Ten years ago, I was an overweight teenager who didn’t pay much attention to the kind of food I ate. However, in the process of losing the weight, healthy eating became something of a passion of mine. Whereas before I wouldn’t think twice about chowing down on a burger and fries at a fast-food restaurant, after I lost the weight, I would complain if my peanut butter or ketchup had high fructose corn syrup in it. But knowing what food is better for you is one thing, and knowing how to buy it is a different matter entirely.
While I was in college, I attempted to be as frugal as possible, but at the time I didn’t realize I was actually doing the opposite. I thought that buying a $5 sandwich was less expensive than buying the bread, meat, and other ingredients at a grocery store. I figured this was true because it felt less expensive to spend $5 on a meal than to spend $60 on groceries. But then I realized that I was actually spending hundreds of dollars eating out.
Although I’ve since cleaned up my purchasing habits, I admit that I still eat out more than I should, and I’m certainly not alone. The average American eats out 3.1 times per week, according to a 2012 survey from Zagat. Assuming the average cost of a meal at a restaurant is $10, that means the average American is spending $31 per week (or $1,612 per year) on dining out. In fact, Americans spend as much as $2,505 per year at restaurants, according to Harris Interactive.
The difference in cost between eating out and making food at home is substantial. Although it might be hard to believe, it is possible to eat a nutritionally sound diet without spending a ton of money. But before we can discuss how to save money, we need to know what constitutes a healthy diet.
Fruits and Vegetables
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that a healthy diet consists of vegetables, grains, fruits, protein, and dairy. Fruits and vegetables should comprise half of an individual’s plate. Ideally, every meal you eat should contain at least three of the food groups. Vegetables are separated into six categories: dark green vegetables; red and orange; starchy; beans and peas; and other vegetables. Meanwhile, apples, bananas, strawberries, oranges, grapes, and peaches are among the most commonly eaten fruits.
If you choose to buy your fruits and vegetables fresh, you can typically find good deals on unpackaged produce. For example, a six-ounce bag of lettuce may cost you close to $3, while a head of lettuce costs less than $1. Not only do you pay less by buying the head of lettuce, but you actually get more product too. The potential downside is that buying everything individually means you will have to do the cutting and storing yourself.
You can also buy fruits and vegetables frozen or canned. The advantage to frozen is they’re inexpensive, easy to prepare, and nutritionally sound. For example, you may find a bag of mixed vegetables, which typically includes corn, peas, and carrots, for less than $1 for a pound.
“Frozen vegetables are excellent and I recommend them all the time,” said Kendra Bird, the director of nutrition for the Boston Area Food Bank. “They tend to be more affordable and sometimes they have a better nutritional value than the fresh [produce] because fresh produce may be grown in California and have to be shipped to Boston. The older vegetables are, the less nutritional value they have.”
Canned fruits and vegetables can also be a good and inexpensive option, but you need to be careful about what you buy, Bird said.
“When buying canned vegetables or canned fruit, a consumer would want to be aware of the sodium content of the canned vegetables. Ideally, they’d shoot for a no or low sodium option, and if one isn’t available, they could buy the regular version and rinse them off. As far as fruit goes, look for something in juice or water. Definitely stay away from syrup,” she said.
Grains are another important element of a person’s diet because they include dietary fiber, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, iron, and more. A diet healthy in fiber can help reduce high blood pressure and prevent heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, according to the USDA. Fortunately, grains are relatively inexpensive. For example, you can buy 42 ounces of oatmeal for less than $3, which means that if you eat half of a cup for breakfast, you’d be spending less than 10 cents per meal. In addition, it has plenty of protein and dietary fiber that can help keep you full throughout the day. It’s also highly adaptable; you can add fruit, almonds, or milk to your oatmeal to make a more complete meal.
Brown rice and whole wheat pasta are also high in protein and fiber, and they make inexpensive additions to meals. You can buy a bag of brown rice and a 16-ounce box of wheat pasta for about $1, and like oatmeal, you can use what you prepare for multiple meals. Some companies also offer instant brown rice, but the cost is much higher than if you were to buy the regular type that comes in a bag.
For bread options, if you want to stay away from processed grains, then make sure to buy 100% whole wheat bread, which you can find in just about any grocery store. You can find a loaf of whole wheat bread for about $3, which could work out to about 40 cents for two slices.
