How To Eat Well On a Budget

Last Updated on July 7, 2022 by Michael Joseph

It is sadly a fact of life that food can be expensive, and food is a basic need that we all have to budget for.

However, there can be significant differences in the prices of food.

This article looks at how to eat well on a budget, regardless of dietary preference.

As part of this, there are some budget-friendly buying tips and a list of relatively cheap yet nutritious foods.

Budget-Friendly Buying Tips

A Shopping Basket Filled With Foods Next To a Payment Machine Displaying Cost (Food Budgeting Theme).

Here are some general tips to help make shopping on a budget easier.

1) Visit Larger Supermarkets/Grocery Stores

While the idea of shopping local and organic may sound nice, it isn’t always the most economical way of shopping.

Large chain stores have higher purchasing power, so they can pass their produce on to the customer at a lower price.

Paying a small percentage more for food items from a smaller store can really add up.

Also, most larger stores have a budget-friendly store-branded range.

Key Point: Large grocery stores and supermarkets tend to have better deals on common foods.

2) Don’t Shop On An Empty Stomach

Avoiding a shopping trip on an empty stomach may help to reduce spending on high-calorie foods.

Food can appear more tempting when someone feels hungry. As a result, shopping when satisfied after a meal may reduce the possibility of unnecessary additions to grocery needs.

In other words, it isn’t really about not buying more food; it is more about buying healthier food.

For instance, a 2013 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine demonstrated that, in a laboratory setting, hungry participants choose significantly more high-calorie and snack foods than sated participants. Additionally, in a ‘field exercise’ part of the study conducted at a grocery store, hungry shoppers bought more high-calorie foods than sated shoppers (1).

Key Point: People tend to make better food choices when they are not shopping on an empty stomach.

3) Consider Canned and Frozen Foods

Many people feel that fresh food should be the priority.

However, it is important to note that canned and frozen products are not significantly different nutritionally.

In 2015, an observational study looked at the diets of 9761 participants. Among the participants, frequent canned food users (>6 canned products per week) consumed more nutrient-dense foods than infrequent users of canned food (<2 canned products per week) (2).

Notably, the frequent consumers of canned food also had “higher intakes of 17 essential nutrients including the shortfall nutrients potassium, calcium and fiber” compared to the infrequent users.

This is positive if the lower price of canned food allows people to fit more nutrient-rich foods into their diet.

Additionally, there is little difference between fresh and frozen fruit and vegetables nutritionally. Frozen options may be cheaper, but studies have shown little nutritional difference between the two (3, 4).

Key Point: Canned and frozen foods can sometimes be a more affordable way to fit nutrient-rich food into the diet.

4) Consider Like-For-Like (But Cheaper) Alternatives

Certain products within the same food group may share many things in common with a similar food nutritionally. However, the cost can often be where these similarities end.

For example, salmon provides omega-3, protein, and a range of vitamins and minerals (5).

Unfortunately, fresh salmon is also relatively expensive.

In contrast, canned sardines are available at a fraction of the price of fresh salmon and provide similar omega-3, protein, vitamins, and minerals (6).

Here are some examples of foods that offer similar nutritional value to a more expensive counterpart:

Food nameCheaper food option
SalmonCanned sardines/mackerel
SteakGround beef, frozen
StrawberriesFrozen mixed berries
Canned beans/chickpeasDried beans/chickpeas
EdamameGreen peas
Macadamia nuts/hazelnutsPeanuts
Store-bought coffeeHomemade coffee
Famous brand food productsStore-brand food products
Tropical/imported fruitLocally grown fruit
A table showing a list of foods and cheaper nutritionally equivalent options for each.
Key Point: Some foods provide a nutritionally similar yet cheaper option to commonly desired foods.

5) Buying In Bulk = More For Less

We should note that not everyone has the luxury of being able to buy in bulk.

However, for those that can, buying food in larger portions tends to result in a discounted price gram-for-gram.

For instance, a kilogram of pasta will typically cost less than two 500-gram bags, and 500 grams of ground beef will cost less than two 250-gram packs of beef.

