How to Eat Healthy on a Budget
Editor's note: With food prices rising every week, this article becomes increasingly important as you strive to improve your health without draining your wallet.
Lifestyle changes can be tough. Quality nutrition is essential but making changes in how we eat can often lead to struggle. Old patterns are tough to change. This article offers tips to healthy eating on a budget.
Making healthier food choices is a primary step in any healthy living plan. Whether to reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia, ME/CFS, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, or other chronic health challenges, supporting your body with quality nutrition is essential.
Healing from the inside out helps to reduce whole body inflammation, build a stronger immune system, and reduce the system overload effect of being highly sensitive — to everything!
But anything new can be scary. It feels foreign (or even frightening) to be pushed outside of your comfort zone. This sense of discomfort, in contrast to what’s safe and known, may make your current patterns and behaviors look tolerable – even if they’re not ideal.
When we want to stay within our comfort zone, we choose to stick with our familiar patterns – whether we’re conscious of that decision or not. Rather than try something new, our natural focus is to find ways to support our current beliefs. We collect an assortment of statements that “prove” our case. It’s very common to want to feel justified and right.
This focus, however, can work to our detriment when applied to healthier living. To illustrate, we’ve all likely seen the following statements in the media. Perhaps you see justification in them, too.
Current beliefs about healthy foods:
Organic foods are only for the rich.
Healthy – fresh foods – are too expensive.
Healthy foods are harder to find or make me go out of my way.
Healthy foods take too much time to prepare.
Changing what I eat won’t make a difference in how I feel anyway.
Do any of these ring true for you?
It’s a given that we can find a plethora of news reports to support any of the above statements. The first step to making changes to an established belief system is to open up a dialogue of inquiries. Are the above statements unequivocally true? Are they all true, or just some? Are they 100% true 100% of the time?
When we exhibit black or white thinking (things are either one way or another with no wiggle room in-between), we set ourselves up for frustration. The statements above are neither 100% true, nor 100% false.
Here are a few other important questions to consider. When you evaluate where you are now with where you’d like to be, is there room for improvement? Would you like something to be different? Do you wish to make changes to your current eating habits but the changes haven’t happened yet?
If you find that you’re not exactly where you’d like to be on your health journey, then congratulations! You’re in great company. Most of us are on a constant path toward improvement and being open to making changes is the first step toward making those improvements happen.
Once you decide that making healthy changes is a priority in your life, you’ll soon see that your focus changes as well. It’s at this point of focus change, that clients often enlist my help. They tell me they want change. They want to move away from their health challenges and toward healthier living.
I always ask, “If healthier living is a priority, then are you willing to try something new?”
It’s exciting to hear a resounding “yes” response to that question and to see the positive changes resulting from the action steps they take. By challenging their “black and white” thinking, I can help them explore their options with a new focus.
Practical Tips to Healthy Eating on a Budget
When looking to make healthier nutritional choices, here are a few shopping suggestions to start.
Peripheral shopping (buying fresh foods found on the perimeter of the store)
Budget friendly shopping (in season, on sale, and/or in bulk when possible)
Substitution shopping (switching to healthier versions of foods you typically buy)
Whole foods shopping (foods that are whole, unprocessed, natural, fresh, and nutrient-rich)
Peripheral shopping means purchasing foods that are whole, natural, and less processed than the highly refined packaged foods found in the interior of the store’s shelves. This means the produce, meat, and/or dairy sections of your local store.
Consider a standard grocery store layout. There’s easier access for delivery trucks and crews to the periphery of the store. It’s logical to make it easier for fresher foods to be restocked and rotated often. That leaves the bulk of the store – the interior – for shelves and freezers to be used for highly processed and packaged foods with a long-term shelf life.
At first, shopping predominantly from the periphery – mainly the produce section – can be an adjustment. Many moms tell me they formerly sprinted past the whole veggies grabbing a bag of prepared lettuce and carrots on their way to do their “real” shopping. The produce section was viewed as alien territory.
After they familiarize themselves with the fruits and veggies, and explore various recipes and preparation tips, they begin to feel comfortable. At that point, I’m typically asked about the price difference between organic and non-organic produce.
The funny thing is, before embarking on a new nutrition plan, most of them were unaware of the price of any whole food produce item, much less the price of organic produce. Their heightened familiarity allows them to see the comparison. While some organic pricing can be exorbitant (depending on the season or availability), the price of a meal’s worth of fresh veggies (organic or not) is still typically lower than the average meal prepared with highly processed and packaged foods.
When splurging on higher priced produce, if possible, do so for some organics. If you’re not sure what produce is more susceptible to pesticides (making organic farming a more important choice), download this handy cheat sheet from the Environmental Working Group. You can download and print out their useful Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Shopper’s guide.
