7 super-easy ways to eat healthier food on a budget

Guest post by Knitty Kitty
Make healthier food choices, and then make ’em in bulk! (Photo by: blair_25CC BY 2.0)

Recently I decided that I should probably stop eating lunch from the fast food place across the road from where I work and that existing solely on oven fries and breaded chicken did not a happy Kitty make. Along the way I found some quick and easy things that I could do to improve the quality of my food whilst still being on a tight budget.

(Psst: I know a lot of Homies are from the US and Canada. I’m British and a lot of the names we give to foods are a bit different. I’ve tried to stick to US English names for things but forgive me if I’ve forgotten a few!)

1. Bulk

It sounds simple but adding healthy bulk to meals makes them much more filling and stretches ingredients like meat (expensive and not the healthiest thing sometimes) much, much further. I add bulk to things like curries, stews, and pasta dishes with frozen vegetables and dried legumes. A bolognese with an extra carrot chopped in and some frozen peas and sweetcorn is awesome (I actually prefer it) and a lamb curry with half the meat replaced with squash or pumpkin chunks is tasty as hell. Lentils are great for adding to most things and are really filling, too.

Bonus: By adding more veg you get tons of delicious vitamins and minerals with nearly zero extra effort!

2. Complex Carbs

Replacing things like white rice and pasta with brown is easy, and means that your meals are healthier and more filling too, because all that extra fibre fills up your stomach. I’m not a huge fan of the texture of brown rice and pasta, so I tend to do it 50/50 with white. Just remember that brown takes longer to cook and adjust accordingly.

3. Have a plan

Yes, I know… every healthy-eating-advice thing EVER says to “have a plan.” But it really does make a difference.

4. Cook in big batches

If I’m already cooking something in a pan I figure I may as well make extra, and save myself the hassle of cooking later in the week. I tend to build meal plans around making enough of things to have two meals of it, or even three if I really like it. Then later on in the week when I’m feeling tired and lazy I just need to re-heat something healthy in the microwave — just like a ready-meal but without all the extra junk.

5. Cook once a week

This kinda ties in to number four, but I tend to cook all of my big stuff on one day (normally a Sunday for some reason). I really meant it when I said that I’m lazy about cooking but I find I can motivate myself for one epic cooking marathon, and then not have to cook at all for the whole week. If you make truly incredible amounts of something, then you can freeze half to have in a couple of weeks, or in emergencies.

6. Make lunch

Another cliché, I’m afraid, but it really does help. I’m lucky enough to have access to a fridge and a microwave at work so I can be pretty flexible with what a I take for lunch. Obviously, if you don’t have those facilities, then you will need to be even more organized with your planning. When I do my epic cooking marathon I also make one HUGE stock pot full of soup, and then just take a portion to work every day. This works because I don’t mind eating leek and potato soup every day for a week, but if you find you get bored easily then you could always make two smaller soups and alternate them. I’ve also found that homemade dips and crackers or veg sticks works well if I’m sick to high heaven of soup.

7. Snacks

Snacks are important, particularly if you’re doing something active during the day. Do not neglect the snacks. Nuts and dried fruit are good, so are raw veggies. There are some awesome recipes out there for homemade vegetable chips. My favourite is to rub kale leaves with olive oil and sea salt and then bake in the oven until crispy.

Obviously there are loads more things that you could do but these are the things that I’ve found really work for me.

I’m always trying to pick up more tips, so please share anything you’ve found helpful below!

Comments on 7 super-easy ways to eat healthier food on a budget

  1. I definitely do most of my cooking on the weekends. I make a big batch of soup, a marinated salad, hand pies, or dumplings to take in my lunches. I also cook a bunch of pasta and rice and bake some chicken breasts (rub with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and garlic). Then I can use those things as base ingredients for meals later in the week. Pasta or rice, frozen veggies, chicken, and jarred sauce can go in the microwave on nights when I’m really busy/tired. And when I’ve got the time to make something more complicated, I still have less work and fewer dishes to do!

