How to Eat Healthy on a Budget

Learn a few tips to save money on healthy eating by reading this article.

(Updated 7/17/20)

Food is one of the biggest expenses we spend money on every month. If you want to lose weight or really just improve your quality of life, it starts with healthy eating.

Healthy foods are:

  • Lean proteins
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits and whole grains
  • Healthy fat sources

The only thing your budget should shape is the kinds of foods that you buy in these groups. One week you might eat chicken, the next you might try beef.

Here are some ways that you can stay on track with your fitness goals and your budget.

What Groceries Should I Buy on a Tight Budget?

When you're shopping for groceries on a tight budget, stick to staple foods.

Some cheap staple foods include:

  • Oatmeal - Whole grain, old fashioned or quick oats.
  • Rice - White, brown , wild, short and long grain.
  • Beans - Black beans, kidney beans, navy beans and pinto beans.
  • Potatoes - White, sweet, russet and red.
  • Canned Vegetables - Peas, carrots, corn and green beans.
  • Olive Oil
  • Canned Fish - Tuna, sardines and occasionally salmon.

Fresh fruits are typically cheaper in season. Most of those foods are very cheap and available at most stores, including food desserts. Meals like this might not be the most exciting but, you can change the game if your spices are on point.

Some of my favorite spices include:

  1. Cumin
  2. Smoked Paprika
  3. Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
  4. Black pepper
  5. Ginger

Spices can be very ethnic and geographical so, you may have some better ideas for yourself already. While technically not a spice, hot sauce works well in my book on just about anything.

I like to add hot sauce, chilli powder, and cinnamon to a sweet potato for example.

Cooking takes some experimentation.

What is the Cheapest Healthiest Meal?

The cheapest healthiest meal is the one you cook.

By now it's no secret that eating out is more expensive. Even if you buy things on the dollar menu, the math just doesn't make sense. On top of the upfront costs, healthy eating will be cheaper for your healthcare bills in the future.

Try Meal Prepping to save money.

Saving time that you might spend cooking individual meals;

  • Use your recipe to plan your shopping.
  • Read the entire recipe before you start cooking.
  • Measure everything at once.
  • Have tupperware ready for storage after.
  • Clean as you cook, it'll be easier now.

The first few times you make a recipe, you might move a little slow. Once you get the hang of cooking, you'll find ways to save more and more time.

Where is the Cheapest Place to Grocery Shop?

The cheapest place to grocery shop in Columbia, Missouri is Aldi. Shop where you save the most on your staple foods in your area.

When you develop the habit of eating staple foods, you begin to compare common serving sizes. Fruits and other perishables are often marked down as they ripen.

Those sales help me eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, I buy foods that seem priced appropriately.

In the past, I've bought things like:

  • 3 lbs of Honeycrisp, Gala, and Fuji apples for ~1 per pound (2.99).
  • Sweet potatoes for 69 cents a bag (about 7-8 medium).
  • Large watermelon for ~$3-5 each.

Sometimes you'll find the exact same food at different stores for way more money. For example, I've found carrots under the same brand for twice the price at Hyvee.

In Columbia, the cheapest meat seems to be chicken at either Walmart or Aldi. As of this writing, Aldi comes in around $1.89/lb and Walmart hovers around $1.99.

That said, I'm not really a fan of the Walmart chicken, the quality seems off.

At the right time of the year, Hyvee chicken can get as low as that of Walmart and Aldi. You may find a local meat market, butcher or farmer that is priced more competitively for the quality.

To save even more money on groceries, try buying your food in bulk.

How Much Can You Save Buying in Bulk?

You can save a lot of money by buying food in bulk. I've saved a couple hundred dollars per year by taking advantage of sales on foods I was going to buy either way.

Besides saving trips to the store, per unit, foods are typically cheaper in bulk. A large chunk of a foods price is in its packaging.

For example, let's say you're trying to get all your protein from a meat like chicken. Meat generally contains about 6 grams of protein per ounce.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight or 0.36 grams per pound. RDA's are the established amount that the average healthy person needs in order to not get sick.

Active people and those trying to lose weight have been shown to benefit from higher protein intakes. A higher protein diet requires anywhere from 0.8-1.0g of protein per lb of bodyweight.

Here is what minimum and higher intakes of protein might look like:

Daily Protein Intake Based on Bodyweight

0.8 - 1.0 grams per pound of bodyweight

Bodyweight 120 160 200 240
0.36 grams per day 43 57 72 86
0.8 grams per day 96 128 160 192
1.0 grams per day 120 160 200 240

Currently, I weigh about 205 pounds and want to eat between 0.8 and 1.0 grams of protein per pound. That means I need 164 to 205 grams of protein per day or 27.33 to 34.16 oz of meat in a day.

Since there are 16 oz in a pound, my meat budget might look like this:

  • Chicken at 1.89 per lb - $3.22 to $4.03 a day.
  • Chicken at 1.99 per lb - $3.39 to $4.25 a day.
  • Turkey breast at 3.49 per lb - $ 5.93 to $7.45 a day.
  • Bottom round roast at 5.99 per lb - $10.18 to $12.78 a day

If you are really tight on a budget or in college, you might shoot for cheaper meat sources, and the lower end of the protein recommendations.

Once you know how much a meal typically costs you, it empowers you to weight the opportunity cost of cooking and eating out.

Take a good look at your grocery list to and determine which foods you can store for extended periods of time. Combine a good sale with a freezer.

Here's How to Eat Healthy on a Budget:

  1. Start by basing your grocery budget around healthy eating - Lean meats, vegetables, fresh fruits and healthy fats.
  2. Find cheap staple foods that fit within each of those food groups - Fruits in season, rice, beans, peanut butter, chicken and fish.
  3. Aim to buy your foods, and spices in bulk to save per ounce - The freezer is your friend.
  4. Cook as much as you can - You can get the price of each meal down pretty low, saving you a lot of money per month.
  5. Develop a routine of shopping at the cheapest stores in your area - Some store price items as loss leaders to draw more business in.

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Steven Mack is founder and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the private training studio, Simple Solutions Fitness. He consults for Stronger by Science, a leader in fitness research dissemination, and is a former Mizzou football walk-on. Steven dedicates his professional life to helping people through his writing, speaking, and role as a personal trainer.