Thanks to Kim for this question. She has been struggling to manage a very tight budget, but still wants to eat healthy. Hang in there Kim, it can be done! Eating on a budget does mean making some adjustments, but you don’t have to eat fast food, or a lifetime of ramen noodles. I came up with a couple hypothetical days for you Kim, but before we get to that, let’s talk about the foods that can jack up a grocery bill, or keep it reasonable.
Look for sales here, and consider packages by the cost per pound. Sometimes buying a big pack can save you a lot per portion. You can freeze extra meat in plastic bags for another time, don’t feel like you have to be able to eat 3 pounds of chicken in a few days just because you bought the “family pack”. Also, cheaper cuts of chicken and turkey include the legs and thighs – removing the skin cuts down on fat and still leaves you with a heathy protein source, for much less money than skinless breasts. I got 2 packages of 93% lean beef for about 5.50 this week, thanks to a buy one get one free sale. Read those signs!Expensive Choices: deli meats, pre-cooked strips and meals, shrimp and shellfish, lamb, many cuts of steak Budget Picks: Eye of round beef, split chicken breasts, skinless chicken or turkey thighs, family packs, whole chickens
Read the circular to see what’s on sale. Apples and oranges come in large bags, which are less expensive than individual pieces. Bananas are always among the cheapest fruit. Other vegetables and fruit can vary according to what’s in season. Frozen options are as nutritious as fresh, as also don’t spoil as readily which can help avoid waste.Expensive Choices: fresh berries, prewashed, precut, or bagged salads, organics Budget Picks: Apples, bananas, frozen plain veggies or blends, frozen berries, whole heads of lettuce
Dairy and eggs can be great sources low-cost, high quality protein. Just stick to the basics, ordinary low fat or fat free milk and regular eggs, not the organic, omega-3 fortified etc. Omega-3 are great for you, but it’s much more economical (and potent) to work some milled flaxseed into your diet. Yogurts are always going on sale, so check out which brand is cheap that day and stock up. I can usually find at least one light brand that’s less than 50 cents per cup. I love Cabot 75% Reduced Fat cheddar cheese, but at 3.50 or so normal price, it’s not cheap. But it regularly goes on sale for 2/$5 – and I stock up on a bunch of it. Hard cheeses will last a long time. Buying store brands also can help save money on yogurt, cheese, etc. Often overlooked, 1% cottage cheese is an inexpensive source of high quality protein; it’s also filling and low in calories (60 g of protein in a $2, 16 ounce container FYI).Expensive Choices: Organic milk or eggs, Omega-3 fortified milk and eggs Budget Picks: store brand, plain milk and eggs, items on sale, cottage cheese
Like most healthy eaters, I shop for most of my food around the edge of the store. But there are some good finds in the center aisles, if you know where to look and don’t fall to temptation in the cookie aisle. Canned seafood, including tuna, salmon, and clams are great picks for protein, omega 3 fats, and they don’t cost a lot. Plus, no matter how limited your kitchen skills are, you can find a way to eat them! Plain oats/oatmeal in bulk are not only tremendously healthy for you, but far less expensive than boxed cereals or packets of oatmeal. Dress them up with fruit, milk, cinnamon, nuts, Splenda or a little sugar. Condiments and spices can go a long way to making meals more delicious without hiking the cost, so pick up some vinegars, olive oil, dry seasonings, salt and pepper.
Peanut butter is also a nutritious, filling food that costs just pennies a serving – buy all-natural brands made without hydrogenated oils to save your heart from the trans fat. Canned tomatoes are much less expensive than fresh, higher in lycopene, and they taste good year round. Dried beans and peas are also nutritous and inexpensive protein sources, (less than $1 a pound) and you can make lots of different soups and stews with lentils and beans. Plus, they last on your shelf for ages, which is great if you don’t get to shop that often.
I drink a lot of hot cocoa, but have found that packets of the sugarfree stuff are pricey! I make my own now with unsweetened cocoa powder and Splenda or Equal, for a fraction of the cost per serving – and more antioxidants! Lastly, don’t waste money on junk food like chips or soda – save the calories and cash. And why not try making your own whole grain muffins or cookies? They cost just pennies, compared to commercial ones, and you can control what goes in them. Find some recipes here.Expensive Choices: name brands, cold cereals, convenience foods like Hamburger Helper, canned soups, protein and cereal bars, (Admission here that I do buy Zone bars regularly, but by the box they are <$1 each), toaster pastries, cookies, crackers, snack foods, soda, bottled drinks Budget Picks: oats, natural peanut butter, flaxseed, canned tomatoes, seasonings, store brands, dried beans and peas
As already mentioned, stocking up on frozen vegetables and berries is a great idea for maximizing nutrition and minimizing cost and spoilage. Also, stay clear of most frozen meals, they are often full of starchy fillers like pasta and rice, while providing limited amounts of protein and vegetables. For better nutrition and less cost, make your own frozen meals by portioning cooked chicken, beef, or turkey and vegetables into plastic containers and freezing.Expensive Choices: frozen entrees, frozen pizza, vegetables with added sauces or noodles, vegetarian burgers/sausages (I admit they are great tasting and nutritious and I buy them, but they’re pricey), frozen waffles, pancakes and breakfast items, frozen pre-cooked seafood entrees (Gorton’s etc) Budget Picks: frozen vegetables and fruit (especially berries), plain frozen seafood (may be less expensive than fresh)
Check for loaves of whole grain breads or English muffins on sale, often you can get 2 for $3 or $5. Bread also freezes really well, so you can keep one loaf frozen for later use. It goes without saying that making your own costs about a quarter of buying store-made bread, but I realize that’s asking a lot….Expensive Choices: premium store-baked breads, organic breads Budget Picks: Whatever is on sale, or the “baked yesterday” section some stores have, which is often half price and still quite fine.