Here are several nutritious food options that are typically available in bulk sizes:

  • Mixed nuts
  • Bags of frozen chicken breast
  • Packs of dried legumes weighing several kilograms
  • Milk: the bigger the pack, the cheaper the cost by weight
  • Yogurt: again, the bigger the pack, the cheaper the cost by weight
  • Cheese: large blocks of cheese work out much cheaper by weight than smaller portions
  • Large packs of frozen vegetables work out cheaper than small bags of fresh vegetables
Key Point: Buying food in greater volume tends to provide a better price gram-for-gram .

6) Visit Food Stores Near Closing Time

Stores often discount food products close to their ‘use by’ or ‘best before’ dates.

For this reason, it is possible to find some bargains in the fresh aisles several hours before closing.

Some stores may provide 50% (or even more) discounts on dairy, fruit, meat, seafood, vegetables, and other fresh produce.

It is worth remembering that most of these items are also suitable for freezing, so eating them that same day isn’t necessary.

Key Point: Bargains can be found in aisles selling fresh grocery products toward store closing times.

7) Make a Shopping List – and Stick To It

When visiting a grocery store, it is easy to see many tempting offers and buy more than we need.

For this reason, making a shopping list of the things we need can help us stay on track.

Put the essentials down on the list, and if there is any shopping budget left after buying them, then extra purchases can be considered.

Key Point: Using a shopping list makes it a bit easier to stay on budget by buying only the necessary items.

8) Prepare a Homemade Lunch

One of the most expensive costs for people who work outside the home is buying a daily lunch.

While the price of one lunch or ‘meal deal’ may not seem so high, multiplying that cost by five days and then by 50 or so weeks quickly adds up.

However, homemade sandwiches are much cheaper than store-bought options. Salad bowls can also be made at home for a fraction of their in-store price tag.

Whichever kind of lunch someone prefers, it is usually much cheaper to make at home.

Key Point: Taking a homemade lunch to work/school can cut down the food budget, and you can choose precisely what you want to eat too.

9) Don’t Worry About Buying Expensive ‘Organic’ Foods

We often find information telling us we should “buy organic” for our health, but is it necessary?

While there may be some potential benefits, the answer probably goes like this: “if you can afford organic food and feel it is worth the price difference, buy it. Otherwise, buy what you can afford, whether organic or not.”

The truth is that studies have demonstrated relatively insignificant differences nutritionally between organic and non-organic produce (7).

Additionally, it isn’t true that organic food is “pesticide-free.” Organic farming also uses pesticides, but these pesticides must be ‘organic’ (originally from a living source).

In other words, just like many medicines come from a plant source, organic pesticides also come from plants.

For more on this topic, this interesting article delves deeper.

Key Point: Buying organic food isn’t necessary, particularly if trying to consume nutrient-rich foods on a tight budget.

10) Use a Food Waste App To Rescue Short-Dated Food

Food waste apps have recently enabled consumers to find special deals from local grocery stores, supermarkets, cafes, butchers, and bakeries.

Rather than throw unwanted food out, these venues can list their food that needs rescuing on such food waste apps.

Notably, the discounts are high, and goods can sell for as little as 30% of their original price.

When using food waste apps, the user can search for food that needs rescuing in their local area and reserve it.

‘Too Good To Go’ is perhaps the most famous food waste app, but there are several different options on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

Key Point: Using a food waste app allows people to “rescue” perfectly good food – it just needs eating quickly.

A List of Cheap Yet Nutritious Foods

This section lists foods that provide a range of nutrients yet are often available for an affordable price.

Apples

Apples are one of the cheaper fruit products in countries where they grow locally, and bags of 5-6 are available for a reasonable price.

Furthermore, an apple provides several grams of fiber and a good mix of vitamins and minerals (8).

Bananas

Bananas are another of the most budget-friendly fresh fruit options. For instance, a bunch of bananas has a similar price to just one avocado.

Nutritionally, bananas offer a good source of fiber, potassium, and vitamins C and B6 (9).

Broccoli

Broccoli tends to offer a similar nutritional profile to leafy green vegetables. However, you get more broccoli for your money compared to many other green vegetables.

