If you’re wondering how to be healthy on a budget, you’re in the right place!
Somehow, eating healthy was stereotyped as something that is expensive. One reason is overpriced super foods, like chia, goji, chlorella and kale. Another is the misconception that you must eat organic to eat healthy. And then people think eating healthy requires buying specialty vegan replacement products e.g Daiya cheese, tofu and soy milk.
However, super foods, organic produce, tofu and almond milk aren’t essential to eat nutritiously. Below I share my advice on how to eat eat a healthy whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet on a budget.
1. Stock up on staples
A staple is a food that you center your diet around. Staples are eaten at least once per day if not more. Staples are relatively inexpensive and contain a modest nutrient profile. Most staples are diverse— diverse meaning that they can be paired with a wide variety of other foods to create a number of flavors and meals.
The selection of healthy staples available to you will depend upon your are. Here are some examples of staple foods:
- potatoes/sweet potatoes/yam
- brown rice
- whole grain bread/whole grain flour
I usually consider staple foods starch-centric foods. Legumes can also be the center of your plate as well!
Cultures around the world have different staples. In Asia, it’s mostly rice. In Europe, bread (flour) plays a more prominent role. In Latin America, they eat a lot of corn. Raw vegans favor mangoes, bananas and oranges because they’re available year round and are typically affordable.
When meals feature staples you buy a other items, like herbs, spices and produce to supplement them.
Shop around to find the store with the lowest price for your staple(s). Grocery stores may offer a budget prices if you buy staples in bulk. If you live in a large metropolitan area, eating healthy on a budget can be made easier if you have access to a bulk store. Most staples will last a week (in the case of bananas) to a year (in the case of brown rice and flour). Buy in bulk whenever you can to get the lowest prices.
Another way to find cheap staples is to explore your local ethnic store. In my experience, ethnic stores (Like Indian, Middle Eastern and Chinese) offer low prices for rice and beans.
Other idea to eat healthy cheaply is to purchase a membership at a store that sells bulk items for the possibility of even better prices. Two stores like this in the US are Sam’s Club and Costco.
2. Buy Basic Spices and Flavorings
Now that you have your staple(s), you require herbs, spices and other flavorings in order to transform your staple into meals with varying flavors.
Below is a list of 10 basic herbs, spices and flavorings I find helpful to have on hand. They’re basic because with one or a few of the flavorings I list you can make dishes of different styles, flavors and cultures. I encourage you to have them available and grow your spice cabinet as you cook and learn what your favorite flavors are.
- Onion- I love having fresh onions on hand. I use them in almost every meal.
- Garlic- Garlic is onion’s sister, also used in almost everything and it’s very healthy too!
- Paprika- a little sweet, a little spicy. Yum!
- Parsley- add an herby punch to your foods
- Turmeric – adds beautiful color to foods and has lots of health benefits
- Black pepper- super basic
- Cinnamon- my go-to spice for adding quick flavor to oats
- Ginger- perfect for savory and sweet applications
- Chili powder/flakes- adds spice!
- Vinegar- balsamic is my favorite, but apple cider vinegar or wine vinegar is good too
Having spices on hand is essential. If you cannot afford supplementary produce or other products to add to your meals, you can still make flavorful and delicious dishes on a budget with herbs, spices and other flavorings.
In addition to basic flavorings, I would like to include any other baking necessities that you may need for your chosen staple. If you choose to use whole grain flour as a staple, you may need yeast and baking soda in order to create breads and baked goods. Or maybe if you’re daring enough, attempt sourdough bread for some fermented bready goodness.
If banana is your staple, you may find that vanilla is a useful flavor to have. Buy whatever you find necessary in order to ensure your staples work for you.
3. Buy frozen and canned produce
Fresh produce is fantastic but it isn’t the economical buy when money is tight. Fresh produce is more expensive because stores must compensate for wastage that comes with supplying fresh fruit and vegetables. You may waste money on fruit and vegetables too if your produce spoils before you get the chance to eat it. To severely reduce or eliminate this problem I recommend buying frozen and canned produce instead of fresh.
I typically buy frozen over canned when possible. One reason for this is because the additives and preservatives commonly found in canned produce don’t show up in most frozen fruits and vegetables. Most canned fruit has added sweeteners and most canned vegetables contain added salt (and sometimes fat). Added sugars, salt and fat are not necessary in order to preserve produce when it’s frozen. The only produce that I have bought canned so far is tomatoes, which I was able to find without added salt. I buy an assortment of frozen vegetables, green peas, green beans and broccoli being most common. While corn is technically a grain, buy frozen corn too if it is available and cost-effective to purchase.
4. Et cetera
The last thing you should buy with your limited money is the ‘et cetera’ food that doesn’t fit into the above categories. Depending upon your budget, you may have no money left after the previous categories or a lot— it’s fine either way. If you are not able to buy anything other than staples, flavorings and non-perishable produce, you can still make nutritious and tasty meals.
On the other hand, let’s say you have money left to spend— what do you spend it on? I recommend buying bulk dried goods and/or fresh produce that has a long shelf life. Bulk dried goods are dried fruits and nuts/seeds. One of my favorite bulk foods to have on hand is dates. Dates can be used in smoothies for breakfast, as a compact and calorie-dense meal on-the-go or as a sweetener in baked goods. However, be wary of buying and eating too many bulk foods because they are calorically dense and can end up being expensive if you buy excessive amounts. The best way to utilize these foods is sparingly. Add some fat and crunch to a dish by throwing some chopped walnuts on top. Sweeten up a banana smoothie by including soaked dates. Check labels when buying bulk foods to ensure they don’t have any added salt, sugars or fats. Choose raw, unsalted nuts whenever possible and purchase banana chips without coconut oil.
Do your best to buy produce that won’t spoil quickly and/or that can be frozen if necessary when you buy fresh produce. Carrots, apples, beetroot, cabbage and cauliflower won’t compromise their tastes after a week of storage. In addition, many of the fruits and vegetables I mentioned can be used in a variety of dishes with different types of flavorings. Cauliflower and carrot are two vegetables that are easily thrown into a recipe without changing the flavor profile.
5. Plant a garden
A cheap and delicious source of food can be your own backyard or patio. If you don’t have a green thumb (like me), you can learn how to grow your own food from Dre Campbell.
This may not be an option for everybody, but if you can plant a garden or even a tomato plant in a large bucket you will increase the amount of produce you are able to eat for a reduced price.
With proper know-how and a few dollars worth of seeds, you can grow a few simple plants that will increase the amount of food that is available to you at a fraction of the cost.
Attempt to grow some leafy greens in a small pot or even in WindowFarms if a tomato plant won’t fit. Just one plant will increase the amount of produce and nutrition in your diet.
What not to buy:
- Oil- this is a waste of money that provides empty calories
- Restaurant food- you not only pay for the food, but also for the waiter, chef and electricity among other things
- Animal products or their replacements- animal products are simply too expensive and their replacements (soy milk, tofu, seitan) can all be made at home at a fraction of the price and twice the taste
- Pre-prepared foods- not canned, frozen or dry; if you want it Spaghettios or Ramen Noodles, make them from scratch