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Eating Healthy on a Budget

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. Here are some ways you can keep your family eating healthy on a budget.

A common nutrition myth that often deters eating a healthy diet is that it is too expensive. Over half of Americans believe that the current cost of foods is too high, especially healthful foods. This leads consumers to purchase larger quantities of processed foods, which are not as good for growing bodies as whole foods. Today, we discuss the rising costs of foods, low cost healthful options, and some tips and tricks to keep you and your family eating healthy on a budget. 


Rising Food Costs

Over the past decade overall food costs have risen 26.8%. These changes are due to a variety of factors, usually more than one impacting a food at any given time. 

  • Shipping costs – foods often travel over long distances. From harvest location to production and then to stores for distribution. This transportation cost is highly dependent on oil prices. As oil prices have increased over the past decade, so have shipping costs. 
  • Climate – both droughts and floods have a major impact on food costs. Recent droughts have drastically reduced cattle herds. This in conjunction with rising feed costs have driven the price of beef up 23%. This resulted in a 15% drop in beef consumption among Americans. Drought has also contributed to rising costs of fruits and vegetables. 
  • Disease outbreak – the avian flu is just an example of disease impacting food supply. When the outbreak occurred in 2015, egg prices soared almost 18% due to the loss of egg-laying hens. 
  • Other factors include, but are not limited to, increase in cost of production of specialty foods (gluten free, organic, etc.), increase in animal feed prices, and an increase in energy costs to care for livestock. 

Throughout the next year, food prices are forecasted to rise an average of 1-2%. Rises in food groups such as dairy and vegetables are are expected to be higher than average, hovering closer to 3-4%, while eggs are expected to see a lower than average rise at 0-1%. Pork prices are expected to decline. 


Lower Cost Food Options

Even with the anticipated rise in food costs, there are still plenty of options to keep you eating healthy on a budget. We are going to break down low cost healthy options by food groups. 

Fruit

Fruits can be purchased fresh, frozen, or in canned form. Each has their pros and cons. While many may argue the quality of frozen and canned fruits, nutritionally speaking, they contain the same amount of nutrients compared to fresh fruits. Frozen and canned fruits are typically less expensive and have a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, the texture can change during processing, making them unappealing to some. When buying canned fruits, look for those packed in 100% juice. Frozen fruits should not have added sugars or sauces.

Fresh fruits can be expensive and have a very short shelf life. However, if you buy produce in season you will likely get the best quality for the best price. Remember to buy only what you need, as it can go bad quickly. Here are some fruits that are regularly less than $1 per serving.

Vegetables

Similar to fruits, vegetables can be purchased fresh, frozen, or in canned form. When buying canned vegetables, look for those labeled “low sodium” or “no added salt”. Frozen vegetables should not have added butter or sauces. Much like fruits, the texture of canned and frozen vegetables changes during the processing. Personally, I tend to think the frozen vegetable texture is much closer to the fresh version. I tend to buy these in bulk (especially during sales) to always have them on hand. I like that I can only prepare what I need and the rest goes back in the freezer. When steamed, I still get a crisp taste, without the cost.

Fresh vegetables should also be bought when in season to get the best quality and price. Here are some vegetables that are regularly less than $1 per serving.


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Grain Foods

When buying grain foods, we want to look for whole grains to find the healthiest options. Check the ingredient list on food labels. Foods high in whole grains will have whole grain ingredients listed as either the first or second ingredient. These can include whole wheat, brown rice, bulgur, buckwheat, oatmeal, and whole oats to name a few.

A couple of ways to save money on whole grains:

  • Pop your own popcorn. Instead of buying the pre-prepared microwave popcorn bags that are loaded with butter and salt, make your own. A container of kernels is much cheaper and you can add your own fun seasonings. You can even turn it into microwave popcorn by placing kernels in a brown lunch bag, add a little oil and fold over the top. Place the bag in the microwave and remove once the kernels have stopped popping.
  • Serve your family oatmeal. Dry oatmeal is less expensive than cold cereals. It’s also incredibly versatile. Add fresh or dried fruit to get in your morning fruit serving. If your family isn’t a fan of cooked oatmeal texture (like my picky kids), try baking your oatmeal instead.
  • Stock up when sales hit. Many grain foods have a pretty long shelf life. Stock up on pantry staples whenever a store is having a sale.

