Housing, transportation and food are the top three expenses for Americans. Finding affordable options for these life essentials can be challenging and stressful. While housing and transportation tend to be fixed expenses you can plan for every month, food can vary significantly based on where and what you buy. With a plan, it’s possible to establish a consistently healthy diet that works with your budget.
MoneyGeek worked with experts to help develop a diet and budget that works for you, with recipes and resources to help you reach your goals.
A Glimpse at Food
The cost of food has increased steadily for the last few years, with many turning to fast food because it’s simply the most affordable option. While the cost of food impacts your wallet, a poor diet may impact it even further by resulting in increased medical costs.
- Food accounts for 13% of an individual’s budget in the U.S., with an average of $8,169 spent annually.
- 36.6% of adults consume fast food on a given day
- The percentage of adults who consume fast food decreases with age.
- Cardiac diseases caused by poor diet cost each American about $300 annually.
Budgeting for Your Nutritious Meals
Embarking on a new healthy lifestyle can feel overwhelming, and even more so if you are struggling financially. More than 13 million Americans were food insecure at some point during 2019, but the good news is there is food assistance available.
Even if you are not worried about finding your next meal, food budgeting is a challenge. It’s tempting to buy cheap, quick, processed foods at the grocery store instead of well-balanced meals. According to the American Heart Association, “opting for the healthy options in a grocery store can cost an average of $1.50 more per person each day” but can save you in the long run due to the high costs of chronic illness associated with unhealthy diets.
As you make an affordable healthy eating plan, it’s essential to understand what a healthy plate consists of a balance of proteins, whole grains and vegetables. Your diet should also include healthy fats from things like nuts, avocados and vegetable oil. While vegetables and fruits tend to be combined, it’s best to rely more heavily on vegetables because fruits contain higher amounts of sugar.
When you design your plate, consider this breakdown of different foods to maintain a healthy diet.
- Half Vegetables and Fruit: Add color to your plate with a variety of vegetables.
- A Quarter Protein: While meat is the first protein we think of, fish, nuts and beans are also valuable protein sources.
- A Quarter Whole Grains: Look for good sources of carbohydrates like whole wheat, barley, quinoa, oats and brown rice.
How to Create a Healthy Eating Plan to Fit Your Budget
Balancing your diet and finances can seem daunting, but you can set yourself up for success with good planning. Understanding how to find healthy food on a budget starts with understanding finance basics and how to create a budget. Once you know your spending limits, it’s time to focus on your grocery budget. The following is a three-step process to create a healthy eating plan that fits your budget. While it takes time and effort initially, it will get easier to stick to your budget and diet with time.
The first step to budgeting is to have a plan. Whether you’re purging your house of junk food or thinking about some nutritious ideas, here are tips to consider when beginning to think about your meal plan and grocery list.
- Make sure you’re not overshopping for items: Check your pantry, refrigerator and freezer for items you already have at home. It’s easy to waste money on groceries if you are unaware of what you already have.
- Think about breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks: A complete, five-day meal plan will get you through the workweek and allow you to finish your prepared meals before they go bad.
- Take advantage of deals: Check ads and websites to find grocery store specials. Design meals around items that are on sale.
- Know your schedule limitations: Decide on what meals will need longer cooking times. Set yourself up for success by planning a meal that takes a short time to prepare if you have various commitments, like taking your daughter to girl scouts, going to soccer practice and finishing a work assignment.
- Plan for leftovers: Not every meal needs to be prepared fresh. Cook a meal for double the servings and eat it two nights in a row to save time and money.
- Check what’s in season: Items in season tend to be cheaper than those that aren’t. This tip can be especially handy if you are determining the best fruits and vegetables to buy.
If you have a plan, you should already know how much your grocery bill will be. Now it’s time to shop! Most grocery stores have apps to help you make your grocery list and know how much your total bill will be before you get there. Here are some additional tips to think about once you’re at the store.
