Don’t Spend Your Whole Paycheck on Healthy Food. Here’s How to Eat Well on a Budget
If you're a vegetarian, like my wife and I, you know buying plant-based food can get expensive.
But even if you're not a vegetarian, healthy food in general can cost a lot. Especially if you want to eat more organic items or at least lower your processed food intake.
Online lists of cheap healthy food can help you out. For example, a list of inexpensive superfoods in Eating Well Magazine includes lentils at 15 cents per serving and tuna at 48 cents per serving. On SparkPeople, dietitian Becky Hand lists dozens of cheap, healthy foods you can prepare in minutes
But where are the best places to buy these foods? And what strategies can you use to get the lowest prices on healthy foods?
Strategies to Buy Cheap, Healthy Food
Sure, some healthy foods are cheaper than others. But who wants to eat beans and rice all the time?
To buy other healthy foods inexpensively you can shop at the right places -- and we'll get to that -- but you can also adopt a few key strategies.
Stock up When Prices Drop
When they do the two-for-one sales on almonds at CVS stores, I buy the limit. You can do the same with any healthy foods that store well.
Buy Frozen Foods
Grocery store frozen food departments have some of the unhealthiest foods you can buy. But there is a small, mostly forgotten section with plain fruits and vegetables.
More than one study has shown they're often more nutritious than their "fresh" counterparts, in part because they're flash-frozen right out of the field, rather than transported for days while they deteriorate.
They're also often cheaper, especially during the off-season.
Be an Opportunistic Eater
If you’re open to eating a wide variety of healthy foods without having a meal plan set in stone, just buy what's on sale. This week that might be oranges; next week it could be apples.
If, from among the many healthy foods available, you buy mostly what's on sale, you'll have a wide variety of food and dramatically cut your overall grocery budget.
Buy in Season
When corn on the cob is in season, the price often drops by 75%. That's when we buy.
This is another form of opportunistic eating. If you buy things in season, you also get an added advantage: fresher, healthier food.
Places to Buy Cheap, Healthy Food
I saw a loaf of bread for $12 at a health food store the other day. Yikes!
I buy our whole-wheat bread for 99 cents. There are always cheaper places to buy your food if you look. Here are some examples.
Many towns have a discount bread store, and most of them carry whole wheat and other healthy products. These places carry products that are often (but not always) closer to expiration than in regular grocery stores, so check that date.
We buy several loaves at a time and freeze them. They thaw out fine, with no noticeable difference in taste.
The prices at farmers markets are often substantially below the prices in nearby grocery stores. Plus you get fresher, healthier food.
"Fresh" apples in a grocery store are typically a year old, while at a true farmers market they're picked shortly before being sold.
I buy sunflower seeds (raw and roasted) for $1.99 per pound at Trader Joe's. That's cheaper than everyplace else around here, including Walmart.
Trader Joe's carries many cheap healthy foods, including cheese from grass-fed cows for half of what you would pay elsewhere.
You can always get inexpensive fruits and vegetables at Walmart Supercenters or Walmart Neighborhood Markets -- even organic.
It may take a bit of searching and label-reading to find all the other healthy foods in Walmart, but count on low prices.
I've found some items priced 100% higher than identical items at Walmart. On the other hand, there are healthy foods that cost just 20% more.
And when Publix has them as part of its weekly buy-one-get-one-free sales, the net savings is 40% versus buying at Walmart.
I thought Walmart was cheap until an Aldi store opened near us. This unique chain has more than 1,400 stores in the U.S.
To keep costs down, they don't take credit cards (debit cards are OK), there are no free bags (bring your own or buy reusable ones), and they charge 25 cents for a cart (which you get back when you return it).
Watch for one-time special offers on healthy foods at Aldi. For example, here are some of my purchases in the last month or so:
- Grass-fed cheese (8 ounces): $2
- Avocados: $0.25
- Mushrooms (8 ounces): $0.25
- Large seedless watermelon: $1.99
- Whole wheat bread: $0.25
Yes, you read that right -- and there were other deals too. Aldi usually has at least one produce item priced unusually low every week.
One More Trick for Cheap, Healthy Food
If you like to get outdoors and explore the woods, you can do better than inexpensive; you can find free healthy food by foraging.
My wife and I load up on oranges from trees gone wild near us, and we went blueberry picking five times this year. We've eaten and collected as many as a dozen different foods on one hike.
FallingFruit.org has a great search tool for locating wild edibles near you.
Your Turn: Where do you go and what strategies do you use to find cheap healthy food?
Steve Gillman is the author of "101 Weird Ways to Make Money" and creator of EveryWayToMakeMoney.com. He's been a repo-man, walking stick carver, search engine evaluator, house flipper, tram driver, process server, mock juror and roulette croupier, but of more than 100 ways he has made money, writing is his favorite (so far).