Here are some whole grain foods that regularly cost less than $1 per serving.

Proteins

Protein foods are often the most expensive items on our grocery list. If your family tends to eat a lot of meat, buying in bulk during sales and freezing what you don’t use is a great tactic. This does require upfront cost and freezer space, but it gets you more bang for your buck in the long run. If you can purchase lean meats and low fat ground meats, then those are the best choices. Unfortunately, the less healthy, fattier meats tend to be the cheapest. There are a few things you can do to get around that. Try trimming off any visible fat at home. After browning ground meat, you can drain and rinse the grease off to remove some of the fats.

Some great budget protein choices come from plant base sources such as beans and peas. Try instituting a “meatless meal” once a week to cut back your grocery budget. Though not plant based, eggs are also a fantastic lost cost protein choice. We typically think of them as a breakfast food only, but they really work great any time of day.

Here are some protein choices that are regularly less than $1 per serving:

Dairy

When buying dairy foods, consider trying out generic, store brands. They are often less costly than name brand items and taste similar. Instead of buying many flavored yogurts you could purchase one large plain container and add in your own fruits and toppings. Large blocks of cheese are less expensive then sliced and shredded cheese. Consider slicing and shredding your own to cut down on your bill.

Here are some dairy foods that regularly cost $1 or less per serving:


Tips and Tricks for Managing your Healthy Grocery Food Budget

There are quite a few things you can do to help manage your grocery list and help keep your family eating healthy on a budget.

  • Buy in bulk – this requires upfront cost and storage space, buy try buying in bulk any time you can. Vegetables can be cleaned, trimmed and frozen to save for later. Fresh fruits can be bought in season and frozen. Meats should be frozen in increments that you typically use. For example, large batches of ground beef can be divided into one pound sections and frozen. Chicken breast can be wrapped and frozen individually. This can also be done for nonfood items such as paper towels, toilet paper, etc.
  • Coupons – coupons are a great way to save money, if you are ONLY using them on items you actually need. It’s easy to get carried away and buy items just because you have a coupon. This ends up costing way more money in the long run.
  • Meal planning – sitting down to create a weekly menu and a grocery list will help save money. Take a look at your week ahead and plan accordingly. Consider which nights you’ll be home for a family dinner and which nights you are running around trying to get kids to various activities. If there is a plan in place you’ll be less likely to resort to take out or more expensive convenience foods during the week.
  • Stick to your grocery list – once you’ve got your meal plan in place and your list created, DO NOT DIVERT! Stores can really get you with those impulse buys – especially if you’ve gone to the store while hungry. Stick to that list and only buy the things you need.
  • Try out online ordering – this has changed my world! If you haven’t taken advantage of Walmart online ordering, Kroger clicklist, or any of the other grocery store online ordering options, then you are missing out! I use the Walmart online grocery ordering because Walmart typically has lower prices and it’s free if I pick up the groceries myself. What I love about this is that I can really manage my budget since they show you the cost as you go along. It’s not a wild guess at the checkout counter. I always go through and enter everything from my list and any extras they might show me (they’ve gotten really good about tempting me with impulse buys). Once I’ve entered everything, I go through and remove or adjust any items until I’ve gotten the cost down to what I’ve budgeted for the week. Since they do the shopping, I’m saving time too. Plus, not having to drag four kids through the grocery store keeps me sane. It’s truly a win for myself and my budget.

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Eating healthy on a budget can be done with careful planning. I would love to hear some of your tips and tricks! Please comment below with any suggestions.

Jessica Barnes, PhD, RDN, LD

Dr. Jessica Barnes received her PhD in nutrition from Texas Woman's University. Her research focused on food preference development and creating materials to help preschoolers become familiar with healthy foods. She has worked with families and communities as a clinical and community Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.

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