Healthy Eating on a Budget
You don’t have to choose between eating nutritious food and sticking to a budget. Here's how to do both, with 16 tasty, easy recipes to get you started.
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Above: Hearty Sweet Potato, Lentil, and Black Bean Chili; photograph by Olga Ivanova
I grew up without much money, one of four kids. And did I mention we kept kosher, so all our food cost a little more than it would’ve otherwise? Somehow, my mom managed to feed all six of us every night, cooking everything from scratch. I didn’t realize until I’d reached adulthood just what a feat she’d pulled off. Over the years, I’ve figured out some of her tricks — and I’ve added my own, health-conscious spin.
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Healthy eating on the cheap
When you’re looking to eat healthy without splurging, it’s important to make sure the groceries you buy are nutrient-rich — and to cut down on food waste as much as possible.
Start by skipping processed foods, including the healthy ones like baby carrots. Let’s face it: Convenience can cost a pretty penny. If you get whole foods and prepare them yourself, you’ll save money.
We didn’t have a farmer’s market when I was growing up, but these days, they’re everywhere. Going directly to the farmer often means paying less, especially if you look for produce like tomatoes in bulk, to make your own sauce.
Meal prep is a great way to avoid wasting food. Spend a day cooking up a bunch of nutritious components you can combine into multiple meals, like a big batch of whole grains, a pound of dried beans, a whole chicken, and homemade salad dressing.
Similar to meal prep, meal planning can help you curb food waste. By thinking through your menu ahead of time, you can buy exactly what you need for the week.
Stop buying soda and juice and switch to tap water. If your family is big on beverages, this move alone could shave your grocery bill considerably.
Shopping list for healthy eating on a budget
Before you hit the grocery store, come up with a food budget and a grocery list. (With the Yummly Meal Planner, you can quickly add recipes to your Shopping List.) If you know how much you have to spend and exactly what you need to pick up, odds are you’ll leave the store happy. Don’t shy away from store brands, which are almost always cheaper than fancier ones (and often made by the same companies), and stock up on your favorite items when they go on sale. Not sure what to put on your grocery shopping list? These next food choices provide a big nutrient bang for your buck:
Dried beans, lentils, and other legumes, aka pulses
Whole grains in bulk, like brown rice and quinoa
Inexpensive, essential building blocks like oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, spices, and whole-wheat flour
Fresh produce when it's on sale, but only as much as you can use or freeze
Onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, and celery — low-cost, long-lasting, and full of flavor
Frozen vegetables and fruits, which are usually cheaper than fresh
Healthy recipes for eating on a budget
Ready to try some new ideas? Check out these 16 recipes you might want to add to your repertoire.
Fast, healthy, and affordable dinner recipes
When money’s tight, it often means time is, too. Each of these recipes is on the table in 30 minutes or less.
Stir-fries are pretty fast to begin with, but if you use budget-friendly frozen vegetables, you’ll be eating in about 15 minutes. Use whatever protein you like here: leftover cooked chicken, beef, or tofu all work beautifully.
A can of white beans and a package of frozen chopped spinach meet up in a simple, garlicky saute you can whip up in 25 minutes. Serve it on hearty whole-wheat toast with a drizzle of olive oil and you’ve got a lovely, light dinner.
This was a go-to recipe for my mom when I was growing up. And why not? A single pound of ground beef (or ground turkey — or even canned lentils) stretches to feed eight with a few pantry ingredients and a bell pepper. Using whole-wheat macaroni boosts the fiber, too.
Eggs are a super-affordable source of protein, and this Israeli dish features them poached in a spicy tomato sauce that tastes nothing like breakfast. Canned tomatoes make it easy and might cost less than fresh, too. All you need is some toast for dunking.
Healthy, budget-friendly slow-cooker recipes
The slow cooker is ideal for preparing nutritious, inexpensive foods like dried beans and whole chickens. Put your ingredients in the machine and walk away.
