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7 Tips for Eating Healthy on a Budget

Healthy eating is very doable without breaking the bank

MyPlate icon

Healthy eating is very doable without breaking the bank

It’s a familiar icon that is widely used to promote healthy eating. The MyPlate icon — introduced nearly a decade ago by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) — features a plate and glass with the names of the five food groups that matter the most in a healthy diet: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. — the USDA’s website for the MyPlate program — is a helpful online tool with the most current information on healthy eating. In fact, it supports the dietary recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal nutrition guide that is updated every five years.

At first glance, one may notice that more than half of the plate in the MyPlate icon is made up of fruits and vegetables. This may seem less than ideal for someone living on a tight budget. But the recommendations in MyPlate are both healthy and budget-conscious.

“Eating several cups per day of fruits and vegetables may initially seem expensive, but there are many ways to fill up half that plate without spending too much,” says Lance Johnson, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Encinitas. “The important thing to remember is that fruits and vegetables provide vitamins and nutrients and can help reduce your risk of certain diseases.”

Check how much from each food group you should be eating based on your calorie allowance.

For a 2,000-calorie diet, an ideal day’s nutrition looks like this:

•   Grains: 6 ounces (3 ounces whole)

•   Vegetables: 2.5 cups

•   Fruits: 2 cups

•   Dairy: 3 cups

•   Protein foods: 5.5 ounces

Follow these tips for healthy eating on a budget:

1. Buy produce in season

Buy in season produce, which are usually less expensive and are at their peak flavor. Apples are most plentiful from June through October, for example, while strawberries overflow in summer months. It’s always more affordable to eat what’s being harvested right now.

For more information on selecting healthy and affordable produce, check out Smart Shopping for Veggies and Fruits.

2. Plan weekly meals and stick to your shopping list

Deciding beforehand what to put on the table for the week ahead can help you decide what to put in the shopping cart. Make sure to stick to your list so you’re buying only what you need. MyPlate provides a worksheet to Create a Grocery Game Plan to help you decide what items to buy.

Look over what you already have in the refrigerator and cabinets. Remember to use up the most perishable items before they pass their peak. Plan to use leftovers.

3. Think frozen and canned

Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables last much longer than fresh produce and provide a quick way to add them to your meal. Stock up on them when you find them on sale so they’re always on hand.

“Look for frozen vegetables without added sauces, gravies, butter, or cream and packaged fruits that do not have added sugars,” Dr. Johnson recommends.

4. Be realistic, not idealistic

If you know your family won’t devour that half plate if it’s covered in zucchini and broccoli, stick to “safer” items you already know they enjoy, like a big salad made from cucumbers, tomatoes and artichoke hearts.

“Create a list of recipes to try that are healthy and low-cost and that you know your family enjoys,” Dr. Johnson advises.

Check What's Cooking? USDA Mixing Bowl for healthy recipes that you can make at home.

5. Cut down on — or stop — eating out

Lack of time to prepare meals is often the main reason for eating out. If that’s the case, create a list of fast, simple healthy recipes that you can prepare at a moment’s notice at home. “These are healthy meals you can prepare in advance to heat and serve on your busiest days,” Dr. Johnson says.

Remember that meals you prepare at home cost just a fraction of the price for a large meal that may be over salted or fat saturated but that you can easily find and buy at many fast-food restaurants. Dedicate the dollars you save to fresh, healthy choices at the grocers.

6. Less protein leaves more $ for produce

The daily recommended amount of protein — including meat — in a 2,000-calorie diet is just 5.5 ounces. If you like meat, look for lean meats. Ground beef should at least be 92 percent lean and 8 percent fat.

Vary your protein choices and make sure to include seafood as the main protein food at least twice a week. Seafoods are more reasonably priced when you adjust portion sizes.

Nuts, beans and soy product can easily fulfill protein requirements. They are also much more affordable than prime cuts of beef.

7. Shop outside the big box

Farmer’s markets, farm stands and ethnic and specialty markets frequently sell freshly harvested produce at a low cost. Check the National Farmers Market Directory for locations near you. “Much of learning to eat healthy on a budget involves simply planning ahead and learning new shopping habits,” Dr. Johnson says. “Once they become ingrained, you may be surprised by how much you save in both time and money.”