If you feel like food is costing your family an arm and a leg, you’ll love this article! I’ve put together a list of 21 simple but EFFECTIVE ways to eat healthy on a budget that I have personally been following for years now.
As soon as you start implementing any of these strategies, you’re GUARANTEED to start seeing clear results in your food spending, week after week, year after year.
Who doesn’t love wads of extra cash?
Cheap vs. Healthy
While I’ve made changes to how I shop over the years which enabled me to bring in consistent savings, I never compromised on the quality of foods I feed my family with.
The sole purpose of this article isn’t to buy the cheapest food by sacrificing nutrition. My goal has always been to save money while STILL feeding my family healthy foods, and that’s what I want to share with you.
(Between you and me, we don’t always eat perfectly healthy, but we do our best because filling our bodies with nutrition is important to us.)
Here is how we manage to eat healthy on a budget:
#1 MEAL PLANNING
The single biggest difference to our grocery bill was made when I started to plan meals ahead of time. Ever since I picked up meal planning, we spend considerably less money on food AND we eat a lot healthier, too.
Instead of coming up with meals out of your fridge content in the spur of a moment (and on a hungry stomach – the worst combo possible), try to figure out a healthy meal for every day ahead of time and STICK TO IT.
It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. You can start with what you’ve cooked/eaten for dinner or lunch at home in the past two weeks and pick a few meals out of that.
In the beginning, create a meal plan for the next few days. As you get more comfortable with the idea, extend meal planning to an entire week or even two weeks worth of meals. The point is to ease into it.
#2 COOK FROM SCRATCH
Whoa… This is getting intense, huh?!
If you hate to cook…
If you’re dry heaving just reading this…
I urge you NOT to skip to #3, because #2 is another key element of eating healthy on a budget!
Obviously, eating out regularly is OUT if you’re trying to bring spending down. Likewise, store-bought ready-made meals are convenient, but they’re usually the next best way to blow your hard-earned money.
Buying components of a meal and cooking the meal yourself is almost always substantially cheaper than having someone else make it for you. At the same time it’s healthier for you, too, because by going to some of the most basic ingredients, you’re reducing (or better yet, eliminating) the consumption of unhealthy additives (like flavor enhancers, thickeners, stabilizers, preservatives, excessive sodium, etc.) that are all commonly used in the food industry.
If you or your kids are utilizing a Thermos for a hot lunch, fill it up with boiling water ahead of time and let it sit for a little while before you dump the water and add food. This will help prevent food from cooling down too fast. Also, don’t forget to heat food thoroughly before packing.
Not a fan of eating leftovers? Only cook what will be eaten to avoid unnecessary food waste (penny to penny, it all adds up!).
#3 GROCERY LIST
AKA the Holy Grail of eating healthy on a budget.
When you pop into the grocery store unprepared, it can cost you big time!
Shopping without a grocery list leads to overbuying which leads to overeating as well as food waste, and you know what that means. Overspending. You don’t want that.
Believe it or not, it’s entirely possible to save a TON of money each year by simply staying organized. Try it and see for yourself!
Create a grocery list based on your MEAL PLAN (#1) and other necessities you need, and make it a goal to STICK to it as much as possible. I’m not saying you can’t put a few extra things into the cart here and there… Do reward yourself for your hard work!
Creating a grocery list:
- Check your pantry and fridge/freezer for any items you may already have. Use up what you have before buying more (unless you’re purely stocking up).
- Have a pen/paper ready somewhere in the kitchen to jot down items you need to buy that might otherwise slip your mind around list-making time. You wouldn’t believe how easy it is to forget about basic staples like salt, spices, ketchup, vinegar, mayonnaise, or even flour when making a grocery list.
- If you suddenly think of a great dish to make, write that down, too. Ideas come and go. It’s easy to forget something genius, especially in the busy world of parenting.
- Divide foods on your shopping list into sections to help you stay organized at the store. You can go by fresh produce, dairy and chilled stuff, bulk offerings, frozen foods, baked goods, breakfast aisle, etc. – whatever works for YOU – and sort groups according to the store’s layout if you can. This will not only help you stay organized at the store but it will also save you a good chunk of time. (Until the store reorganizes their aisles. Aargh.)
