Healthy eating is a commitment. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t start every new year with a renewed pledge to stick with it. But for families especially, the commitment isn’t just one of will power, it’s also a financial commitment. Because there is nothing worse than spending money on food that the kids won’t eat.
So we’ve put together a quick guide to eating healthy on a budget, which in a lot of ways, is a reminder to go back to basics. But before we get to it, you’ll notice that our suggestions focus on breakfast, lunch, and snack food. We know that when it comes to feeding our families better, most parents focus on dinner, but in fact, the bulk of our shopping haul is for foods that we eat the rest of the day — foods that are more likely to be packaged.
Look at your next shopping bill and you might find that you’re spending most of your money the meals we focused on. If that’s true, you might find that deciding to buy Monday night’s broccoli organic or conventional has a less significant impact than figuring out how to make better purchases for breakfast, for example. With a little attention paid to the dark corners of your grocery bill, you can cut your costs pretty dramatically, and you’ll end up with healthier food at home too.
Olive Oil and Maple Granola | Photo by James Ransom for Food52
— Cereal can be expensive, especially if you’re an organic shopper. Keep in mind that even organic cereal is highly processed and often full of added sugar. If you’re watching what you spend, the extra money to buy organic may not be worth the health savings. Instead, look for the most affordable option that has the least amount of sugar, organic or not.
— You can also make your own cereal. My kids love granola and it’s easy to make using affordable bulk staples. I’m dying to make this Olive Oil and Maple Granola at Food52.
— Oatmeal makes a wonderful breakfast, as well. Though I love this trick for how to make quick cook oatmeal as nutritious as the slow cook kind, quick-cook oats can sometimes cost more money (usually because they come in way more packaging). Bulk oats will give you the most bang for your buck and you can always make life easier by using a slow cooker oatmeal or overnight oatmeal recipe to keep mornings moving quickly.
— As much as I love oatmeal, it’s not the only wonderful breakfast grain. Cornmeal, quinoa, barley, and nearly any other whole grain can be made into a delicious breakfast porridge. Look for whole grains on sale and/or in bulk and cook them with milk or water, season with cinnamon, add fresh fruit, nuts and/or dried fruits, and you’ve got a great breakfast. Start with this list of mouthwatering hot cereal recipes.
And if you’re nervous to try new grains, check out our guide to healthy grains before you hit the market.
— Dairy is one of those ingredients that, whenever possible, I recommend organic, especially if feeding little ones. Yes, even if it means skimping elsewhere to afford the more expensive organic milk. Be sure to stick with plain dairy like unflavored yogurt and plain cottage cheese to keep the sugar low and ingredients list natural. Then, look for what’s on sale.
If you’re intrepid and motivated to save money, consider making your own dairy. I can’t say that it’s no work at all, but it’s easier than you might think to make your own yogurt (especially if you own an Instant Pot!), nut milk, or ricotta cheese, for example, all of which make great breakfast foods.
Leftover homemade chicken soup makes a great lunch with hummus, veggies, and a few other pantry items.
— The best way to save money on lunch is to bulk up dinner and serve leftovers the next day. It may seem like a quarter pound more meat, for example, puts your grocery bill over the edge, but the cost will often come in under the cost of buying two separate packages of deli meat.
— Speaking of deli meat, it’s worth a reminder that the less meat you eat, the healthier and more cost effective your diet. Bulk up two meat dinners a week so that you have enough leftovers for lunch and try eating vegetarian lunches on the other days, which makes it possible to skip expensive deli meat, especially if you’re committed to organic, for a whole week.
If you need school lunch inspiration, oh boy, do we have it. You’ll find hundreds of school lunch ideas, from gluten-free to thinking beyond the sandwich to protein-rich ideas, right here.
Muffins are an easy make-ahead snack that can be frozen. One baking session can cover you for weeks!
— Snack foods are just plain expensive, especially if they are organic. And just like with cereal, it’s important to keep in mind that organic doesn’t necessarily equal healthier. Take stock of the snacks you’re buying and make sure that they’re worth the money. Keep your store-bought favorites in rotation — every parent needs some easy-to-grab snacks at the ready — but consider paring down.
— Think about ways that you can use whatever fruits, veggies, and pantry staples that you’re buying anyway to turn them into healthy, affordable snacks. Sprinkle apple slices with cinnamon and honey, turn nut or seed butter into a snack dip, whizz chickpeas with garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil to make hummus for carrots, smash berries to put on toast with cream cheese and a drizzle of honey or make some other creative toast recipe.
— And of course, there are always homemade snacks. I know that it can be a pain to make them, but doing so is an easy way to cut costs. If you need motivation, think about the bottom line. How much are you trying to save and is taking a couple of hours every week (or every other week) to make a big batch of freezable granola bars or no-bake energy bites worth it?
If it is, rest assured that there are tons of easy make-ahead snack recipes that can be prepped in bulk and stored so that you’re not cooking and baking multiple times a week.