8 Ways to Eat Healthy on the Cheap

Just visit your local health food store and the prospect of eating healthier may seem way, way, WAY out of your budget.

And, it can be. If you trade your favourite packaged foods for healthier versions you could see your grocery budget go up by at least a 1/3 (it might even double).

You can’t really forgo paying your rent, mortgage, or bills just so you can eat…so that dietary change you’re aching to do (and your body might be aching for it too…) might seem totally impossible.

I hear you, and I’ve been there.

When I first started making dietary changes my diet was filled to the brim with packaged and processed food…and my food budget was very, very small. I made a few changes that I could afford and slowly changed a few more as my willpower and food budget allowed.

Fast forward to 2008 when I quit my corporate job and packed up my life in Toronto to move to BC. By this point I was a nutritionist and my diet was now filled to the brim with healthy whole foods (and some expensive ones too). A diet I planned on keeping even as I started my new venture as a full-time self-employed nutritionist…with no back-up job and no back-up plan.

The problem hit me quickly – I still wanted to shop like I had a regular salary (oh how I miss the pay check fairy)…and that started to drain my bank account. I needed to make some drastic changes, drastically quickly if I was going to keep my head above water.

And this is where I learned a very important skill – how to eat a very healthy diet on a teeny tiny budget.

At the tightest point in my budget, I managed to buy enough groceries to feed 2 people for a week for $20.

Actually, I managed to only spend about $17, because I had to be conservative with that $20 (I didn’t have $20.02).

Today, 9 years after that move across the country, things are much more steady. My food budget has expanded, but I still use most of these tips on a weekly basis. I think it’s a skill that will always come in handy.

Here are my 8 frugal ways I eat healthy:

1. Make a grocery list –

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This simple task can really help reduce a lot of extraneous spending throughout the week. One missing ingredient or staple can mean a few more take-out lunches or dinners.

To make it as easy as possible, I have a notepad on my fridge. As soon as I notice a staple is running low (less than a week left), I add it to the list. When it's grocery-time, I don’t have to search through my fridge and cupboards to find what’s needed. I just add some fresh produce and voila! My list is done :).

2. Have important staples on hand –

My meal planning can be slightly near-sighted. I can plan out a few days, but usually by the end of the week I’m throwing something together with what I have left in the fridge. This works because I always have certain staples on hand, like:

-       good oils – like extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil, and sesame oil

-       frozen veggies – they fill in the gaps if I’m running low at the end of the week

-       beans - dried or canned 

-       canned tuna or canned wild salmon

-       whole grains – rice, oats, quinoa

-       condiments – mustard (adds flavour, try it on broccoli :), tamari/soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, miso

-       nut butters and hummus (great quick sources of lunchtime protein)

Many lovely dinners have been made from these ingredients :).

3. Buy Seasonal -

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A $6 container of strawberries in January or $4/lbs for apples in June is not budget friendly. Buying in season can really reduce your grocery bill and your body will love it. Buy berries and tomatoes in the summer and freeze for use all year long :).

4. Buy Cheaper Cuts of Meat -

This will really stretch your budget, and it might also allow you to buy organic or free-range instead of conventional grown meats. Buy bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs or legs instead of boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Buy stewing meat instead of tenderloin and pull out your crockpot that’s collecting dust (or find one at a thrift shop). It will make that tougher cut absolutely delicious.

5. Enjoy More Vegetarian Meals -

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This one step can save you SO much money and it can be better for the planet! Bean and lentils are significantly cheaper sources of protein than meat. If you’re a heavy meat eater, try just 1 or 2 vegetarian lunches or dinners and watch your grocery bill go down!

6. Buy Whole Foods –

Instead of packaged or processed "healthy" foods. The most expensive food at health food stores are the healthier versions of packaged foods (cereal, mac ‘n’ cheese, pizza, veggie burgers, etc). Buy whole foods and try some new recipes. Use these packaged foods as an occasional treat.

7. Buy Grains and Beans in Bulk –

Bulk stores or bulk sections at your favourite health food store are a great place to save lots of $$ on your grocery bill. This is especially true for the more expensive grains like quinoa. Organic spices are also a great find in a bulk section - organic quality for the price of conventional. 

8. Cook at Home –

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If you’re currently eating out or even just buying coffee a few times per week, keep track of how much you’re spending. $10 here or $30 there can add up over a month, and this extra cash can really go far at the grocery store. Once you know how much you’re spending, budget for the take-out or coffee treats you really want and put the rest into your grocery budget.

For me, my treat is wine. I enjoy a few glasses a week, but a habit I’ve kept is this. If I have some extra $$ for wine, I make sure my food quality is high first. My body would prefer I eat better quality eggs than have those glasses of wine. If my food budget is happy, then to the liquor store I go :). 

(You'll still hear me often say things like, "organic butter is $10/lbs, but so is a bottle of wine...I'll get the butter instead").

Want a quick dinner that uses most of these tips – here’s one of my favourite stews. It’s easily thrown together with your leftover veggies and a few staples from your cupboard.

Do you have a great way you stretch your grocery budget? I would LOVE to hear your ideas (I think we all would :), so please share them in the comments below. And enjoy your good eats!