Think eating healthy foods is too expensive to try? Think again: A recent study showed that a healthy diet costs only about $1.50 more per day per person than its less healthy counterpart.
“You can enjoy nutritious foods without breaking the bank — and there are more benefits than just saving money,” said Anna Threadcraft, director of UAB Employee Wellness. “Generally, people know what items are healthier to choose; but one of the greatest barriers to making those choices is convenience. A little bit of preparation and planning can have a positive impact on your budget and your waistline.”
1. Create a shopping list.
The key to smart, budget-friendly eating is to plan ahead. Use a weekly meal plan to create a master grocery list, and stick to it when you get to the store. Prioritize your food dollars for nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, lean protein and whole grains. Prepare meals that include similar ingredients throughout the week to cut down on the amount of food you have to purchase. Skip highly processed items and packaged snack foods, which can be very expensive. Instead, prepare some healthy snacks ahead of time to use throughout the week.
2. Plan around weekly sales.
When planning your meals for the week, look for fresh produce, lean meats and low-fat dairy items on sale that week. Check sale fliers and available coupons for additional savings. You also can compare national brands with store labels for the lowest prices. “Take 20 minutes on the weekend to think through what meals you can plan ahead for,” Threadcraft said. “Taking an extra moment to look at the coupons for your shopping venue of choice is one more way to find good choices at a discounted price, sometimes allowing you to double up with a buy-one-get-one-free deal without necessarily paying more.”
3. Shop for seasonal produce.
Local, seasonal produce is at its peak flavor and is more readily available, so it’s sold at a lower price. There are several farmers’ markets around, so shop there to stock up on locally grown fare. If the produce item you want isn’t in season, consider getting frozen fruits and vegetables. They usually have the same nutritional quality, but check the labels for added sugars or salt.
4. Always buy your favorite meat when you see it on sale.
You can prepare two or more meals at one time and enjoy the leftovers for lunch or dinner later in the week. Meat often is the most expensive ingredient in a recipe, so planning a meatless meal several times each week can also reduce your bill significantly. Download UAB Medicine’s free heart-healthy vegetarian recipe book for some unique ideas. “Non-animal sources of protein can be a fantastic alternative to the typical beef, chicken and pork,” Threadcraft said. “Items like tofu or any soy-based products tend to provide fiber in addition to protein, which keeps you feeling full and less likely to snack unnecessarily.”
5. Stock up on discounted grains and dry goods.
Whole grains and dried beans are generally inexpensive, so they’re an easy way to get more nutrition for your dollar. Stock up on nonperishable items when they’re on sale, or take advantage of a bulk bin to purchase only the amount you need. You can even prepare dried beans, peas and lentils ahead of time and then freeze them so you have fiber- and protein-rich foods on hand at all times.
Americans throw away more than 38 million tons of food every year, according to a 2014 EPA study. Make the most of your food spending by cutting down on waste. Plan to use highly perishable foods such as fish, greens, berries and fresh herbs early in the week. Save more hearty items for later in the week. Enjoy leftovers for lunch or create new meals with your leftovers. “Preparing planned extras is an easy way to prevent waste, optimize food-prep time and still provide healthy meals,” Threadcraft said. “Learning which food items freeze well is also a good way to prevent waste and have healthy options readily available with short notice.”
7. Consider organic foods — especially bought from local markets.
The “Dirty Dozen list” is created by the Environmental Working Group and shows conventional produce items that contain higher levels of pesticide residue than others. They also publish the “Clean 15 list,” which includes items with the lowest levels of pesticide residues. For those interested in organically grown produce, these lists can help you prioritize spending on organic products.
Eating nutritious food doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and remember, the more you make at home, the less you have to eat out, which is both more nutritious and cost-effective.