Healthy Eating on a Budget
After paying for our home, the next biggest expense in my household is most definitely food. Even though our food expenses seem high at times, my health is a priority so I’m happy to spend my dollars on eating well. Over the years, I’ve learned to enjoy healthy eating while still working within a budget. With a little planning, creativity and commitment, everyone should be able to make healthy eating on budget work for them. Yes, healthy eating is an investment but it’s an important one and the long-term benefits of investing in good food are invaluable.
I shop and cook in a budget-friendly way that allows me to save money while still eating the healthiest foods I can. Whether you’ve got a tight food budget, have a little more wiggle room or have unlimited resources for food (that’s the dream!), these tips for healthy eating on a budget can apply to anyone. If you use all of these tips and you’re committed to making healthy eating a priority, you should be able to eat very well even on the strictest of budgets. Let’s get started.
Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget
1. Batch cook.
Cooking in batches saves a ton of money, time and stress when it comes to healthy eating. Batch cooking is a good way to meal prep so you have everything you need to prepare meals using the various items you cooked in bulk. If I’m batch-cooking a recipe, I usually use half for the week ahead and freeze the rest in portions for quick meals and lunches later on.
When it comes to cooking in batches, keep it simple. Cook meals you normally would, just make more of them, doubling the recipe to save time in the kitchen later on. Cooking once for a few hours instead of preparing meals every can save a ton of time, money and stress and it really helps to stick to healthy eating when you have healthy options ready to go, especially when you’re hungry and tired.
Tips for Batch Cooking
- slightly under cook batch-cooked recipes so when you re-heat them they don’t end up overcooked
- labelling everything you freeze with a name and date so it doesn’t get forgotten
- use a food processor for chopping things like onion and garlic, it will save a ton of time and they’re very affordable and versatile
- let foods cool completely before storing
- remove air when storing food to prevent freezer burn, squeezing the air out of bags or using a piece of parchment paper tucked around food if it doesn’t fill a container
- allow room for things like soups to expand a bit as they freeze
- have the right containers and freezer bags ready
Best Foods and Recipes for Batch Cooking
Most foods freeze wonderfully so you can batch cook everything from rice, to oatmeal, quinoa, sauces, soups, breads, fruit, beans, casseroles, chili and baked items. Here are a few ideas for freezing batch cooked items:
- make veggie burritos and breakfast wraps and freeze them individually in foil for your own healthy version of microwave burritos
- spicy chickpea burgers freeze really well and can be doubled for batch cooking
- soups are awesome for freezing and can be frozen in lunch-sized portions and pulled out the night before you need them
- chili and stew are excellent for batch cooking and freeze well up to 3 months, freeze in portions and pull out as needed for quick meals
- make your own version of frozen stir-fry mix by freezing big bags of chopped veggies
- double batches of any of my pancake recipes and freeze them for quick breakfasts, just pop them in the toaster as needed.
- baked goods recipes are sometimes tricky to double so I recommend making them one batch at time, however, once you have all the ingredients out making one batch right after the other is quite easy and a good way to stock your freezer with healthy snacks and breakfasts.
- freezing baked goods is also a good way to use up foods that are about to go bad, such as applesauce, pumpkin, bananas, berries, zucchini and sweet potato.
2. Make weekly meal plans.
Meal planning is hugely important when it comes to sticking to a budget. It prevents waste, saves time and money and planning in advance makes it easier to stick to healthy eating. Planning meals that use similar ingredients is also a good way to save money by preventing waste. An easy way to do this is to choose recipes for your meal plan that have similar ethnic backgrounds, for example Mexican food is easy and healthy and the ingredients can be used interchangeably in many different recipes.
- Vegan Grocery List
- 3-Day Whole Food Plant-Based Meal Plan
- How to Stock a Vegan Pantry
- 7-Day Vegan Meal Plan
3. Stick to your grocery list.
Once you’ve got your meal plan for the week, create a grocery list with everything you need. When you go shopping, make it a rule to stick to the list. I find by staying out of the frozen food and snack aisles really helps. I get what I need for the week, nothing more and nothing less (this doesn’t always happen, but I try!). You’ll save a lot of money by not filling your cart up with novelty or specialty items that you don’t need.