- If you’re cooking from scratch (high five!), write down ALL ingredients you can think of that are required to make the meals. Maybe skip really basic things like salt – but make sure you have salt!!!
#4 SKIP CONVENIENCE ITEMS
Convenience sells. But it’s your worst enemy when you’re trying to eat healthy on a budget.
As tempting as it may be to reach for that package of pre-cut pre-washed pre-made anything, don’t. Do the extra work yourself and save money.
One special category with astronomical markups is individually packaged snacks.
Instead of buying overpriced single packs of snack items, buy large bags and portion the servings out yourself using reusable containers or zip-lock bags (which, too, can be reused to a certain point). This is especially helpful for kids’ school lunches – you WILL see a clear difference in your food bill if you start doing this.
#5 KEEP FOODS VISIBLE
If a yogurt container or a carton of berries slide to the back of the fridge unnoticed, they will spoil and you’ll have to throw them out. Don’t you hate when that happens?
Throwing spoiled food away is exactly like tossing money in the garbage. There is no difference.
To avoid missing and ultimately wasting foods, check the content of your fridge regularly, and always keep foods that spoil quickly in the front of the refrigerator where you can see them.
#6 DON’T SHOP HUNGRY
This is sometimes easier said than done (aren’t we all super busy these days…?), but ALWAYS eat something BEFORE you shop for groceries. Even if it’s a quick snack you throw down on the way to the store. It helps.
When you shop on a hungry stomach, temptation is going to hit HARD! Thanks to hunger pains, you’ll end up putting a lot more things into your cart because OMG THEY LOOK SO GOOOOD… Avoid this common budget buster.
#7 PAY ATTENTION TO SALES
Shop the sales – but be smart about sales.
Make sure you’ll find actual use for the things on sale that are about to land in your cart, and beware of their shelf life as well. If even a quarter of that stuff on sale ends up being chucked, you just threw your money in a raging bonfire.
On the other hand, if something you regularly buy is deeply discounted and keeps for a long time, fill up that cart!
One thing I want to mention is that it’s not entirely uncommon for some stores to raise prices just before putting products on sale, so it pays off to be at least somewhat familiar with regular prices so that you know you’re truly getting a good deal.
Last but not least, if you don’t mind flipping through the pages of circulars of the stores you normally shop at, use the upcoming sales to your advantage when planning meals. This will help you cut your grocery bill even further.
#8 LOOK AROUND AND UP/DOWN THE SHELVES
Usually, the most expensive well marketed brands are placed on the shelves at the eye level. Why? Because the stores know that this is where shoppers are most likely to grab an item from, especially if they’re in a rush.
For a better chance at scoring a good deal, pay attention to the products that are out of immediate reach as well – high up on the shelves and low to the ground. How long can you go? Can you go down low? All the way to the floor? How long can you go? Can you bring it to the top? Like you never never stop? OK someone here has obviously listened to a little too much Cha-Cha slide in her days. Back to business!
Most grocery and big box stores sell their own cheaper store-brand alternatives to popular well-marketed name brands. In many cases, store-brand foods are just as good as their name-brand equivalents. In some cases, they might even be identical. BUT they could also be inferior.
If you’re all about eating HEALTHY on a budget, you’ll want to compare the lists of ingredients in addition to comparing prices.
Products can vary in the amount of additives, fillers, sugar, salt and unhealthy oils, so I can’t recommend making a decision based SOLELY on price. After all, we ARE what we eat.
#9 BUY WHAT’S IN SEASON
Buying a lot of produce in the wrong season can be a costly mistake.
Produce is plentiful and much cheaper when it’s in season (and ideally local and freshly picked – which will also make it taste much better).
An example? Berries and peaches just don’t taste (or look or smell or cost) the same in the dead of winter… You’ve noticed, haven’t you?!
Making a meal plan/shopping list around at least some seasonal fruits and vegetables can further reduce your monthly grocery bill. (If you’re interested, check out what’s in season at different times of the year.)
#10 VISIT YOUR LOCAL FARMERS MARKET
If you’re looking for in-season produce, your best bet is to explore your local farmers market scene. But you’ll need to be picky and question what you see.
