As we know more and more about the benefits of fresh, healthy meals, it’s no wonder that everyone wants to eat healthier these days. And of course, we want to do it without breaking the bank.
Big food chains make it easy to enjoy a double, extra-loaded and extra-unhealthy burger and fries for less than a five-spot. While some see these value menus as an easy and tasty way to save a buck or two, eating like this will obviously take its toll down the line. Conventional wisdom suggests that healthy meals that include fresh vegetables and lean proteins have to be expensive. Not so.
Luckily, there are definitely easy ways to plan and eat healthy meals on a budget. Let’s take a look.
#1. Plan Ahead
If you leave food decisions until the last minute, you’re more likely to reach for the Big Mac. But small changes in how you plan your meals will go a long way. Here are a couple of ways to plan for healthy meals that will save money:
- Check your local grocery ads and coupons weekly, and, from there, come up with a rough meal plan.
- Get familiar with when various produce items are in season. Here’s are some chart options to get you started. Remember: in-season items are usually sold at a lower price.
- Make meals in bulk to eat on for a week or freeze. This is a skill I’ve been working to master for years, and, while it takes time to perfect, I’m always ecstatic when I’ve got a prepped meal in the freezer or fridge. The popular blog, Money Saving Mom, does regular features on bulk freezer meals.
- Avoid processed items by shopping the perimeter of the grocery story. They may seem cheaper off-the-shelf, but fresh items often boast multiple uses.
#2. Buy Local
Farmer’s markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are great ways to get fresh, organic, beautiful produce for a great price, while also supporting your community. Farmer’s markets can also be a fun and free activity for you and family or friends. Many people love spending Saturday morning browsing their local market. In addition to produce, you’ll find honey, fresh flowers, baked goods, and more.
Daily deal sites are also starting to offer deals for food from local farmers or CSAs. Of course, proceed with caution and make sure the deal really is a “deal” before you snag it.
#3. Freeze Foods
Buying in-season produce is the first step in saving money on crispy greens or succulent fruits, but freezing them is another option for saving money with long-lasting effects. Almost any food can be frozen; I remember my mother buying several gallons of milk when it was on sale and freezing them in our deep freezer!
Certain vegetables like carrots and califlower may need to be blanched (dipped in boiling water, then immediately into ice water) before freezing to prevent freezer burn and maintain freshness.
It’s also a good idea to freeze small food items (like berries) on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper before putting them all in the same container to avoid one frozen monster berry.
Finally, many meals can be made in bulk, divided and frozen for several months for a quick meal. For more, here’s a guide on freezing foods.
#4. Start a Garden
Since buying my first house, this has been a goal of mine. I’d love to produce all my favorite fruits, vegetables, and herbs. It’d be nice to walk out my back door to pick a couple of tomatoes instead of rushing to the grocery store after work, not to mention a heck of a lot cheaper.
There are several things to remember when starting your own garden. One of the biggest annoyances is warding off pests and animals.
I learned this the hard way; there were already several raspberry bushes in my backyard when I bought my house. They started growing like crazy a couple of weeks ago— there have been hundreds of perfect red raspberries. One day I was getting ready to go pick them and I got out there and every single one of them was gone! Turns out a bird some other critter got to them before I did. Lesson learned; protect your plants!
Here are some tips to get your garden going:
- Keep a source of water nearby to attract friendly predators; those critters that keep away the pests that eat up your plants.
- Water regularly but don’t drown your plants. Water in the morning and aim for the roots, not the plants themselves.
- Plant a variety of things. Not only will you enjoy different foods, but this is also supposed to help prevent pests.
- Weed by hand. Chemical weed killers will also kill your plants! You can mulch around your garden to prevent weeds.
- Consider wire-mesh fencing or raise beds to keep away the critters.
#5. Use One Food, Get Endless Options
Kerry Washington, the uber-frugal writer behind the Squawk Fox blog, is the queen of stretching food items as far as they can go. One of her more famous ventures was using one organic chicken to make 22 meals for just $49 dollars. By making items like chicken broth, chicken soup, and other chicken-based meals, she made that bird well worth the forty-nine bucks.
For further reading, check out this follow-up series on this topic, where Kerry offered even more ideas on getting more bird for your buck.
#6. Swap Meals
If cooking isn’t your idea of a good time, but hanging out with friends and having some drinks is, than meal swaps might just be for you.
Here’s the idea: get a small group of your friends together. Everyone picks a simple and healthy meal ahead of time (think chicken and veggie stir-frys, simple casseroles, or baked dishes). Gather at someone’s house (who hopefully has a large kitchen!), hang out, cook, and hang out some more. After the food’s done, everyone takes a portion home to stash in the fridge or freezer and – ta-da! – a week’s worth of meals at a low cost, all while having a blast.
#7. Choose Less Expensive Protein
Eggs, beans, nut butters, and high-protein grains are great alternatives to animal-based protein at a fraction of the cost. Sometimes, they’re healthier too.
For dinner, try swapping in these meal ideas instead of centering your meal around meat:
- Breakfast casserole containing scrambled eggs, shredded cheese and chopped (in-season) veggies
- Lentil soup with your favorite beans and veggies
- Cooked quinoa as a topping for your favorite salad
- Mexican taco salad with refried beans or black beans, fresh salsa, crushed taco shells, chopped veggies, shredded cheese, etc.
Here are some other places to score cheap and healthy recipe ideas:
- Eating Well magazine offers an online selection of budget-friendly meals.
- The popular image/idea sharing website, Pinterest, is crawling with ideas for bulk cooking, freezer cooking, and crock-pot meals to make your dollar stretch.
- Get Rich Slowly offered their ideas for quick and cheap meals here.
What about you? How do you make your food budget fit into a healthy lifestyle? Let us know in a comment.