4. Don’t shop when you’re hungry.
You run into the store to grab one thing and you’re starving. At this point, everything looks so appealing you end up leaving with a basket of stuff you didn’t need. If you can avoid it, don’t go to the grocery store on an empty stomach. My favourite time to do my weekly shopping is on Sundays after a nice, big, healthy breakfast. I do my meal planning for the week over Sunday morning coffee so when I’m done eating, I’ve got my grocery list prepared, my belly is full and I’m ready to go.
5. Ditch all processed junk food.
When I think about purchasing processed junk food, I like to consider that I’d actually be paying someone to make me sick and unhealthy. Junk food costs you twice. First you have to buy it, then it costs you health problems down the line. Also, junk food isn’t cheap and there’s literally no nutritional value in it.
If there’s something you really, really love and you just have it, then go for it but I would recommend looking into healthier alternatives or making your own healthy versions of junk food favourites. I don’t think junk food and processed items like microwave dinners are ever worth it. For the price of one microwave convenience item you could batch cook and prepare multiple meals that can either be frozen or portioned out individually for lunches and dinners all week.
When you’re grocery shopping, avoid those centre aisles where you typically find all the junk food. Out of sight, out of mind. You don’t need it, you won’t miss it and your wallet will thank you.
6. Stock up on sales.
When I find items I use often on sale, I always stock up on them, basically buying as much as I have room to store. You’ll be spending more at the time but over the long run, you’ll save a lot. I stock up on both produce and non-perishable items when I find a good sale.
Make the Most of Grocery Sales
- Almost all fruits and vegetables can be frozen either raw or cooked and pulled out of the freezer as needed for recipes so go ahead and stock up when you find a good sale.
- Shop your grocery store clearance section for good deals on “ugly” produce that they can’t sell in the regular section and foods that are nearly expired. No big deal. Take it home and freeze it.
- To take this tip to the next level, use apps and search online for the sales in your area and go out of your way to get the very best prices. There are websites and apps where you can search flyers, find coupons and get rebates on items after you’ve purchased them.
- While sales can save you a ton of money if shopped right, don’t fall into the trap of buying items because of sales. I know sales can be tempting: “oooh, but it’s such a good deal!”…..before you buy, take a moment to think if you really need that item just because it’s 50% off or 2-for-1.
- Look a little closer before you buy. Sales aren’t always sales and stores sometimes use marketing tactics to get you to buy more. Always take a moment to do a quick price check and some math if necessary, to see if you’re actually getting a good deal.
7. Buy frozen fruits and vegetables.
I buy frozen fruits and vegetables all the time. It prevents food waste, ensures I always have frozen fruits when I need them and they can be more affordable than fresh items that aren’t in season. Just make sure the frozen items you’re purchasing only have that one item in the ingredient list ie. if you’re buying frozen strawberries, strawberries should be the only item in the ingredients list. Frozen fruits and vegetables offer just as much nutrition as their fresh counterparts, so don’t feel like you’re missing out on micronutrients when you go frozen.
8. Freeze in-season fresh produce.
I try my best to shop in-season produce to save money and enjoy the freshest produce, buying what I plan to eat fresh plus extra to freeze. Extra frozen fruits and vegetables like beets, cauliflower and zucchini are great for adding to smoothies! You can freeze chopped peppers and onions for fajitas and tacos, cooked or raw diced squash and sweet potato for soups and curries and in fresh berry season, as many berries as you can possibly fit in your freezer. This is also a good time to batch cook recipes featuring in-season produce to enjoy later on.
9. Buy in bulk.
Costco and other big box discount stores often have amazing deals on organic produce, frozen product and items like oils, seeds and nut butters. They’re definitely worth checking out and are actually a pretty amazing way to save money on staple plant foods that probably costs a lot more somewhere like Whole Foods.
I also like shopping the bulk bins because I can buy as little or as much as I need, so I have just the right amount and prevent any food waste. Spices are a good one to buy from bulk bins, especially ones that you may not use very often. You can buy these Hermetic seal jars to store bulk spices at home. When I find a good price at the bulk bins for things like rice, grains, flours, pasta, beans, nuts, seeds and dried fruits, I always stock up and store them in airtight containers once I get home.