Oftentimes, the produce is local and really fresh – picked the day before or even the morning of – and superior in quality to the grocery store produce. But don’t assume that everything sold at every farmers market comes from local soil or is freshly picked.
Vendors have been known to re-sell produce and other goods they bought wholesale or even at a local grocery store, charging EXTRA for supposedly local food that was, in reality, trucked in from a far. This is where it pays off to get familiar with the booths.
Real farmers, growers, and crafters tend to love to talk about their merchandise. They’ll give you all the details about their goods, and they will appreciate your support.
#11 BAN SODA AND JUICE DRINKS
Take a pass on soda and so-called juice drinks (that haven’t touched actual fruits in like, ever) when you’re trying to cut back on spending. Sugary drinks are not compatible with eating healthy for less, period.
#12 SKIP BOTTLED WATER
Buying bottled water on a regular basis can be a real budget killer. (It’s also a huge burden on the environment and pretty much everything that’s alive on the planet. That includes you, too.)
You have two options – drink tap water, or invest in a water filter. You’ll also need a reusable water bottle, but this will be a one-time investment (the Earth thanks you).
If your tap water doesn’t taste good or you’re concerned about chemicals lingering in your municipal water supply, I’d suggest researching the topic of water filters and getting one that fits your needs and a budget.
But, in the end, even if you get something as simple as a water filter pitcher (which, I agree, doesn’t really filter out all that much) you’ll be saving money, and the quality of water may not be all that different from store-bought bottled water after all.
#13 USE COUPONS
You don’t need to become an extreme couponer to save money on food. In fact, I wouldn’t even suggest you put TOO MUCH focus on coupons if your goal is spending less money on groceries AND eating healthy.
While any amount of store or manufacturer coupons you use will obviously increase your savings (especially when you use them on sale items, cha-ching!), the problem is that most coupons in circulation are for unhealthy processed stuff. It’s much harder to come across coupons for healthy foods.
If you have them, use them. But don’t expect to find them in the Sunday circulars.
#14 WATCH THE PRICE PER UNIT
Usually it is less expensive to buy a larger item. But sometimes it’s not.
When smaller units are on sale, they might be cheaper than a large package. Also, bigger isn’t always cheaper. Greater quantities are sometimes hiding in a smaller packaging.
Keep your options and eyes open if you’re trying to eat for less.
#15 EAT LESS MEAT
Depending on what kind of meat you buy and how often, meat could be taking up a significant chunk of your monthly grocery bill.
Organic, free range, natural diet-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat is a MUCH better alternative to factory-farmed meat, but it’s also significantly more expensive.
If meat is costing you a lot and you’re committed to reducing your grocery bill, consider cutting back on meat. Many dishes can be made with no meat without affecting the taste.
I’m serious – how do you feel about experimenting with one or two (or more) meatless days a week? That would be a great start!
Or, when cooking with meat, make it so that the meat is not the main ingredient of the dish and incorporate more vegetables and grains. A good substitute of meat are beans, but always soak them (and dump the water) before cooking to reduce the levels of antinutrients beans naturally contain.
If you’ve been buying cheap factory-farmed meat, consider upgrading to a better quality. You’ll be healthier, and less animals will suffer. You will be paying more for your meat per ounce, but by cutting back on meat consumption, the difference won’t be as significant.
#16 DON’T GO TO THE GROCERY STORE TOO OFTEN
How many times have you said “I’ll just stop by to grab a few things…” and left the store with 12 bags of groceries?
The more you shop, the more you’re likely to spend. It’s a simple math equation.
When I shopped for food multiple times a week (to grab a few things), I ended up spending a lot more money AND, ultimately, wasting a lot food, too. Reducing shopping to strictly only once a week yielded great results, so if you can do that, definitely give it a try.
My routine now involves shopping for staples once every two weeks and hitting Costco once in between, mostly for fresh produce. By shopping less I spend less, waste less food, use less gas, and it gives me the flexibility to do other things instead of browsing the store’s aisles. Works out for me!
#17 BUY IN BULK
One of the greatest tools in food budgeting is buying in bulk at warehouse shopping clubs.
But it’s not for everyone, and there are pros and cons to buying in bulk.
