It’s no secret that the first step to a long, healthy life is eating nutritious food. A healthy diet can lower your risk of cancer, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Eating well can also improve your mood, memory, sleep and gut health.
Considering these benefits, you may wonder why we don’t all skip the packaged ramen and chow down on kale instead. But as anyone who has tried to improve their diet knows, healthy food can come with a high price tag.
And if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck or working towards high-priority financial goals, it can be difficult to balance the health risks that may impact you in the future with the very real need to save money on groceries today.
The good news is that although it takes a little effort and forethought, your physical wellness doesn’t have to come at the cost of your financial wellness.
In this post, we’ll explain how to prepare healthy meals on a budget in five steps.
Five Steps for Eating Healthy on a Budget
With preparation and creativity, eating healthy can definitely fit into your budget. Here’s our five-step method for creating a meal plan full of healthy foods that still allows you to save money on your grocery bill.
1. Define What Healthy Eating Means for You
Every person has different nutritional needs, activity levels, taste preferences, and values that contribute to their definition of “healthy eating.” So it’s important to start this process by defining for yourself what healthy eating looks like, as well as what ingredients you’re willing to spend or skimp on to meet your goals.
If you’re an omnivore or a vegetarian, an easy way to reduce your food budget is to lower your intake of meat and dairy (two expensive grocery categories). But if you follow a paleo diet, cutting back on animal protein can be a challenge. And if you’re on keto, dairy products like cheese may serve as a key source of fat.
So while your shopping list will vary depending on your lifestyle, one thing you can focus on regardless of your specific diet is leveraging nutrient-dense foods that are relatively inexpensive on a cost-per-calorie basis.
Eggs are one of the best examples. They’re rich in high-quality protein and loaded with vitamins and antioxidants. If you buy organic eggs at their average price of $3.25 a dozen, the cost-per-calorie calculates out to just .0033 cents — far lower than other sources of animal protein like beef and pork.
Nutrient-dense foods supply your body with more of what it needs to thrive (like vitamins and minerals) and less of the junk (like sugar) that studies have linked to health concerns.
Unfortunately, they’re usually more expensive than their less-nutritious alternatives, leading many shoppers to substitute down to lower quality options. As I discuss in my beginner’s guide to frugal living, these types of tradeoffs are often unnecessary and can be avoided with a little thought and planning.
In this case, clearly defining your dietary priorities will help you decide when to put cost over quality and where to draw a line in the sand.
2. Make a Food Budget and Calculate Your Maximum Cost Per Meal
For most American families, food is the third-largest household expense, behind housing and transportation. Because it’s such a sizeable chunk of your monthly expenditures, winning in the grocery department has a huge impact on your overall financial well-being.
Financial expert Dave Ramsey recommends keeping your food costs at 10-15% of your total monthly expenses. This percentage includes all food — eating in and dining out. If you live in a one or two-person household, aim for 10%. If you have a larger family, use the 15% guideline.
To break this number down so that it’s an actionable guide for your grocery list, you need to calculate your maximum cost per meal. That’s because the next step in the process is weekly meal planning, which requires knowing specifically how much you can spend.
Here’s how to do it:
- Step 1: Multiply your monthly take-home pay by either 10% or 15%.
- Step 2: Divide that figure by 30 (the number of days in a month).
- Step 3: Divide that figure by 3 (the number of meals per day).
- The result is your maximum average cost per meal.
For someone who has $54,000 per year in take-home pay, the math looks like this:
- $54,000 ÷ 12 = $4,500
- $4,500 X 10% = $450
- $450 ÷ 30 = $15
- $15 ÷ 3 = $5 per meal
Of course, this number is an average, as you may spend less on breakfast and more on dinner. In fact, that’s part of why this information is so valuable.
As noted previously, people who are trying to follow a grocery budget often assume they can’t afford high-quality foods. And it’s certainly true that you’ll have a hard time feeding your family grass-fed meat and fresh organic vegetables for just $5 per meal.
But knowing your average maximum meal cost allows you to reallocate your available funds and avoid buying cheaper, highly-processed products that are loaded with sugar and unhealthy preservatives.
For example, if you’re able to reduce your cost-per-breakfast from $5 to $2, that savings of $3 per meal can be added to your dinner budget, bringing it up to $8.