10. Skip the “superfoods”
Superfoods are awesome and I do make room for them in my budget but they’re not required for healthy eating. Instead focus on everyday, affordable superfoods in all colours of the rainbow. Think red peppers, kale, spinach, broccoli, sweet potatoes and other nutrient-dense plant foods along with immunity-boosting and disease-fighting foods like onion, garlic and ginger.
11. Make your own drinks.
Buying sodas, kombucha, iced teas, plant milks and other store-bought drinks really adds up. Make your own kombucha or water kefir for a healthy alternative to soda, brew tea and coffee and make your own iced versions to store in the fridge, drink lemon and fruit-infused water and make your own plant milk out of inexpensive foods like oats and sunflower seeds.
12. Use online retailers.
A good way to avoid impulse shopping, simplify your life and save money is to use online retailers. You can find some great prices on Amazon and Thrive Market and with the grocery delivery service becoming more common and affordable you can really shop the sales.
13. Go homemade.
If you want to save money and eat healthy, you’ve got to cook at home. Eating out will never be as affordable as preparing your own meals at home. Plus, depending on where you live, you may not always have the healthiest options available to you. Plus, restaurant portions are often oversized so you may be frequently overeating which can lead to weight gain overtime. I live in Vancouver and we have a ton of healthy restaurants, healthy “fast-food” options, food trucks and cafes but I’d still rather save my money and prepare food at home. I like to make going out restaurants a special treat and not a part of my regular routine.
To go homemade, use the rest of the tips on this list and get to work with meal planning, grocery shopping and food prep. It’s the only way to make healthy eating on a budget realistic and doable. If you absolutely love going out to eat a restaurants, plan it into your budget for a weekly or monthly treat and make a special occasion out of it. And it might go without saying, but if you drink coffee, most definitely make your own at home rather than hitting up the coffee shop everyday.
13. Make your own staples.
Making store-bought pantry staples at home can save you a ton of money and is a healthier alternative for items like ketchup and tomato sauce. Many of the packaged foods we use frequently are actually very easy to make at home once you learn how. Plus, if you use your batch cooking techniques, you can save even more money on ingredients and time spent in the kitchen.
Store-Bought Staples You Can Make At Home
- make your own vegetable stock with leftover veggie scraps. It’s so easy, just freeze all vegetable scraps until you have a big freezer bag full and then boil for about 45 minutes. Homemade stock can be frozen in portions or ice cubes for use later on.
- make simple, healthy salad dressing with staple ingredients like dijon mustard, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil, herbs and spices. Once you have a well-stocked pantry, homemade salad dressings are a breeze.
- make inexpensive homemade granola with rolled oats and items you can buy in bulk like shredded coconut, nuts and raisins
- make healthy homemade ketchup, BBQ sauce, vegan mayonnaise, tomato sauce, hummus and nut butters
- make your own nut, oat, coconut and seed milks for a fraction of the cost of store-bought plant milk
- sauerkraut, kombucha and other fermented foods are easy to make at home and an inexpensive alternatives to pro-biotic supplements
14. Eat beans and whole grains.
There’s a reason beans and grains are a staple food item around the world. They’re inexpensive, nutrient-dense and versatile. Cooking your own beans and lentils costs a fraction of the price of using canned and whole grains like quinoa and brown rice are an inexpensive way to bulk up your meals.
Cooking beans at home is very easy too so there’s no need to be intimidated. For most dried beans it’s simply a matter of soaking them overnight then cooking in a pot of water until ready to eat, which for something like garbanzo beans takes about 45 minutes. You can also batch cook beans in the slow cooker, which is a breeze and perfect for food prep. Cooked beans freeze well too, so you can batch cook and freeze portions for use over a month or two.
Using beans and whole grains also work to fill the place of meat in budget-friendly recipes like chili and stir-fry. You can even purchase whole grains in bulk, batch cook them and freeze in portions to add to recipes as needed. Beans and whole grains are also high in fibre which helps keep you full longer, another thing to think about when you’re trying to stretch your dollars!