- Keep to what’s on your shopping list: If you didn’t put soda on the grocery list, don’t go down that aisle. Sticking to your list as much as possible can also help you avoid overspending. You’ll want to adjust only for in-store specials and deals, not to splurge on unnecessary items.
- Stick to “shopping the outside” of the store: Most grocery markets have the essentials along the outside walls and processed foods on the interior aisles. If you try to avoid those inner aisles, you’ll skip unnecessary chips, candy and cookies.
- Avoid pre-chopped or pre-made meals: Grocery stores offer pre-cut fruits and vegetables, but you’ll pay a premium for saving a small bit of time. It’s best to buy unprepared items and prep them yourself to save money.
- Price check items based on units rather than total price: In many cases, the lowest price is not the best deal because the package sizing is different. For example, a gallon of milk is $2.99 while a half-gallon is $1.99. While the half gallon is cheaper, the gallon is more affordable by the ounce. If your family will drink the entire gallon within the week, it’s best to get the bigger size.
- Skip the name brands: One of the easiest ways to save money at the grocery store is to buy generic items. Store-branded products are typically lower in price, and you won’t notice much difference in flavor or quality.
- Avoid shopping while hungry: Grocery shopping while hungry leads to impulse buying, and those impulse purchases are likely unhealthy and unnecessarily expensive.
The hardest parts are now behind you, and you’re on to the final step: cooking. If you’ve planned and shopped well, you won’t have to stare into the refrigerator for long to decide what you’re having for dinner. Here is how you can continue to keep your costs down in this final stage.
- Make quick meals: Tight on time but need a healthy meal? Don’t worry about cooking for an hour. Instead, just assemble. Salads are great for a quick, healthy dinner. Throw together your favorite greens, chopped vegetables, beans, cheese, croutons and salad dressing, and you can have a healthy plate in 10 minutes.
- Keep an eye on your leftovers and decrease waste: If you planned for leftovers in your meal plan, don’t forget to eat them. Food waste costs Americans about $1,300 a year, according to a study by William and Mary University. Staying organized by keeping tabs on items in the back of the fridge and pantry will help you prevent waste.
- Store your food: Use good Ziploc bags or a vacuum sealer to keep raw and cooked meat, vegetables, and prepared meals available for dinner a month from now. Make sure your foods are packaged correctly and simply put them in the freezer.
How to Adapt a Healthy Diet for a Tight Budget
If you have a limited budget to stick to every month, you can still create a grocery plan that works within your limits. Spending a short amount of time and effort can help stretch your finances. Use the suggestions above, but take the following steps to make your limited funds go even further.
- Ask for help: If you’re struggling both financially and nutritionally, it’s okay to ask for help. Educational programs like Cooking Matters can teach you and your family about ways to maximize your budget as well as food prep and cooking classes.
- Access resources: There are multiple regional and local resources available to help families find access to healthy, affordable food. More resources are listed later in this article, but an excellent place to start is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through the USDA.
- Know how much is too much: Most of us don’t know how our budget compares to others. You can learn whether you’re spending more than similar families by checking the USDA’s food plan chart or checking out this Iowa State University grocery calculator to find the average cost of healthy food
- Do extra food prep: One place grocery stores make additional money is by selling pre-prepped food. If you’re on a tight budget, avoid these items. That means buying whole heads of romaine or iceberg lettuce, as well as blocks of cheese rather than grated bags
- Stick to tap water: Want to quickly and easily cut out calories and costs? Reevaluate what you’re drinking. Soda, juices and alcohol quickly add both unnecessary sugars to your diet and costs to your grocery bill. If you are concerned about the quality of your tap water at home, buy a water filter for a minimal one-time cost. Doing so can also help you avoid the weekly cost and environmental impact of bottled water.
How to Find Deals
There are multiple ways to lower your grocery bills with the help of deals, deals and more deals. If you combine these bargains, those pennies in savings will add up quickly.
- Loyalty Programs: All grocery stores offer programs that allow you to sign up with a phone number. Using this number every time you check out will lower the price on select items.
- Co-op Memberships: Co-op markets are grocery stores partly owned by their members. These stores offer low prices and even a dividend every year if you pay to join.
