When people discuss what keeps them from eating well, money is near the top of the list. Though it’s true that you can easily blow your whole paycheck at your local health food store or green market, a healthy, balanced diet is doable no matter what your budget. Step One: Set realistic expectations.
What is your realistic grocery budget for the week or month? Prioritize based on what’s important to you. Rather than feel pressured to purchase all organic/grass fed/farm-raised all the time, highlight what matters most to you. Maybe you want to buy organic greens or opt for organic when shopping for fruits and veggies on the Dirty Dozen list , but you can fill the rest of your basket with produce from the Clean Fifteen list.
If you’re making an effort to purchase grass-fed meat, how about buying it once or twice a month and sticking to a mainly vegetarian diet the rest of the time, with eggs, beans, and nuts as your primary protein sources? Pick your battles and let the rest go.
Step Two: Set a meal plan
It doesn’t have to be elaborate (even a note-to-self on your phone works), but each week, take stock of what foods you have on hand and jot down a few ideas for how to use those foods throughout the week. Think about evening plans and other occasions where you might not be eating at home to keep from buying too much—or making sure you buy enough to make and pack yourself healthy on-the-go meals.
Keep in mind that dinner leftovers can make great lunch and even breakfast options. Last night’s stir-fry veggies would be great in the morning with eggs or in a lunchtime salad, sandwich, or quesadilla. Also, if you make something like a large pot of soup or a casserole, you can freeze leftovers in single portions for easy microwaveable meals on busy nights.
Step Three: Make a shopping list.
Impulse buys have a sneaky way of draining your bank account. Showing up at the store armed with a list (whether it’s on paper or on your phone) can help you stick to getting what you came for. If you need extra incentive, have a long-term financial goal in mind (say, $30 towards a meal out/mani-pedi—whatever). For every trip you buy only what’s on the list, put a dollar in a jar. If that’s just not realistic, allow yourself one under-$5 impulse purchase per trip.
Step Four: Stock up on the basics
Pantry staples like beans, whole grains like quinoa or brown rice, pasta, and oats will last a long time. Scope out the bulk bins for these items—buying just the amount you want keeps you from bringing home more than you need (or more than your living space will fill) and can help you save money. Some other bulk bin items to check out: dried fruit, nuts, and spices.
When it comes to produce, check out the frozen foods aisle. Frozen fruit and veggies are typically frozen at the peak of freshness and retain their nutrients. They make a great stand-in for fresh, especially during the winter months.
Another must-try? Tinned fish like sardines and mackerel, and anchovies. These are a great way to add nutrients (like hearty-healthy omega-3 fatty acids) and flavor to a variety of dishes.
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and writer. She blogs at Keeping It Real Food and is a contributor to various media outlets.