Then, cutting your lunches from $5 to $3 will bring your dinner budget up to a much more realistic $10 (double where it started).
Looking at your grocery budget on such a granular level forces you to think strategically about what you buy at the supermarket. And while it might seem cumbersome at first, it becomes second nature with practice.
3. Make a Weekly Meal Plan
Making a weekly meal plan has numerous benefits for your body and your budget:
- You won’t buy unnecessary or duplicate ingredients, minimizing wasted food and money.
- You’ll avoid buying unhealthy snacks.
- You’ll save time at the grocery store.
- You’ll save extra trips to the grocery store to get one or two missing ingredients.
- You’re more likely to forgo unhealthy fast food or expensive delivery/carry out if you have the ingredients to make a healthy meal.
The process doesn’t have to be complicated, although there are a couple of different approaches.
Meal Planning Approach #1: Eat What You Have
One approach is to start by assessing what you already have. Open the fridge, freezer and pantry, and check for items that need to get used up before they expire or go bad. Minimizing food waste is the easiest way to save money on groceries, so write down a few meals that incorporate the ingredients that need to get used up.
Then, check out the sales flyers at your local grocery stores. Add a few more meals based on in-season produce and other nutritious ingredients. Make sure these are foods you will eat, though — there’s no point in planning for roasted cauliflower if you can’t stand the stuff, even if it’s on sale.
Fill in any remaining spots in your menu with healthy family favorites. Having tried-and-true, crave-worthy dishes on the menu is a great way to ensure buy-in to your budget-friendly meal plan from other family members.
Meal Planning Approach #2: Eat What You Want
Another approach is to start from scratch. Take a blank piece of paper and make a column for each day of the week, and then draw lines to create boxes for each day’s breakfast, lunch and dinner, as in the table below:
Start by thinking about what healthy foods you want to eat on Monday, taking into consideration your schedule for the day. Plan each meal as specifically as possible, listing out each ingredient.
This method of meal planning has a few different benefits:
- It allows you to define your healthy eating goals and make them work within your budget, as opposed to trying to figure out how to craft healthy meals based on whatever happens to be on sale.
- It helps you develop a shopping list that reuses ingredients. For example, if you plan to make stuffed peppers for Monday night’s dinner, you can pencil in a salad that uses the leftover parts of the peppers for Tuesday’s lunch.
- It serves as a visual reminder that can help you stay on track. Having an idea in your head is one thing, and having a list of meals written out is another. But having a detailed meal-by-meal menu stuck on your refrigerator door transforms your goal into a plan.
4. Write a Detailed Shopping List Based on Your Meal Plan
Once your meal plan is complete, go through and write a shopping list. Do this at home so you can check the fridge and pantry for items you may already have. Then, keep it on your phone or snap a picture of your list in case you forget it.
Refer to your meal plan and write down exactly how much you need of each item. If you have salads planned for lunch every day, one head of lettuce isn’t going to cut it, and you’ll just find yourself back at the grocery store again.
Limiting your trips to the grocery store saves not only time, but also money. Stores are purposefully laid out to encourage impulse buys. End caps (which are the promotional displays on the ends of aisles), center aisle displays, and checkout counter shelves are lined with easy-to-grab chips, crackers and candy that are often expensive and overly processed.
If you have a list and stick to it, you’ll not only avoid the temptation to buy unhealthy snacks, but you’ll also stay under budget by only purchasing the things you need.
5. Set Aside Two Hours Per Weekend for Meal Prep
Cooking is messy. It requires near-constant attention, and it’s time-consuming. For many busy people, cooking is the greatest roadblock to healthy, budget-friendly eating.
By consolidating some of the time you spend cooking, you’ll actually spend less time in the kitchen overall, and you’ll never be short on healthy foods that are quick and easy to make.
Set aside a few hours on the weekend (or on your day off) to do the bulk of the cooking and meal prep. This could include grilling meat, chopping vegetables, or mixing dry ingredients to speed up cooking throughout the week.
If you want to take your meal prep up a notch, you can make a few big meals — like stews, stir frys and casseroles — and portion them out to eat over the week (setting some aside for the freezer to serve as backups when you absolutely don’t feel like cooking).
