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Healthy Meals On A Budget: Seven Tips For Eating Well On Less

Healthy meals don't have to cost a lot.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: 

  1. Check your local grocery ads and coupons weekly, and, from there, come up with a rough meal plan.
  2. Get familiar with when various produce items are in seasonHere’s are some chart options to get you started. Remember: in-season items are usually sold at a lower price.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

  1. Keep a source of water nearby to attract friendly predators; those critters that keep away the pests that eat up your plants.
  2. Water regularly but don’t drown your plants.  Water in the morning and aim for the roots, not the plants themselves.
  3. Plant a variety of things. Not only will you enjoy different foods, but this is also supposed to help prevent pests.
  4. Weed by hand. Chemical weed killers will also kill your plants! You can mulch around your garden to prevent weeds.
  5. 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:

What about you?  How do you make your food budget fit into a healthy lifestyle? Let us know in a comment.

Published or updated on July 20, 2012

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About Amber Gilstrap

Amber is a twenty-something CPA from Kansas City, Missouri who loves writing, working out, and---of course---finding fresh ideas for saving money. Follow her on twitter @amberinks.


We invite readers to respond with questions or comments. Comments may be held for moderation and will be published according to our comment policy. Comments are the opinions of their authors; they do not represent the views or opinions of Money Under 30.

  1. Drew says:

    I haven’t bought meat at a store in 2 years. I hunt for my meat. I go on two hunting trips a year in the fall and one or two fishing trips in the spring. I typically take 2 deer and 20-30 dove or pheasant and catch 10-20 red snapper in the spring. I have all of the meat butched and vacuum sealed and then it goes into the freezer. I get hambuger, jerky, sausage, and back strap filets from the deer. The dove and pheasant are perfectly sized for one serving. I also vacuum seal the snapper. 2 deer typically yields 110-120 lbs of meat for the cost of $2 for the bullets and $120 for the butchering, that equates out to about $1 per lb. The deer along with the birds and fish tends to last me an entire year.

    The best part is that it is far healthier than processed meats and even “organic” meats sold at the store. Venison and game birds are much leaner than beef and chicken. I know exactly where they came from and when they were killed. Not to mention that I think it tastes better.

    Even if you are not into hunting, you probably know someone who is. Ask them what they do with the meat. Most hunters usually get more than they want and end up giving a lot of it away. Some even just discard the meat (which I find to be an abhorrant waste), so you can offer to take it off their hands. This is a great way to get healthy, organic, cheap meat, and try something a little different than the same old beef or chicken.

    • Annie says:

      Hey Drew ~ Wow! I think that’s really awesome that you hunt for all your own food. It’s very rugged and caveman.. in a good way. Out of curiosity and to do some cost calculations, do you have to pay for the hunting license each year? Also, do you do anything else with the deer like make buckskin coats or something?

      Man, I gotta start hunting!

      • Drew says:

        I do have to pay for the hunting license. It’s about $50 and it covers all the deer, birds, and fish for a year. Typically I let the guys who butcher my meat keep the hide as part of their payment and they tan it and make stuff out of it.

        And it may sound like I am some tough, rugged, country boy living out in the mountains, but I am not. I live in Downtown Houston and just go on a few trips a year. Again, when I do go on a hunting or fishing trip, I have everything sealed and frozen.

        Also to consider is the experience factor. You’re not just paying for meat, but you get the expierence of the hunt. It’s a lot more exhilarating than going to the grocery store.

  2. Greg says:

    It’s a great idea to keep a few Amy’s Burritos in the fridge (assuming you like burritos). They are around $2.50 per burrito (compare that to $6 for a Chipotle burrito), they’re vegetarian (and some are gluten free), and they have a good amount of protein in them from legumes. Also they taste great! While you can make a burrito for much cheaper, these are pre-made so you’re less likely to go out to eat out of convenience.

    P.S. I have no financial link to Amy’s Burritos, I’ve just found them to be helpful in reducing my grocery bills.

  3. Along with the CSA, my friends and I buy shares of beef from a local farm. An 1/8 of a cow can go along way (pretty much an entire year for two people). Plus, your paying fair wages and getting great protein.

  4. Adam Porter says:

    We’ve been shopping the perimeter for years. It’s the easiest way to make sure you’re getting the freshest stuff…produce, raw meats, eggs, and only the smallest bit of dairy. We pay a small premium for fresh (and sometimes organic), but it keeps us healthier and out of the doctor’s office, so we end up ahead!

    For variety and alternatives, beans and lentils are our go-to products. They’re cheap and taste great. Straight-up red lentils do taste like mashed potatoes, with a little salt and pepper thrown in.

    • Amber Gilstrap says:

      Love the tip for the red lentils! Definitely going to try that!

      • Adam Porter says:

        We use that as a carb replacement (instead of potatoes, rice, or pasta) quite a bit. When boiled, the reds tend to disintegrate and make a thick paste (like mashed potatoes), whereas, the larger green lentils tend to hold together in their little capsule form.

  5. I think our biggest saver has been shopping at grocery stores only rarely – we get most of our food now from Costco, ALDI, our CSA, and the farmer’s market. I also sometimes scope out the sales pages for our grocery stores to see if they can beat the discount store prices. My diet is quite low on the processed food spectrum (not so much my husband’s – he’s gradually changing) and we tend to make big batch meals/the same meals over and over so we’re quite efficient.

    We’re moving next month to a townhouse so we’re going to have some soil access so I’m excited to start a small garden!

    • Amber Gilstrap says:

      I find that batch food prep is huge for saving both time and money. Whenever I prepare a large meal or several snacks on a Sunday night, we eat out much less during the week. We’re also less stressed since we know we have already-prepped food in our fridge!

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