If you are on a tight budget, the idea of choosing the healthiest options can seem overwhelming, because they are often more expensive. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to eat healthy.
In fact, choosing healthy foods will give you more bang for your buck, because you will be getting more nutrition – and value -- for every food dollar.
We talked to Lindsey Wohlford, a wellness dietician at MD Anderson, about ways to reduce your grocery bill and still get a cart full of healthy food. She shared her top tips for healthy grocery shopping on a budget.
Make a healthy grocery list, and stick to it
Sure, you make a list before you go to the store. But does your head get turned when you walk through the bakery, deli or chip aisle?
“It’s hard to succeed without a plan,” says Wohlford.
Before you head to the store, plan to fill two-thirds of every plate with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. This can provide a framework for your grocery list and will keep you on the best diet for health: A plant-based diet.
It's hard to succeed without a plan
If you are not sure where to start, try a meal-planning app to help with meal ideas, shopping lists and budgeting. Many of them will let you upload your grocery list to a grocery delivery service or directly to the grocery store for pickup.
“If you can make a grocery list once, it will save it for you to make return trips even simpler,” says Wohlford.
Once you are at the store, resist the urge to buy pre-cut fruits and veggies and prepared meals.
“Precut and prepared foods are not necessarily unhealthy, but you do pay a premium for the convenience,” says Wohlford.
Another tip for sticking to your list: Don’t shop hungry. Before you leave for the store, eat a handful of almonds or a tablespoon of peanut butter. This can help you resist the urge to buy unhealthy foods that are not on your list.
Avoid processed foods
Processing and packaging costs are transferred to the consumer. Plus, with processed foods you get more sodium and preservatives.
One tip for cutting down on processed foods: Shop the perimeter of the store, where the fresh food is located.
“The more processed a food, the higher price you are going to pay,” says Wohlford. “Sticking to whole foods in natural form is always less expensive and healthier.”
Look at the unit price
This helps you to compare the cost of a product per serving and can help you make the most cost-effective choice or get the best value for your money.
You’ll see a difference in unit price when you compare generic or store brands with name-brand products.
Bulk foods are also cheaper, per serving. You’ll find plenty of pantry staples like brown rice and dried beans in the bulk aisle, for much less than you would pay for the packaged versions.
Buy less meat
Meat is generally the most expensive part of a meal. We also know that getting the majority of your food from plant-based sources is better for decreasing your risk for chronic disease.
So reducing meat consumption – especially red meat – by eating it less often and in smaller amounts can help save money and reduce your risk for cancer.
Plant-based proteins like tofu and beans are a great alternative to meat. You can make these healthy swaps that will add more plants to your diet without reducing your protein intake.
If you do eat red meat, aim for no more than 18 ounces of it per week. Instead, choose lean chicken, fish or plant-based protein.
And even though they may seem easy on the budget, avoid processed meat. Processed meats like hot dogs, bacon and any meat you find at the deli counter, have compounds that cause cancer.
Buy produce that is in-season
Produce that is in season for your area has several advantages, says Wohlford.
“Local, in-season produce tends to be cheaper because it is available in large quantities and doesn’t need to be shipped,” she says. Also, since it hasn’t traveled far, it’s fresher and will stay good longer.
You can visit the USDA’s Seasonal Produce Guide for a list of what’s in season in your area. Another sure way to find local, in-season produce is to shop at a farmer’s market. The best bargains are at the end of the day.
Know the dirty dozen
You may get sticker shock when you try to buy organic produce but it is worth it.
“Buying organic does decrease the amount of pesticide residue you consume,” says Wohlford.
If you are watching your budget, you can be strategic about the organics you choose using the Environmental Working Group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
This guide shows vegetables and fruits on the dirty dozen list. They have the most pesticide residue so you’ll get the most benefit from buying the organic options.
But if organic produce is simply out of your budget, Wohlford says don’t give up on a plant-based diet.
“It is more important to eat fruits and vegetables than to avoid them because of the potential for pesticide use.”
Frozen and canned vegetables can cut down on waste
Planning your week around a plant-based diet can be a challenge. You won’t save money if you end up throwing away produce that doesn’t get eaten in time.
Buying canned and frozen produce can help reduce waste. Use fresh vegetables, fruits and meat first, then use the frozen and canned foods later in the week. Be sure to check the labels on canned vegetables for the sodium content, and rinse them before cooking.
You can also choose produce that has longer shelf life. For example, romaine lettuce is hardier and will last longer than spring mix lettuce. And be sure you store produce properly so it lasts as long as possible.
Unhealthy beverages can be a drain on your budget
Another great money-saving tip: Limit alcohol. Research shows that drinking even a small amount of alcohol increases your chances of developing oral, breast and liver cancers. The National Cancer Institute recommends that women have no more than one drink per day and men have no more than two drinks per day. Less is better.
And while you are at it, avoid sugary drinks like soda, sports drinks, sweetened teas and other drinks with added sugar. Skip the ones with artificial sweeteners while you are at it. They aren't giving you any nutrients for you money.
Healthy foods are worth it
You won’t eliminate your cancer risk by eating certain foods and avoiding others. But if you focus on eating a plant-based diet and maintaining a healthy weight, you will go a long way in reducing your risk. And you can do it while still sticking to a budget.