- Wholesale Memberships: Looking to stock up and save? A wholesale membership might be a good option. Places like Costco, Sam’s and BJ’s offer bulk discount items if you pay an annual membership fee.
- Coupons: While you can still find coupon clippers, most manufacturers’ coupons are now digital. Many grocery stores allow you to add coupons to your loyalty card online or on a smartphone app.
- Senior Discounts: For older shoppers, ask your local grocery store about senior discounts or senior days. Many national chains offer weekly or monthly discount days for seniors, with 5-10% off the bill.
- In-Store Markdowns: Most grocery stores have sections with older items like meat, produce and bread that haven’t quite reached their best-by dates yet. They are likely to be marked down in price.
Making Lifestyle Changes
Implementing a change toward a healthier lifestyle takes patience and practice. While it can be daunting at the outset, you can find success by setting daily goals like choosing not to drink soda or alcohol. You can also remove junk food from your home and plan for healthier meals ahead of time. Making good food choices is one of the best ways to improve your health.
Find Healthy Recipes for Your Meal Prep Routine
As you decide what you want to eat for lunch, dinner and snacks throughout the week, consider a few things like what’s in season, your family’s preferences, and allergies. While it’s good to try new things, you also want your family to like the meals you’re providing. Here are some good resources to help you find affordable, healthy recipes.
- Cooking Matters: As a nonprofit, this organization provides education and local guidance to families struggling with food insecurity. Their recipes are affordable, healthy and delicious for the whole family.
- Spend Smart. Eat Smart.: From the University of Iowa, this website provides guidance on planning, shopping and cooking healthy meals. It offers recipes for every meal and includes both a calorie count and a hypothetical price tag.
- MyPlate: The United States Department of Agriculture oversees the country’s nutrition policy, including its “MyPlate” guidelines. With more than a thousand recipes, these meals show how they fit into the guidelines as well as their cost.
Plan Your Grocery List
Because it’s best to have a meal plan to maintain a healthy diet, a grocery list is essential. Create this list based on your recipes before going to the store, and don’t forget snacks. Here are additional tips to get you started.
- Double-check your pantry: Most of us have some pantry essentials and species already in our cabinets. As you make your list, double-check for items you may already have at home.
- Think about alternatives: Animal proteins will likely be the most expensive item in your cart. Think about plant alternatives to keep costs down while maintaining a good nutritional balance.
- Organize: As you make your grocery list, organize it by store layout. For example, start with all your produce, then meats, proteins, carbs and finally dairy. By grouping your items together you are less likely to wander the store and pick up things you don’t need.
- Think seasonally: If your recipe calls for fresh corn and it’s the middle of winter, you’ll likely pay a premium. Rather, turn to the frozen food section for produce that is out of season. Frozen is just as nutritious as fresh.
Grow a Garden
One of the most fun ways to save money on food is to grow your own. Gardens can be a fun project for the entire family.
- Know your space: Even if you live in an apartment, you can grow your own food, but you need to consider your limits. Pick items that take up limited space, like your favorite herbs.
- Pick your favorites: Love peppers? Here is your chance to indulge. Gardens are the perfect place to select your favorite foods and save money on more expensive vegetables.
- Do your research: Every plant is a little different. Some require more sun and water, while others require more shade. Look for produce like leafy greens for low-light conditions and tomatoes for more humid spots.
- Battle bugs wisely: Bugs are a pest to gardens, but not all do damage to your plants. Before you start spraying insecticide, look for evidence of damage. Depending on the bug, some simple cayenne pepper may keep the insects away.
Reward Yourself Once in a While
All or nothing is not the best approach to lifestyle changes. Instead, moderation is the best policy. Rewarding yourself once in a while can keep you motivated to keep eating healthy the rest of the time. If you can keep up a good meal plan during the week, take a “cheat day” on Saturday or Sunday.
