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Eating Healthy on a Budget

It can feel overwhelming to plan a healthy, well-balanced meal with limited financial resources. We're here to support you as you navigate meal planning, shopping, and meal preparation, maybe for the first time. The information and resources on this page provide a great starting point for eating well on a budget.  

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Shopping and Meal Planning Tips

Stocking the Pantry

When stocking your pantry, focus on covering the basic food groups: fruits and vegetables, dairy, protein, and grains.

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Fresh is almost always preferable, but if fresh is unavailable, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are good as well. If you buy canned fruits or veggies, try to rinse them once or twice before cooking or eating to remove some of the added salt. Another option is to choose the low-sodium version.
  • When buying fruits and veggies, select a variety of colors. Different color vegetables contain different nutrients.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends eating five cups of fruits and veggies per day.

Dairy

  • Dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk are an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. Look for lower-fat options so you aren’t consuming too much fat along with those nutrients.
  • In addition to milk on cereal, you can add dairy to your diet with additions, such as shredded cheese can on salads or quesadillas, and yogurt in parfaits or smoothies.

Protein

  • When it comes to protein, think versatility. Plant-based protein sources, such as beans, lentils, tofu, and legumes, can make for a more filling and less expensive option when compared to lean meats.
  • Non-meat proteins, such as beans and nuts can be stored without refrigeration.
  • When purchasing lean meats, try to purchase packaged chicken breasts, legs, or thighs in single meal portions that you can freeze and use when needed.
  • Eggs are an inexpensive source of protein that can be used in a variety of ways.
  • Canned tuna and salmon are great ways to obtain the USDA recommended quantity of at least eight ounces of seafood each week.
  • Try some of these budget-friendly proteins:
    • Canned chicken or fish
    • Peanut butter
    • Tofu
    • Beans and lentils
    • Eggs

Grains

  • When adding grains to your pantry, opt for whole grain-rich items like whole wheat bread, tortillas, pasta, and brown rice.
  • How can you tell if an item is made with whole grains?
    • The first item in the ingredient list will always indicate a whole-grain item such as whole wheat flour.
    • Additionally, there are yellow WHOLE GRAIN labels produced by the WholeGrainsCouncil.org specifying if the product is 100% WHOLE GRAIN, 50%+ WHOLE GRAIN, or WHOLE GRAIN
Labels depicting 100 percent whole grain, 50 percent whole grain, or whole grain
  • Food packaging can be misleading. Look at the ingredient list to ensure the item is whole grain.
  • Whole grain-rich items contain more dietary fiber which can help support overall health. In white or enriched flour items, much of the dietary fiber is removed.
  • Always opt for whole-grain items when you can.
  • Other grain options include quinoa, farro, oats, and wild rice. All of these grain options can be quickly cooked in 15-20 minutes. Extra can be stored in the fridge for a few days.

Spice it up 

  • Popular basic spice staples usually include garlic powder, red pepper flakes, dried oregano, and dried basil.
  • Don’t be afraid to combine different seasonings to achieve a flavor. If you’re hesitant to experiment, consider buying pre-mixed seasonings like Italian blend. 

Information Source: USDA MyPlate | U.S. Department of Agriculture

Tips and Strategies for Healthy Food Shopping on a Budget

Watch for hidden sugar

Sugar is added to many foods. Check the ingredient list to determine which types of sugar are included.

  • Sugar is often listed in the ingredients using these terms:
    • “In juice” (some sugar)
    • high fructose corn syrup, fruit nectars, agave, molasses (avoid these if you can, or rinse before eating)
  • Added sugar is commonly found in canned beans and canned fruits and vegetables
  • Look for labels that say “in water” or “no sugar added”
  • Check the food label to see how much daily recommended sugar is contained in a single serving.

Be a smart shopper

Use coupons and shop for bargains

  • Many stores have weekly specials.  Look for the flyer as you enter the store. The flyer will include information about specials as well as coupons. 
  • Specific brands often run deals and promotions. You can receive these in emails if you sign up online. Check your favorite brands' websites.

Get a store reward card

  • Most stores advertise specials that you can only get with the reward card.
  • Most stores offer these cards for free and they often come with their own special coupons.
  • Store reward cards may also offer other discounts on items such as gas.

Shop by comparing Unit Price

  • When comparing brands or sizes look at the unit price rather than the actual price for the item.
  • The unit price tells you how much you will pay by unit. (ounces, pounds, etc.) Generally, you want to purchase the brand that has the lowest unit price. 
  • The unit prize standardizes the cost of the product based on the size of the container.
  • In the image, the first item is the better buy because it has a lower unit price ($0.05 versus $0.12), even though the cost of the second item appears to be less expensive $1.62 versus $0.72).
  • Generally, the unit price will be lower when you buy a higher quantity of the product.
Depiction of unit price on two yogurts. One is $0.05 and the other is $0.12.

