It’s not breaking news that eating healthier can contribute to our happiness, but when you're working with limited funds, it’s easy to get sticker shock in the organic section. If you’re on a tight budget, it can seem impossible to afford the good stuff. Here are seven ideas that will help you shop, cook and eat healthy without breaking the bank.
1.Get with the (meal) plan
Having a meal plan ensures that there are tasty and healthy options readily available. Although the long-term financial benefits of a healthy diet are huge, there are immediate monetary payoffs to meal planning as well.
First, “cheap” fast food meals aren’t all that cheap when compared to a far more nutritious home-cooked dinner. Also, planning meals ahead also saves on the cost of waste. (We’ve all seen produce meet an untimely death in the back of the crisper.) Thinking ahead—and cooking ahead, such as making a large pot of stew or soup on the weekend that you can eat all week—is well worth it when it comes to healthy eating.
2. Let an app do it for you
Meal planning can be tedious: finding recipes, making shopping lists....Today, a number of apps will do the work for you; many are inexpensive and some are free: Plan to Eat is under $5 per month and Pepperplate is free. Cook Smarts ($6-8/month) even provides a meal plan for you each week that can be modified based on your dietary preferences, including gluten-free, vegetarian and paleo.
3. Go fresh, go local
Buying fresh, organic produce in the supermarket can add up quickly, but sticking mainly with what’s in season will save you money. When you buy apples in summer, they are shipped in from New Zealand or Chile and may cost more (not to mention the effect on the environment). Likewise, eggplants in winter are shipped in and will be less fresh and tasty, as well as more expensive. It’s definitely better to buy organic when possible, but if the cost is prohibitive, it’s better to buy non-organic fruits and vegetables than to forgo them altogether.
If you can, purchase your in-season produce at a farmers market near you. One study done in Vermont showed an average of almost 40 percent savings on organic produce at farmers markets versus grocery stores. Another option to make saving even easier is joining a co-op or CSA Farm Community-Supported Agriculture), many of which will deliver locally grown, organic produce right to your doorstep, saving not only money, but time, too. If you are an omnivore, many farmers markets, CSAs and local farms are great resources for saving big on eggs and hormone-free, antibiotic-free meats.
4. The big chill
Frozen vegetables will save you cold, hard cash and also taste a lot better than the canned variety. They are fantastic when you are in a pinch and need a quick, healthy side dish. Heat them up and add some olive oil and salt and pepper, if you like. Buying good quality, minimally processed frozen fish and chicken breasts can also save money and time; if you have these healthy proteins on hand, you are less likely to resort to fast food. And because frozen items last longer, there is much less risk of waste.
5. Rice and beans, a magical combination
Brown rice is a powerhouse of nutrients, including B vitamins, magnesium, manganese, protein and fiber, to name a few. And at less than 15 cents for one half-cup serving of organic brown rice, it’s also a boon for those seeking a bargain. Make a large batch and store leftovers in the fridge for use during the week in a quick stir-fry, side dish, or even rice pudding for breakfast. (For those who know of brown rice’s benefits but still prefer the taste of white, no need to worry—white rice is still nutritious as well as inexpensive.)
Beans and rice taste great together, but more important, they make a complete protein. Beans are chock-full of fiber, B vitamins and minerals. A one-pound bag of dried beans will only set you back about $1 and makes 10-12 servings! Whipping up some red beans and rice, or sautéing cooked lentils with seasoned spinach or kale are a couple of great ways to make a budget-friendly meal that is both tasty and healthy.
6. Meatless Mondays
Most omnivores find they can sink their teeth into a hearty veggie- and grain-based meal at least once per week. Because meat is often the priciest ingredient in recipes, by going meatless on Monday (or any other day), you are not only improving your health, but your balance sheet, too. Black bean burgers and lentil tacos are delicious and filling, and mushrooms have a meaty texture that is sure to satisfy cravings.
7. Pack it in
With Americans spending an average of close to $1,000 yearly on lunch (and some spending up to $5,000), brown-bagging it more often is a great way to save money and gain nutrition. Without much extra effort, packing up your healthy leftovers into individual portions makes it easy to throw together a midday meal to take to the office or heat up at home. Your co-workers will be green with envy.