But here’s a practical tip to eating healthy: Any vegetable makes a better nutritional choice than, say, a bag of chips or a box of crackers. Decide what works best within your personal budget and feel confident in your purchasing choice. It’s no one else’s to make.
By purchasing produce in season and in bulk (if applicable), you can reap even higher financial rewards even while on a tight budget . This is, of course, in addition to the nutritional boost of making healthier meals.
Next, take a few steps out of the produce section and look at the lower shelves where the dry goods are stocked. Staples such as beans, lentils, rice, and a variety of seeds (including chia and quinoa) can make the most cost-effective and dollar-stretching addition to your shopping cart. Adding beans and flax seeds, for example, to a stir fry meal or a hearty salad boosts both the flavor and the nutritional value.
Getting the Most from the Food You Buy –
More tips to healthy eating on a budget
When you get home from the store, a little advance planning stretches your time and budget even further. Wash and chop veggies right away for the week. Having them on hand makes it easy to add them to every meal – and increases the likelihood you’ll do so. Also, cooking beans, lentils, rice, quinoa, soups, etc. in larger batches allows you to make more meals in less time. Use what you need for that meal and freeze the rest for later in meal-sized portions. Don’t forget to re-purpose leftovers for packed lunches and Reverse Doggy Bagging opportunities.
Speaking of being efficient in the kitchen, I always have portions of cooked quinoa in my freezer ready to thaw and add to any meal. Have you tried quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wha) yet? It’s a high protein seed that’s as flavorful as it is versatile. Try all the various colors and varieties. A meal made with a foundation of quinoa can cost just a few dollars and makes a great pairing with veggies and other proteins (such as salmon, rich in healthy omega-3 fatty acids), if desired. For a change, check out this recipe for Quinoa Cranberries and Pecans. For even more quinoa ideas, pick up your own copy of my favorite Quinoa Cookbook, written by my friend, Susan Irby. My copy is dog-eared and well-loved.
But of course, when plunking down your own money, it’s up to you. You get to decide what changes you deem a priority and which purchases are practical for your budget and financial limitations.
A Few Words on Waste
Yes, when buying fresh foods, there is no getting around what I call the “throw away factor.” There will be times when an overlooked bunch of spinach gets shoved to the back of the fridge. Or perhaps you’ll get a bit overzealous at the farmer’s market (it happens!) and purchase enough zucchini and asparagus for an army. If you didn’t happen to give your extra bounty away to friends, co-workers, or neighbors, you’ll end up throwing some away. Yes, it’s true.
But I’d rather throw away fresh food gone not-so-fresh any day of the week than purchase empty-nutrient, everlasting, and long-term shelf life foods. Besides the deficit in nutritional value, highly processed and refined foods lack the natural digestive enzymes needed to process, metabolize, and absorb the vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients found in various supplements and healthy living foods.
Reconsidering Your Beliefs About Healthy Food
So, are you ready to reconsider your former healthy food beliefs? It’s okay if the following statements don’t all happen to feel like a “comfortable fit” for now. Simply be open to change and see what happens.
New beliefs about healthy foods:
My abundant health is my highest priority.
My health is worth the time and effort of making nutritional changes.
I can eat well on a limited or fixed budget.
Trying new healthy foods is fun and enjoyable.
Healthy foods are plentiful, cost-effective, and easy to prepare.
Here’s to busting the biggest myth of all –
Have you tried making nutritional changes and felt frustrated with your lack of results? Have you ever felt that you wasted your time going vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free, for example?
While this topic requires more discussion than is practical here, these are just a few possible reasons to explore.
The changes may not have been given enough time to adequately demonstrate results.
The changes may not have been supporting your unique nutritional needs.
The changes may not have been combined with other needed changes (i.e., making dietary changes, but not addressing significant chronic stress concerns).
There may have been unrealistic expectations (i.e., assuming a change such as eliminating one food would completely eliminate chronic symptoms such as pain or fatigue).
As a reminder – it took time for chronic illness to take hold of your body and it takes time for chronic wellness to rebuild your body. While every change is important, it’s the consistency and combination of the changes that really begin to have an impact on overall health.
Just as discussed in the beginning of this article, the probability of your success depends on what you believe about this topic.
If you CHOOSE to believe that your efforts don’t make a difference,
then why risk change at all?
Taking a risk is what learning and healing is all about. Building a healthy belief system starts with affirming your desire to make healthy changes a priority.
To help you on your journey, you may wish to copy the following quote and post it in your kitchen where you’ll see it often. It’s a favorite of mine, and perhaps it will soon be a favorite of yours, too.
“What I like most about change is that it’s a synonym for ‘hope.’
If you’re taking a risk, what you’re really saying is,
‘I believe in tomorrow, and I will be part of it.’”
– Linda Ellerbee
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on August 20, 2013 and was updated on April 11, 2022.