The other day, while I was at the gym, I heard someone mention that he tries to eat healthy, but since healthy food is so expensive, he basically lives off of ground turkey and energy bars. Later, while talking with a friend, the subject of food came up and we started talking about how hard it is to have a healthy diet when healthy food costs so much more than “junk” food.
Why does processed food, which has so many ingredients often cost less than real, whole food with only one ingredient? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do have a few solid tips to help you improve the quality of your diet without blowing your grocery budget sky high.
1. Use canned vegetables.
I know, I know, everyone’s been told that canned vegetables are inferior to fresh in almost every way. But, the truth is, some vegetables are better canned. Take tomatoes, for example. Canned tomatoes are already peeled, they come whole, sliced, diced, stewed, pureed, and just about every way in between. Using canned tomatoes is convenient, but it’s also nutritionally beneficial. Lycopene, the major antioxidant in tomatoes, is made more readily available to the body when the tomatoes have been cooked. Similarly, the vitamin A in carrots and corn is greater in the cooked versions of those veggies rather than in the raw version, so you’ll get more vitamin A from canned corn and carrots than from fresh or frozen. The all have the added benefit of being less expensive in their canned forms, as well.
While some canned vegetables are fantastic, not all vegetables take to canning as well as others. As a rule, avoid canned green vegetables. They may be less expensive, but they will lack texture, flavor, and nutrients that make the fresh or frozen versions of those veggies so wonderful.
2. When you do buy fresh produce, buy what’s in season.
Produce that’s in season when you buy it will not only be fresher and less expensive, but it will also taste better. Fresh asparagus is best (and cheapest) in the spring, while fresh Brussels sprouts are best in the fall. For a more comprehensive guide to what’s in season now, check out this great list. Another great way to learn what’s in season and when is to go to a farmers’ market and check out their fresh produce. If they’re selling cucumbers at the farmers’ market, then you can bet that the cucumbers are in season and tasting their best.
3. Make your own veggie sticks
This might be rather obvious, but it’s worth repeating. Carrots and celery are cheap. Baby carrots and pre-cut celery sticks are expensive. If you really want to save some money, buy whole carrots and celery, and cut them into convenient snack sized sticks yourself. Not only will they be less expensive, but they’ll taste better, too.
4. Stretch your meat by adding beans.
Beans are a great, inexpensive way to make a small amount of meat go a long way. Want to make that taco meat feed six or eight people instead of four? Add a can of drained and rinsed black beans to the meat when you add the taco seasoning. The beans will break up as you stir them into the meat, and not only will you have a bigger bowl of taco meat, but you’ve also added some extra fiber to dinner. This is also a great way to sneak some veggies onto the plates of picky eaters.
Of course, you don’t always have to add beans directly to the meat to stretch it. Serve a white bean salad alongside roasted chicken, or add edamame to your next stir-fry. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that beans are also high in carbohydrates, so if you need to watch your carbs for any reason, skip the grains and other starchy vegetables in that meal.
5. Be flexible with your proteins.
Extra lean ground turkey and boneless skinless chicken breast are getting all the love right now because they’re considered the “healthy” option. Now, I love ground turkey, and I certainly eat my fair share of boneless skinless chicken breast, but these two proteins are expensive and aren’t always the best choice for every recipe. Beef, pork, and dark meat chicken are all healthy choices — what matters is how they’re prepared. Look for what’s on sale when you go grocery shopping and plan your meals around that. If beef is on sale, get a nice chuck roast and make a nice pot roast or a big pot of soup. Or serve grilled pork chops with a sweet and sour cole slaw. Roast chicken legs with root vegetables and serve with a quick green salad for an easy weeknight meal. The options are limitless, just as healthy, and a lot more fun when you start exploring the meat section.
6. Grow your own herbs.
Fresh herbs are ridiculously expensive in the grocery store. They’re also extremely easy to grow at home. In the summer, plant herbs in window boxes, in container gardens, or directly in the ground and enjoy them well into the fall. If you want to continue the fun during the winter, all you need is a sunny window or two. Plant your herbs in pots and put them in a sunny spot. All you need to do is give them a little water and trim off what you want to use in your culinary creations. They’re not just cheap and easy to grow at home, but they add tremendous flavor to your food.
Check out this great tutorial on growing herbs at home.
So, it is possible to have a healthy and varied diet without breaking the bank. Do you have any tips for keeping the grocery bills under control? I’d love to hear them in the comments.