Healthy Eating on a Lean Budget

With some planning, smart shopping and a little time for preparation at home, you can get more healthy foods into your diet and keep grocery bills down.


Here are some ideas to get you started:

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  • Buy vegetables and fruits in season. For example, when we buy fresh blueberries in Wisconsin during winter, we are paying a lot for the transportation costs to ship them here, often from another country. This seasonal produce guide for Wisconsin can help you choose:
  • Buy bags of frozen vegetables. They are cheaper (especially out of season) and you can heat up single servings as needed, so you will waste less.
  • Make your own "single serving" bags or "100-calorie packs" or crackers, nuts or dried fruits by buying small plastic bags and portioning small servings from a large bag.
  • Buy only what you need. Don't waste money on items that will spoil before you can eat them. Plan meals for the week and shop with a list once each week.
  • Stock your fridge and cupboards with healthy foods, and to keep costs down, stay away from extras like soft drinks, chips, baked goods and other high-calorie items.
  • Buy items on sale in larger quantities and freeze in portions at home (as a rule, use by six months after freeze date). For example, buy strawberries in large amounts in the summer and freeze some for use during winter months.
  • Try some new recipes using less expensive staples like rice or dry beans instead of breads and meats. Try these resources for recipe ideas:
  • Look at your grocery receipts and pick out the highest cost items. Ask yourself if you can modify these purchases, watch for sales, buy in bulk, etc.
  • Buy organic foods selectively. While organic foods are often good choices, they are frequently more expensive. The amount of detectable pesticides on our produce isn't high in all fruits and vegetables. The following lists can help you with your choices at the store:
    • 12 most-contaminated fruits and vegetables: Peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, grapes (imported), pears, spinach, potatoes
    • 12 least-contaminated fruits and vegetables: Onions, avocado, sweet corn (frozen), pineapples, mango, sweet peas (frozen), asparagus, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, eggplant

Here are some foods to add to your grocery list for healthy, low-cost eating all year round.

  • Beans: This protein powerhouse gives you more nutritional bang for your buck than almost anything else you can buy. Black, pinto, garbanzo, lentil - they're all low in fat, packed with fiber and folic acid, and have some calcium, zinc and potassium. You can buy them dry or in ready-to-serve cans (rinse well before serving to reduce the high sodium level). Mix beans into salads, stir them into soup or chili, or just heat a can and dump them over rice for a fast lean meal.
  • Eggs: At about a dollar a dozen, eggs also can't be beat when it comes to inexpensive protein, and not just at breakfast. Limit yolks to about four per week if you are trying to manage cholesterol levels.
  • Bananas: They're readily available regardless of season, and usually average about 60 to 70 cents a pound. And bananas are an easily portable source of fiber, potassium and vitamin B6. If you find them on sale, try freezing what you can't eat immediately, and then use frozen in smoothies or for baking.
  • Brown rice: It's nearly as cheap as the white stuff, but because it still has the bran covering it (hence why it's called a "whole" grain), brown rice is much better for you. You get essential minerals—like magnesium and zinc—plus tons more fiber. A cup of white rice has less than one gram of fiber, while the brown variety packs 3.5 grams of the heart-healthy stuff.
  • Carrots: You'll pay a premium if you buy those uniform little baby carrots, but if you don't mind doing your own peeling and cutting, you can get a bag of these for under a dollar. Try shredding them and adding them to a sandwich for extra crunch and a boost of fiber, beta carotene, potassium and vitamin C and B6.
  • Flank steak: Leaner cuts of red meat have less saturated fat and lots of iron, zinc, protein and B vitamins. But these cheaper cuts also tend to be tough. Try marinating the meat overnight in something acidic (a recipe that includes orange juice or vinegar, for example) to tenderize the meat before cooking.
  • Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes should find their way into your diet all year round. These are low-cost and full of beta carotene, potassium, fiber and calcium. Beyond the basic baked, try slicing them into "fries" and then roasting them in the oven in a pan with a little oil and salt.
  • Popcorn: Movie theater and microwave popcorn can be loaded with unhealthy fat and sodium. But if you air-pop it at home, you get a cheap fat-free, fiber-rich snack.
  • Canned tuna: Fish is good for your brain and your heart, but it can be pricey. Cans of chunk light tuna are less expensive than albacore and deliver just as much omega-3 with less harmful mercury. In addition to mixing it up for sandwiches (use oil and vinegar, plain fat free yogurt or mustard instead of mayo), try putting some on top of a salad.