I love creating wholesome, beautiful food to share on Instagram, but most people are looking to save money on healthy food, not take pretty pictures. And not only do I have a Whole Foods budget, but I get products for free. The average person doesn’t have those luxuries. My goal is to inspire others to lead healthier, fuller lives, but I’m failing if my suggestions are out of reach. So I’m sharing my five, time-tested strategies to save money on healthy food.
When I first started out as a journalist, I lived in LA and worked two jobs. I sold cosmetics at Macy’s by day, and worked overnights and weekends as a production assistant at the local CBS Radio affiliate. My average food budget ranged from $20-30 weekly, and I clearly wasn’t spending it on adaptogenic spice blends and premium coffee. It was crucial that I save money on healthy food if I wanted to fuel my body through grueling work weeks without going over budget.
While the easiest budget eats live on the McDonald’s dollar menu, I’d been raised to value fresh, home-cooked meals. I knew those foods were best for my body, and I was wary of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics used in most commercially farmed foods. So I figured out ways to eat healthy, whole foods on a tight budget.
Save money on healthy food with these five steps:
Ditch The Dirty Dozen.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of the 12 fruits and vegetables that are most contaminated with pesticides. The list ranks convenionally-grown produce according to how many pesticide residues are found in each category. Critics are quick to point out that these are safe for human consumption, but we’ve known for 25 years that the effects of pesticides are cumulative. Personally, I’m suspicious of any organization whose priority is shareholders, not consumers. Therefore I’ve chosen to save money on healthy food by always buying organic when it comes to the Dirty Dozen. If I couldn’t afford it, I skipped that item altogether. Make do with non-organic for anything that isn’t on the list, except when organic is cheaper.
Stock up on sale price staples.
Leave room in your budget to stock up on staples like dried beans, grains, oats, wild fish, and organic meats when they go on sale. While the initial investment can be difficult, a well-stocked pantry will help you save money on healthy foods. One quick note: don’t buy frozen meats, as they’re often injected with chemicals to keep them moist. Buy fresh meats on sale, then freeze them as soon as you get home. Pat them dry, wrap them in parchment, and put them in labeled plastic freezer bags.
If you can’t count the ingredients on one hand, don’t buy it.
Processed foods are often cheaper, but filler ingredients tend to create the “Chinese Food Effect.” (When you’re gut-bustlingly full, then starving five minutes later.) Abiding by this rule reduce the volume of food you buy and focus your budget on whole foods. It will also keep you from spending on unhealthy filler foods like cookies, potato chips, and prepared dressings. The exception to this rule: foods containing lots of herbs and spices. These increase flavor factor and while adding micronutrients. There’s no reason to eliminate a food because basil, oregano, and thyme are taking up space on the ingredients list.
If you can’t afford organic, look for hormone- and antibiotic-free.
This is especially helpful when you’re shopping for meats and dairy. Let’s say you have a choice between buying two organic chicken breasts, or buying six hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken breasts. Choose the latter to avoid at least some nasty chemicals while stocking your freezer. When it comes to what you can afford, your best is more than good enough.
Don’t be afraid of skin-on chicken or less-than-lean cuts.
I may have used chicken as a reference, but I actually loathe skinless, boneless chicken breasts. Skin-on, bone-in chicken is more flavorful, and more satisfying, which means you can eat a smaller portion while getting nutritional benefits of eating a little chicken skin. Also consider less expensive cuts like chicken thighs instead of breasts, pork shoulder instead of tenderloin, and beef short ribs instead of steaks. Adjust the balance in your diet by eating smaller servings and more vegetables, which are usually less expensive.
BONUS TIP: Make meal prep a part of your routine.
When you have a fridge stocked with grab-and-go food, you’re less likely to splurge on eating out. It also makes it easier to buy less expensive, more time-consuming ingredients – like dried beans – because you’re making the time to prepare them. You can read my in-depth meal prep prep guide here.