You can fulfill your protein requirement with lean meats, such as chicken, turkey, or tilapia filets. You can purchase these items raw, frozen, or canned, and the type of deal you get could depend on the sales your supermarket is having. For example, I purchased 48 ounces of frozen chicken for about $7, which means that if I ate 10 ounces, the cost for that serving would be $1.45. There are also inexpensive alternatives, such as beans, that are high in protein and can be used in the place of meat in a dish.
“Beans can be a great filler and they’re a little less expensive than meat. The American diet is based around what the protein is on our plate, but there are other options than beef or chicken breast. Beans are a great alternative and they’re usually less than 50 cents per serving,” said Leslie Perryman, a certified health and wellness coach in San Jose, Calif.
Dairy is the final critical element of a nutritionally sound diet. Dairy products provide calcium, potassium, protein, and vitamin D, which may help improve bone health and the reduce risk of osteoporosis. It also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, according to the USDA. Common dairy products include milk, yogurt, and hard and soft cheeses. The USDA suggests that all of the dairy products you consume be low or fat free. The cheapest way to purchase any dairy product is to buy the store brand option if it’s available because there’s no nutritional difference between the generic and brand-name product, Bird said.
Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck
There are many ways you can maximize the value of the food you buy. For example, if you make your meal at home, you will have leftovers you can eat later in the week, which maximizes the value of what you prepared, Perryman said.
“I recommend making extra portions the night before for dinner. That way, you don’t have to play out your lunch for the next day. You can just bring the leftovers. It makes it super simple and you don’t have to worry about it later in the day,” she explained.
Spaghetti is an example of a meal that can be extended beyond dinner. On a recent shopping trip, I spent $6.62 on whole wheat pasta, ground turkey, and tomato sauce. After dinner, I saved what I made and ate the leftovers for lunch the following two days, which means I spent $2.21 on each meal. Below you can see the actual price per meal of some other entrees:
Oatmeal and One Fuji Apple
- Oatmeal – 42 ounces: $2.88
- Fuji Apples – $1.47 per pound
Cost of 1 cup oatmeal and 1 apple: $0.91
Grilled Chicken with Brown Rice and Vegetables
- Frozen Chicken Breast – 48 ounces: $6.98
- Brown Rice – 28 ounces: $3.84
- Mixed Frozen Vegetables – 1 pound: $0.96
Cost of 10 ounces of Chicken, 1 cup Brown Rice, 1/2 pound mixed frozen vegetables: $2.36
There are some other things you can do to save yourself money in the long run, such as planning out your meals for the whole week and getting your shopping done on Saturday or Sunday. Writing out a detailed list of the items you need is a good way to save time and money in the grocery store because it reduces the urge to make impulse purchases, Bird explained.
“It’s going to take some effort to forecast the week and what you’ll need, write a list, and stick to it. I find not many people do that, but the people who do save a lot of money and eat much better. Impulse buying is also a big problem because it’s so easy to pick up that bag of cookies,” she said.
As far as healthy eating is concerned, most nutritious foods are kept on the perimeter of the grocery store, so do your shopping there first. You can also try shopping seasonally, using coupons, buying in bulk when possible, comparing unit prices, and purchasing generic brands, said Vandana Sheth, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson.
“(If you) plan out meals beforehand, consider portion sizes, ensure you’re getting a good amount of all of the food groups, and plan out what you need to buy before you go to the store, you can definitely eat healthy without breaking your budget,” Sheth said.
If you’d like to try a healthy dish that is budget friendly, then give the recipe below a shot. When I prepared it, I incorporated brown rice to add some additional carbohydrates, fiber, and protein.
Roasted Corn, Avocado, and Black Bean Salad
- 1 large can (~30oz) or 2 small cans (~15oz) of black beans
- 1/2 red onion
- 1 & 1/2 avocados
- 1 container of cherry or grape tomatoes
- 1 cup of corn kernels
- 1 huge handful of cilantro, or however much you prefer
- Juice of one fresh lemon – or lime, whatever is on hand
Drain and rinse black beans. Dice the onion, cube the avocado, halve the tomatoes, and chop the cilantro.
In a frying pan over medium low heat, roast corn kernels.
Combine all ingredients to a large bowl.
Squeeze the lemon or lime on top of the salad and mix well.
Cost of ingredients used: $4.21
Recipe courtesy of Leslie Perryman.