    I’ve also found that making grocery shopping a priority keeps me eating healthier. It probably fits under “have a plan,” but on busy weeks it’s easy to go several days with almost nothing in the fridge only to realize I’ve been subsisting on take away and vending machine food. 🙁

    • For the soup thing, you can totally do a double batch of soup the first time to put 4-5 bowls in the freezer, then a double batch of a second soup, and then start doing single batches after that. It gives you the ability to rotate through your options so that after the first couple weeks, you barely have to take the same soup twice. I also recommend having say 5 flavor profiles of soup, and not duplicating any that you have stocked. So for example, if you have potato leek soup already, don’t make clam chowder or loaded baked potato soup until you eat all the potato leek. And I would stick to one “pretty out there” flavor at a time (like a carrot ginger or curried pumpkin), because it’s probably the one that you have to be “in the mood” for so you will reach for it less often.

      I like to do the same thing with casseroles. When it was my partner and I cooking for his parents, we would boil pasta in the big stock pot (with inset strainer so you pull the pasta out instead of dumping the water off) and do enough elbow mac for three loaf pans with broccoli mac & cheese (it’s baked mac & cheese with a layer of broccoli in the middle) as well as a batch of penne for pasta salad, and enough for another pasta-based casserole or dinner later in the week. I could even steam the broccoli & any other veggies we needed over the pasta as it boiled. It meant making literally four 4-person dinners and 6 servings of lunch out of one gallon of water; then we let the water cool & poured it in the garden because fruiting plants LOVE the starches. Unless we were making a stew anyway, in which case we could use it as part of the stock.

      I definitely enjoyed having food prep days. We would plan the menu on Sunday, planning for using up whatever we could for a Monday dinner. Go shopping on Tuesday (which with two disabled people going shopping meant we were always out of Spoons at the end of it so we did a pre-prepped casserole or crockpot dinner, or else we were ordering takeout). Food prep Wednesday because the mister works in the restaurant industry and for the last 4.5 years I’ve known him in 12 jobs that’s been his most common day off. So we’d figure out how many onions we needed and chop them all at once, grate cheese for the week (which with the Kitchenaid grater attachment meant it took 5 minutes to do 4 lbs of cheese and we’d either slice the rest or leave it in a chunk for slicing later), wash & chop other veggies, wash fruits for snacks & lunches, and make a pasta salad which was great for fast lunches or midnight snacks. It took less than 2 hours if we could both do it, closer to 3 or 4 if I was having a bad day and he had to do it himself, but I would make a prep list and mark passive vs. active tasks* to maximize time–and I could do that while planning the menu so it didn’t add any significant time to make that prep list at the same time as the menu & shopping list.

      One of my rules is that produce or a really good sale on something we eat anyway is the only reason to deviate from the list. Sure, it means sometimes there’s a little extra produce going to the compost, but it also means that I can reach for peaches instead of ice cream and the old people would grab a pear or nuts instead of candy because if it wasn’t on the list, it didn’t come home. It’s been the rule I’ve had since I used it to keep my dad in check when I was a little kid, and it’s served me well as an adult. If I want treats, I’d better plan ahead for them! Or decide that a nice, ripe peach is a treat!

      • What do you freeze your soups in and how do you thaw them? Do you do individual serving sized tupperware, and does it just heat up well in a microwave?

        • While certainly not private, that’s a surprisingly personal question. How you choose to do it will have a lot to do with your budget, values, and routines.

          For space and best quality as far as freezer-burn goes, the best bet is going to be ziplock bags. Get the good kind with a double lock (NOT the ones with the zip-tabs), fill with the amount of *cooled* soup you want (one serving, two, four, whatever) up to about 3/4 of the bag while it’s sitting on its bottom, and zip, getting as much air out as possible. Lay in a stack in the freezer and it takes up the least amount of space. However, this means thawing in the fridge overnight before transferring to a dish for transporting & reheating. If you’re reheating at home, you can just drop the bag into a pan of simmering water or peel the bag off & reheat with some water (which is great if you freeze the soups rather thick, as it takes up less space). And honestly I’ve also reheated them by putting the de-bagged frozen brick in the crackpot and coming back a couple hours later to hot soup.

          If you have a microwave at school/work you can freeze & take it in “tupperware.” Where tupperware is defined as anything plastic from dollar store SureFresh to actual, you know, Tupperware. It can replace an ice pack that way which is nice, also you don’t have to plan ahead as much–just wake up and say, I feel like THIS soup today (great for eaters with chronic illness who have tummy issues or food triggers). You have to leave a gap for expansion during freezing and again during microwaving, and that gap means the food can freezer burn faster–so it’s not a great storage solution, long-term, but for 3 months or so you’re probably alright. Again, you can thaw overnight if you wish but if your container isn’t entirely liquid-sealed, you might want it to be frozen during your commute. To reheat, I recommend using half-power or the defrost option until it’s thawed, then the full power for a minute, stir, and repeat until hot. Make sure you reheat thoroughly; if you have potato chunks, or meat chunks, your best bet is to reheat at full power for a minute, let sit for a minute, heat for a minute, rest for a minute, then stir and check for how much longer you might need. When done, let sit for a couple minutes and check the temp again before you down the whole thing. That method lets the heat penetrate the chunks and thus cools the broth back down as the heat equalizes. Make sure you get it nice and piping hot, so you don’t give yourself food poisoning!

          However, those are plastic and some people don’t like microwaving or using plastic at all. In which case, metal or glass are pretty much your options. They take up more space, the metal isn’t reheatable from frozen in the microwave, and the glass shouldn’t be put into a hot oven. If you’re using those, you’re probably doing them at home. In which case, you can put the cold brick of soup or casserole even into a COLD oven, heat it to 250 for 20 minutes, then turn up to 375 and cook until the food is hot. This keeps metal from warping and glass from shattering. Of course you can also remove from their containers by running hot water over the outside and putting in a crockpot, at least for things like soup.

  2. We do most of these in my house, and have had great success eating better and keeping me from getting stressed if I get home late at night. Plus I get to cook (which I love) without interruption or a time limit.
    The hard part for me is picking out recipes that freeze well and that we like.

  3. Another way to save with “bulk” is shopping the bulk food section for fancier grains and spices. I’ve found that bulk quinoa at Whole Foods (notoriously pricey) is cheaper than prepackaged quinoa at my local grocery store. The bulk spices are literally half the price of what you’d get in a jar, and you can get as much or as little as you need.

    • I watch for sales on nuts and dried fruit from the bulk bins, then keep them in my desk at work. Usually at least one kind is on sale each week, and I pounce. Snacking on a handful of nuts fills me up and is much healthier than a slice of whoever’s-birthday-is-this-week cake come mid-afternoon slump.

  4. Under “Have a Plan” I just keep meal plans simple with a white board on my fridge. The top half is where I can write what we are eating for dinner each night and the bottom is my grocery list. I find it convenient since if I empty a pack or jar of something BOOM my list is on the fridge, I just write it there. It also makes rearranging dinners easy since my boyfriend and I are both the kind of people who like to switch meals around when we just aren’t in the mood for what we had planned. When its time to grocery shop I just snap a picture on my phone and go. I know there are apps that do the same thing but for some reason physically writing it out helps me more.

    • Yes! While we have a ways to go before we have a proper “meal planning” setup going on, we do keep a dry-erase board on the fridge where we can write down items as we use them up/need them. I would highly recommend that you do this if you don’t already, as it makes life much easier, plus then you might be more apt to remember to replace the produce or other nutritious food you just finished. The result for us is that we rarely forget to replace things and it’s really easy to make up a list before going to the store.

      Speaking of…When it’s getting toward shopping time, my super-grocery-savvy husband sits down with the grocery flier, figures out what’s on sale, and writes the grocery list more or less in the order in which he will encounter things at the store. He’s like Grocery Man, if that were a superhero, and I love it, because I really, really hate grocery shopping!!! It’s fantastic, he even can figure out roughly how much the whole load will cost, so we can stick pretty close to budget. Personally, I have no idea what’s a “good” price for 3/4 of what we buy, but he’s a pro.

    • I do pretty much exactly the same thing, except my meals/grocery list is an email draft I update regularly (in case I get inspired on the subway)

  5. This is probably not in the spirit of the post, but I try to eat healthy but still end up eating a lot of take out. One thing I do is ALWAYS split the take-out meal in to two (since they are such big portions) and save the second half for lunch at work. Also, when I do order take out I try to get dishes with more vegetables/meat and fewer carbs.

