Healthy Eating on a Budget, Just Follow These Simple Steps

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I survived graduate school on a solid diet of instant ramen noodles, Papa John’s pizzas, and frozen burritos, but I recently decided that it was time to change my ways. Maybe I’m just getting older and realizing that health matters, or maybe health food product marketing is working its magic.

Either way, I decided to make the switch to a cleaner diet with simple changes like including less processed meats/foods and more fresh produce in my daily diet. I slowly inched my way toward the dauntingly expensive territory of organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) foods, and quickly learned that with some simple research and smart shopping, organic isn’t just for the rich.

When we think of a healthy and clean diet, we often think of a debt-free yuppie or hipster lifestyle full of expensive juice cleanses, Whole Food shopping sprees, and brands that cost double the price. Sadly, my budget for food hasn’t increased that much since graduate school. I’ve had to work with a pretty limited budget, but have surprisingly found that with just a few changes in how I plan my meals and how and where I shop for groceries, I don’t have to spend any more money than usual for better and healthier food options. Here are my tips for making a smooth financial transition to healthier eating habits.

Eating Healthy: Set Your Own Terms

To eat healthy, you have to first define what healthy means to you. For me, I wanted to avoid eating processed meats, increase my intake of fresh vegetables and fruits, and try my best to avoid foods exposed to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and/or that were genetically modified. For you, it might mean adopting a low-carb diet, cutting sugars from your diet, or going vegetarian or vegan. You don’t necessarily have to eat organic and non-GMO foods to be healthy (the additional health benefits of these products are somewhat controversial), but these products do adhere to stricter guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and shouldn’t be considered off limits for your budget-friendly healthy food shopping lists. 

You’ll find a plethora of ideas for healthy eating with just a simple online search, but try starting at the USDA or Harvard University’s School of Public Health where you can find the fundamentals of healthy eating. If you’re completely lost and/or have medical conditions that might require some extra considerations, you might want to consult a dietician to help you design a plan that best fits your nutrition goals and lifestyle.

Setting your own terms for healthy eating will require some research, but if you don’t stick to a plan, it will be all to easy to be swayed by product marketing that tries to convince you that a box of six 100-calorie Oreo packets is healthy for you. (I’m pretty sure I’ve eaten all six packets in one sitting, and that was NOT healthy.)

Learn to Read Labels for Ingredients

If you let product advertising and marketing tell you what’s healthy to eat, then you’ll definitely be grocery shopping beyond your budget. Learning to read labels will eventually teach you that healthy ingredients do not necessarily correlate to more expensive price tags.

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Experts say to read the labels on beauty products, too, because learning to read labels is essential for any smart consumer. With food, it’s often difficult to discern which ingredients are dangerous or unhealthy. Just because a product is marketed or labeled as a “health food,” (and often immediately set at a higher price point) it could still contain harmful food additives. Thanks to apps like Chemical Cuisine and Foodditive, you can simply search for any ingredient you come across on food labels to understand what it is and if it’s really something you want to eat.

Pick Your Staples and Buy Them In Bulk

On any weekly grocery list, you have your regulars (mine used to be Eggos, Hot Pockets, and Pillsbury biscuits), but once you develop your healthier grocery list (mine now are eggs, spinach, and steel cut oats), identify the items that you use on a weekly basis and try to find the best price for those items. Buying these items in bulk, or finding the lowest price for them at different grocery stores is the best way to avoid exceeding your budget.

Sometimes you might have to compromise on your budget and grocery list. For example, you’ll pay more for organic produce at the farmer’s market and won’t be able to buy non-GMO dairy products (over 90% of dairy and soy products are GMO). Pick and choose where you can compromise on your grocery list and narrow down the items that are staples.

I’ve found that Costco is the best place to shop for organic produce and items like frozen fruits (for smoothies), quinoa, chia seeds, or cooking oils. Don’t Waste the Crumbs and 100 Days of Real Food provide helpful tips on Costco pricing and explain which products are best to buy if you’re trying to eat healthy and stay within budget. Also check out Trader Joe’s and Sprouts Farmers Market for their selection of fresh and organic products at reasonable prices. Both have also consistently ranked on Consumer Reports’s list of the  Top 10 Best Supermarkets in America,

Pack your Meals and Snacks

When I’m hungry, it’s all too easy for me to rush to the closest fast food restaurant to devour an order of large fries. Budgeting and sticking to a healthy diet both require planning ahead for such desperate moments. You’ll be saving money and making sure you eat healthy food by taking the extra time to pack your meals and snacks.

Spend an hour during that slow Sunday afternoon or evening in the kitchen with fresh produce and Tupperware. Packing just five snack bags of carrots, celery, or fruits and preparing your lunch for every workday saves you a ton of money. If you’re short on recipe ideas, check out these ideas from Thirty Handmade Days, or try my latest favorite, the Mason Jar Layered Lunch.

Don’t Make Excuses

It’s easy to tell yourself that healthy eating is “too expensive” and not an option when you’re on a tight budget. After all, there is a clear correlation between socioeconomic class and healthy eating habits in this country where urban and rural food deserts make it difficult for low-income communities to access healthy, fresh, and affordable food. You can even rely on celebrity news to defend your “but I’m too poor” argument against healthy eating. Look at Gwyneth Paltrow who failed her Food Stamp Challenge and was unable to prepare healthy meals for her family on $29 a week.

But these examples simply demonstrate that both budgeting AND eating healthy require research and planning. Sticking to a budget and maintaining a healthy diet ensure good financial and physical health for your future. They’re not mutually exclusive, and they’re equally important. Don’t let excuses hold you back from making healthy decisions about food and making the most of your budget.

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