Among the various nutrients it provides, broccoli is an excellent source of folate, vitamin C, and vitamin K (10).

Canned Mackerel

A can of mackerel provides similar omega-3 to fresh salmon and costs a fraction of the price.

Mackerel is also a rich source of protein, selenium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D (11).

Canned Sardines

Like mackerel, canned sardines are another seafood option that offers all the benefits of oily fish for an economical price.

Canned sardines have a nutritional profile similar to mackerel and also provide high amounts of selenium, vitamin B12, and vitamin D (12).

Cannellini Beans

Cannellini beans are a type of legume that provide large amounts of fiber and protein alongside a wide range of vitamins and minerals (13).

These beans are available dried in bulk, which provides a low cost per serving.

Carrots

Carrots are a typical staple food; they’re both nutritious and relatively cheap.

As well as being one of the most affordable fresh vegetables, carrots offer good vitamin and mineral content. Among the nutrients they contain, carrots are exceptionally high in vitamin A (retinol activity equivalents) and provide a good fiber source (14).

Cheese

Depending on the cheese, the producer, and the time spent aging, cheese can vary from cheap to extremely expensive.

However, most cheese tastes good, works well in recipes, and is mostly nutritionally similar.

Buying a large block of cheese can lower the price per serving, with generic store-branded options being the best value.

Besides its well-known calcium provision, cheese is also an excellent source of B vitamins, phosphorus, selenium, and protein (15).

Chicken Breast (Frozen)

Chicken breast is another common food that can significantly vary in price.

While small packs of organic chicken breast can be expensive, bulk bags of frozen chicken breast are much more affordable per serving.

Chicken breast is a significant low-calorie source of protein, and it offers high levels of selenium and various B vitamins (16).

Coffee

Buying a bag of coffee will allow someone to make around 10-20 cups of coffee (or more) for the same price as one coffee shop coffee.

Making coffee at home (and limiting purchases at a cafe) can result in significant savings for coffee lovers.

Dark Chocolate (Store Brand)

Dark chocolate is one of those foods we think of as a treat, yet it still provides a good amount of nutritional value.

For instance, just an ounce (28.35g) of dark chocolate will provide significant amounts of fiber, copper, iron, magnesium, and manganese (17).

While branded chocolate bars can be expensive, store brand labels tend to be reasonably priced.

Dried Chickpeas

Chickpeas are a versatile and nutritious food, and a can of chickpeas provides good value concerning cost per serving. However, dried chickpeas offer an even better deal per typical serving.

Chickpeas also provide a good range of nutrients, from fiber and protein to high folate, copper, and manganese (18).

Dried Lentils

Lentils are another affordable, nutrient-rich legume.

Dried lentils are available in sizes ranging from 500 grams to large bulk tubs of 5 kilograms, with larger volumes offering the best cost-per-serving.

Alongside their protein and fiber content, lentils are also rich in folate, thiamin, copper, and manganese (19).

Eggs

Despite recent price rises during 2022, eggs are still one of the cheapest protein sources.

However, it is not just protein that eggs offer; they also provide large amounts of choline, B vitamins, iodine, and selenium (20).

Frozen Fruit

Some fresh fruit, such as apples and bananas, are relatively cheap. However, other fruits such as strawberries and raspberries can be quite expensive.

For the more expensive fruits, it is easy to save a bit of money by buying them in their frozen form.

As an example, frozen blueberries are significantly cheaper than fresh blueberries.

Ground Beef

For those who like beef, some of the more popular options (such as ribeye steak) can cost a fair amount of money.

However, simple ground beef offers the same nutritional properties at a fraction of the price.

Frozen bags of ground beef offer the best value for money for even more considerable savings.

Ground beef provides good amounts of protein and contains high levels of B vitamins, iron, selenium, and zinc (21).

Ground Pork

Another budget-friendly meat product that costs slightly less than other red meat options is ground pork.

Similar to beef, ground pork is a good source of protein and B vitamins. Pork also provides a significant amount of selenium (22).