15. Learn proper food storage.
It’s amazing how much longer food lasts when it’s stored properly. Here are some great tips for storing food that will extend it’s freshness, prevent waste and save money.
Tips for Food Storage
- store ginger root in the freezer
- store nuts, seeds and any “superfood” powders in the fridge or freezer to keep them fresh
- store whole wheat flour in the fridge and regular flour in airtight containers
- store pure maple syrup in the freezer if you don’t use it often, unopened it can be stored in pantry
- store soy sauce in the fridge to keep fresh longer
- wash fresh berries and greens in water with a bit of vinegar before storing in the fridge to prevent the spread of mold
- freeze extra tomato paste in ice-cube trays so you don’t waste the rest of the can
- freeze fresh herbs in an ice-cube tray with olive oil so you don’t waste them and you’ve always got some on hand, or store them in the fridge in a mason jar with water, covered with plastic wrap.
- freeze extra vegetable stock in ice-cube trays or red solo cups for larger portions, once they’re frozen, pop it out and store in freezer bags or glasslock containers
- once opened, remove pantry items like flours, crackers, pasta, grains and beans from their packaging and store in airtight containers in your pantry, this keeps things fresh so much longer!
- use bag sealing clips to keep bagged items fresh
- for asparagus, trip the ends and wrap in paper towel before storing in a plastic bag
- store grapes in the freezer for a delicious and healthy snack
- store fruits like mangos, peaches and nectarines in a paper bag to ripen
- store potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash and onions in a cool, dark place
- wash and store most vegetables in the fridge to prolong freshness
16. Buy whole foods instead of convenience options.
These days you can find everything from packaged riced cauliflower to instant flavoured oatmeal cups . There’s a time and a place for items that make life easier, but if you’re on a tight budget, buying whole foods and preparing them yourself will always be cheaper than buying their prepared counterparts.
Plus, if you invest the time in food prep, you can easily prepare your own convenience options. I like to think of the value of a store-bought prepared item, for example, I recently started buying frozen, diced butternut squash because it saves so much time and sometimes I don’t need a whole squash, so for me the convenience is worth it.
17. Stay organized.
Knowing what you already have goes a long way in preventing unnecessary spending. By keeping an organized and labelled fridge, pantry and freezer you’ll be able to minimize food waste and prevent doubling up on items you already have. This is particularly useful for freezer items that might get forgotten about. I’ve found that if food in my fridge and pantry is stored in a beautiful and easy-to-see way, such as in mason jars and other containers, I am more likely to use them up before they spoil.
I’ve collected a number of containers to store bulk items in my pantry. I use a chalk pen to write on glass so I know what everything is and when it was stored. This helps keep me organized, allows me to shop in bulk since I have room to store it, and keeps food fresh by storing it in airtight containers.
In my fridge, I do a quick organization every few days to make sure I don’t forget about anything before it goes bad. I also use fridge organization containers to keep everything in order and prevent items from getting lost in the back. There is something about a clean and organized fridge that makes healthy eating so much easier.
Best Containers for an Organized Kitchen
- Ball Mason Jars – Mason jars are an affordable and beautiful way to organize your kitchen. I like wide mouth jars best for easy access. Flip-top large and small jars are also good for storing pantry items. You can also buy plastic lids to prevent the metal ones from rusting, you can pick up a set of 8 storage lids for under $3.
- Weck Jars – Weck jars are one of the cutest and most beautiful ways organize to your pantry and store food in the fridge. They just looks so good all stocked up with grains, seeds or nuts or stacked in your fridge with food prep items ready for the week. They’re also perfect for everything from smoothie bowls to overnight oats and great or storing sauces and other small-batch items that need to be refrigerated. I have a selection of jars from the small and medium jars that are great for fridge items, to the tall and skinny jars that are great for storing items like grains, nuts and seeds in the pantry.
- Glasslock Containers – These BPA-free and recyclable glass storage containers are excellent for storing prepared food in the fridge or freezer and for taking food on-the-go. They keep food fresh and are oven and microwave-safe. Airtight and leak-proof, they’re the way to go! You can grab a full set for about $35 on Amazon and the small upfront investment really pays off in the long run.
