As soon as someone finds out I’m a dietitian, they do one of two things: ask me nutrition questions or complain to me about the difficulties of healthy eating. One of the complaints I hear most often is that healthy food is “so expensive.”
Whenever that subject comes up, I try to reassure the naysayer that eating healthy on a budget is totally doable with a little bit of planning and know-how. But if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to make food budget mistakes and watch those bills add up. Luckily, we’ve got the quick fixes to help you save your money while still eating healthy (without having to channel your coupon-mad grandma.
Mistake No. 1: Buying Produce Without a Plan
Let’s be honest: Sometimes the pretty colors and unique shapes of produce lures you in. “Why yes, I do need this $3 dragon fruit for my fruit bowl.” No, you don’t—stick with more practical produce that you know you will eat. Or if you’re not sure what’s on your weekly menu, stick with heartier produce picks that won’t go bad quickly, like root veggies, hearty winter greens, squash, potatoes, apples, and citrus fruits.
Mistake No. 2: Frequenting Convenience Stores for Snacks
Do you buy a $2 mini bag of nuts at the convenience store for your afternoon snack? You might as well start lighting your money on fire right now. Just because convenience store snacks are small and, well, convenient, doesn't always mean they're cheap. Actually, they're even more expensive when you opt for single-size portions.
Buy nuts and dried fruit from the bulk section at your local supermarket for a more economical option. If pretzels or chips are more your jam, purchase them online (Target, Walmart, and Jet.com have competitive prices and free shipping on larger orders) and pack your snacks to bring with you on the go.
Mistake No. 3: Buying Foods Out of Season
If you’re buying blueberries in the dead of winter, not only will they taste like crap, they will also cost you an arm and a leg. To save money, try to have a basic understanding of which foods are harvested when. This guide by the USDA is a helpful tool for picking produce that's in season, tastes more flavorful, and is easier on your wallet.
Mistake No. 4: Ignoring Frozen Foods
We’ve been told so many times to shop the perimeter of the supermarket, but it’s time to start ignoring that outdated rec. The frozen aisle actually offers a ton of healthy goodies, like frozen fruits and veggies. Not only are these items picked and immediately frozen to lock in nutrients, but they are usually much cheaper than fresh produce. And if you really can’t live without your blueberries in the winter, this is a good way to get them.
Mistake No. 5: Thinking Canned Foods Are Gross
Some foods just shouldn’t come in a can (we’re looking at you, sugary canned peaches), but other canned varieties are low-cost nutritious options. Canned beans and tomatoes are usually available in low- or no-salt varieties and come in BPA-free cans. For less than a few bucks, you can pick up some canned plant-based protein for taco night or canned tomatoes for Italian night. The best part is that these cans will stay good for months, so even if you end up going out for Taco Tuesday, your beans will be waiting the next time you want to cook at home.
Mistake No. 6: Throwing Away Produce That's Going Bad
When your bananas are brown or your avocados have gotten mushy, the natural reaction is to trash them. Not so fast! That overripe fruit makes a great addition to smoothies or baked goods (or even face masks). If you don’t want to use it right away, peel the fruit, store it in an airtight container, and freeze it until you’re ready. The same goes for wilted lettuce or soft veggies. Add them to a stir-fry or soup, or prep and freeze for later.
Mistake No. 7: Shopping Without a List
We’ve all been there. You go to the grocery store without a list and come home with a head of kale, a few apples, a box of cereal, a tub of hummus, a can of black beans, and a carton of ice cream. You get home to realize kale, apples, and beans don't make the best combo, so then you immediately order takeout. Before you head out to the store, survey your cabinets for pantry staples. If you’ve got taco shells and salsa on hand, add some taco fixings to your list and don’t stray from there.
Mistake No. 8: Purchasing Bottled Water
We wish we invented bottled water. “Hey, let’s take this stuff that comes from the tap, put it in a bottle, and charge for it.” Genius! In reality, although not everyone has the cleanest drinking water, there are cheaper alternatives to bottled water. The first option is a Brita pitcher to filter impurities out of your tap water. And the second, easier option is using a recyclable water bottle. Most large offices and public places have filtered drinking fountains, and Hydroflask makes super-cute bottles that keep your water cold for hours on end.
Mistake No. 9: Opting for Organic Only
Organic Gatorade, anyone? No? Bueller? You can find almost everything in an organic variety these days (yes, organic Gatorade exists). Certain studies show that organic produce may have slightly more nutrients than the conventional variety, but that doesn’t mean you should skip produce altogether if you can’t afford the organic variety. Eating any produce, even the conventional kind, is much better than eating none (just be sure to give them a good rinse before diving in). As for organic packaged goods, some products are more worth it than others.
Mistake No. 10: Going With the Name Brand Every Time
If there’s one thing you should’ve learned from over-the-counter medicine, it’s that name brands aren’t always better. Flip the package over and you’ll find the pharmacy brand ingredients are EXACTLY THE SAME as the name brand and usually cost a few bucks less. The same goes for some common pantry staples, like oats, rice, and beans. Go with the cheapest option and buy yourself a fancy latte with the money you saved. You deserve it.