How to Cook Healthy Meals on a Budget

woman picking out apples at a grocery store
Given how many healthy eating tips are available in magazines, on TV, and on social media, taking control of your eating habits may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. 

From friends and co-workers to self-proclaimed health experts on Instagram, it can feel like there are a million opinions being thrown at you about what constitutes an actual “healthy lifestyle.” It’s no wonder there are so many misconceptions surrounding healthy eating. Let’s debunk a few: 

  1. It doesn’t have to be expensive. While a homemade meal can sometimes cost more than fast food, cooking at home doesn’t require trips to upscale grocery stores for special ingredients. We’ll arm you with an arsenal of tips for creating healthy meals that will nourish your body on a budget. 
  2. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming. We’ll break down the art of meal prepping to help you make the most of your time in the kitchen.

What makes up a healthy diet?

When making a conscious decision to switch up your eating habits, it’s important to avoid the “diet” trap. Some diets can leave people feeling hungry, deprived, and low on energy. Certain diets can also create a poor relationship with food. Food should be seen as a source of fuel to keep your mind and body running throughout the day, not something that leaves you dreading every meal. 

There are several dietary frameworks that are currently making waves. In fact, the International Food Information Council Foundation’s Food and Health Survey found that the number of people following specific eating styles to be healthier rose to 36% in 2018, up from 14% the year prior.

The 2019 iteration of the survey reported that the most common dietary changes were “clean eating,” gluten-free, and ketogenic. Respondents were still taking to paleo and Whole30 lifestyles as well, though the rate of adoption for these diets has slowed. The survey also showed an uptick in plant-based eating. 

What’s the difference between these popular eating styles? 

  • Paleo: The paleo diet is modeled after eating habits from the Paleolithic era (think hunters and gatherers). This diet is typically centered around fish, lean meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.  
  • Whole30: The Whole30 program is similar to paleo in that no grains, legumes, sugar, alcohol, or dairy are to be consumed. The difference is that the Whole30 program was created as a dietary reset to be followed for 30 days at a time, followed by a slow reintroduction of the restricted foods. 
  • Gluten-free: Gluten is a protein found in many grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley. People with celiac disease and gluten intolerances must completely remove gluten from their diets. Naturally gluten-free foods include fruits and vegetables, unprocessed seeds and legumes, eggs, and meat. 
  • Plant-based: As revealed in the 2019 Food and Health Survey, people don’t always agree on the definition of a “plant-based diet.” But as a general rule, vegan (no animal products) and vegetarian (no meat) lifestyles fall under this category. About 30% of respondents defined it as “a diet that emphasizes minimally processed foods that come from plants, with limited consumption of animal meat, eggs, and dairy.”
  • Ketogenic: Also known as the “keto diet,” the ketogenic diet involves consuming high-fat foods, some protein, and minimal amounts of carbohydrates. By severely reducing the intake of carbs, the body relies on burning fat for energy instead. 

Don’t feel pressured to make your eating habits fit one of these molds; we’re simply defining these lifestyles to keep you informed as you explore healthier habits. A licensed physician can help you make the best choice for your body, so it’s best to always talk to your doctor before making any major lifestyle changes. 

What should be on your dinner plate? 

Since there are so many different ways to approach your diet, a healthy plate of food is going to look different for every person. However, understanding the basics can help you make more informed decisions come mealtime. 

Experts at Harvard’s School of Public Health have created a reference for nutrition called the Healthy Eating Plate. Some of their tips include eating a variety of veggies, fruit, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and whole grains; trying to limit your intake of dairy, red meat, processed meat, and butter; and using healthy oils like olive oil for cooking and in salad dressings. 

How To Find Inspiration For Meal Ideas 

Now that you’ve got some of the basics down, it’s time to find some inspiration. The options are quite literally limitless. 

  • Let the meal inspiration come to you. Sign up for email newsletters from popular food blogs like Skinnytaste, Pinch of Yum, Oh She Glows, The Defined Dish, and Good Cheap Eats. They’ll send weekly healthy meal ideas straight to your inbox. 
  • Follow chefs and food bloggers on Instagram. 
  • Browse Pinterest – it’s a goldmine for discovering healthier versions of your favorite meals. You don’t have to give up your most treasured dishes; simply look for lighter versions. 
  • Subscribe to a food magazine. If you like perusing magazines more than browsing the internet, check out a few issues of a magazine filled with recipes. There are specialty publications offering light, healthy recipes created by seasoned chefs and food editors.  
  • Invest in a healthy eating cookbook. A cookbook will last forever and can become your ultimate go-to for offline meal inspiration.

The Art of Meal Prep

Meal prepped foods in a box

“Meal prep” is a common term for cooking multiple meals at the same time so they can be eaten throughout the week. The idea is to cook once and eat at least three times. By dedicating a few hours to meal prepping every Sunday, you can have a well-stocked fridge for the week ahead. 

Start by analyzing the state of your kitchen and pantry; you may have more healthy staples than you think. That unused bag of jasmine rice? The perfect foundation for a week of curry or stir-fry. That tub of oats? Make some protein-packed oatmeal for a few healthy breakfasts. One of the best approaches to meal prepping is simply choosing different staple ingredients that can be mixed and matched for a variety of meals. This also helps limit how much you spend on groceries. 

Grocery Shop Like A Champ 

Now that you’ve taken stock of your kitchen basics, you’re ready to start shopping. Following  these simple steps will help you create healthy meals on a budget.

  • First, set a weekly food budget.
  • See if your grocery store of choice has an app, which will often offer coupons and specials so you can build some of your meals around what’s on sale. 
  • Compile a list of meals to shop for. When you’re searching for meal ideas, don’t get too ambitious; a meal with six or fewer ingredients will be more cost- and time-efficient. Break down the shopping list by ingredients needed. Again, try to buy ingredients that can be used across multiple meals. 
  • Don’t feel pressured to buy tons of specialty and organic ingredients. Follow the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists when shopping for produce. As a general rule of thumb, you typically want to buy organic produce if you will be eating the skin. If you can’t afford to buy organic all the time, that’s OK! You’ll still hit your goal of creating and consuming a healthy meal. 
  • Shop seasonally. Produce and ingredients that are in season will not only taste fresher, but they will also typically be cheaper since they are easier for stores to acquire. 
  • If you can, buy foods like oatmeal, seeds, and nuts in bulk. This will save you more money (and trips to the store!) in the long run. 

In Conclusion

It’s important to remember that a healthy diet doesn’t have to be perfect. Do the best you can when it comes to preparing, shopping for, and cooking healthy meals. A healthy lifestyle is more sustainable if you allow yourself to indulge in your favorite foods sometimes. Your goals will be just as achievable at the next meal.