- Flip-Top Hermetic Seal Jars – I also love Hermetic seal flip-top jars for storing everything from pantry items to fresh food in the fridge. You can even buy small ones that are perfect for storing spices you’ve bought in bulk. The wide-mouth ones are awesome for pantry items and they can even be used for fermenting.
18. Browse budget-friendly food blogs.
There are a number of great food blogs that share budget-friendly recipe and meal plans as well as tips for saving money in the kitchen. Take a advantage of the free resources they offer. I’ve listed a few good budget food bloggers below, please note they’re not all plant-based but they call contain a lot of great tips and tricks for saving money. I’d also recommend the cookbook Frugal Vegan if you prefer to have recipes printed and in-hand.
19. Pack your lunch.
I always, always bring my own lunch and prepare food in advance for when I’m travelling. Eating out everyday would be way too expensive plus I like knowing what I’m eating. Making my lunches is easy because I’ve already prepared food for the week on Sundays.
Once you’ve got your main meals planned and packed, prep some snack items as well. Think containers of chopped veggies and homemade hummus, fresh berries, apples and bananas, healthy cookies and homemade trail mix with nuts and dried fruit. I like these glasslock containers for packing my lunches.
20. Prioritize organic foods.
I don’t buy everything organic but I do try to buy organic when I can and prioritize items on The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. A few items I try to always buy organic are spinach, apples and strawberries, then I add in what I can when I find it on sale. I also visit my local farmer’s markets to snag any deals on local organic produce. Stick to in-season items for the best deals.
21. Explore international cuisines.
Cuisines from around the world such as Mexican, Italian, Thai and Indian use a lot of inexpensive ingredients such as rice, pasta, beans and produce. They’re also all very vegetarian-friendly so it’s easy to cook plant-based. Once your spice cabinet is well-stocked, the delicious and flavourful dishes you can create without spending much are endless.
Shopping at ethic markets is also typically more affordable than the big box stores for things like tofu, spices and curries. I can usually find really great deals on produce and things like nuts and sets at the smaller Asian markets than I can at the big stores too. If you live in a city with many small markets, I’d recommend checking them out for some really great budget-friendly finds! Plus, it’s always feels good to support, small local shops.
22. Know your swaps.
When cooking from recipes, learn what swaps you can use to make recipes more affordable. Depending on your budget, swap as needed!
Budget-Friendly Ingredient Alternatives
- swap wheat berries, couscous or pearl barley for higher priced grains like amaranth, quinoa and freekeh in recipes like salads, soups, stews and sides
- swap brown, red or split green peas for French green lentils in soups, stews and sides
- swap sunflower seeds for pine nuts and pumpkin seeds in pesto, salads and trail mixes
- swap ground flax for chia seeds for replacing eggs in baking and adding to smoothies or oats
- use white vinegar to replace balsamic, apple cider vinegar and white wine vinegar in salad dressings and marinades
- as for oils, the cheapest will always be vegetable oil and canola oil and you can certainly use them to replace coconut oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil and extra-virgin olive oil in things like salads dressings, baking and cooking, however I use coconut oil and olive oil for everything anyways and just stock up on them when I find a good sale
- replace almond butter or cashew butter with sunflower seed butter in recipes and snacks
- depending on prices, use butternut squash, acorn squash, sweet potato and kabocha squash interchangeably in recipes, I’ll often use carrots as a swap for these ingredients as well
- use green peppers in place of red, yellow and orange in recipes
- use green beans to replace asparagus in recipes if it’s out of season as it can be quite expensive
- use coconut cream to replace cashew cream in soups, sauces and dips
23. Be creative with leftovers.
To prevent food waste, be creative with using leftovers. Extra pasta, veggies or beans can be added into soups, stews, sauces and burritos. If you can be a little creative in the kitchen, there’s really no reason you’d have to throw food away. When you’re meal planning, think about how you could use the leftovers in other meals and snacks.
