When you're trying to eat right, planning healthy budget meals can seem like a challenge, but it doesn't have to be. "There are plenty of nutritious foods at the grocery store that don't cost a lot of money — you just need to know where to look for them," says Melody Steeples, MPH, RD, from Woodland Clinic Medical Group, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation. These top picks can help you eat right and shrink your grocery bill at the same time.
Eating peaches or plums in the winter may sound nutritious, but it can be pricey. Shopping smartly can make it more affordable.
"Choose produce that's in season so that it's not being flown in from another part of the world," says Steeples. Think apples, pears, and citrus in fall and winter, strawberries in springtime, and stone fruits, such as peaches, plums, and cherries, in summer. As an added bonus to saving you money, the fresher produce will taste better, too.
Meat, Chicken, and Fish
When it comes to trimming your grocery bill, weekly store specials can be your best friend, says Steeples. Instead of winging it when you go to the supermarket, scour the store's weekly ads to see what's on sale. Then stock up on a few extra portions to stash in your freezer, where most red meat will stay fresh for at least four months, and poultry will last for nine months.
Beans: Beans could be the cheapest form of protein on store shelves. Plus, they're packed with good-for-you fiber. While dried beans are the thriftiest option, canned beans are also a great choice when you're pressed for time. If sodium-free varieties are too expensive, try rinsing regular canned beans to remove 40 percent of their sodium.
Canned tuna and salmon: Fish is one of the very best foods for heart health, yet few of us eat enough of it. Canned tuna and salmon make getting your fish fix easy. The canned versions are packed with high-quality protein and heart-friendly omega-3 fats, but for a fraction of the cost of fresh fish. Plus, they're a breeze to toss into salads, pasta, or fish cakes.
Canned tomatoes: Fresh tomatoes can be expensive in the dead of winter, not to mention tasteless. Enter canned tomatoes. They're bursting with flavor, and they have a long shelf life so you won't have to worry that they'll spoil before you can use them. Heat from the canning process also makes their lycopene, an antioxidant that may protect against prostate cancer, easier to absorb.
You might have heard that the perimeter of the supermarket is where you'll find the healthiest eats. However, that's not always the case. The inner aisles also contain nutrient-packed, budget-friendly picks like whole-wheat pasta, couscous, quinoa, and instant brown rice. Ready in 15 minutes or less, these wholesome grains are a lot less expensive — and faster to make — than getting takeout on a busy weeknight.
Sure, the freezer aisle can be packed with fat- and sodium-heavy frozen dinners. However, it's also filled with gems such as frozen fruits and vegetables that are top choices when you need strawberries for smoothies or spinach that's already cleaned and chopped. Look for varieties that are free of added sauces, sugars, and sodium.
When you're buying highly perishable foods, proper storage can save you a lot of money. Take dairy, for example. Even though hard cheeses only stay fresh in your fridge for three to four weeks after you've unwrapped them, they can last in your freezer for up to six months. You can also pop unopened containers of yogurt in the freezer and they'll be fine for at least a month. The same goes for milk, which you can freeze for three months, so go ahead and buy a big jug if it's less expensive. Buy eggs in bulk, too. You'll save money and they'll stay perfectly fresh for about a month in your fridge.
What to Avoid
When you're shopping for healthy budget meals, keep in mind that there are many foods that sound healthy but aren't. Steer clear of sweetened yogurt, granola bars, reduced-fat chips, and baked crackers. "If you're foregoing fruits, vegetables, and other wholesome whole foods for these seemingly healthier snacks, you're not doing yourself or your budget any favors," says Steeples.