When it comes to keeping a low budget, one of the first questions I get asked is how I am able to do so and still eat healthy. Let’s face it. Healthier foods tend to be more expensive. Or at least, that’s how it appears. However, I have proven over the past five years that healthy eating can be achieved with a very low budget! Here I will share my secrets on how to eat healthy on a budget.
But first, have you created your budget? Do you struggle sticking to it? Check out my FREE course on how to create a budgeting tool that works for you and your family.
Healthy Foods Are Expensive is a Myth
Firstly, I would like to debunk the myth that healthy foods cost more money. There is a discerning factor that makes it so, and that is the availability of the foods you are buying. It is more accurate to say that convenient healthy foods are more expensive. Convenient foods include pre-made, pre-packaged, frozen, or bottled foods at the grocery store. It also includes foods that you buy when dining out or at a farmer’s market. Since healthy foods are increasingly popular, the companies that make them can charge more because there is a perceived value associated with them.
However, REAL healthy foods need only take up more time, not more money. The truth is, pre-packaged foods are less healthy than if you made them from scratch. Take any product in the grocery store and look at the ingredient label. If there are big, scientific words on there that you have trouble pronouncing, then I would wager it is less healthy than if you made that same product in your home kitchen.
The first time I noticed this was when I was making my own sourdough bread. Sourdough bread has three ingredients. Flour, Water, Salt. Even the starter that makes it rise is made of flour and water. Yet every ‘healthy’ sourdough bread at my grocery store had complicated, unpronounceable words on their labels that made me wary to eat it.
The second time I noticed this was when we nixed plastic from our home. We wanted to create less waste so we experimented with avoiding buying anything packaged in plastic when we went to the grocery store. If you’ve ever tried this yourself, you would know that the grocery store is an unfriendly place. By doing this we had to make our foods from scratch. We could not buy a majority of snacks (yay for healthy!), frozen foods (yay again!), most dairy products and pre-made sauces. Instead, we had to buy produce and make our own sauces from scratch.
Once we started doing this, I learned how few ingredients it really takes to make a product. I learned that 75% of the ingredients listed on a product label are unnecessary, which begs the question, ‘why do we ingest it?’ I learned the importance of sourcing good ingredients to create the foundation for healthy food. And most importantly, I learned that healthy food is not expensive. Only pre-made industrialized food is.
Ways to Eat Healthy on a Budget
With that myth debunked, here are more than ten ways to eat healthy on a budget.
Avoid dining out.
This is our number one way to stay on a budget. A co-worker once told me that him and his wife spent $800 a month dining out. If you are shocked at that number, then you would be devastated to hear that some millennials I know spend over $1000 a month on dining out. If you want to be frugal, limit dining out to a minimum. The shocking truth is that making your own food from whole, simple ingredients is healthier than some ‘healthy’ restaurant items out there. And it will be a much cheaper, too!
Avoid pre-packaged foods.
Pre-packaged foods include chips, snacks, granola bars, frozen foods, sauces and dips, and anything already cooked and prepared. All of these foods will be priced higher. Think of it as a convenience fee. These foods will also have unnecessary ingredients that our bodies do not need. Have you ever eaten these things and not felt satiated? A lot of these foods contain empty carbs or are heavy in salt, both of which makes us want to eat more and buy more. And even though they are deemed healthy, if the ingredient label is complicated, I would just skip it. I prefer to control what I ingest anyway.
Avoid buying packaged snacks.
Have you noticed that the foods that call out to you at a grocery store are generally unhealthy snack items? When I was in college, I ingrained it into my mind that snacks are unnecessary. I did this to cut my spending to $25 a week. I convinced myself that snacks are a waste of money, because they are empty carbs that do not nourish my body. They taste good, sure. But instead of helping support me, it actually is bad for my health.
I always bring it back to health because, as a medical professional, I know how expensive medical treatments are. Eating unhealthy snacks today not only makes me spend money now, but also in the future when an unhealthy body may lead to more health problems, which require treatment. Even the snacks that claim they are healthy contain a long ingredient list with words I can’t pronounce.
As always, go back to the ingredient label. If there’s anything unnatural sounding on there, I would question how healthy the food really is. When it comes to snacking, I opt for whole foods such as nuts, fruits, or veggies with a home-made hummus dip.
On the heels of the previous two sections, I just want to drive the moral of the story home. Avoid pre-packaged stuff. One of the ways to do that is to avoid buying any plastic when grocery shopping. It will cut out a lot of options. But it will also point you towards the more healthy food choices.
Mike and I get asked a lot how we are able to maintain our weights. This was back in our late twenties when we did not work out. We joked and said we followed a simple diet plan – it was called the ZERO-PLASTIC diet. Do you know that 80% of your physique is based on what you eat, and only 20% is based on your physical activities? We stayed skinny because we were avoiding plastic waste. Which meant we were forced to make our foods from scratch, without preservatives, high amounts of sugar or much salt!. Since my thirties, I have started to work out too, but I don’t really attribute my skinniness to that. It’s what we eat that counts!
We grew up consuming a lot of dairy. Our parents told us to drink milk for good bone health and growth. We ate cereal and grilled cheese, had milk with our cookies, and watched as our favorite celebrity doused their upper lip in ‘Got Milk?’ ads. However, we now know that dairy isn’t exactly good for our gut health. We are the only species that drinks another species’ milk. Our guts are not evolutionarily developed to process cow’s milk and it wasn’t until the Industrialized Revolution that we started to drink a lot of it. This explains why many of us feel discomfort, bloated, or gassy after having dairy. Some of us are lactose-intolerant altogether. Avoiding dairy is good news for your wallet as it is one of the most costly items you can buy at the market and it doesn’t even have a long shelf-life.