Buying in bulk

  • Most of the time buying larger quantities of a product is less expensive than buying a smaller quantity. In other words, the larger quantity is cheaper (by the unit) than the smaller quantity.
  • Buy items in bulk that can be frozen or that are non-perishable. Examples of items that can be frozen include:
    • Most meats and fish
    • Many fruits
    • Some veggies
    • Bread products (loaf of bread, buns, rolls)
    • Cheese
  • Avoid buying perishable items in bulk.

Store brand versus name brand

  • The store brand is often less expensive while being the same quality as the name brand. Check the unit price information when comparing store brands to name brands.

Plan before you go

  • Make a list of what you need ahead of time to help you stick to your budget.
  • Figure out what meals you will make each day of the week and build your list around the necessary ingredients.
  • Buy items you can use for multiple meals.
    • Buy bulk chicken to make more than one meal in the week. Remember, you can separate the large pack into smaller, individual portions and freeze them to avoid waste.
    • Buy lettuce to make multiple salads for lunch throughout the week.
  • Do your grocery shopping after you eat a meal. People tend to buy more unnecessary products when they grocery shop on an empty stomach.
Aim for a Variety of Fruits and Vegetables

Fresh Fruit

  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Grapefruit
  • Grapes
  • Honeydew Melon
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Nectarines
  • Oranges
  • Pears
  • Pineapple
  • Plums 
  • Strawberries
  • Tangerine
  • Watermelon

Fresh Vegetables

  • Artichokes
  • Avocados
  • Baby Carrots
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Green Peppers
  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Radishes
  • Romaine Lettuce
  • Spaghetti Squash
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Whole Carrots

Frozen Fruit

  • Applesauce
  • Pineapple
  • Mandarin Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Apricots
  • Strawberries
  • Blackberries

Frozen Vegetables

  • Carrots
  • Cut Green Beans
  • Spinach
  • Green Peas
  • Collard Greens
  • Corn
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli

Canned Vegetables

  • Cut Green Beans
  • Corn
  • Carrots
  • Potatoes
  • Green Peas
  • Tomatoes
  • Beets
  • Turnip Greens
Buying Product in Season

Fruits and vegetables are at their lowest price when they are in season. 

Fall Produce Winter Produce Summer Produce Spring Produce
Apples Brussels Sprouts Blueberries Artichokes
Grapes Broccoli Corn

Mango

Green Beans Cabbage Tomatoes Pineapple
Sweet Potato Grapefruit Watermelon Strawberries

Building Confidence in the Kitchen

Definitions

Cooking Definitions 

Sauté = to fry on the stovetop using oil

Boil = bring water to the point where it begins to aggressively bubble

Simmer = maintain at a temperature just below boiling; usually refers to liquids

Searing = when the surface of the food is cooked at a high temperature, it forms a browned crust

Dice = to cut food into small blocks

Chop = general term for cutting food into bite-sized pieces; usually ¼ of an inch

Season to taste = adding just enough of an ingredient that it’s to your liking; there’s no measured amount

Steam = a process of cooking food that places the food over boiling water, but not in the water

Bake = place in the oven and cook using dry heat

Helpful definitions for recipe terminology

Yield = how much the recipe makes

Serving Size = how much 1 person will be served

Ingredients = the items that are needed to make the food

Tip: Read the entire recipe and list of ingredients before attempting to cook

Kitchen conversions

1 cup = 8 ounces = 226.796 g

1 pound = 16 ounces = 453.592 g

1 tablespoon = 3 teaspoons = 14.787 g

Mise En Place

A French term, culinary meaning "Everything in one place"

Tips to create Mise En Place in your kitchen:

  • Begin with a clean workspace
  • Measure all ingredients out before cooking and place each ingredient in its own small bowl
  • Set out all needed cooking utensils
  • Have a kitchen timer readily available
Food Safety

Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold

The temperature danger zone for food is between 40°F and 140 °F. When food is within this temperature range, bacteria grow most rapidly.

Source: The Temperature Danger Zone

Avoid cross-contamination

  • Use separate cooking utensils for meats
  • Use separate cutting boards for meats and vegetables or other ingredients
  • Wear gloves to prepare meat 
  • Wash your hands before and after cooking, and when switching cooking tasks 

Thaw frozen food safely

Food can be defrosted in a refrigerator, under cold running water, or in the microwave on defrost mode. Food should be thawed in cold water because it allows the food to defrost completely and inhibits bacterial growth.

Additionally, food can be thawed as part of the cooking process. Do not thaw food, including vegetables, on the counter as this allows for rapid bacterial growth. Most vegetables can be cooked from frozen.

Sources: The Big Thaw — Safe Defrosting Methods | Food Safety Inspection Service

How to Freeze Leftovers

Use shallow containers or freezer bags which help the food get to a safe temperature more quickly once in the freezer. For more information on freezing food safely, visit U.S. Department Of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service.

Cooking Temperatures

Cook foods to the proper temperature. The best way to ensure your food is cooked to the correct temperature is to use a kitchen thermometer. For more information on cooking temperatures, visit foodsafety.gov

Preparing Meat

For information on how to safely cook meat, visit the Safe Food website.