With pizza, burgers, and junk food easily ordered at the click of a button, it’s no wonder we find ourselves with the dual problem of high food costs and low-nutrition diets. But if you’re looking to break the delivery habit, dietitians have shared their insider tips on eating healthy while spending no money. OK, maybe not $0, but certainly less than you’re spending on Seamless.
There are so many other sources of nutritious food that offer a better bang for your buck than traditional health food stores. “Costco is great because you can buy things in bulk, also Thrive Market can be a great way to save money on some of the healthy specialty foods,” says Jessica Jones, registered dietitian of Food Heaven Made Easy. Other alternative sources, such as farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares, help bring down the price of fresh foods, since they have lower costs associated with transportation, storage, and packaging than conventional stores.
Develop a bulk-buying strategy
Buying in bulk is a well-known tip for eating healthy on the cheap, but you lose the cost savings if you lack a strategy for using the ingredients before they expire. Registered dietitian nutritionist Sarah Krieger, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says shopping in the bulk section is worth it for “nutritious foods that a family enjoys in abundance, such as nuts, seeds, and whole grains... Herbs and spices are also great in bulk -- only buy what will be used to avoid waste here too.” Jones also suggests adding brown rice, quinoa, and beans to your bulk list.
Food grown close to home is generally richer in nutrients and lower in cost than fruits and vegetables produced farther away. Krieger says, “Nutrients are lost over time if they are shipped from far away, and the cost is low due to less transportation of the produce.” While more grocery stores are now stocking local produce, farmers markets and produce stands provide some of the cheapest, freshest fruits and vegetables available. The dietitians have a few tips for added savings at farmers markets: arrive fashionably late (some farmers would rather offer discounts on unsold produce than haul it back to the farm at the end of the day), politely ask for lower prices on ripe fruits and vegetables that should be consumed that day, and inquire about bulk prices if you plan to try a recipe that requires a lot of one ingredient, such as tomato sauce.
Be smart about protein
Protein is often the priciest ingredient on the plate, but it doesn’t have to be. Vegetarians have long relied on dried beans as the ultimate cheap protein (coming in at less than $2 per pound). As for meat, Krieger recommends shopping for larger cuts with fat you can trim away at home. Avoid proteins that have been processed and over-packaged, such as frozen chicken nuggets, as these tend to cost more and contain dubious ingredients.
Eat oatmeal for breakfast
When asked for healthy, affordable breakfast options, both dietitians raved about oatmeal for its high levels of fiber, calcium, and potassium. Krieger admits that making hot cereal from quick or whole grains is less convenient than the individual packages, but you’ll save money and have control over the sodium and sugar levels. Plus, you can flavor it exactly to your liking. “Get plain oatmeal and top it off with half of a sliced banana, a tablespoon of peanut butter and cinnamon for more flavor,” Jones suggests.
Snack on popcorn
There’s just something about the quick fix of crunchy, greasy potato chips and other packaged treats that makes budget-conscious, healthy diets fall by the wayside when snacking. Jones has a solution, though: Invest in a popcorn maker, which you can find for about 20 bucks on Amazon. Then, munch without guilt. “A bag of kernels only costs a couple bucks and will last you months. Top your popcorn with dried herbs and spices,” Jones says.
Focus on simple, tasty meals
It’s a myth that healthy food requires complicated recipes and expensive ingredients. The key is to create a meal plan with a few tasty, nutritious staples to make regularly. Jones suggests tacos, which she always makes when guests are coming because they’re very affordable and adaptable to ingredients on hand. Krieger recommends vegetable soup -- if you make the stock from the scraps of vegetables and herbs used in other meals, it feels like you’re getting a free meal.
Substituting water for soda, juice, and energy drinks will provide you the most immediate savings and health benefits, such as regulating body temperature, reducing calorie intake, and aiding digestion. Adding slices of lemon or cucumber to water is Jones’ strategy for adding a burst of flavor to boring old water, at almost no additional cost. Coffee and tea are also acceptable for people who want low-cost diets, but only if you’re not loading them up with a bunch of sweetener.
When you want to eat healthfully while spending no money, you’ll (sadly) need to forgo certain foods. Krieger encourages people to omit deli salads, heat-and-eat meals, and casseroles in the meat section. That means basically any “ready-to-prepare foods that have a short shelf life and are costly due to the convenience.” Jones adds beverages, alcohol, chips, and excessive desserts to the black list, which we can mostly get behind, save for the alcohol.
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Joni Sweet is a freelance writer for Thrillist who still spends way too much money at Whole Foods, despite her best efforts. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @JoniSweet.