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Tips for Healthy Eating on a Budget

Food is a basic element of our physical and financial health. We eat and drink every day, and spend money on eating and drinking almost every day, especially if we're among the increasing number of Americans who goes out for food more often than they stay home. Food accounts for over 16% of total spending for the poorest 20% of Americans, over 13% for the middle 20%, and 11.6% for the highest 20%, making it the leading expense behind housing and transportation.[1] Unlike payments for rent or a mortgage, or for car payments, food spending is flexible and subject to change, making it one of the first targets for families who want to reduce overall spending.

Diet also has a profound influence on health. The average American consumes 450 calories a day more than in 1970, and the proportional increase in obesity, diabetes, and related health problems is well documented.[2] Increasing consumption of heavily processed food, soft drinks, and other items rich in salt and sugar is also a factor, with studies indicating that the quality of the diet is as much a factor in health outcomes as the quantity.[3] Improving our diet and thus our health has a significant impact on health spending and quality of life.

It is easy to say that we should spend less on food and that we should eat better. Is it possible to do both at the same time? The answer is an unqualified yes. It takes some effort, but it can be done, and the gains are more than worth the effort.

Eat at Home
If you are serious about trimming the meal budget, you must consider more home meals and fewer restaurant trips. When you go for restaurant meals, you are paying for the ingredients, the service, workman's comp for the employees, the restaurant's utilities, and more. A home, you are paying for your meal. Whether it's a cup of coffee, a birthday cake, or fine dining, you will pay less to eat at home than you will to go out, every time. Home preparation also gives you full control over the ingredients and processes that you use, and that usually means healthier options.

Even drinking at home can save money. If you're in the habit of having wildly overpriced coffee drinks at name brand chains, consider brewing at home and packing a thermos. Those coffees add up very quickly!

When you do go out, plan to enjoy it. Make it an event. Salads and lean proteins tend to cost more than empty carbs, but when you go out less often, you will save enough to go for better quality when you do. The old strategy of boxing up half of the entrée to take home before you take your first bite of your menu item still works.

Plan Ahead to Save Time
Meals away from home and delivered meals often happen because there was nothing in the house and no time to prepare anything. The demands of preparing regular meals and our busy schedules often make cooking inconvenient, but as with most areas of our lives, we can improve our efficiency with good planning. One proven step is to identify freezer friendly meals that your family likes, and make double portions when you cook them. Freeze the second portion, and the next time you come home late or find yourself in a hurry, you can reach for the freezer instead of the phone or the car keys. Be sure to label each container with the contents and the date!

Planning ahead and cooking freezer meals also lets you buy key ingredients in bulk, and to shop less frequently. If you hit the supermarket with a clear meal plan in hand and a set list of purchases, you're a lot less likely to make impulse purchases. Fewer trips to the store mean less unneeded purchases and less transport expense.

Part of your planning process should be a food diary, where you write down what you eat and drink, and where. Recording what you buy is an integral part of your overall budget process and will give you a much better idea of where you can make positive changes.

Buy Smart
Both at home and away from home, you can trim the budget by being conscious of diet choices. Tally up what specific food groups are costing you the most. Is it fruits and vegetables? Is it meat? What about beverages? Target one group at a time.

For fruits and vegetables, one of your top strategies is to avoid waste. If you routinely find fresh produce that has gone bad in the back of the fridge, consider switching over to canned or frozen alternatives. Plan meals using your fresh produce early in your meal cycle to avoid waste. Keep track of what produce is cheaper at different times of the year, and use what's fresh and cheap.

To limit spending on protein, consider reducing meat consumption. If you currently include meat in nearly every meal, consider instituting a no-meat Monday. If you've already bumped meat from a couple of dinner meals, think about packing a meat-substitute lunch. Keep track of low priced cuts, especially when you can save by buying in bulk and freezing portions. Many cheap cuts adapt well to slow cooker recipes, often in traditional dishes using healthy, filling dried beans. A slow cooker can be a good investment if you often have little time to prepare "real" meals. Another strategy is to stretch meat servings by preparing casseroles, stews, or stir-fries that mix smaller quantities of meat with more vegetables. You may find that purchasing bone-in meat is right for you because you can boil down the last bits stuck to the bone to make a tasty broth to season grains or vegetables.

As a consumer, you need to watch everything from big market trends down to individual purchases. For example, while eggs are assumed to be cheaper than other proteins, 2015 saw the price of eggs soar when Avian flu affected supply. In 2016, when the price of eggs dropped by 35% due to recovery, eggs regained their status as a thrifty, healthy choice.[4] You'll want to have your menu and shopping list planned before shopping. Depending on the variety of retailers in your area, you may be wise to shop around. From your local farmer's market to the colossal warehouse, knowing market value of staples is key to staying on budget. Keep a price book where you record the price per pound or ounce for the family staples. From that baseline figure, you can determine if a sale item is a good buy. Keeping track lets you know if canned, frozen, fresh, or dry foods are most cost effective.

Time-tested shopping strategies include shopping from a list, checking sale fliers, price matching, joining store loyalty programs, clipping coupons, opting for store brands over name brands, and securing a rain check for out-of-stock items. A running list of items that are getting low can save you from running out and bolting to the convenience store on the corner where you'll have to pay higher prices.

Frugal shoppers who want to live healthy opt for monthly shopping trips. When you make the weekly run for perishables, you can go "perimeter shopping." Fruit, vegetables, bread, and dairy items are stocked around the perimeter of most grocery stores while the middle aisles are laden with processed foods. You'll have to shop interior for budget-friendly, healthy staples such as beans, oatmeal, rice, and canned goods on monthly visits, but you can miss those aisles on the in-between shopping trips.

Watch Drinks and Snacks
The average American family spends $384 per year on non-alcoholic drinks (not including milk), $143/year on sugar and sweets and $115 per year on potato chips and other packaged snacks.[5] That's almost $650/year on items like soft drinks and chips that contribute almost nothing to nutrition! When you compare that to the $236/year spent on fresh vegetables and $270/year on fresh fruits, and there's an obvious place to make changes. Substituting plain water for soft drinks and drastically reducing consumption of sweet and salty snacks can save a large chunk of your budget and improve your health at the same time.

The Bottom Line
Eating healthy on a budget requires a plan and the determination it takes to stick to the plan. By eating at home instead of out, swapping out healthy bulk items for convenient single servings, and swapping planned shopping for impulse buying, you'll be making smart changes that show up in both your physical and financial well-being. If it seems like a lot of work, remember the payoffs: better health and more free money. That's a combination that's worth some effort!