By Megan Doyle | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
7 Min Read | May 11, 2020 in Money
Healthy eating can seem expensive, but think of it this way: a good diet is an investment in your present—and future—health and wellbeing. Better yet, healthy eating doesn’t mean you have to shell out extra cash for a cup of cold-pressed juice, chomp on costly chia seeds, or pay for protein bars at a premium. Unless that’s your thing (which is fine), there are plenty of ways to eat healthy on a budget to suit a variety of lifestyles and preferences.
Don’t believe me? Here are eight tips to help you eat healthy on a budget—while getting the most nutritional bang for your buck.
Before we get into how to eat healthy on a budget, it’s important to address what it means to eat healthy. The definition of “eating healthy” can vary as much as our own tastes and personal food preferences. After all, everybody is different. But one thing is certain: a healthy diet involves eating a variety of nutritious, minimally processed foods that give you the nutrients you need to feel good, have energy, improve your overall health, and reduce the risk of disease, according to numerous studies.1,2,3
Common guidelines for a healthy diet emphasize a balance of various vegetables, fruits, whole grains, proteins, and healthy fats.4,5,6 Fortunately, you don’t have to break the bank to get the right combination of nutrients you need to feel good now and in the future. What’s more, eating healthy now can help your budget later. One study found that if Americans were to eat healthier, there would be $114.5 billion in savings from medical costs, increased productivity, and longer life associated with improvements in five chronic health conditions that can result from unhealthy eating.7
Now, on to the tips for eating healthy on a budget:
One report found that it’s almost five times more expensive to order delivery from a restaurant than making food at home.8 And making our own meals is not only cheaper than eating out—it’s often healthier because you know exactly what ingredients you’re using.
If cooking is new to you or you have an ultra-busy schedule, you can start small by preparing your own healthy breakfast and making coffee or tea at home. Let’s put it this way: if you buy a $4.00 caramel latte every day, that’s $1,460 a year on lattes alone. Meanwhile, you can buy a 12-ounce bag of coffee beans for $8; and since that bag should produce an average of 17 medium cups of home-brewed coffee, it would only cost you $0.47 a day ($8÷17), or $172 a year. To sweeten the deal, a cup of black coffee only has about 2-3 calories. That caramel latte might have 200 calories or more.9
What more can I say? If your tap water is safe to drink, it’s the healthiest, most budget-friendly way to hydrate. Even using a water filter can save you money compared to buying water bottles or other beverages. If you find water unpalatable, try to slowly wean yourself off sodas, juices, or sweet drinks. One fellow I know mixes 2-4 tablespoons of organic black cherry juice in a large tumbler of plain seltzer, and loves that drink. And each bottle of cherry juice seems to last forever. Approaches like that help your health and your wallet. Think about it: if you spend $2 at lunch every day on a bottle of soda, it adds up to $14 a week—that’s over $700 a year (and more than 80,000 unhealthy calories) just from soda.10
Shopping smart can help you eat healthy on a budget, and there are several ways you can sharpen your shopping skills:
Because bulk foods are almost always less expensive, buying nutritious foods like legumes, nuts, and grains from the bulk section can help you eat healthy on a budget. For example, I buy organic oatmeal in bulk at $1.49 a pound (as long as it’s not loaded with sugar or other additives, oatmeal is a high-fiber meal that’s rich in several vitamins and minerals12). Compare that to a leading brand that sells organic oats for $3.49. That’s less than half the price!
When fruits and vegetables are in season, they’re abundant. And when they’re abundant, the price is usually much lower.13 In my experience, they’re often much tastier, too. This is still true today, even though you generally can get anything, anywhere, due to global shipping. When Bing cherries are in season in New York (in early summer), that local produce is less expensive—and tastes much better—than winter cherries picked too young so they can be shipped long distances.
Farm shares and community supported agriculture (CSA) shares are growing in popularity, and they can be a great way to eat healthy on a budget. If you’re new to this concept, it simply involves a local farm selling regular “shares” of its produce to the public, kind of like a subscription-based app. For example, I’m a member of a local Long Island, NY, farm’s CSA. For 25 weeks (the harvest season), I get a box of 6-9 varieties of fresh, organic vegetables picked the day before—for $25.80 a week. In my household of two, this breaks down to $12.90 a week per person, but I find each share could easily feed a family of four. Plus, I save time by not having to shop for those items myself.
While animal products are known to be high-quality sources of protein, meat can sometimes be expensive compared to some plant-based alternatives. Protein rich foods like beans, chickpeas, lentils, and whole grains can help you eat healthy on a budget.14 For example, say you’re able to buy dry lentils and chicken breast each for $1.99/lb. That one pound of dry lentils will be closer to 3 pounds once cooked—making the true cost closer to $0.66/lb.
If you’re a meat eater, a healthy way to reduce the cost of your meals is to use meat as an accent, not the main event. Instead of cooking a chicken with sides, make a stir fry with lots of vegetables, some rice, and less chicken.
There are a variety of cash back credit cards, some available with high rewards for purchases at supermarkets and grocery stores. These can save you money—for example, some cards offer as much as 6% cash back (up to a specified maximum amount) for purchases at supermarkets, which you typically get in the form of a statement credit. That’s $360 back when you spend $6,000 on groceries, which is right in the ballpark: according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average two-person American household spent $8,226 on food (groceries and dining out) in 2018.15
Healthier food alternatives can seem more expensive than less nutritious options. But that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice savings for your health. There are plenty of ways to eat healthy on a budget—you just have to know where to look.
1 “Economic Costs and Benefits of Healthy Eating,” Current Obesity Reports
2 “Benefits of a healthy diet — with or without weight loss,” Harvard Health Publishing
3 “The difference a healthy diet can make,” Harvard Health Publishing
4 “Healthy Eating Plate,” Harvard School of Public Health
5 “Healthy diet,” The World Health Organization
6 “Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
7 “Economic Costs and Benefits of Healthy Eating,” Current Obesity Reports
9 “Starbucks Coffee Company Beverage Nutrition Information,” Starbucks
10 “Coca-Cola, Original – 20 fl oz,” Coca-Cola Product Eats
11 “Fattening Fasting: Hungry Grocery Shoppers Buy More Calories, Not More Food,” JAMA Internal Medicine
12 “Oatmeal a Good Choice for Breakfast, But Hold the Sugar,” Harvard School of Public Health
13 “Seasonal Produce Guide,” USDA SNAP-Ed Connection
14 “Meat: The Future Series Alternative Proteins,” World Economic Forum
15 “Consumer Expenditures - 2018,”U. S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics