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Healthy Food Options on a Budget

Healthy Eating on a Budget

When you can’t afford to eat healthy…

Whole Foods is often called “Whole Paycheck” for a reason. It can be quite difficult to purchase fresh produce, organic meats, and other specialty items from Whole Foods and other specialty health food stores without forking out a pretty penny. For some, purchasing the majority of grocery items at such stores isn’t economically feasible. When the choice is between having enough food to last until the next paycheck and choosing organic, we’re all going to find a way to stretch our money to make the food last.

Yes, organic healthy products tend to cost more. Yes, you can easily fill up your grocery cart with processed foods (bologna, white bread, donuts, chips, cookies, hot dogs, etc) for very little money. The misconception is that you have to be at one end of the extreme or the other. You don’t! Here’s the thing, countless research shows that consumption of processed foods (like those mentioned above) increases risk of obesity and other chronic diseases such as Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. There’s no way around it. Processed foods have been stripped of their nutrients (sometimes they’re put back in through fortification) and are far from their original state. They are full of simple carbohydrates, which break down to sugar. With minimal fiber or protein to slow the digestion process, they hit your bloodstream almost immediately causing blood sugar spikes followed by crashes. These fluctuations lead to inflammation by increasing levels of inflammatory messengers called cytokines.

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Healthy Food Options on a Budget!

Why does inflammation matter?

According to Harvard Health Publications, The purpose of inflammation is to defend the body against bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders, to remove debris, and to help repair damaged tissue. It becomes a problem when, inside arteries, inflammation can lead to atherosclerosis and it even influence the formation of artery-blocking clots, the ultimate cause of heart attacks and many strokes.

Many other foods besides sodas, breads, pastries, and other simple carbs/sugars contribute to inflammation. These include saturated fats (pizza, burgers), omega-6 containing food items (corn, soy, peanut oil) and salad dressings. Frozen dinners, boxed macaroni and cheese, and the like also are culprits.

I realize that many of you already know processed foods are “bad”, but I want to make sure you realize how detrimental to your health they truly are. Food can be medicine and food can be poison. Packaged, processed foods truly act like poison in your body.

Now that we have that clear, let’s talk about how you CAN afford to eat healthy.

Animal Protein:

  • Organic meats tend to have higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids well as less antibiotics and hormones. Thankfully, discount retailers such as Costco and Walmart offer more affordable organic meat options such as organic ground turkey, organic ground beef and whole organic chickens. Nutritionally, aside from the omega-3 content, there isn’t that much of a difference between organic and conventional meat. However, organic vs conventional is still a relatively new concept, so future research might reveal otherwise.
  • Non-Organic Meats: If those are still too pricey, don’t throw in the towel. Conventional meats are still rich in B Vitamins, protein, iron and zinc. Choosing protein will keep you more satisfied than a carbohydrate-rich meal. Choose leaner cuts of meat or trim the fat when possible (hormones and toxins are stored in fat so this helps reduce). Choose chicken thighs instead of chicken breast. They are less expensive, higher in iron, and far more flavorful! Chuck roast and other stew meats cook down nice and tender in a hearty stew and make for an inexpensive, filling meal. Canned chicken or pork works well for soups or casseroles. Meat also tends to be less expensive when purchased in bulk portions. Split up into smaller portions and freeze the rest.
  • Wild game. This is truly as “organic” as you can get! If you are a hunter or have friends who hunt, take advantage of nutrient-packed moose, dear, bison, caribou, elk, etc.


  • Organic vs Conventional. The main reason that people choose organic produce over conventional is the pesticide content. Organic produce has far fewer pesticides due to the growing methods. Nutritionally, however, studies show that vitamin/mineral content is pretty much the same. Costco carries various organic produce that is far less expensive than in a regular grocery store.
  • Ugly Produce”- If you don’t have access to Costco, many regular grocery stores sell “ugly produce” at a discounted price. They might have bumps/bruises or have an irregular shape, but the taste and nutrient-content is just the same!
  • Frozen. One of the main reasons that purchase of fresh produce seems like a waste of money is that it goes bad before being used. An easy way to solve this problem is to buy frozen! Squash, broccoli, kale, berries, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cherries, you name it! Frozen fruits and vegetables are flash frozen at their peak stage of ripeness sealing in nutrients so you don’t have to worry about lower-nutrient quality.
  • Local. Unfortunately, farmer’s markets and always the “bargain” that they used to be. Thankfully, most grocery stores have begun offering locally grown produce. Local = less time in transit = fresher = more nutrients and better taste! These items are generally far less expensive.