    • That’s a great idea!

      We try and do something similar with side dishes. Instead of getting sandwiches/subs to go with fries, we bring them home and have a side of salad or other veggies.

  6. Perpetual soup: Make a big batch of ultra-basic soup on your Sunday, say (for meat-eaters) plain chicken with just onions and garlic. (This is yuour FS-Foundation soup) Then add different ingredients to make it a completely different soup during the week.
    On Monday measure out a serving (or two) Add noodles and frozen soup mix veg (our local brand has peas, carrots, green beans and celery) Season with Thyme and parsley. Classic Chicken Soup!

    On Tuesday, to a meaure of the FS add sweet peppers, hot peppers, tomatoes and black beans. Season with cumin and chilies, serve with lime juice and yogurt and tortillas -Tortilla Soup!

    On Wednesday, use less broth than usual and add frozen spinach and cauliflower and canned chickpeas. Season with curry powder and/or garam masala – Indian fusion Curry-style soup! serve with a scoop of yogurt (Bonus: This one can actually piggy-back on the Classic Chicken, since the flavors don’t argue much)

    On Thursday, Shredded or ground fresh ginger, mushrooms (dried shiitakes for preference, Yum!) a can of water chestnuts and frozen spinach. Season with Soy sauce and maybe sesame oil. Add chopped scallions at the end. – Asian Fusion soup. For a more Pho-like experience, add rice noodles!

    Friday: Heat the last of your soup, add acini de pepe or pastina, and add frozen spinach or fresh escarole. Season with oregano. -Italian Wedding inspired soup!

    • Great idea! We always try to keep at least one carton of stock on hand (in our case, chicken, but really any type of stock would work, depending on your preference), usually for making soup. It’s a great staple item to keep around–especially since you can make soup from small amounts of just about any food in your kitchen, within reason.

  7. One of the things that really helped me save money on food and stay healthy was getting a Fitbit (or similar tracker). The calorie estimations gave me perspective on how much I was burning compared to what I was eating. Turns out I needed WAY less food than I was accustomed to! Couple that with http://choosemyplate.gov (or other nutritional guidelines). So those expensive veggies didn’t hurt my wallet as much when I started making myself serving appropriately sized portions. Before I kind of binged on veggies, then abstained to give my wallet a break.

    And when it comes to fruits and veggies that’s I buy as I need them (makin’ a plan!) and then cook them that day. If I try to do it once-a-week for veggies I’ll lose interest or “forget” about them. So my once a week cooking is for beans, rice, noodles, soup, chicken breasts, oatmeal, and lentils. Then I make veggies every other day to supplement them.

    • I second this! My FitBit is the ONLY THING that ever gave me a perspective on calorie intake. I needed to see it actually mapped out, not just a number on a back of a box.

  8. For the “make a plan” part — I’ve found that instead of listing meals by day, I just have a list of all the things I bought to eat/make that week. This ensures nothing gets wasted, I don’t look at the fridge full of veggies and say “oh, I have nothing to eat, I will just go out” and I still feel like I get to make choices based on what sounds good.

    I’m also a big “cook everything on Sunday” person, but I will usually try to make things I can use a couple of ways. For example, I can make a huge pork roast which becomes pork roast with roast veggies, pulled pork for tacos, and pulled pork for a cold Asian noodle salad. I’ve got three distinct meals, all of which can be pulled together in 15 minutes, and all I did was throw a roast in the crockpot for half a day.

    • I do something similar because meal plans are a bit too structured for me. I usually have one meal I’ll eat every day at work (I go through fads of a few weeks, like tuna and crackers every day, or soup every day, for a month or two). And I’ll generally plan to have at least five dinners at home. So like chicken and veggies for one (or two, if it stretches), deli meat and cheese for two, spaghetti and sauce for two. Scrambled eggs for breakfast for dinner. And at least one frozen meal (pizza) lives in my freezer for days when I hate everything.
      So I have a plan that works well enough that I always have something, but I give myself enough options that I can be happy enough and not feel too constricted

  9. Snacks: I have found that I can keep a couple apples and oranges at my desk and I’ll go through them before they go bad (I tend to eat the apples first). It’s a good way to eat more fruit and stay away from the vending machine, and since I have yet to get the skill of eating an orange without making a mess, I just stand by the kitchen sink and eat it and it’s a nice five minute break.

