Your Budget-Friendly Guide to Healthy Cooking
Craving a four-star meal, without the price tag of a four-star restaurant? We'll show you how to stretch your grocery dollar and whip up your own tasty recipes at home.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Food is a big part of any household budget, and fixing healthy recipes that taste good can seem like a challenge. But with good nutrition as your first priority, you can put a little planning and bargain hunting to work and end up with some cheap meals that have rich taste. Here’s how to get started.
Start by carefully thinking about your menu, then make a plan and stick to it. You can save money by buying discount food, buying in bulk, and eliminating what you really don’t need or eat. "A great example of a healthy budget food is beans," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, dietitian and nutrition professor at Boston University. "Beans are a great source of protein and fiber. You can add canned beans to a salad or pasta and you have a cheap recipe that is healthy and filling."
Try these other tips when shopping:
- Eliminate junk food.Soda, processed food, desserts, and prepackaged meals tend to be more expensive and less healthy. Cross them off your list.
- Buy in bulk.Dried beans, grains, and canned goods are cheaper in bulk. You can also buy perishable foods like meat, dairy, and bread in bulk and freeze them. Bread from the freezer defrosts quickly and doesn't get moldy.
- Buy frozen produce."Frozen fruits and vegetables retain their nutrients better than those that linger in your refrigerator bins, which can be graveyards for produce. They are less expensive and there is much less waste. Think about all the parts of fresh fruits and vegetables that you cut off before eating," says Blake.
- Think about alternate sources of protein.Protein is an important part of many healthy recipes, but meat is often your most expensive grocery item. Alternate sources of less expensive proteins include canned fish and chicken, beans, eggs, and lentils.
- Take advantage of discounts.Low-budget does not mean poor quality. Clip coupons, shop for discount food at club stores like Costco or Sam's, and use generic store brands if they are cheaper. Farmers markets and ethnic markets are also worth exploring for discount foods.
3 Musts for Cooking on a Budget
In the same way that buying large is less expensive, so is cooking large. You can save money by using some imagination for leftovers and desserts:
- Cook less and get more meals.One-pot dishes like soups, casseroles, and stews can be made in advance and used for more than one meal. Buy the ingredients in bulk and double the recipe if necessary.
- Turn leftovers into new meals.Adding a new ingredient like beans, meat, grain, or cheese to a leftover can give it new life. You can also freeze leftovers and enjoy your meal again next week.
- Make your own desserts.Baking your own cake is much cheaper than store-bought desserts — and you can control the ingredients. You can make healthy recipe desserts by using 100 percent fruit juice to make popsicles, freezing fruit, creating parfaits with yogurt, or mixing up a fruit smoothie.
Keep in mind that there are some foods worth spending extra money on. "There are times when going for quality over quantity makes sense," says Blake. "When buying meat, you are better off with leaner cuts. These may be more expensive, but eliminating saturated fat is worth it. Get a smaller cut and eat more vegetables. Fish is another example. Fish is expensive, but the nutritional value of some fresh fish in your diet is worth the price."
Healthy Recipe Suggestions
Try these three healthy and cheap recipe ideas. Did we mention that they’re delicious, too?
- Cabbage and Chicken Soup. This is a big pot recipe that you can make for both lunch and dinner. The healthy recipe uses lean meat chicken and five vegetables to make a complete meal.
- Garden Vegetable Lasagna. This healthy recipe is a filling meal that gets its protein from low-fat cottage and ricotta cheeses and has plenty of vegetables. You can bring the leftovers back as a side dish later in the week.
- Black Beans With Rice. This is another hearty recipe that you can stretch to more than one meal. You can buy the dried black beans and the rice in bulk. Using beans as your protein source, you get 21 grams of protein per serving – with no cholesterol.
You can stretch your food budget without sacrificing quality, and cheap recipes can be just as hearty and nutritious as expensive ones.
Video: Mayo Clinic Minute: 6 tips to healthy eating on a budget
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