Can you eat healthy on a tight budget? The answer is yes with the strategies below.
Eating healthy on a tight budget is one thing, but is it possible to eat healthy food on an ‘instant noodle’ budget?
Can you feed your family food they will eat and enjoy, even when you’re feeling like Mother Hubbard and there are cobwebs in your wallet?
It’s not easy. It does take some careful planning, a bit of extra time cooking and a few weeks to build up staples. It might also mean getting some help from services like Food Bank if money is super tight. But it is possible t eat healthy on a tight budget.
When you only have a few dollars a day to feed the family, processed foods can seem cheaper, especially in the short term. Filling, high-calorie food for little outlay seems like the best option when you’re hungry and money is tight.
And in the short term, that’s ok. If that’s what you have to do to get through a crisis, then give yourself some grace. When times are tough, you get through them as best you can.
But in the long-term, buying processed foods for every meal can add up.
Meals might be basic when you’re on a very tight budget, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat good healthy food.
Here are some tips on how to do it.
HOW TO EAT HEALTHY ON A TIGHT BUDGET
EAT PLENTY OF VEGGIES AND OTHER NUTRIENT DENSE FOODS
Get more VALUE from your grocery budget by focusing on foods that are high in nutrients like beans, legumes, whole grains and vegetables.
Vegetables and legumes are high in nutrients and low in cost, especially if you focus on seasonal produce. Coupled with a starchy food like a whole grain and some cheap protein (think of stir-fried veggies, rice and a fried egg), you have a complete and nutritious meal for only a dollar or so per serve.
Check out this article for some of the cheapest frugal fruits and vegetables that are also nutritious.
There are two specific nutrients to focus on – especially at breakfast – if you want to eat well and save money: protein and fibre.
Studies (and these) show that eating more lean protein at breakfast can make you feel fuller for longer and reduce snacking throughout the day, saving you calories and money. It can also help you concentrate longer, important for kids at school!
The other nutrient that keeps you fuller for longer is fibre, especially when paired with a protein.
The worst thing you can do is start the day with breakfast cereals that are not only full of sugar, but they’re also really expensive. Here are three cheap breakfast alternatives, full of fibre and protein and a whole host of other nutrients:
Soaked oats. These are super convenient, extremely cheap and healthy. You can add some ground flaxseed or chia seeds while soaking to increase the fibre and protein content (but you don’t have to) then serve with a dollop of plain yoghurt (good source of protein, calcium and probiotics) and some fresh seasonal fruit for an all-around healthy, cheap breakfast. And of course, regular porridge is also a great way to start the day. You can cook it in the rice cooker to save time and mucking around.
Eggs on wholemeal toast. An egg contains 6 grams of protein, so two scrambled eggs, plus some whole wheat bread is a great way to start the day. Add a piece of fruit or some spinach or other veggies to your eggs and toast and you’ve got a meal that will keep you going until lunchtime. Two eggs cost about 50c to $1.10 (depending on whether you buy free-range or not) and take about 2 minutes to scramble in the pan so cheaper and more convenient than you might imagine. Breakfast for one for under $2 and in under 2 minutes.
Wholemeal pancakes. One for the weekend. I put ground flaxseed in mine and the kids are full after just one pancake. Serve with a dollop of plain or Greek yoghurt and fresh seasonal fruit for a delicious weekend breakfast.
PLAN YOUR MEALS
Planning your meals is essential if you’re on a tight budget. Rather than shop day-to-day for what you need, menu planning helps you make the most of cheap staples.
First, make a list of inexpensive meals.
There are lots of ideas on this blog (see below also) and on the net (also check out my frugal meals board on Pinterest), but consider meals based on good starches like brown rice, wholemeal pasta or potatoes (think fibre) with cheaper protein options like eggs, beans or lentils and tofu or mince and, of course, lots of vegetables.
Beans, chickpeas and lentils are super cheap as full of fibre and protein and other nutrients, keeping you fuller for longer. A wrap spread with homemade hummus and salad is a healthy lunch that’s cheap and it will help you avoid snacks later in the day, saving you even more money. Refried beans are another great wrap inclusion that is healthy, tasty, super-filling and easy to make.
