Shopping healthily on a budget can be challenging. The weekly food bill takes a big slice out of our budget, and when finances get tight filling our trolley with healthy foods can feel near impossible or far less imperative than we may like.
There's no denying with high quality food can come extra cost - but fortunately, to a degree. There's plenty of tips, tricks and middle ground that can help us avoid compromising on nutrition, while still shopping inexpensively (because it's important to keep in mind that financial stress can be unhealthy too!). Here's my list of absolute top tips for eating healthy on a budget:
1. Plan out your weekly meals
Planning your weekly meals is crucial on a budget. It ensures that a) you're only purchasing ingredients you absolutely need for the comings weeks meals, and b) will encourage you to use leftover ingredients in the fridge/freezer/pantry, which will help cut unnecessary spending. Another huge perk is that it will also take off the stress when it comes to the meal time during the week as you'll know exactly what you're cooking each day. If you're new to menu planning, try this approach:
- Before you go shopping check what's avaliable in your pantry and refrigerator (be food safe and throw out any expired or old food while you're at it!).
- As you go write down any ingredients you come across that could easily serve you a few more meals the coming week e.g. frozen veggies, leftover tins or open bags of grains.
- Loosely plan out some meal ideas across Monday-Sunday using those ingredients. Maybe you have a half-empty bag of rice, a few eggs and some frozen veggies - bingo, egg fried rice. Or maybe a few tins of tomatoes, a tin of lentils and some pasta - bingo, lentil bolognese.
- Fill in the rest of the days gaps with meals, note down the ingredients needed for each and compile it all into shopping list. This leads onto our next point...
2. Shop with a grocery list
Shopping without a list can be a one-way ticket to overspending, and with a tight budget everything entering your trolley often counts. Unless you have a supersonic memory that can recall with great precision what's still in your fridge/pantry, it can be very easy to overspend while food shopping. For example, a bag of rice may only cost a few dollars, but if you have another bag at home that still has enough servings for another weeks meals and you buy a bag anyway (because you sort of remembered it was half-empty, but really half-full), your bill will very easily start to creep up. Take a pen with you and make sure to check off each item as you go to keep on track.
- Try and shop when you have extra time available - this way you can read the back of packets, consider and compare purchases, and look for sale items. Always make sure to turn over the back of the packet and check how many servings you're getting per packet - this is a great way to check value for money.
3. Eat seasonally
Local and seasonal produce will always be cheaper then out of season produce (and homegrown even cheaper then that!). The cost of fruit and vegetables can vary tremendously in price, mimicking local supply and demand. When produce is in season there's plenty available locally, so naturally prices drop. With out of season produce, it often travels from afar to get to us, incurring a hefty food milage, which pushes costs up.
- Shop seasonal at the supermarkets - look for produce that has been grown in New Zealand (or your own country if you're reading this abroad!).
- Alternatively, farmers markets are a great place to pick up cheap fruit and veg, while also supporting growers in the area. Going towards the end of the day is when you're most likely to score yourself an extra bargain.
- Grow your own! If you're new to gardening start small with dark leafy greens and salad, and watch your food bill drop. A garden may require a small investment to get going, but will pay you back in produce 100 times over.
- Don't forget tinned/frozen produce. Tinned and frozen fruit and veggies are a great way to get in nutrients, while still being uber economical.
4. Go for generic brands
Most supermarkets will offer cheaper brand alternatives for most foods, where the price difference may be nothing to do with product quality itself, but more so the branding and packaging. For staples such as rice, pasta, tinned foods, the generic brands are often just as great as the more expensive alternatives. If you have any concern around nutritional quality, it's best to compare the ingredients panel of a product, rather then let the packaging do the talking.
5. Be mindful of cooking and food waste
Food waste is a big deal. Not just on our wallets, but also on the environment. Be mindful of how much food might be skipping your lips and heading straight to the bin - it can be a real eye-opener as to all of the neat things we can do with foods we'd might think to traditionally bin.
- After having roast chicken, use the chicken carcass for making a chicken stock to use the following week as the base of a homemade chicken soup.