Liver

Organ meats (also known as offal or variety meats) are not as popular as they once were.

However, they provide a more substantial provision of nutrients than regular meat and for a lower price too.

One of the best examples of this is liver.

For instance, pork liver provides a far superior amount of vitamins and minerals compared to other pork meat products, yet it costs less than half the price.

Pork liver contains almost every essential nutrient, but it offers substantial levels of vitamin B vitamins, vitamin A, iron, and selenium (23).

Milk

Milk is a staple food priced at a reasonable level.

Some organic and plant milk can be a bit more expensive, but basic dairy milk is relatively cheap. As with most things, the cost per serving falls when buying larger-sized containers.

Milk is an excellent source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, and B vitamins (24).

Mixed Nuts

Rather than buying small packets of individual nuts, larger bulk packs of ‘mixed nuts’ usually offer the best value for money.

Except for peanuts, most nuts sold individually cost more than mixed nut combinations.

On the positive side, consuming a wide range of different nuts may also broaden the nutritional properties.

Oats

Oats may be cheap and plain, but they beat most cereal options for nutritional value.

Buying a bag of store-brand oats will also lower food spending compared to heavily marketed cereal brands.

Nutritionally, oats are an excellent source of fiber, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and selenium (25).

Onions

Alongside carrots, onions are one of the cheaper fresh vegetable choices, and you don’t need to use a lot to flavor various dishes.

Also, onions provide some vitamin C and various polyphenols, such as quercetin and kaempferol, that may have benefits (26, 27).

Peanuts

Peanuts are arguably the most budget-friendly nut on store shelves, and they are just as nutritious as other nuts too.

The more peanuts you buy, the lower the serving price will be. However, even small packs of peanuts (especially store-brand products) are relatively low cost.

Peanuts are an excellent source of dietary fat, protein, and fiber. They also provide a broad range of essential micronutrients and particularly high amounts of copper, folate, magnesium, manganese, and vitamin E (28).

Pineapple

Pineapples tend to provide relatively good value for money on a per-serving basis. Additionally, frozen pineapple chunks offer further savings.

Ample supply and low labor cost where (most) pineapples grow mean they are available for a reasonable price.

Also, pineapples provide a broad range of essential nutrients. For example, they offer exceptionally high amounts of vitamin C and manganese (29).

Potatoes

Potatoes are a staple food in much of the world, and for good reason; they’re cheap, nutritious, and versatile.

Once again, potatoes are one of those foods that get cheaper when you buy in higher volume. For those with nearby farming areas, it may be worth seeing if any farms directly sell potatoes to the public.

Potatoes are a rich source of potassium and vitamin C and provide a broad range of vitamins and minerals in low to moderate amounts (30).

Tea

Instead of drinking soft drinks and expensive ready-to-drink products, a box of green or black tea is likely healthier and more affordable.

Tea contains an interesting mix of polyphenols that may provide health benefits (31, 32).

Tomato Paste

Rather than buying expensive stir-in sauces, tomato paste offers a cheaper (and likely healthier) alternative.

Additionally, tomato paste is the best dietary source of lycopene, a type of carotenoid that may potentially have some interesting health benefits (33, 34).

Yogurt

Store-brand yogurts are a relatively cheap yet nutritious option that provides a good source of protein, calcium, and B vitamins (35).

Additionally, yogurt may have some benefits for gut health due to its probiotic content (36).

Whole Grain Pasta

Genuine whole grains can be expensive compared to products like white bread.

However, whole grain pasta, also known as wholewheat pasta, offers much more fiber than refined grain products for a similar price.

It gets cheaper per serving with bigger pack sizes as with many foods.

Wholewheat pasta also provides high amounts of manganese, magnesium, and selenium (37).

Final Thoughts

The expense of food can make some of us turn to cheaper, lesser healthy options.

However, as this article shows, there are several things we can do to help us eat well on a budget. These include little tips like shopping lists, visiting stores near closing time, and using food waste apps.

We can also eat better for cheaper by focusing on more affordable alternatives to popular foods. In this regard, canned and frozen foods often offer better value for money when compared to fresh food.

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