7 Ways to Eat Healthy on a Tight Budget

Go beyond buying in bulk or choosing cheaper cuts of meat to stretch your food dollar. Here’s how you can step into a higher level of cleaner, greener eating without sacrificing your budget or your taste buds.
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Produce at the farmers' market

Embrace imperfect produce! You'll often be able to find it for a discount.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a foolproof plan that takes the guesswork out of eating clean and green in a way that’s both pleasing to your taste buds and easy on your wallet? Let’s face it – no one likes to be caught with sticker shock at the checkout counter as we aspire to eat better. And the exciting part is, you really don’t have to. Picture this: Local produce from urban farms that deliver flavorful, nutrient-packed greens to stores within hours at a more efficient price, all while slashing food miles and cutting food waste from stretched-out supply chains. “Ugly” or imperfectly shaped produce (which in the past was often left to rot on farms) nestled in the produce aisle of your favorite store for 30 to 50% less than their “perfect” counterparts or transformed into tasty, cold-pressed juices or dehydrated fruit chips by food entrepreneurs. Or scanning your smartphone to discover the precise ocean spot and boat where your certified-sustainable fish was caught and frozen. And all of that is just the tip of the iceberg. Try these seven fresh ideas that will help you shrink your grocery bill while staying kind to the planet.

1. Shop your pantry.
Take a quick scan of your pantry, fridge and freezer: What do you already have on hand that is begging to be used in a mouthwatering new way? “A can of salmon, a few cups of cooked whole-wheat pasta, baby spinach and homemade vinaigrette can transform into a quick protein bowl,” says registered dietitian-nutritionist Liz Weiss. Need plant-based inspiration? Combine those last odds and ends of dried beans and ancient grains, top with leftover veggies, sprinkle with sunflower or pumpkin seeds and add a squirt of hot sauce or a frozen pesto cube.

2. Discover organic bargains.
Store-brand organic options have been a true game-changer as they typically cost far less than name-brand options and have spread into every nook and cranny of the store. “In some cases, buying an organic store brand can be cheaper than buying a conventional name brand,” says registered dietitian Julie Harrington. Stick to seasonal produce for the best bargains. “In some cases, organic seasonal produce is much cheaper during its peak season because it’s more widely available,” says Harrington. If you must buy something out of season, opt for frozen organic to save money, food miles and maximize nutrition. (In fact, a study published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis found that some types of frozen produce, such as green peas and spinach, retain more nutrients than their 5-day-old fresh-stored counterparts.)

3. Hit the farmers’ market near closing time.
Registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo loves to hit the farmers’ market in its closing hour. The produce is still just hours picked and at its peak of nutritional goodness, but “at the end of the day, the farmers are looking to sell their product quickly and are willing to give it away at a discount,” she says.

4. Add sorghum to your shopping list.
This gluten-free ancient grain is now widely available. Beyond being a nutritional gem rich in fiber, magnesium, potassium and iron, sorghum is more drought- and heat-tolerant than other major crops, making it an attractive alternative crop in the face of climate change. Registered dietitian-nutritionist Lauren Harris-Pincus, author of The Protein Packed Breakfast Club (Eggplant Press, 2017), loves to batch cook sorghum ahead of time. “Sorghum doesn’t get soggy or mushy like some grains,” she says, “and it really holds its texture in the fridge and freezer.” Swap wheat for sorghum flour in baking or make sorghum “popcorn” for an antioxidant-rich snack.

5. Create an “Eat first!” box.
Tired of winding up with a science experiment in your compost bin from produce you couldn’t get to in time? Try a trick that chefs have used for years: Label a BPA-free box “Eat first!” and place your perishables into it. For food safety, create separate boxes for raw meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Keep these in your fridge and prioritize these for meals and snacks. Save longer-lasting fare for later in the week.

6. Toss a plant-based burger on the grill.
Whip up a juicy veggie burger and rack up the savings that come from swapping meat for legumes. According to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average cost for a serving of lentils is $0.10 compared to $1.49 for a serving of beef, $0.73 for a serving of pork and $0.63 for a serving of chicken. Plus, compared with other proteins, pulses use as little as one-tenth the amount of water to grow, so they save on environmental costs as well.

7. Eat “root to tip.”
Spiralized veggies have opened the door to thinking creatively about produce, but you can also go a step further and use more of the plants you buy. Registered dietitian and chef Julie Andrews pickles melon rinds from the farmers’ market for a refreshing snack and uses carrot tops and beet greens for puréeing into pestos, hummus and veggie burgers. If you need advice, “vegetable butchers” are starting to pop up in urban high-end grocery stores – and they are more than happy to share their secrets.