Write a menu plan for the week using your list of cheap meals. Write down meal ideas for breakfast lunch and snacks as well. Don’t forget to plan for leftovers and double batch meals to make life easier and to ensure you’ve got back up meals in the freezer for nights when you don’t feel like cooking – saving you take away.
Finally, write out your grocery list. Put an asterisk next to any items that are optional. That means if you go over budget, those items can go back on the shelf.
BUILD UP YOUR STAPLES
Building a stock of staples – slowly and over time – will save you money in the long run.
A bag of rice may cost more than an instant meal upfront, but you’ll get many more meals for your money.
You don’t have to stock your pantry with staples all in one go. Just buy one or two staples each week. Then all you need to do is restock them when you run out.
Look for specials at the grocery store (especially 50% off or more) when stocking up on staples so you get more for your money.
Stocking your pantry may mean you have to eat on an even tighter budget for a couple of weeks, but you will eat better in the long run.
Here are some basic staples to consider stocking:
- Rolled oats
- Wholemeal flour
- Tinned fish
- Canned tomatoes
- Tinned and dry beans, lentils, chickpeas
- Cooking oil (‘light’ olive oil is a good all-round cooking oil)
- Baking powder
- Milk (fresh, dried or both)
- Salt and pepper
- Frozen vegetables
- Nuts and Seeds
By having these staples on hand, you will always have a variety of cheap meals to cook. And you can focus the bulk of your grocery spending on fresh produce.
A great way to build your pantry is to keep an eye on catalogue specials, especially reductions that are 50% off or better.
EAT CHEAP PROTEIN
Protein doesn’t have to mean meat.
As already shown, an excellent alternate source of protein is the humble egg. Versatile, cheap and nutritious. This vegetable frittata showcases how you can make a filling meal with a few eggs and what’s kicking around your produce drawer.
MEAT FOR LESS
Save on meat three ways by:
- eating less
- stretching what you do eat; and
- buying economy cuts
Mix vegetarian meals with meat meals over the course of the week to reduce overall meat consumption. A plant-based diet, even if it is just part-time, is healthy and cheaper than eating meat.
When you do eat meat, use it as a condiment rather than the main attraction. Cook meat stretcher meals like casseroles, soups, stews, pasta, bakes, and stir fry. All of these meals can be combined with lots of vegetables and lentils, beans or other healthy starches to make a little bit of meat go a long way.
Economy meats include sausages, mince, chicken wings and drumsticks, tougher cuts for stewing and organ meat (which is highly nutritious!). Stretch these meats too – for example, make a sausage stew with fewer sausages and lots of beans and vegetables – and you end up with an even cheaper meal that’s full of nutrition.
You can add cooked lentils to burger patties for cheaper rissoles or burgers or even hide them in Spaghetti Bolognaise. Finely grated vegetables added to these will make a little meat go further as well. No one will be the wiser, but you’ll feel savvy saving money and sneaking in extra nutrition into your family’s meal.
MAKE YOUR OWN BASICS
Stock is an essential frugal ingredient for your kitchen. It can be made for next to nothing if you save your vegetable scraps in the freezer and make stock from leftover bones.
Chicken drumsticks are an economical meal, but you can stretch your dollar even further by making stock from the leftover bones.
Other basics to consider making if you have the time include bread, tomato sauce and yoghurt.
EAT VEGETABLES IN SEASON
Vegetables are cheapest when they are in season, so you’ll save money by planning meals around what’s in season.
At certain times of the year, our greengrocer sells pumpkins for 69c each. And at that price, I try to pick the biggest pumpkins I can find.
Uncut pumpkins keep for months on the benchtop. For 69 cents, you can make a whole variety of cheap meals.
Roast pumpkin risotto, for instance, made with homemade stock costs around $1 – $2 for the whole family. And it’s a pretty flash dinner to serve to guests, with a nice side salad and some crusty bread. A large pot of pumpkin soup is around $1.
