Healthy Meal Planning on a Budget

Posted on Sep 7 2012 - 11:45pm by Demelza Young


One of the great misconceptions about healthy eating concerns expenses.  Maybe you’ve visited a Whole Foods store and were terrified of losing your whole paycheck to its usually high prices, or perhaps the organic shop in your neighborhood seems unreasonable in its asking price for your favorite nondairy milk.  Certainly, some healthy foods can be pricey. Overall, however, eating well is doable on any budget.  Some of the best ways to save on your expenses are simply a little planning and some smart shopping.


Buy in bulk. It’s often more cost effective.  I’m not just talking about stores like Sam’s or Costco (although if your family already has a membership to one of those stores, I would certainly take advantage of that).  Many stores have a bulk bin section, or you can shop online at places like  or  Sometimes you can buy several pounds of something for the same amount you’d spend on a single individual package of the same product.  Even in regard to something like oatmeal, you’ve probably noticed that for the same price of one of those boxes with 6 packets of instant oats you can buy a much larger tub and simply flavor it yourself.  Oatmeal was definitely one of my staple foods during college.  If you like the portion control provided by the single-serve packets, it’s simple enough to take a few minutes to measure out your own portions.

Stick with staples. You can live well on beans, rice, and produce. Dry beans and lentils are often $2 or less for one bag, which can easily feed you for a week.  Rice is another inexpensive item, especially when you buy in bulk (I don’t recommend the “steam in the bags”—are they convenient?  Sure, but you pay more for packaging than actual product!).  When it comes to vegetables, supermarkets often have sales on frozen varieties (my Kroger has 10 bags for $10 almost every week—sometimes they cost even less) and you can squeeze about three meals out of each bag.  The $1 value menu doesn’t seem like such a great value by comparison now, does it?

I concede that a pot of beans and rice for dinner or oatmeal for breakfast may not always seem like the most exciting choice, but they are affordable and healthy.  These foods can also be big time savers, because you can cook a big batch of them over the weekend and eat the leftovers throughout the week.

Staples versus convenience foods.  You might be surprised at where the line actually is. I mentioned beans are pretty cheap, but if beans are $1.60/can are they a good food for a staple?  Actually, canned beans are more a convenience than a staple.  If you’re looking to save, dried beans are cheaper.  Do you drink nondairy milk?  That seems like a staple, doesn’t it?  Is it really worth the $3.50 for a half gallon?  You can actually make your own (like coconut or almond) at a much lower cost!

Frozen versus fresh.  I already mentioned this, but my local grocery stores often have sales on frozen store brand varieties.  These sales tend to envelop all kinds of vegetables, so you can mix and match your options (mixed vegetables, peas and carrots, corn, Italian style, Mexican style, Normandy vegetables, and so on) depending on whether you want to use them in a stir fry, soup, or just as an accompaniment to something else. 

Of course, there are still deals in the produce section. While, on a good day, the apples at the supermarket are about $1.50/lb you can often buy a 3lb bag for about $2.50 to $3.  Bags of potatoes also tend to be pretty cheap, and as for other produce check to see what is in season to determine what will be most cost efficient for you to purchase.

Explore the ethnic section. Compared to the baking aisle, spices are often much cheaper and foods such as dried beans and rice are also.  If you have an ethnic market in your town, prices are often even cheaper there.

Shop around. I know, I know—how fun is it to visit two or three stores when you can just buy everything at one and be done with it (okay, confession—I really love grocery shopping, so that actually sounds like a lot of fun to me)?  It may sound convenient, but you could miss out on some great deals if you don’t shop around.  When your parents are paying for your groceries, you might not think going out of your way to save an extra $1 is that important and just buy what you need all at one store, regardless.  When you’re on a tight budget, though, you really learn the benefits of pricing various items, using a weekly meal planner, checking for coupons, and taking a good look at sales.  I highly recommend checking local ads and visiting several different stores (as long as they’re fairly close to one another!  No need to drive twenty minutes out of your way to save a few pennies) to figure out where you can buy staple items or whatever you need for the best price.  Some stores (like Wal-Mart) even allow you to get price checks on certain items if you bring in a competitor’s ad.

Waste not, want not.  When eating healthy on a budget, try not to let anything go to waste.  Not a fan of those raw broccoli stalks?  Chop them up and use them in a stir-fry or repurpose them together with your other vegetable scraps to make soup stock.

Stick to your list. One last tip is to create a weekly meal planner and/or shopping list.  If you shop more than once a week or go to the store without a plan, you tend to purchase more than you would otherwise.  It’s easy to get sidetracked or drawn into the snack displays.


Demelza Young is a recent graduate of Northern Kentucky University. Her current plans are to attend graduate school and to study clinical psychology in the hopes of one day working with eating disordered patients.

29 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Patty A September 8, 2012 at 1:20 am - Reply

    These are some good tips. We eat healthy in my house and it's hard to stay on a budget. 

  2. Malia September 8, 2012 at 1:31 am - Reply

    These are great tips!  Groceries are our biggest expense each month!