    • Along the same vein is buying pre-cut carrots, celery, peppers, broccoli, etc. Or eat veggies that already come in snack size, like snap peas and radishes. It makes eating fruits and veg a no-brainer.

  10. I like to cook a big meal on Saturday and have the leftovers on Monday (and Sunday for Tuesday). That gets at least two days of the work week done and I don’t have to eat the same thing two days in a row. One thing to remember when looking at some suggestions is food safety. Cooking for the whole week on the weekend is not always safe. Here is a food storage guideline chart: http://www.foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html

  11. I also like to make up my own sauces and chutneys and things on the cooking day to prevent me from utilizing bottled sauces. Mint chutney whips up quickly in the blender and is great on sandwiches or to dip things in. Tomato sauce is versatile (Italian for pasta or Indian for curry) and the juice left from the canned tomatoes is excellent in tomato noodles or minestrone. I also do my stirfry sauces with things like soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, etc. thereby controlling salt and eliminating msg and corn syrup.
    I am always told I have to eliminate sauces to be healthy and that makes sense for me with mayo, powdered cheese sauces, and so forth, but if it’s natural, low fat, and I’ve made it myself from ingredients I’m comfortable with, a bit of sauce will help me eat more veggies and whole grains.

    • One thing I’ve started doing is mixing up my own salad dressing and putting it in tiny cups to bring to work. It’s cheaper to buy oil & balsamic vinegar, and add my flavorings of choice each day. (I bring a salad for lunch at work at least 4 days a week.)
      I love mixing mustard and jams into my basic dressing for something sweet and tangy. And I can make something different every day!

  12. This is kind of random – but starting a food blog is a great way to feel fairly accountable for what you are eating. It’s like making your food journal public for the world. LOL. (Especially if you do Menu Monday plans.) There are great sources for free blogging sites (mine is Blogger). I find that I am always anxious to try new (healthy/frugal) recipes when I have someone to show them off too. Of course making food with fresh ingredients and/or fruits and veges makes the best blog photos, right? I bet you’re less likely to take a picture and blog about your bag of Doritos+can of Dr. Pepper, and will instead choose to make something like vegan/oatmeal/peanut butter balls for a snack so you can “blog” about it. If your blog lets you include ads, you make a little money, and that’s even an extra plus!

    It really is fun, easy, and keeps me inspired to make good, healthy, and frugal food choices.

    This would be in no way a diet plan but I found with my own family that when I tossed out most boxed, prepackaged items from our regular eating plan (no boxes of cereal, poptarts, bags of chips) and substituted with homemade muffins, oeatmeal, popcorn (not prepackaged “microwave popcorn” but homemade popcorn with just corn, oil, salt), we lost weight. When I did this, even though we were eating desserts (homemade), snacks (homemade microwave potato chips), etc., we lost weight and felt better. My high school daughter actually lost 40 pounds when we stopped cooking from a box. Crazy, huh? And no dieting!

    Good luck everyone. I also just try to pick the healthiest choice available at every meal. I win some and I lose some, but overall it beats starving on crazy diets, for sure – and saves a bunch of money!

  13. I really like having a healthy “friend” who is trying to eat healthy too, so we can swap recipes.
    My husband and I have started making salads for lunch each day. He has a fridge at work where stocks his salad makings at the beginning of each week, and I toss mine together before work each morning. We’re always trying some new way to jazz up our baby greens. And when I show up to work with something fantastic, my coworkers all comment how it seems so much better than their lunch! With really very little effort (how hard is tossing vegetables into a bowl?)

  14. All of this…plus my crockpot. I cannot sing its praise highly enough. Cheap, healthy, delicious, low-effort meals that I can eat for a week? No problem. Plus, the house smells awesome when I get home.

  15. One thing that’s worked really well for me is if I ever have a severe craving for junk food, I’ll allow myself to eat it only after I’ve had a full cup of tea. Half the time, once the tea is gone, I’m full and don’t even want the snack. But even if I still do, my stomach is so full of tea that I’m satisfied after about half of what I’d normally eat.

