A Registered Dietitian’s Tips to Eat Well on a Budget (Yes, It’s Possible!)
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If you’ve got sticker shock from your latest trip to the grocery, you’re not alone. The cost of food has skyrocketed since the pandemic. Supply chain issues, severe weather, and inflation are just a few reasons behind the bump in food prices.
According to USDA Economic Research Service, the cost of food is expected to increase by 7.9% in 2023.
But we still need to eat! Whether you’re a busy bachelor on a budget or a family of four just trying to make ends meet, as a cost-conscious dietitian and recipe developer, I’ve got some tried and true tips to eat well on a budget.
I’ll provide examples of what I do in my own kitchen as well as ways my money-savvy clients save so you can pick what works best for you and your family.
When you think of meal planning, it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of what to buy. Are fresh veggies the only option or are canned and frozen OK? Should you buy organic, or is conventionally-grown food just as nutritious?
For starters, fresh, frozen, and canned foods all have nutritional value. While fresh veggies are best for cold dishes like salads or sandwiches, canned and frozen foods can be incorporated into soups, sauces, chili, casseroles, and more.
Frozen and canned foods are convenient, cost effective, and more shelf stable. These are picked at their peak point of ripeness and processed quickly to seal in their nutrients. It’s great to have a variety of different foods on hand like canned or dried beans, canned tomatoes, frozen spinach, berries, or other produce.
Fresh fruits and vegetables will be less expensive and more nutrient-dense when they’re in season. Buying strawberries or melons in the middle of winter will cost you an arm and a leg and may not even taste very good. Enjoy them in late spring and summer when they’re in season and more readily available. They’re also more nutrient-dense when in season.
Organic or Conventional Produce?
Organic food costs more because there are very specific rules for its production. According to the USDA, "Organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal-raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible."
On average, organic food costs about 22% more than conventionally grown food, according to CNET. While a few organic foods may be higher in antioxidants (blueberries and onions), or omega-3 fatty acids (eggs and dairy products), most experts believe it’s better to eat more fruits and vegetables than to be concerned with the organic label.
If you’re concerned about pesticides, check out this pesticide calculator. While less is best, you’d have to eat a bushel of apples to reach a dangerous pesticide level.
To Buy in Bulk or Not?
Are big-box stores like Costco or Sam’s Club worth the trip? That depends. For starters, these stores carry an annual subscription fee. If you only shop there once or twice per year, it’s probably not worth it. Sam’s Club membership is $50 per year while a “plus” membership will cost you $110 annually.
If you’re feeding a large family, buying in bulk could save you money. Bulk orders of meat, poultry, and fish can be portioned out and frozen. Keep in mind, these stores were originally designed to be used by the restaurant industry. Have you seen the giant jars of mayonnaise on the shelves? Most people won’t use this much.
Where to Save Money
Small European grocery chains like Aldi and Lidl offer store brands and some name brands that tend to be cheaper than their big-box competitors like Kroger, Meijer, and Walmart. You may find less selection of brands and types of food, but you also won’t spend extra time having to compare 15 yogurt brands.
These stores offer less expensive fresh, frozen, and canned food as well as a good selection of bread, crackers, snack food, grains, meat, fish, seafood, and specialty products. They also offer seasonal selections for the holidays.
Big-box stores may have loyalty cards where you can save money, too. Look for sale items using the store’s website, app, or mail flier. No matter where you buy food, don’t shop when you’re hungry, and make a list of necessities. This will keep you from impulse purchases.
Let’s take a look at how others are saving.
Recent College Graduate
Connor is a new college graduate who needs to save money but doesn’t know how to cook. He eats out often or buys convenience items like frozen pizza or ready-made food.
For starters, I had Connor keep his receipts from fast food and the grocery store for a month. He soon realized where his money was going.
Connor could save money by buying some staples to have on hand for easy meals. Canned black beans, salsa, whole wheat tortillas, and shredded cheese can be made into burritos or quesadillas very easily. I suggested he use Youtube to find videos about how to make simple dishes like chili, spaghetti sauce, stir-fry, or soup.
Instead of ready-made meals, Connor could buy a rotisserie chicken, bagged salad, and brown rice to whip up a quick dinner. Several stores sell frozen dough that can be made into pizza very easily at home, too.
Family of Four
The Nicholsons are a family of four. The parents are overweight and want to teach their kids to eat healthier but they don’t have a lot of money.
In this situation, I advised the family to focus on affordable, nutrient-dense food. To start, they could reduce their food costs by limiting meat intake. This is better for their overall health and is less expensive.
While the price of eggs skyrocketed in early 2023 thanks to the avian flu, the prices have come down some. When compared to grass-fed beef or wild-caught salmon, eggs are a relatively inexpensive source of complete protein. One egg costs about 25 cents. Eggs with frozen chopped peppers and onions, or spinach, make great omelets and can be served with whole-grain toast.
At breakfast, they could also use a cylinder of rolled oats in place of packets of instant oatmeal, as it’s easy to cook, less expensive, and has less sugar and other additives. Seasonal or frozen fruit could be served as snacks or desserts in place of cookies or other processed snacks. Canned beans and tomatoes pair well in soup or chili for a fast, healthy meal.
Single Mom Who Skips Meals
Being a single mom trying to make ends meet is tough. Jackie and her 3-year-old live in a food desert and the closest grocery store is 10 miles away. She’s busy working and often skips meals because she doesn’t have the time, energy, or money to cook.
Depending on her son’s age, Jackie could qualify for WIC and is a great candidate for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), previously known as food stamps. WIC serves women, infants, and children. If Jackie is no longer breastfeeding, her son would qualify for benefits up to the age of 5.
SNAP provides financial support to purchase food for people living in poverty. Individuals must meet certain criteria to qualify for SNAP. The amount of assistance received is based on the size of your family, monthly income, and expenses such as rent or mortgage. Both programs are meant to reduce food insecurity.
She could also utilize the free church pantry in her neighborhood for non-perishable food items. Canned tuna, salmon, and canned beans with rice provide protein. Peanut butter is another shelf-stable option. Some church pantries may also offer fresh fruits and vegetables as well as meat.
I encouraged Jackie to keep simple, non-cook items on hand to help her maintain energy. String cheese or peanut butter and whole-grain crackers, cottage cheese and canned fruit, or yogurt with frozen fruit are a few examples. Tuna or egg salad are also good sources of protein.
Single Female With Spending Habit
Julie is a 33-year-old single woman who enjoys a lavish life. She loves to join friends for happy hour, shopping sprees, and mini spa vacations. She’s entered a stage in her life where she’d love to buy a house but needs to save money.
Similar to Connor, the recent college graduate, I advised Julie to keep track of her spending so she’d have an idea of how much she spends on happy hours and meals with friends.
I suggested she take a cooking class with a few friends to sharpen her knife and other kitchen skills. Rather than going out to eat, she and her friends could host small dinner gatherings to save money, but remain social.
She could reduce spending on clothes by going to second hand shops or thrift stores. This could be a fun, budget-friendly outing with friends.
Reducing alcohol would reduce her risk for unwanted weight gain and cancer, which is never a bad thing.
I encouraged her to check out MyPlate to learn more about her nutritional needs and how to choose healthier options.
No matter what age or stage of life you’re in, there are always ways to cut food costs and eat a nutritious diet. By using government or community resources when available, making a list, and shopping at discount stores, eating healthy on a budget is an achievable goal for anyone.
For more tips on healthy eating, an expert can help. Reach out to a registered dietitian, or check out the Kickoff app’s nutrition features and learn how you can work with a certified expert to help you reach your health and nutrition goals.