10 Tips for Sticking to Your Food Budget
Creating a well-thought-out meal plan is the first step to eating healthy on a budget, but there are a few more tricks of the trade. Here are our 10 best tips for how to actually stick to your allotted food budget.
1. Always Use the Store’s Loyalty Program
Most grocery store chains have a loyalty program, but they’re only used by 50-65% of customers on a regular basis. This means that a large percentage of shoppers are leaving money on the table every time they grocery shop.
Store loyalty programs pay in either accumulated points (which can be used to get free/discounted merchandise) or in reduced pricing. By not using a loyalty card, you may be paying higher prices and not even realizing it — many stores bold their loyal customer prices and put the normal prices in smaller print.
Almost all loyalty programs are free to sign up for, so it is senseless not to use them.
2. Take Advantage of Coupon and Rebate Apps
If you’re wondering how to save money on groceries, these three apps can help.
- Ibotta: This free app allows you to scan receipts from popular grocery stores to get rebates on the items you already buy. These include name brand items, as well as some “any brand” items like milk, bread and bananas.
- Fetch Rewards: Very similar to Ibotta, the Fetch Rewards app gives you points when you buy specific products or brands. Instead of cash, Fetch lets you redeem points for gift cards to major retailers.
- Rakuten: Use Rakuten’s app or their website to activate cash-back savings at major online retailers. This is a must-have if you order groceries online through stores like Walmart and Target. Cash-back is mailed or sent through PayPal on a quarterly basis.
3. Use the Best Possible Payment Method
Despite what Mr. Ramsey will tell you, the best method for buying groceries isn’t always cash. Many credit cards (and even some debit cards) offer cash-back on grocery purchases. You can often earn between 1% and 3% cash-back without even clipping coupons or scanning receipts.
If you choose to pay for your groceries with a credit card, any savings or cash-back you earned will be wiped out by the hefty interest rate. So only utilize this option if you know you can pay your balance off in full every month.
In general, American Express has some of the best cash-back grocery cards on the market. One to note is the Blue Cash Everyday Card, which has no annual fee and pays 3% cash-back on up to $6,000 per year in supermarket spending (amounting to $180 in potential savings), plus 1% on all spending over that figure.
Another great option is Cash App, which is like Paypal and Venmo in that you can link your checking account and use it to make peer-to-peer payments. However, Cash App also offers a free debit card that has rotating limited-time discounts at specific merchants (called “boosts”).
Two commons boosts are 5% off at Trader Joe’s and a whopping 10% off at Whole Foods — deals that can shave a huge chunk off your grocery expenses.
Cash App is free to use and owned by a legit company (Square), so it’s definitely worth checking out as a way to save on groceries.
4. Know how much things should cost
A big part of saving money on groceries is knowing a good deal when you see one. By keeping an eye on the prices of things you buy regularly, you’ll begin to recognize when a “sale” actually means a good price — and when it doesn’t.
Pay attention to the cost per unit or per ounce of the items you buy. Many stores put this in small print next to the overall price. Don’t be fooled by packaging gimmicks: a $1 box of pasta could seem like a good deal, but a $2 box containing three times as much has a cheaper price per ounce.
The prices of food fluctuate wildly and often. A box of Cheerios that’s $4.99 one week could be $2.99 the next. That doesn’t seem like a big difference (as it’s only two dollars), but it’s a 40% savings. Multiply that over dozens of items you buy every week, and the difference is substantial.
Additionally, knowing how much things should cost helps you avoid overpaying. For example, do you know what the average supermarket value of raw ginger is? What about frozen pierogies?
For many people, the price is the price and that’s the end of it. But for supermarkets, prices can be arbitrary. If you don’t know whether ginger should be $2 an ounce or $6 an ounce, they can charge you whatever they want within that range.
Shopping is a skill, and if you pay close attention to the prices of items — and how they change over time — you’ll get better at knowing when a product is well above where it should be.
5. Shop at Multiple Stores (Including Online)
Grocery stores are crafty with their pricing. They boldly advertise loss leaders to lure customers into their stores, then mark up other items to compensate for the losses they take on the sale items. They assume customers won’t want the hassle of going to more than one store to shop.