You’re only saving money if you’re using up what you’re buying and if the actual savings offset the cost of the membership and commute. This is a personal choice, and you’ll need to crunch some numbers here.
I’m a COSTCO member and have a love-hate relationship with the warehouse shopping model. It actually took me a while before I stepped over to the dark side of Costco membership because I’m philosophically opposed to having to pay to spend. Like, really opposed. “They would never see my money,” I maintained. Until they got me.
The main benefit of shopping at COSTCO that I see is that this warehouse allows you to eat HEALTHY for less. COSTCO carries a ton of natural healthy foods and organic staples and produce, unlike its twin – equally popular – warehouse store which I won’t be naming, and they’re always adding more.
I DO save money by shopping at COSTCO, and their customer service rocks. I occasionally find things there that I wouldn’t otherwise run into elsewhere (both food- and non-food-wise) which is cool. What’s not so cool is aiming for a few regulars and leaving with a trunkful of things you wouldn’t otherwise run into elsewhere. Darn it, Costco!
So I’ll say that if you can keep your spending under control at a warehouse club and ideally go there KNOWING what you want to buy and STICK to it, you can really, truly get a great deal on things and make the membership pay for itself and some.
FYI: You can save 10% at WHOLE FOODS MARKET when you buy almost any item by the case. I accidentally saved a ton of money a few years back while stocking up for an upcoming road trip. Other stores may run similar deals, so if you’re not sure, just ask!
#18 GROW YOUR OWN
Growing your own produce is another excellent tool for eating healthy on a budget. (Plus homegrown food tastes much better than store-bought!)
You don’t need to be a seasoned gardener to successfully grow at least some food, and you don’t even need a ton of space to start.
If you’re working with small space, I recommend looking into square foot gardening. For apartment dwellers with a small patio only, herbs might be a good choice. Herbs are low maintenance, and they can be pricey at the store (win-win!).
If gardening is not your thing but you happen to have some seeds and yard space – throw seeds outside aimlessly. You might be surprised at the end result. #MotherNatureIsAmazing — BTW, this is a great experiment for kids to do!
(You don’t have to stick to just seeds… We wouldn’t have found a rich potato harvest one fall had I not have thrown tiny withered potatoes in the berry patch in early spring for the animals to eat since my aging compost bin fell apart. Talk about a delicious buried treasure!)
#19 SIGN UP FOR A LOYALTY/REWARDS PROGRAM
If you shop at one of the many grocery chains that offer some sort of loyalty programs, you can stretch your grocery budget further by signing up. This concept has been around for a long time though the perks have evolved over the years.
There are also several popular apps for grocery shopping (like Ibotta and Checkout 51) that are FREE to use and allow you to earn cash back on your purchases. I’m not a huge fan of mobile phone apps and relying on my phone too much, so I’ve never used any. But I know many people are happy with these apps.
#20 REVIEW YOUR RECEIPT FOR ACCURACY
Mistakes happen. And they happen a lot, for a variety of reasons.
You’ll either need to pay close attention at checkout (virtually impossible with large purchases, especially with kids in tow) or go over your receipts at a later time to make sure everything rang up at the right price and volume.
If you find a mistake later on, don’t be afraid to call the store, or stop by and ask for a correction.
#21 USE CREDIT CARDS
NOTE: In the event of a credit card debt, do your best at paying it off ASAP and don’t add any more charges if at all possible. If you’re trying to pay off credit card (or other) debt, be extra frugal with your grocery spending. Every penny you save counts.
If you don’t carry a balance and you’re able to pay the credit card off at the end of the billing cycle, use credit cards to your advantage. Credit card companies offer all kinds of incentives from airline miles and hotel points to store-brand rewards or even straight cash back, and many credit cards have no annual fee.
Out of all credit cards I own, my absolute favorite and the one I use the most is the GAP/OLD NAVY credit card. The rewards I regularly earn with this credit card allow me to spend little to nothing on my kids’ everyday clothes. Free clothes for years on end for quickly growing kids? Yes, please!
Well, there you have it…
This is how you can reduce food spending and eat healthy on a budget.
If I can do it, so can you!
The best part is, these money-saving tips are so incredibly simple, you can put them into action right away!
Have fun saving!!!