Less red meat, same protein.
Some red meats are more difficult for our guts to digest than others. I started to eat less meat in my 30’s after learning that red meat tends to stick around (up to 48 hours) after ingestion. I felt more energetic, lighter, and comfortable when I significantly reduced my meat diet.
However, meat has it’s important qualities too so we shouldn’t get rid of it all. The protein structure of meats provide necessary collagen which our bodies significantly make less of as we age. If you don’t want to eat meat, I would still suggest making broths from meat bones and carcass to drink. You’re skin will really thank you! Meat is also touted for being high in protein. Even if you eat less meat, I recommend eating the same amount of protein. Substitutes to red meat include fish, beans, legumes, tofu and eggs.
Personally, once I switched to these substitutes, I really did not crave much meat anymore. I found meat to be less flavorful than these other options. But also, these alternatives are way kinder to my bank account. Fish might be more expensive than meat, but I eat way less of it. Alternating with beans, legumes and tofu makes it worth it.
Opt for whole ingredients.
The more whole an ingredient is, the cheaper it will be. I learned this when I started baking bread and bought a mill for my bakery. The mill turns grain into flour. While I always thought flour was cheap, I realized how much cheaper it was to buy grain! Now, not everyone has a mill, but let’s take the example of tomatoes. Whole tomatoes are cheaper than canned tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, or tomato sauce. Whole heads of lettuce are cheaper than the pre-washed, pre-cut, pre-packaged tub. Dried beans are cheaper than canned beans. Well, you get the picture. In general, buying whole ingredients are cheaper, because you are not paying for the convenience of having it partly prepared.
Make foods from scratch.
Making foods from scratch can save you a lot of money. Once again, it’s that convenience fee you are paying for. I can make a loaf of gut-friendly, amazing sourdough bread for $1. This same loaf sells at a farmer’s market for $10! We can also make a tub of guacamole for $2.50, but a small serving of guac and chips at a restaurant costs $5-$8. Even spaghetti sauce is pricey! A jar of tomato sauce now runs for $5-$8. But for the same price, Mike and I can batch produce 8 jars of tomato sauce.
My favorite savings is on broth. We used to pay $5 for boxed broth, but now we just throw left over veggies, meats, and bones into water in our crockpot and let it simmer for 8 hours to get the most delicious and healthy broths!
Our plight to reduce plastic waste led us to the realization that the convenience really does comes at a premium. To our delight, we found that we have been eating better tasting and healthier foods simply by making foods from scratch!
Cook simple meals.
This one is for all the people out there looking to experiment and make fancy meals at home. While that is super fun (we love doing that too!), it is not necessarily sustainable. When I go online and look for recipes, I see a plethora of complicated, difficult, but pretty posts. I think that Instagram has changed the way we consume food, in that the image of food has taken center-stage.
Unfortunately, these same recipes require one-off ingredients, fancy garnishes, and a bit of decor. When did food get so… fashionable? Granted, we do make fancy meals on special occasions. But after doing this for a long time (I have been eating with a budget since my early 20’s!), my one advice is to keep it simple.
Food should be nourishing. It should energize us and help our bodies thrive during the day. It can taste good, sure, but it doesn’t have to be Michelin Star status. Foods are made to look good online because looking good sells people on making that particular recipe or dining at that restaurant. But in the home kitchen, it doesn’t really have to look that good.
I watch the way my mom prepares meals. This year, in fact, I have made it a point to learn one traditional Filipina recipe from my mom every month. Her recipes are memorized, and she does not look at cookbooks. The reason is because the ingredients are simple and few. The rightness of the recipe comes from taste. ‘Timpla‘ is a tagalog word that means ‘mixture’. She just bases the doneness of her cooking based on the taste of the ‘timpla‘. It’s such a common expression in cooking that she uses it as a verb sometimes too.
So you see, cooking simple meals not only limits the number of ingredients you have to buy, but also the stress involved with cooking. My favorite things to cook are meals that don’t need much editing of natural ingredients. I also like to toss together things (quite literally) in a bowl or pot. I like stews left on to simmer, or veggies that I throw into the ovens for long periods of time. It lets me get other things done while dinner cooks.
Volunteer at a farm or subscribe to a farm.
I have the privilege of living in a community with a few community farms. The residents can volunteer to work at the farms as often as they want (up to four days a week!) and each time they do, they can opt to harvest food. I try to volunteer once a week and gather the seasonal produce from there in order to cut our grocery bill. Each week, I harvest about 10 pounds of produce. I know this is not available to everyone but there are farms all around. Prior to working at our community farm, we were subscribed to receiving a farm box for $25 a week. We received local seasonal fruits and veggies and used that instead to cook with. There have been some weeks where all we needed to buy was the protein.
Create a list before going to the grocery store.
Have you ever gone to the groceries to buy a handful of things only to walk out with a full cart? This is most likely because you did not have a dedicated list. The grocery store is like any other store. Sometimes, it gets you to shop. I like to go in with a list so that I remain focused during my shopping. I know exactly what I need and go directly to the aisles that contain those needs. This way, I avoid meandering down rows that contain foods I might also want. My trick to avoiding extra is to get the shopping done, and then get out of there.
Never shop hungry.
My final advice is my most important. Never shop hungry. If I shop hungry, I spend more and will usually gravitate towards the salty, sugary, ‘yummy’ addictive foods. It’s amazing how much hunger can trigger our survival mode in our brains. This is a part of our evolution and is difficult to overcome. If you think about it, food has only been readily available in large quantities to our species for maybe 100 years. Our parents and grandparents still went through times of not having enough food for the family. Evolutionarily speaking, we still have a strong instinct to grab the saltiest, sugariest foods when we feel hungry. So eat something before doing your groceries.
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