But if you know how much your purchases should cost and you’re willing to shop around a bit, you can take advantage of sales and avoid mark-ups. You’ll often find that certain stores are better for particular items: Costco may be better for meat and dairy products, while Albertsons may carry cheaper produce.
And don’t forget about online grocery shopping. Major retailers like Walmart and Amazon have free shipping over a certain amount (usually around $35), and many products are cheaper online than they are in stores.
Online produce vendors like Imperfect Produce are another great option. They deliver produce items that are slightly misshapen, have unusual coloring, or other “blemishes” at a discounted cost. (Think of it as the scratch-and-dent produce section.) They offer conventional and organic produce, as well as add-on items like chocolate and olive oil.
Further reading: You can learn more about my personal experience with Imperfect Produce (and why I love the service) in my review.
6. Take Advantage of Sales, but Be Skeptical
Many budgetary experts advise you to stock up on foods when there’s a sale. While this can be a great strategy to save money, proceed with caution.
Only stock up on a food if it is something that:
- You eat often.
- Holds up well in the pantry, fridge or freezer.
- Won’t encourage you to make unhealthy choices.
Check the expiration date on sale items, and make sure you don’t buy more than you can eat before they go bad.
Non-perishable items and staples that can be frozen are excellent things to stock up on during sales. Veggies like peppers, onions, and mushrooms can be chopped and frozen for use in stews and sauces.
Meat will last three or four months in the freezer, so stocking up on chicken, turkey, and beef can be a wise move when discounts are deep.
But stocking up on something when it’s cheap means you’ll have less room for other items in your weekly budget.
If you don’t adjust your meal plan, you’re likely to go over budget as a result of your sale spending. And while saving money is always tempting, busting one part of your budget can throw everything else out of whack.
7. Avoid Buying Prepared Foods Whenever Possible
While it might be tempting to save time by purchasing pre-chopped fruits or veggies, these are generally best to avoid because you’re paying for the cost of labor (the chopping).
These foods also spoil faster than whole, unprocessed ones. Stick to your budget by spending the couple of minutes it takes to chop the veggies yourself.
If you can, take this one step further and look for ways to create prepared foods at home. In many cases, you can get the same product in a healthier form and save money.
For instance, you can replicate the contents of a packet of oatmeal by buying a large container of oatmeal, brown sugar, cinnamon, and a box of raisins. If you love beef stew, instead of buying the canned variety (which is expensive and chock-full of sodium), you can make a large batch of your own and freeze individual portions. Use an instant pot or slow cooker to make dried beans instead of canned.
Obviously this won’t work for every item; it would take a lot of time and specialized equipment to make your own peanut butter or cheese. But next time you venture down the aisle for a prepared food, pause to consider the economic and health costs of buying a prepared food versus making it yourself.
8. Reduce Waste With Batch Cooking and Proper Storage
Cooking is fun — until it’s 5 p.m. after a hard day at work and your stomach is growling. Then it’s a chore.
Reducing your time in the kitchen by batch cooking is a fantastic way to stick to your food budget. Whether you have a lot of mouths to feed or just your own, cook basic ingredients in batches, then use them for multiple meals.
For example, if Monday’s dinner is chicken noodle soup and Tuesday’s dinner is a chicken caesar salad, spend Sunday night cooking a large batch of seasoned chicken breasts and cut up the vegetables for both dinners. The meals will come together in a snap when half the work is already done.
Want an extra bonus that comes from batch cooking? Fewer dishes to clean!
Be aware, however, that if you don’t properly store your prepared food, it may spoil and negate all your time and money-saving efforts. Be sure to eat your prepared foods and leftovers within three or four days. If you won’t eat them in that amount of time, stick them in the freezer to be safe.
Also, proper storage isn’t just for prepared foods. Putting your fresh fruits and veggies in Ziploc bags can extend their freshness and usability (sometimes by as much as a week). If you find that you’re constantly throwing away lettuce and other greens, toss them in a freezer bag and squeeze as much air out as possible.
9. Buy In-Season Produce (and Expand Your Palate)
Americans tend to eat a monolithic diet. We eat the same things over and over, and we don’t change our menus much from season to season.
This means that when we want strawberries in October or kale in January, those foods have to be shipped from somewhere else in the world, where they are in season. Those shipping costs are ultimately paid by us, the customers, in the form of higher-priced produce.