Some vegetable staples that are usually cheap all year round include:
- sweet potatoes
- frozen vegetables like peas and beans
- tinned or bottled tomatoes
MAKE BUDGET MEALS EXCITING
Herbs are best grown to save money. They are the easiest thing to grow, even if you’re a brown thumb like me or don’t have a lot of space. A warm windowsill is all you need. Spices are purchased in small amounts and are inexpensive, but you can usually save even more if you purchase them from an Ethnic Grocery store.
Explore traditional cuisines of other ethnic cultures for cheap meals that will tantalise the taste buds and never leave you feeling bored.
PRESERVE THE EXCESS
Homemade jam costs a fraction of the price of store-bought jam when you buy fruit in season. If you’re lucky enough to get free fruit, it’s only a few cents per jar for the sugar.
And for just two or three hours you could have enough jam to last a whole year, plus some leftover for gifts.
You can also freeze excess produce that you purchase when it’s cheap and in season, and this will save you money on vegetables at other times of the year.
BUY HOME BRAND
A lot of staples are exactly the same as the name brand items, bar the price. Not everything, I can’t stand home brand mustard, for instance, but for most staples like rice or pasta, there’s no discernible difference in quality between the brand and home brand varieties.
Look for home brand items to save on everyday staples.
SHOP AT ALDI
If you have an Aldi store near you, you can save a huge amount over shopping at Coles or Woolies. But take the time to compare prices, sometimes it can be cheaper to buy home brand items over Aldi items.
SHOP THE SALES
A great way to stock your pantry and save on food is to buy up when staple items are on sale. Shelf-stable foods like tinned foods and dried foods are great for stocking up.
For more information on how to stock up on foods during sales check out this article.
LOOK FOR MARKDOWNS
You can usually buy bread for a fraction of the price near closing time. Other bakery goods, deli goods and BBQ chickens are also often marked down near the end of trade (but more likely on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays).
To save money on meat, look for markdowns on meat that is close to it’s used by date and freeze or use straight away.
I’ll confess, we’ve eaten cream that we’ve purchased on markdown after the use-by date expired because it was perfectly ok! I don’t recommend you risk food poisoning!! but use common sense when it comes to food; don’t just throw it away because of the date on the packet.
DON’T DRINK YOUR CALORIES
Tea, coffee, soft drink, cordial, juices, bottled water, hot chocolate – these can all add up.
If you’re on a tight budget, the cheapest thing to drink is water, at least most of the time. A jug filter will improve the taste of tap water without costing a fortune and to make it more appealing, add a squeeze of lemon juice or a slice of lime.
SHOP OUTSIDE THE SUPERMARKET
The supermarket isn’t always the cheapest place to shop.
Local markets, greengrocers, wholesale meat suppliers and ethnic grocers are often cheaper than the supermarket so it pays to shop around and save.
Do you have an Australian concession card? Your local Foodbank can be a great place to stock up on groceries when money is super tight. It’s a great service that not only offers cheap groceries to those who need it, it also helps reduce food waste.
START A GARDEN
Supplement your grocery budget with food you grow yourself.
If you’ve never gardened before, start by growing sprouts on the kitchen bench! Sprouts are easy to grow, cheap and very nutritious.
As mentioned above, pots of herbs are also easy to grow, you don’t need a garden and they make an ordinary dish gourmet.
A FEW EXTRA CHEAP MEAL IDEAS
Lunch: Leftovers, soup, sandwiches, wraps, salad.
Dinner: Vegetable frittata, omelette, soup, casseroles, mince bake, stir-fry, vegetable curry, vegetable fritters, fried rice, roast vegetable pasta, chilli beans, chilli mince, ratatouille, tuna casserole, dahl, marinated wings or drumsticks, burritos, baked potatoes with filling.
It is possible to eat healthy foods while sticking to a tight budget. It just takes a little extra planning, some creative cooking and some time to build up your pantry.
Melissa Goodwin is a writer and the creator of Frugal and Thriving who has a passion for living frugally and encouraging people to thrive on any budget. The blog is nine years old and is almost like her eldest baby. Prior to being a blogger and mum (but not a mummy blogger), she worked as an accountant doing other people’s budgets, books and tax.