We eat a lot of black beans in my family, and the slow cooker is one of the ways I prefer to make them. This rich-tasting, vegetarian soup calls for plenty of spices to zing things up, and one bowl keeps me full for hours. (If you don’t have the red bell pepper don’t sweat it — use whatever veggies you do have instead.)
Spicy but not overwhelming, with shredded chicken breast in a smoky, chipotle-laced sauce, chicken tinga is one of my favorite healthy Mexican recipes. You could easily swap out the boneless breasts for bone-in, which are cheaper. Once it’s all cooked, just take the chicken off the bone with a fork. Serve in tacos or burritos, on top of rice or quinoa, or in a salad.
Roasting a whole chicken is a great way to save money — I usually get at least three meals out of a single bird (dinner, leftovers to use elsewhere, and chicken soup from the bones). In the slow cooker, a whole chicken becomes deliciously, fall-off-the-bone tender. This recipe calls for fresh herbs, but less-expensive and longer-lasting dried herbs work, too.
I don’t always use dried beans in the slow cooker. Sometimes, I’ll take advantage of the machine’s long, slow simmer to meld the flavors in a simple Indian recipe, then add canned beans for just the last few hours. It tastes as if it requires considerably more effort than it does.
Filling and inexpensive soup and stew recipes
I love soups and stews when I’m trying to watch my pennies and eat healthfully. All that broth helps you feel full longer, while also stretching your ingredients into smaller portions to feed more people.
With nutritious, inexpensive lentils, sweet potatoes, canned black beans, and canned tomatoes as the main ingredients, this recipe couldn’t be simpler. Each bowl offers plenty of filling fiber, and the mix of spices tastes just right.
This recipe is billed as “a meatless, one-pot meal packed with superfoods.” Hard to beat that, right? With a list of ingredients based on pantry staples — which translates into affordability — this dish is bound to wind up in your regular rotation.
In my family, beef is a "sometimes" food. We eat less meat than we used to — we probably have it once or twice a month — and when we do, it’s often in a recipe like this, which calls for just one pound of beef to feed eight people. That’s right — two ounces per person, which is healthier and more affordable, and the whole-grain barley makes the soup really filling.
This Giada De Laurentiis recipe has so much going for it — most of the ingredients are humble (read: inexpensive) pantry basics. Just two chicken breasts on the bone feed six people. And the whole dish is ready in only 45 minutes. Wins all around!
Healthy snack recipes on a budget
Store-bought snacks are certainly convenient. They can also be expensive and often full of empty calories. Each of these homemade treats is easy, affordable, and good for you.
This has to be one of my favorite ways to use the Instant Pot. Half a pound of dried chickpeas goes in, no soaking required, and in around an hour, you’ve got the most luxurious-tasting (yet inexpensive) hummus you’ll ever eat.
When you slice a sweet potato very thin (a mandoline does the trick), you get a lot of chips. Toss a couple of potatoes’ worth with just a tablespoon of oil, some salt, and a couple of other seasonings. Then bake until crunchy, and you’ll wind up with enough irresistibly delicious sweet potato chips for four servings. Way cheaper (and better for you) than store-bought!
Don’t shy away from nut butters when you’re aiming to eat healthy while sticking to a budget. Natural peanut butter (the kind with nothing but peanuts and salt in it) offers some serious nutrients, and a jar will last a good long time. Here, it gets mixed with quick-cooking oats, chopped apples, and a couple of other wholesome ingredients, then rolled into delicious, portable balls.
Generally speaking, I like healthy foods. But sometimes, I just want to munch on something decidedly unhealthy, like Doritos. And occasionally, I do. Most of the time, though, I go for a healthier replica, like this seasoning mix for popcorn. It makes air-popped corn taste like a tortilla chip. You’ll lick your fingers the same way, too.
More budget-friendly cooking ideas
Healthy meals don't have to eat up your hard-earned dough. These next articles are all about how to eat well without forking over unreasonable amounts of money. Filling up on this kind of knowledge can pay off big-time.