You can also think outside the box with snacks. Snacks don’t just have to be “snack foods” but rather you can snack on smaller portions of your main meals. I absolutely hate wasting food, so I always find a way to eat what’s in the fridge and some of the most delicious meals are created with the random items you have leftover near the end of the week. When in doubt, throw it all in bowl, top with tahini, hot sauce, lemon, salt and pepper and you’ve got yourself a beautiful and tasty, healthy buddha bowl.
24. Pre-portion snack foods.
Try not to eat snack foods straight from the package or you’re much more likely to polish off an entire bag without even thinking about it. Take out one serving at a time and use bag sealing clips to re-seal them to preserve freshness. By eating one measured portion at a time, your foods will last longer and it can help maintain a healthy body weight. I use a kitchen scale to measure my foods and it’s been invaluable in helping me maintain my weight and cook with accuracy. Kitchen scales are also a game-changer for baking with success! You can get one for under $20 and I’d highly recommend adding one to your kitchen tool box.
25. Don’t feel pressured by social media.
Social media has been fantastic for helping people eat healthier but sometimes it can make you feel pressured or like you’re not doing enough. The information on social media regarding nutrition runs the spectrum from absolutely insane to completely authentic and helpful, but remember, there are 7 billion diets for 7 billion people.
What works for popular healthy living bloggers, may not work for you and a healthy diet doesn’t require homemade matcha lattes and exotic smoothie bowls. If you have the budget to purchase superfood extras and more expensive items, by all means go for it! I splurge on them when I can but they’re not required to eat well. You don’t need every health food trend to eat a nutritious diet.
If you’re on a budget, you probably aren’t going to be purchasing all the superfoods powders and adaptogenic herbs you just have to have. And do not ever feel bad or guilty that you don’t have a kitchen stocked with them either. I certainly don’t. I don’t buy everything organic, I often buy the cheapest options, I eat really boring, inexpensive meals sometimes, I don’t have a pantry full of the fanciest nut butters and coconut manna. I eat what for me is a realistic and sustainable healthy diet.
I do my best and I will not ever apologize for what I eat. If I could help people get half way from where they are to where I am when it comes to food, I would be ecstatic. So don’t worry about all the gorgeous, healthiest food photos and latest trends on social media, enjoy them sure (that and fitness is all my Instagram is!), but don’t feel pressured to eat any certain way or ever feel guilty if you don’t.
Don’t stress about supplements either, guys. It seems like every day there’s something on Facebook or Instagram about supplements. The newest one you just absolutely need or you’re not really healthy. Some of it’s useful and some of it’s just plain crazy. Make sure you do your own research and don’t worry so much about having to keep up with all the latest trends. A simple, whole food, varied diet goes a long, long way.
Healthy Eating on a Budget: Make it Work
When it comes down to money and food, it’s a very personal choice. If you have limited resources for food but still want to eat healthy, then make a budget and commit to making it happen. With a little planning you can definitely make healthy eating work for you, regardless of how much you have to spend. I hope these tips help when it comes to budget-friendly healthy eating. Luckily, eating simple, nutritious, whole foods is more affordable than any fancy healthy store items marketed as something you must have to be healthy.
Save Money Going Plant-Based
These tips were written with a plant-based diet in mind. I don’t buy meat, fish, eggs or dairy and that saves me a ton of money right there. I find that eating a plant-based diet is much less expensive than eating meat. Price-wise, I couldn’t imagine having to add meat and other animal products to my grocery list.
Beans, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are so affordable my grocery bills are very reasonable, even after I’ve bought all my nuts, seeds and other pantry items. Whether you eat a vegan diet or not, these tips can be used by anyone interested in healthy eating without breaking the bank.
Be Honest with Yourself
If “healthy eating is too expensive” is a common phrase in your vocabulary, it’s time to take a good look at where your money is really going. Sit down and take an honest look at your finances to see where you can adjust your spending and then actually create a budget food. How much are you realistically able to invest in your health? If eating well is really, truly important to you, you’ll find a way to make it work.
I spend almost no money on clothes, very little on beauty and self-care products and I keep spending on household items to a minimum. Those things aren’t important to me. Aside from necessary living expenses, my money goes to saving, travel, experiences and food. What’s important to you? We all have different priorities but I think we can all agree that health should be close to the top of the list.