“Cheat days” are a good opportunity to eat out, and you can still do it without blowing your budget. Restaurants make a lot of their money off drinks, both soda and alcohol. If you stick to water, you’ll save money and calories. Restaurant servings are also larger than you need, so ask for a box with your meal and take half of it home for leftovers the next day.
Common Healthy Food Myths
It’s hard enough to find and stick with a healthy eating plan. It’s even harder when food myths are repeated and shared online. You can avoid falling for the myths by staying informed.
Myth: Frozen produce is low in nutrition
Fact: Frozen veggies and fruit are comparable in nutrition to fresh veggies and fruit, plus they happen to be much cheaper.
Myth: Organic produce is always best.
Fact: While organic has its benefits, such foods can also be more expensive and a waste of money. Produce where you do not eat the outside, like bananas, has little organic benefits. If you don’t have the money, regular produce is better than no produce at all.
Myth: You must follow the recipe.
Fact: Recipes are a great way to get you started toward a healthy food plan, but they are not set in stone. If you are missing an ingredient, don’t feel you have to rush out and buy it. Many times you can find a substitute that you already have in the house.
Myth: Every meal should include meat.
Fact: A balanced meal includes protein, but that does not always mean meat. In many cases, these protein options are lower in fat and cost less. Examples include lentils, nuts, yogurt, tofu and eggs.
A Healthier Future: Advocacy and Policy Change
If you are facing food insecurity, you are not alone. According to the USDA, 10% of American households were worried about how and where they would find food for their family. That was in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic, which strained family resources even more. With so many families struggling to find affordable food, a combination of government and nonprofit agencies is trying to help.
One of the easiest ways to feed children at least one healthy meal is at school. Because of this, the USDA is working on expanding its free school lunch program. In April 2021, it announced that it would extend free school meals for all children through June 2022. Advocates are pushing government leaders to continue the free program indefinitely.
Re-evaluating the Thrifty Food Plan
Recent studies from the USDA indicate that the SNAP program is not providing enough for families facing food insecurity. SNAP allotments are determined by the Thrifty Food Plan which was introduced in 1975. In 2018, Congress called on the USDA to re-evaluate the program to ensure it affords families a realistic, healthy diet on a budget.
The nation’s largest charitable hunger-relief organization is Feeding America. Along with its network of more than 200 local food banks, it researches food insecurity in America and ways to combat the problem. If you are looking for a way to help those in your community worried about food insecurity, this is a good place to start.
Additional Resources for Healthy Eating on a Budget
Whether you are looking for ways to eat healthier or finding a way to grocery shop on a tight budget, multiple resources are available to help you on your journey.
- MyPlate: The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the government’s promotion of healthy eating and offers explanations of what makes up each part of a healthy plate. It also has tools, resources and recipes for families to begin a healthy meal plan.
- Healthy Eating Plate: Harvard’s School of Public health has a good breakdown of the government’s healthy plate and how to make it work for you.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): The USDA’s Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program provides supplemental finances for low-income families to purchase healthy meals. SNAP is also referred to as food stamps.
- SNAP-ED: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program also offers educational programs for families to better grasp a healthy lifestyle. Find SNAP-Ed programs in your state using its interactive map.
- Additional Government Food Assistance: Beyond SNAP, the USDA offers multiple programs to assist families struggling with hunger. These include programs specifically for seniors, kids and rural families.
- Spend Smart. Eat Smart: This program from the University of Iowa offers a step-by-step plan to shop and eat healthily.
- Commodity Supplemental Food Program: This supplemental diet program provides nutritious meals to low-income older adults and senior citizens.
- Feeding America: This is a hunger-relief organization that partners with more than 200 food banks and food rescue programs.
- Foodbank Locator: This searchable database of food banks can help you find a location near you.
- Hunger Hotline: If you are hungry right now and need access to food, call the USDA National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479). Information is available in English and Spanish.
- Double Up Food Bucks: SNAP benefits only go so far, so this program steps in to double up your SNAP benefits for produce purchases.
- Organic food isn’t that much more expensive anymore. Here’s why
- Snack hacks: Tips for getting kids to eat healthier foods
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