Although inflation has been easing a bit, grocery bills are still high and sometimes eating healthy food can seem pricier than grabbing less nutritious supermarket options. Despite rising costs, you can still manage to eat healthy on a budget. It just requires a little planning and preparation.
“It’s important to understand that healthy eating does not have to be more expensive than eating out,” said Joanna Smyers, a registered dietitian with Bon Secours St. Francis in Greenville. “It can save time. It can save money, especially if you’re cooking in bulk or planning meals ahead of time.”
Smyers recommended focusing meal planning on lean proteins, low-fat dairy, nonstarchy vegetables, fruits and complex carbs – foods that will provide your body with protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. You want to eliminate foods with saturated fats such as high-fat proteins or processed, fatty or fried foods. This approach has the added benefit of helping with concerns potential medical concerns such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and nutrition-related diseases including heart disease and obesity.
Smyers suggested beans and legumes as two great protein sources.
“Those are easy to prepare, especially if you do the low-sodium canned beans,” she said.
Lentils offer another quick, convenient option to use in making soups, which are filling and offer a great way to incorporate proteins and nonstarchy veggies. They can help limit your calorie intake and involve foods that are typically low in fats and sugars, said Smyers. You can add canned veggies to soups as well – just make sure to read the labels to ensure they won’t add a ton of sodium to your diet.
Regularly cooking with nonstarchy vegetables is key to eating healthy on a budget. Foods that are high in protein and fiber keep you satiated for longer because they take more time to digest and break down, reducing the need for snacking.
“It makes us feel fuller longer,” explained Smyers, who also owns a nutrition counseling business called The Food Nerdette.
Chelsei James, a nutritionist with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, encourages people to plan ahead for meals and use what’s in your pantry as a starting point. Bring a grocery list with you but be prepared to make financially savvy adjustments.
James and Smyers both advised to pay attention to store sales and circulars and be flexible. If you had your heart set on peaches but apples are on sale, buy the apples, said James. The same strategy applies for the meat department, where Smyers notes that you might encounter marked-down meat prices. Be adaptable and swap that chicken breast you wanted for the manager’s special pork chops.
Both recommend bulk buying, such as a 5-pound bag of rice instead of a 1-pound bag or bulk buying seasonal produce and freezing some of it. Another tip is to prepare foods in bulk like a large pot of soup or repurposing leftovers, especially carbohydrates such as rice, giving you the option of a rice grain bowl one night and a stir fry the next, said Smyers – or pasta combos topped with meats or veggies.
Leah Price, another registered dietitian with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said individuals should consider where they shop and be realistic about whether it is meeting their nutritional and budgetary needs. Another move that can benefit your finances entails choosing a store brand over a name brand, especially for staple pantry items, Price advised. It can make a noticeable financial difference.
Adopting Budget-Friendly Healthy Eating Habits
Another way to make eating healthy more budget-friendly involves adopting healthy eating habits. One approach is incorporating more plant-based proteins into your diet such as lentils and legumes that are high in fiber and low in saturated fatty acids, according to Price. She suggested minor changes such as going meatless on “taco Tuesday” and switching up that ground beef for beans or substituting chick peas for the chicken in your chicken salad. This will not only save you a few bucks but, because these foods are protein-rich, they will keep you satiated longer.
It is also important to be mindful of portion sizes when preparing our food, according to Smyers. Additionally, eating without distractions such as scrolling on your phone can help prevent you from mindlessly eating, she said. Both of these habits can lead to leftovers and save you money.
James emphasized drinking more water and less sodas and juices, which will not only make you more hydrated but is also good for the skin. Price added that when buying produce, paying attention to what’s in season can help lower your grocery bills as well.
Resources for affordable, healthy eating
DHEC offers numerous resources to help with affordable, healthy eating options. Price said the agency’s texting platform, Text2bWell, allows individuals to enroll in a subscription plan that addresses issues encompassing fitness and nutrition. It also features healthy eating videos and opportunities to request quick and easy healthy recipes and budget-saving tips. Another helpful web tool is the DHEC-SNAP Education Team’s cookbook, “Eating Healthy in a SNAP,” which contains healthy recipes that are simple and cost-effective, James noted.
“It’s a really good starting point,” she said.
The SNAP Ed Department also provides online maps showing farmers markets and food pantries in different counties statewide.
In the Charleston area, Smyers touted the Lowcountry Food Bank as a valuable resource for its cooking classes, healthy pantry and tips for buying groceries on a budget.
James and Smyers both recommended FoodShare South Carolina – foodsharesc.org – as an option for people who are struggling with access to affordable produce. The organization offers Fresh Food Boxes available at cost that are filled with nine to 11 rotating varieties of fresh fruits and veggies, including recipes, tips and nutrition notes to encourage healthier eating. If you are able to get a Fresh Food Box, Price advised taking steps to reduce food waste such as freezing or canning foods. This will keep the produce from spoiling and extend its use. James added that you can get creative with frozen fruits, using them for smoothies and banana bread, for example.
Price suggested using online grocery ordering services as a tool to gauge potential supermarket bills. Sites such as Walmart’s give a cost estimate, providing you the opportunity to see how much $50 can buy.
“It’s especially helpful for SNAP recipients to help with your budget and spend and distribute dollars,” she said.
By Colin McCandless