When you have a tight budget, meal planning and grocery shopping has its challenges. When you have a tight budget and you're dedicated to eating healthfully, it's even trickier.
We've talked about each of these topics quite a bit in the past, and every time, our readers respond with loads of great tips and suggestions. So we decided to round up the best tidbits of advice.
Here are 10 of your smartest tips that make eating well when you're strapped for cash feel like a piece of cake (or a kale salad!).
1. Buy fresh produce when it's in season and freeze it.
Fresh produce is always great, but the cost can add up fast. Stick with buying what's currently in season and consider stocking up when you find a good deal.
In the summer I will buy three or four dozen ears of corn when it is two ears for a dollar (or less). You can cut it from the ear and freeze it in bags, or freeze it whole (though the former takes up less freezer space). Then you have (really great tasting) corn for cheap for several months. Same goes with other vegetables.
If your local grocery store offers a savings card, be sure to sign up and check the weekly circular to see what's on sale. Instead of shopping for groceries based on your weekly meal plan, consider planning your meals around what's on sale.
If the store you usually shop at has a weekly circular my best piece of advice is to check it every week and plan your meals around what's on sale. This has saved me so much money lately. It can also force you to get creative and maybe try some items or dishes you've never had.
If you do not like prep I strongly recommend watching for sales on frozen vegetables. Here we sometimes get 10 for $10 sales on frozen vegetables, so I always stock up on onions, bell peppers, carrots, and peas. Makes it super easy to make something healthy.
3. Try less expensive cuts of meat.
You can still enjoy meat when you're on a tight budget. Look for less expensive cuts of meat, like chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts, and try different cooking methods, like the slow cooker, to make tougher cuts of meat tender and juicy.
If you're a meat-eater, learn to love cheaper cuts! Bone-in, skin-on, tougher cuts of red meat, and organ meats are all dirt-cheap (and more nutritious and flavourful!) compared to, say, boneless skinless chicken breasts, even if you're buying the organic/free-range stuff. Don't be afraid of (good-quality) fat, especially if you're trying to lose weight!
The Crock-pot does an amazing job of taking cheap cuts of meat (pork shoulder, chuck roast, etc) and making them tender and juicy.
Look for cheaper cuts such as lamb neck fillets, pork belly and cheeks, shin of beef, whole chickens that will yield enough for leftovers, plus a carcass for soup or congee, chicken livers, gizzard, etc. Perhaps borrow a book from the library that will show you the techniques for bringing out the best from these cuts.
4. Embrace whole grains and beans.
Beans and whole grains, like quinoa, freekeh, and brown rice, are an inexpensive and tasty way to bulk up meals and can even be a meal in themselves.
I use black beans to stretch my meat. You can spend $15 and get the ingredients to make chili which will last for one person, 10 meals. I mix (cooked) black beans with ground turkey and make turkey burgers using that.
Whole grains can really bulk up a meal and make it more filling and they're generally on the cheaper side. Buy a package of wheat berries, whole wheat couscous, cook it up and freeze it in single portions to throw into salads or soups when you need them. The whole grains will also keep you full longer and may help aid in your weight loss efforts.
5. Plan and prep meals ahead.
Whether it's veggies for the week, or tomorrow's breakfast, prepping food in advance is a step in the right direction towards eating healthfully. Plus, it's also a good way to make sure you're eating what's in the fridge, to minimize waste.
I spend some time every weekend planning my meals for the week. I don't mind eating leftovers so I plan on eating the same thing several times. I try to at least get my lunches prepped on Sunday so I'm starting the week off right. Then I might make something to eat on Monday night for dinner and eat that several times as well.
I can cook two meals on Sunday night, package them up in portable containers and be set for lunch and dinner all week — with just one night of cooking. (This only works if you don't mind eating the same thing every day - and I've learned it's important to stick with what you like or outside temptations will be everywhere!!!) But it's great to save time and money!
6. Broaden your culinary horizons.
Cuisines like Mexican and Indian rely heavily on inexpensive ingredients, like beans and rice.
If you don't like Indian or Mexican food, learn to. From my experience it's the best value to flavor ratio. In both cuisines, rice is a staple, which is cheap. Both are not meat heavy, which is also cheap. Both also allow a lot of ingredients to be used interchangeably. Less waste which equals cheap.
If you like Mexican food, you could do burritos filled with anything you like. Or you can do a tortilla-less version of huevos rancheros that I often make for dinner. Very filling, loads of protein and fiber.
7. Keep an organized fridge and pantry.
Leftovers are always great, but it totally defeats the purpose if they get lost in the back of the fridge. Label leftovers and keep your fridge organized to help minimize food waste.
Waste of leftovers or frozen food can be minimized by keeping an orderly fridge/freezer and by labeling. I use a strip of masking tape and a Sharpie to identify food and date on the container. Package foods in amounts you will use, such as freezing chicken pieces by twos and hamburger in patties separately wrapped. Keeping a list of items in the fridge also sounds useful but I admit I've never been able to stick with that one.
If you freeze stuff, make sure you periodically go through your freezer and eat everything in there. Sometimes I forget this step, but my wallet and my evening hours benefit when I use up all my frozen food!
8. Repurpose leftovers.
If you don't like eating the same meal over and over, consider repurposing leftovers into an entirely new and delicious meal.
Last night I made a garlicky spinach and white bean soup with leftovers from a rotisserie chicken. It made a really delicious soup that was simply lovely with toasted bread.
Things that you can make into a sandwich later work well (poached chicken, meatballs, meatloaf, roast beef/pork/chicken). When whole chickens are on sale I buy two and cook them both. The first night is roast chicken and then I can make sandwiches, soup, pot pie, throw some in fried rice...you can really stretch a couple of chickens and make a lot of portable options.
Find the day when you can do some prep cooking and do a roast, then portion it out, make soup etc. to last you the rest of the week.
9. Go to the farmers market at the end of the day.
Depending on where you live, farmers markets may or may not save you money during regular hours. Consider visiting the market at the end of the day, when you could very likely score some great deals.
My best tip: When I was on a *really* limited budget, I would go to the public market/ farmer's market about an hour before they closed.
You can get some very good bargains on produce that way, since the sellers want to unload as much as possible before they close up for the day. (And sometimes, they'll throw in a little extra just to be nice!)
10. Shop at ethnic markets.
Consider checking out local ethnic markets. Not only are you likely to find a bargain on certain products, but you'll also find some really interesting ingredients.
You can buy really varied, interesting, cheap noodles in an Asian market. I never buy rice noodles in a supermarket - they're very overpriced. That goes for just about any condiments/sauces for Asian meals. Go to an Asian grocer and stock up. The produce is usually cheaper too. One of my Asian stores has really fresh fish and meat. Just know the store and ask about it.
Ethnic supermarkets (chinese, greek, lebanese, etc) are a great source for good value interesting ingredients.
What are your best tips for eating healthfully on a super-tight budget?