Buying Healthy Foods on a Budget

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Eating healthy shouldn’t look like this!

As I continue growing up and approaching what you could call “real adulthood”, I’ve increasingly realized the value of saving money wherever possible. A hugely significant area of spending for me is on food, coffee, and other tasty stuff. In the end, we all need to eat, right? But a painful reality that slowly creeps up to us over time is the fact that food can be expensive, especially when we eat out on a regular basis as many busy college students do.

The monthly budget for food for one person in the United States averages out to $250 per month, or just over $60 per week, and can vary widely depending on individual needs. That can be a pretty huge chunk of income, especially if your actual spending looms above that (like mine… well, this is turning out to be a pretty convicting post).

How can we start to crunch that number and still get the nutrition we need? Here are just a few ideas.

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Simply put: cooking food at home and eating out less

Two very simple ideas… that can be very hard to follow in reality.  While the price of groceries is beginning to fall, the price of restaurant food is soaring, painting an even more convincing case for eating at home. But when the salad bar is eyeing you from around the corner, or your favorite sandwich is giving you “the look” from the pastry glass, how can you say no?

One way to follow this helpful principle is to find your favorite recipes — and try them for yourself, of course! One of my favorite places to grab recipes is from Delish, the same people that make the fun Facebook recipe prep videos. Here is a list of easy dinner recipes with ingredients that won’t cost a fortune.

Buying inexpensive proteins

If you’re worrying about diet quality when penny pinching on your groceries, this is probably the area you are most worried about. We always want to consider protein quality, digestibility, and other good things to make the most of our protein foods. That said, these simple foods pack a high-quality protein punch without punching a hole through your bank account:

Eggs. Eggs have an impressive amino acid profile and are pretty easy to obtain at a reasonable price.

Chicken breast. Chicken can be a cheap and easy fix for protein, especially if buying it canned or frozen (which doesn’t damage the quality)

Milk. Whey protein is also an impressive amino acid booster and includes the branched-chain amino acids important for muscle growth and repair. Buying nonfat, ultra-filtered milk is another way to capitalize on the protein benefits.

Beans and rice. These two plant proteins offer complete amino acids when eaten together, and cost pennies when purchased in bulk.

Powdered milk. Evaporated and filtered of sugar and fat, powdered milk is basically just the two milk proteins (casein and whey) in a convenience form at a fraction of the cost of commercial whey protein powder.

Buying inexpensive produce

Produce is often (and should be) an inexpensive staple, but sometimes that isn’t the case. A lot of things, like whether the food is fresh, frozen, organic, or in season can affect the price of a given plant food. Not sure how to get the most bang for your buck when buying produce? Here are a few tips:

Buy frozen or canned options. Frozen or canned versions of foods can often be cheaper than fresh, since they have a longer shelf life. As a plus, frozen and canned produce is often richer in nutrients than the fresh versions due to the preservation: just be sure to reach for options without added sugar, salt, or syrups.

Know when to choose organic.You may think you need to purchase all-organic produce in order to really be healthy, but that isn’t quite the case. The label “organic” refers to foods that are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, or artificial flavors and preservatives. While definitely a great option (who wants that stuff in their food?), organic options are almost always more expensive than the non-organic and not always necessary or the better option. You can stick by this tip: if it has a peelable skin, like oranges and avocados, non-organic is pretty safe since most of the contaminants are on the outside skin, but if it doesn’t have a peel and is meant to be eaten as-is, it might be good to splurge on the organic option. You can also stick by this “dirty dozen” list for ideas about what is best to buy organic.

Buy foods in season (and buy local!). When you buy foods that aren’t in season in your area, they usually have to be shipped from places where they are, which both ups the price and negatively affects the quality of the food. Here is a guide for seasonal foods by state. That said: it’s always better to buy local for this reason, since locally grown food is guaranteed to be in season! To find a farmer’s market near you, you can use the USDA’s Local Food Directory here.