Beans/legumes and lentils:

Dried varieties are extremely cost effective. For a very low cost, a bag of dried beans can feed your family for days. Prepare a large quantity and freeze a portion for later use. If you prefer to go the canned route, that’s fine! Rinse the beans before consuming to reduce the amount of sodium. Beans provide a plant-based protein source as well as complex carbohydrates, fiber, and iron. To make your meat dishes go farther, sub half the meat for beans. Chili, bean soup, vegetarian tacos, and stews are all healthy, inexpensive meal options.


Avoid buying individual packs, as you get relatively little for the cost. Instead, head to the bulk section of your grocery store. This allows you to choose a variety without paying a premium. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are often less expensive than almonds and walnuts, yet they still provide a good source of protein, healthy fats and fiber. Instead of potato chips or pretzels, snack on these!

Nut/seed butter:

Almond butter, peanut butter, sunflower seed butter, etc are all easy ways to add healthy fat and some protein to your breakfast. All grocery stores have their own generic brands. Skip paying the brand name price and go for generic. To avoid unnecessary hydrogenated oils and added sugars, choose their “all natural” option. Instead of cereal (which is more expensive), have whole grain toast with peanut butter. I guarantee it will keep you satisfied longer (thus saving you more money b/c you end up eating less ).

Whole grains:

Oats, rice (brown, wild, basmati, etc), millet, amaranth, can all be purchased in the bulk section as well. Though initially, it might not seem convenient, it really doesn’t take much to prepare these items yourself instead of getting the boxed varieties. The boxed/packaged versions often have added preservatives and fillers. As with beans, these can be prepared in large batches. Take one day to prepare them, then use throughout the week as the complex carbohydrate portion of your main meals!


Fish is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids and protein. Fresh (and frozen) varieties can be quite pricey. Canned tuna, salmon, and sardines still provide the heart-healthy benefits of omega-3 fatty acids as well as protein for a fraction of the price.

Ethnic Markets:

These places are jackpots for inexpensive spices, produce, and sometimes meat/fish. Purchase curry pastes, soy sauce, Sriracha, chili paste as well as anti-inflammatory spices such as ginger and turmeric for a very low cost. These last for a long time and add variety to meals.

Cook Healthy at HOME:

This might seem obvious, but I’m serious. The $5 spent on a burger, fries, and a soda could have made a bean chili to last all week. If time (or lack thereof) is an issue, allocate ONE day of the week to batch cook. Then you have ready-made meals in pinch. This applies to your lunch as well. Instead of running out of the office for a quick bite (that isn’t friendly to your waistline), bring leftovers from dinner. That alone could save you $35- $50 per week = $140-$200 per month.

Plan and Stick to your List of Healthy Options:

The saying “If you fail to plan you plan to fail” is true. I know that when I go into the grocery store without a list or an idea of what I’m making, I walk out with far more than I need. Before you go to the grocery store, plan out your meals for the week. It doesn’t have to be extravagant (tacos, chili, baked potato with chicken, etc). This way, you can go right to what you need and not get enticed into buying things you don’t.

Ditch the beverages/treats:

Resist the urge to go to Starbucks or even 7-Eleven. Stop purchasing the soda from the vending machine. Even if your coffee just cost $1 per day, that’s $30/month that could go towards high quality healthy protein to fill your freezer. Make coffee at home and tea at home and bring them with you to work.

Take advantage of sales of healthy options:

Clip coupons and when a sale comes along, stock up. Especially when it’s on meat. Freeze what you don’t need.

Think beyond the initial price tag. How long does a bag of chips keep you satisfied vs toast with peanut butter? If the toast with peanut butter actually satisfies your hunger, you’ll end up eating less overall and by default, spend less on food.

By reducing intake of processed foods and eating healthy, you decrease risk of chronic disease, which means you’re less likely to have to fork out money for visits to your doctor and long-term medication for disease management.


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Danielle Crumble Smith

Danielle is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist currently living in Colorado though she is originally from TN and has lived in AK, CA, and NV. She and her husband, Colton, have two crazy dogs and are expecting twins in August. She received her degree in Nutrition, Dietetics and Food Science from California State University at Northridge and has since worked in a variety of roles as Dietitian over the past 7 years. Danielle has experience working in both clinical inpatient settings as well as outpatient. Her client/patient population has spanned from individuals with Food Allergies, Gastrointestinal Disorders, Eating Disorders, Autoimmune conditions, Diabetes, Kidney Disease, Sports Performance and Weight Management. In her free time, Danielle loves hiking with her husband, having FaceTime dates with family and doing anything outside!




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