great tip–learn to cook African food. The protiens are based in beans and legumes and the savory-spiciness of east-african cuisine is very satisfying. My family of four eats out at east-african places in downtown Seattle for about $25 (about 1/3 of the cost of our meals out) and we always have enough leftovers for another meal. I’ve learned how to cook many Ethiopian dishes and they’re easy and yummy!

  5. This is great advice! Especially the part about shopping around the perimeter of the store and avoiding the center aisles.

    Not only are processed foods bereft of nutrtion, they are injected with unwanted chemicals, additives and preservatives that can cause obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Some of these chemicals are even linked to cancer!
    Whole foods, including green leafy vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, beans and grains, provide essential nutrients that are not found in processed foods.
    All whole foods contain protein. Seeds, nuts, beans, and grains like quinoa, are inexpensive protein sources that we all should incorporate into our daily meals.

    But if you REALLY want to save money, not to mention saving you health AND the environment, the best hint of all is to stop eating all animal products: meat, eggs and dairy.
    Don’t listen to the food industry, all they want is your money. Eat more healthy veges and grains by eating less, or none, of unhealthy and often unsafe dead animals!!

    Here’s to your good health!

  6. This will sound a bit crazy, but Totino’s pizzas are fantastic. There is a decent amount of protein in the canadian bacon, and it’s quite filling. I added veggies and salad dressing on top of them and it made for a great meal at less than $2.00.

    I’m working on a love for tuna, but I’m not making much progress. I do well on whole grains and water though. Great tips!

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