Also, imported fruits and vegetables must be harvested before they’re ripe, as they ripen on the trip overseas. This decreases both the nutrient value and the taste of the food.
An easy solution to these problems is to plan your meals around foods that are in season. Generally, fruits and veggies will be cheaper in the season in which they’re harvested. Seasonal foods are the most nutritious, delicious and inexpensive.
10. Have a Backup Plan
Life happens, and sometimes even a well-crafted meal plan can get derailed by things like working late, last-minute science projects, flat tires or the flu.
In cases like these, having a pre-made meal in the freezer can save you from blowing your budget and healthy eating goals at the drive-through.
Entire blogs and Pinterest boards are devoted to freezer meal ideas. Many soups, stews, casseroles and stir frys can be adapted for the freezer as well.
An easy way to meal prep for emergencies is to plan a meal that freezes well, then double it and freeze half. (It’s almost as easy to make two lasagnas as it is to make one.)
Do this for a few weeks and you’ll have a full stock of freezer meals to get you through emergencies or nights when you don’t have the energy to cook.
Sample Meal Plan
Here’s a sample meal plan that demonstrates how you can work within the budget described in this article. A shopping list and cost breakdown is provided below.
Assuming you have basic kitchen staples on hand — like salt, pepper and olive oil — this meal plan costs $124.08 to feed two adults for five days, with an average cost-per-meal of $4.14.
We used prices from Walmart to calculate those figures, and the meals below are based on a standard American diet. Obviously, Walmart tends to be one of the cheapest places to shop, but its prices sometimes come at the cost of nutritional value and product quality.
We’ve also chosen to focus heavily on cost. For example, our list features a loaf of whole wheat bread for $1.48. This comes from the bread aisle rather than the bakery, which means it has more preservatives. Choosing the latter is healthier, but costs around $4 on average. This is a great example of when to substitute up (rather than down) if your budget allows it.
Additionally, you’ll notice there’s a limited amount of meat on this menu. Meat tends to be one of the most expensive items on your list, so if you’re a serious carnivore or follow a protein-rich diet like paleo, your costs will be higher and you’ll need to make adjustments to stay below $5 per meal.
With all of that said, this should give you a little bit of inspiration and a guide to work with. Also, note that we’re presenting it in list format (as opposed to the table above) to make it as easy as possible to read on mobile devices.
- Breakfast: Oatmeal topped with blueberries, almonds, and honey. Glass of milk or milk in the bowl.
- Lunch: Mediterranean salad with chickpeas (cucumbers, chickpeas, garlic, red onions, olives, olive oil, salt, tomatoes, balsamic vinaigrette).
- Snack: Sliced peaches.
- Dinner: Whole chicken with brown rice pilaf and green beans (brown rice, frozen green beans, garlic, onion, salt, whole fryer chicken, vegetable broth).
- Breakfast: Eggs with avocado toast and orange slices (eggs, avocado, oranges, whole wheat bread).
- Lunch: Turkey tacos (avocados, cheddar cheese, ground turkey, lettuce, olives, taco seasoning, tomatoes, whole wheat tortillas).
- Snack: Carrots and ranch dressing.
- Dinner: Slow cooker vegetarian chili (black beans, brown lentils, canned diced tomatoes, chili seasoning, garlic, red beans, tomato paste, oil, onions, vegetable broth, and cheese for topping if desired).
- Breakfast: Roasted sweet potato with kale and egg hash (bell peppers, cumin, eggs, kale, oil, paprika, salt, sweet potatoes).
- Lunch: Balsamic chicken wrap (balsamic vinaigrette dressing, fryer chicken, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, whole wheat tortillas).
- Snack: Cottage cheese and pineapple.
- Dinner: Whole-wheat spaghetti and turkey meatballs (eggs, garlic, ground turkey, Italian style bread crumbs, tomato sauce, whole wheat spaghetti).
- Breakfast: Egg and cheese breakfast sandwich with pineapple (cheese, eggs, oil/butter, pineapple, salt, whole wheat toast).
- Lunch: Taco salad (bell peppers, cheese, lettuce, ranch dressing, onions, taco meat from Tuesday, tomatoes).
- Snack: Apples and almonds.