  3. Ashley Brown September 8, 2012 at 7:08 am - Reply

    It is true that many people can't afford the organic or so called health foods. I am glad that you share some very useful tips to buy health foods. As there are so many posts about health foods but no one care for the people who can't afford. I like your post as it tells the several ways to buy the health foods  which really help everyone for staying fit.

  4. Melinda Dunne September 8, 2012 at 11:11 am - Reply

    I try my best to eat healthy but it is expensive. I spend a lot of money on fresh produce but it most of the time it doesn't last long and I end up throwing a portion of it out. I hate wasting money so I appreciate the ideas for alternatives. 

    • Susan Bewley September 8, 2012 at 11:44 am - Reply

      One of the tips too is freezing & buying from the farmers market. If I get more fruits and veggies than we can use I cute them up and freeze them. 🙂

  5. Flora September 8, 2012 at 11:12 am - Reply

    Frozen vegetables are often fresher than the ones that aren't frozen.  The bagged veggies are bagged as soon as they are harvested, while the "fresh" veggies may sit in a truck or somewhere for days and days.  Thank you for writing a great post!

  6. Sue Invegas September 8, 2012 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Great article and tips! Thanks for sharing!

  7. MamaBreak September 8, 2012 at 12:00 pm - Reply

    Love these tips! As somsone on a budget they were perfect!

  8. Mary Walker September 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Great tips.  Thanks for all your hard work.

  9. jheylo September 8, 2012 at 5:17 pm - Reply

    great tips. thanks. it's hard to prepare healhty meals that aren't expensive these days.

  10. Tom Shewbridge September 8, 2012 at 8:03 pm - Reply

    Very nicely and organized article, thank you so much for sharing!  🙂

  11. Regina September 8, 2012 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    I had no idea what Whole Foods was when I shopped there years ago.  Now that I'm in Michigan again and watch The Food Network, do I realize how awesome that store is!

    • Susan Bewley September 9, 2012 at 12:38 am - Reply

      Whole Foods is very very expensive in our area. We have competitor stores like Farmers Markets and Trader Joes.

  12. Alaina Bullock September 8, 2012 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    This is one of the hardest things I had to learn to do!  Thank you for some great, new tips!

  13. Angie September 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm - Reply

    Great tips! Thank you!

  14. jessicab September 9, 2012 at 11:20 am - Reply

    Love these tips!!  We only have one grocery store so it helps to hear things like know what is in season to save.  I would love to cut my grocery bill down some!

  15. Tamara September 9, 2012 at 11:32 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for the tips, I love these new ideas.  I am always looking for new ways to cut that darn food bill down. With 4 kids we gotta do everything we can

  16. Angie September 9, 2012 at 11:56 am - Reply

    Thank you for the helpful tips!

  17. Mary Walker September 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    Great tips.  Thanks, sometimes you forget the basics.

  18. jheylo September 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    we should all do this great tip and change our unhealthy lifestyle huh? lets get rid of our extra fats from eating healthy meals everyday

  19. Chrissy September 10, 2012 at 7:13 am - Reply

    I was just starting to put our meal plan together.  Great tips! 

  20. Jenn September 10, 2012 at 8:31 am - Reply

    I'm a big fan of frozen veggies over fresh. I don't waste anything, they're easy to prepare, and they are usually even more nutritious than the fresh veggies because they're frozen right when they're picked.

  21. Suzi Satterfield September 10, 2012 at 9:36 am - Reply

    I'm most definitely all about buying in bulk and keeping staples on hand.  I suspect it has more to do with growing up with "feast or famine" and I never got out of the habit of shopping like we may not have the money later.

  22. julieann r September 10, 2012 at 9:55 am - Reply

    Great ideas….I use many of these as well to keep our food cost down.  I love buying things at a farmer's market in season and canning or freezing for year round use.

  23. Sofia September 10, 2012 at 10:45 am - Reply

    Thanks for the tips!! I am a big fan of store brand frozen veggies (being corn and peas my favorite). I stock up when they go on sale for .99 ! We really don't do beans at home but we do rice. We used to buy Minute Rice but Costco doesn't sell it so we now buy a huge rice bag that was cheap and has lasted us, so far, for 1 year! 

  24. Jessica P September 10, 2012 at 11:16 am - Reply

    This article is so spot on. I absolutely love shopping at Whole Foods but freak out when I get to the register and see how much everything is addding up. But  I have noticed that buying fresh ingrediants actually allows me to create more meals that stretch out during the week.  These are really great tips.

  25. Angie September 10, 2012 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    Trying these great tips 🙂

  26. Abel brions September 14, 2012 at 5:02 am - Reply

    Great post,Actually I always beleived in etting only that much raw material for food as much as can be finished in 2-3 days at max. but if frozen vegetables retain their nutrients than i will surely follow these tips ,thanks,you actually saved my expenses as of transportaion and various other expenses as well.

  27. jheylo October 1, 2012 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    i want to learn how to shop for healthy meals and at the same time won't go beyond my budget. 

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