- If you've harvested a whole lot of fruit, and have no idea what to do with it, make your grandparents proud and use it to make preserves - strawberry jam anyone?
- Green leafy veggies have a very short life span. To avoid them going soggy and smelly before you have a chance to eat them all, blend half of your bag of spinach, pour into ice cube trays and then freeze, for green smoothie cubes.
- Use old stale bread to make bread crumbs, by popping them in the food processor for a minute or so.
- Save veggie skins for homemade stocks, or use leftover potato skins to make chips!
- ...and when all else fails, compost! It's great for your garden and the environment.
6. Keep a tidy fridge/freezer/pantry
If our fridge or pantry is cluttered, it can be difficult to keep up with what's ready to be eaten and what's expired. By keeping an organised storage space, we can help minimise food spoiling, which is better for our health, our wallets and the environment.
- Do a regular stocktake and clean of your fridge once a week, and pantry every few weeks. Dispose of expired food if needed.
- Freeze leftovers if you've cooked more then you can realistically eat before the food expires.
- Label and date food items you're planning on freezing and eating later - it's no fun playing the "guess what's in here" game two months later (or was it four months ago?).
7. Buy in bulk
Bulk buying on staple items, such as tinned foods or grains, may see you spending a little extra at the time, but you may get more bang for your buck in the long run. When a really great sale is on a product you use all the time, it'd make sense to make the most of the price difference! However it's a double-edge sword - only bulk-buy where necessary and only if it fits in with your budget.
- Keep realistic when buying in bulk, and make sure to check best before dates. It will only save you money in the long-run if you'll actually use everything up before the items expire.
8. Use cheaper cuts of meat
Meat can take up a huge chunk of the bill, although different cuts of meat will come at different costs. When it comes to beef, anything that needs stewing is ideal. Mince is a good option too and is uber kid-friendly, particularly in bolognese or meatballs. Chicken thigh or leg will be cheaper then breast, and usually hold more moisture when cooked.
- Slow cooking can help make even the toughest of meats tender and juicy.
- For a real saving on chicken, buy a whole one, cut it up yourself and use different parts for different dishes across the week.
9. Eat meat-free, more often
Ever noticed how vegetarian dishes are often a little cheaper to buy then their meat-containing counterpart? Animal proteins can make up a big proportion of our groceries, and so opting for a few (or more) meat-free meals each week can make a real difference to the bill. Plant-based proteins such as lentils, chickpea and beans are not only nutritionally rich, but are also significantly cheaper then animal protein.
10. Use beans/lentils to stretch out your meals
Following on from the last tip, plant-based proteins, such as beans and lentils, are excellent at bulking out dishes and work well as a strategy to stretch our meals, particularly in dishes like taco mince or bolognese sauces. Try cutting the amount of meat in half, and subbing in a few tins of your favourite plant-based protein - for example, instead of 1kg of mince meat, go for 500g with 1-2 tins of brown lentils. Here's some recipe ideas on Healthy Always to get you going:
11. Make smart substitutions
I've been notoriously terrible at this in the past. If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of freshly chopped oregano, I'd have totally bought an entire packet just for that one tablespoon, thinking I'd use the rest in another meal (didn't happen). Unless it’s for a special occasion, making smart substations where possible in cooking is a clever way to cut down costs - the challenge will make you a better cook too.
- Swap fresh herbs for dried
- Swap meats for whatever's in your fridge/freezer
- Swap vanilla pods for essence.
12. Relieve the pressure
This blog doesn't often contain fancy/hard to source ingredients. Why? I don't think they're necessary to be healthy. Good healthy food is just simple food - the basics; our fruits and veggies, eggs, fish, meats, grains and legumes. Sure, it would be ideal if we could all eat organic, but organic produce can get expensive (one reason, among many, to have an organic garden), and if you're budgeting it's far more important to ensure you're just eating vegetables in the first place, rather then fretting whether they're organic or not. Take the pressure off yourself, and do the best you can for the place you're at - that's all you can ask of yourself.