    This is coming from someone who ALWAYS craves salty and terrible snacks. I find sometimes I crave those snacks is because I have the taste of my lunch or dinner still in my mouth, and want to replace it with something else. So the tea is amazing at cleansing my palate!

    • I’m not the author, but I am a Britisher, let’s see…
      ‘Oven fries’ we’d say chips and ‘vegetable chips’ we’d say crisps. That’s it I think, no mention of courgette, aubergine or spring onions 😉

  16. The freezer is my main buddy. I’ve been buying fruits and veggies when they go on super cheap sales and then freezing them to be used later. I basically chop what needs to be chopped, spread it on a parchment covered cookie sheet and freeze it over night, and in the morning dump it in ziplock baggies. Works good for berries, parsnips, and cauliflower which are my current happy foods.

  17. If you are unhappy with texture of brown rice following the package directions, try this next time.

    The proportion of water to rice is 2 1/3 cups water to 1 1/2 cup rice.

    1. Heat oven to 375 with rack in the middle.
    Spread rice in 8-inch square baking dish.
    Bring liquid, and 2 tsp oil to a boil, covered, in a saucepan over high heat.

    2. Combine grains, boiling liquid and salt (1/2 tsp. per cup of raw grains) in a baking dish and cover tightly with a double layer of foil. Bake until grains are tender — one hour for brown rice. Let stand five minutes, uncover, fluff with fork, and serve.

  18. One of the things I like to do is maximize cutting board usage. It’s only a little thinking ahead, and now that I have a system down it’s pretty easy. Cutting an extra onion any time we need an onion cut is the big one. Figuring out what order to cut things so that flavors don’t cross over in the wrong way, and tomato juice isn’t covering the lettuce or herbs (mostly because it makes the greens stick to the cutting board and is a PITA)–and on that topic, tomatoes are pretty much ALWAYS last. Unless there’s raw meat involved, in which case a quick wipe/rinse of the board will do post-tomatoes to get the juice off. Not having to use multiple cutting boards or washing between foods, minimizing knife usage, it all maximizes time & space. Efficiency. It gives me a happy.

  19. Frozen veggies. As nutritious if not more than fresh, CHEAP!! (WIC -approved in many cases in the states), soooo versatile, and forgiving if you forget them since they keep well.

    Speaking of WIC, when I was on a shoestring budget and still wanted to eat healthy, I would look for items with WIC stamps on them in the aisles. This pretty much means it’s healthy and low cost… a good guide for people just starting this type of meal plan. I still use this trick when I want to cut down on the grocery bill.

    Lastly, yes the crock pot. Dinner and leftovers for lunch all week.

  20. If you are too lazy or busy to cook big meals on the weekends for leftovers, I find that just pre-chopping vegetables helps me tons. Takes no time at all, and chopped tomatoes, peppers, and onions can easily become:

    – Filling for veggie tacos
    – Soup vegetables (and by soup I probably mean ramen)
    – Omelet or scrambled egg additions
    – Baked veggies with cubed potatoes or baked potato topping
    – Curry vegetables
    – Garden pasta sauce
    – …and way more

    It makes it so easy to improvise a quick and healthy meal that I’m way less tempted to order out because all I have to do is pop open the container and shake some veggies into a pan. Add spices and done.

    On that note, if you are trying to eat healthy on a budget, STOCK YOUR SPICE CABINET. Seriously. You can get spices really cheap in bulk and health food stores and lots of other places, and a dash of spice will make the most bland and boring dish sing in your mouth. Goes a long way toward avoiding takeout temptation. Don’t be afraid to get heavy-handed with the spices if you’re a bold flavors kind of person. Seriously. Ramen? BAM. Potato “soup” that is basically just water and potatoes? BAM. Plain pasta with butter or just tomato paste? BAM. Try it!

  21. I used to have fried potatoes as a substitute for my taco chips. I cut potatoes thinly sliced then fry, I just put on my favorite toppings, grounds beef, cucumber, tomatoes, onion and my favorite cheese. Trust me its delicious to but more healthy than your tacos. You can even try sweet potato if you like.

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