- Dinner: Teriyaki chicken stir fry (brown rice, frozen stir fry vegetable blend, fryer chicken, teriyaki sauce).
- Breakfast: Blueberry peach smoothie (blueberries, honey, milk, oatmeal, peaches, yogurt).
- Lunch: Madras lentils on rice (brown rice, canned tomatoes, cream or substitute, cumin, green chiles, garlic, lentils, oil, onions, red beans, salt).
- Snack: Bananas and almonds.
- Dinner: Loaded baked sweet potato with chili and cottage cheese (butter/oil, chili from Tuesday, cottage cheese, sweet potato).
Eating Healthy on a Budget: Sample Shopping List
Total Walmart shopping trip: $124.08
Average cost-per-meal: $4.14
- Cheddar cheese – 16 ounces ($4.22)
- Cream – 1 pint ($1.60)
- Eggs – 1 dozen ($0.98)
- Greek yogurt, plain – 32 ounces ($3.47)
- Organic milk – ½ gallon ($3.12)
- Almonds – 14-ounce bag ($4.98)
- Black beans – 15-ounce can ($0.92)
- Brown rice – 32-ounce bag ($1.37)
- Chickpeas – 15-ounce can ($0.92)
- Honey – 12-ounce jar ($3.08)
- Lentils – 2-pound bag ($1.88)
- Oatmeal – 18-ounce can ($2.68)
- Red beans – two 15-ounce cans ($1.84)
- Olives – 6-ounce can ($1.23)
- Petite tomatoes in juice – two 15-ounce cans ($0.92)
- Tomato paste – 6-ounce can ($0.72)
- Tomato sauce – 24-ounce jar ($1.84)
- Vegetable broth – 32-ounce package ($1.97)
- Whole wheat bread – 1 loaf ($1.48)
- Whole wheat spaghetti – 16-ounce box ($1.00)
- Whole wheat tortillas – 12-count bag ($2.47)
- Ground turkey – 2 pounds ($5.92)
- Whole chicken – 2 whole fryer chickens ($16.98)
- Apples – 1 pound ($1.67)
- Avocado – 1 large fruit ($0.98)
- Bananas – 2 of them ($0.59)
- Bell peppers – 2 of them ($2.76)
- Blueberries – 2 pints ($4.76)
- Cottage cheese – 16-ounce tub ($2.08)
- Garlic – 2 heads ($0.84)
- Green beans – 12-ounce bag ($2.58)
- Green chiles – 4-ounce can ($0.76)
- Kale – 1 bunch ($0.88)
- Lettuce – 3 heads romaine ($5.22)
- Onions – 5 medium reds ($3.90)
- Oranges – 2 medium fruits ($1.32)
- Peaches – 1 pound ($2.28)
- Pineapple – 1 fruit ($1.98)
- Stir fry veggies – 12-ounce bag ($1.44)
- Sweet potatoes – 4 large tubers ($4.08)
- Tomatoes – 4 large fruits ($3.64)
Seasonings and Condiments:
- Balsamic vinaigrette dressing – 1 bottle ($2.12)
- Bread crumbs – 15-ounce can ($1.50)
- Chili Seasoning – small packet ($1.18)
- Cumin – 1.5 ounces ($1.98)
- Paprika – 1.7 ounces ($1.98)
- Ranch dressing – 1 bottle ($2.12)
- Taco seasoning – 1 packet ($0.87)
- Teriyaki sauce – 12-ounce bottle ($1.98)
Save this list to Pinterest with the graphic below…
Final Thoughts: Yes, You Can Eat Healthy on a Budget
Is eating healthy on a budget harder than grabbing a burger on the way home? Of course.
Does it take more time? Yes.
Is it worth the effort? Absolutely.
The benefits of a healthy diet are practically innumerable. Just like mom said: you are what you eat. If what your eating is whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods, you give yourself huge health advantages by giving your body the nourishment it needs and reducing your risks for major diseases and health problems.
Although healthy food can get expensive, you can certainly eat nutritious meals on a budget. The key to making this happen is to plan healthy meals (whatever those look like for you). By planning out your meals ahead of time, you maximize nutrition and minimize expenses and time in the kitchen.
If you’re willing to put in the effort to do a little prep work, you can certainly reap the benefits of healthy eating while still maintaining your financial well-being.