How to eat for $10 (or less) per day
(All prices currently accurate at my local Stop & Shop)
I started by taking the prices of my usual groceries and dividing them by the number of servings, to figure out how costly each serving actually is. Then, I did some meal planning and number crunching. You’ll see, if you take the responsibility to plan out and make your own foods, you can do quite well on $10 a day. You only get into trouble if you neglect to bring lunch, then stumble into Au Bon Pain for a $7 salad. Then you’re sunk. You won’t see any junk food, here, only a tiny bit of processed food, and a lot of bring-your-own snacks.
Breakfast: Oatmeal with Blueberries and flaxseed½ cup Oats (Stop & Shop Old Fashioned Oats: 42 oz package, 30 servings = 3.69 ($0.12 /serving) $0.12 ½ cup Milk (½ gallon fat free milk 2.29 = $0.28 per cup) $0.14 ¾ c blueberries (Frozen blueberries: 3.49 for 1 lb bag, 4 servings (3/4 c each) = $0.87 each serving) $0.87 2 tablespoons Milled Flaxseed (2.39 for a 12 oz box = 26 servings (2 Tablespoons ea) = $0.09 a serving )$0.09 Breakfast Total: $1.22
SnackApple (3 lb bag of organic apples (10 apples) @ 3.99 = $0.39 ea) $0.39 2 tablespoons Smuckers Natural Peanut butter ($3.00 for 16 oz jar, 14 servings = $0.21 per serving) $0.21 Snack Total: $0.60
Lunch: Tuna Salad Sandwich5 oz can BumbleBee chunk light tuna in water $1.20 2 tablespoons Smart Balance Omega Plus Mayo Light (16 oz jar @ 2.69, 32 tablespoons = $0.09 ea) $0.18 1 Arnold whole wheat Sandwich thin (8 count on sale 2 for $5) = $0.31 cents each) $0.31 Celery (1/4 bunch @ 1.99) $0.50 Lunch Total: $2.19
Snack 24 oz. Baby carrots (1 lb @ 1.79) $0.44 Zone bar $1.00 Light N Fit Yogurt (on sale) $0.39 Snack 2 total: $1.83
Dinner: Pizza (1 lb fresh dough, 1 can sauce, 1 can paste and 1/2 lb cheese, and eating 1/4th pie) and Caesar Salad4 oz fresh pizza dough ($2.00 per 16 oz pkg)= $0.50 2 oz. tomato sauce (8 ounce can store brand tomato sauce $0.40) = $0.10 1.5 oz tomato paste (6 oz Hunts tomato paste $0.80) = $0.20 2 ounces mozzarella (Stop and Shop 16 oz block part skim $4.99) = $.63 1/2 Romaine heart chopped (22 ounce bag, 3 hearts = 6 servings, 2.50) = $0.42 Wish bone light creamy Caesar dressing ($2.50/16 ounces = 0.16 per 2 T)= $0.16 Sugar free jello 2 servings (0.50 per box, 4 servings)= $0.25 Dinner Total: $2.26
Totals $8.10 1880 calories
Day 2Breakfast: Mexican Omelet and Toast 1 egg plus 2 whites (1 doz large eggs @ 2.99 = 0.25 per egg)= $0.75 1 ounce cabot cheddar (2.50 for 8 oz. bar on sale) = $0.31 2 tablespoons salsa (16 oz jar for 1.33) = $0.08 1 Arnold whole wheat Sandwich thin (8 count on sale 2 for $5) = $0.31 cents each) Breakfast Total: $1.45
Snack: PB & Banana Sandwich1 Arnold whole wheat Sandwich thin (8 count on sale 2 for $5) = $0.31 cents each) Banana = $0.49 2 tablespoons Smuckers Natural Peanut butter ($3.00 for 16 oz jar, 14 servings = $0.21 per serving) $0.21 4 oz. Baby carrots (1 lb @ 1.79) $0.44 Snack Total: $1.01
Lunch: Turkey Burger w/ Veggies1/4 lb ground turkey (on sale for 1.99/lb) = $0.50 1 Arnold whole wheat Sandwich thin (8 count on sale 2 for $5) = $0.31 cents each) = $0.31 1 ounce cabot cheddar (2.50 for 8 oz. bar on sale) = $0.31 2 Tablespoons ketchup = $0.05 2/3 cup Rancho Fiesta Vegetable medley (Store brand 16 oz bag, 6 servings @ 1.25) = $ 0.21 Lunch Total: $1.38
Snack 2Light N Fit Yogurt $0.39 2 tablespoons Milled Flaxseed (2.39 for a 12 oz box = 26 servings (2 Tablespoons ea) = $0.09 a serving )$0.09 2 kiwifruit (4 for $1.00) = $0.50 Snack 2 Total: $0.98
Chicken & Broccoli Dinner (Cook 1 lb chicken breasts with 1 T oil, 3 cloves garlic, salt/pepper = 3 servings)1 large (6 oz) chicken breast @ $3.00/lb = $1.00 3 cloves garlic = 0.02 1 tablespoon extra virgin Olive oil (17 oz bottle, $6.41) = $0.19 per tablespoon) = $0.07 10 ounces chopped broccoli (10 oz pkg $1 each) = $1.00 Adobo seasoning (for broccoli) = $0.05 Dinner Total: $2.13
Chocolate fix: hot cocoa1 tablespoon Hershey’s Unsweetened Cocoa (2.99 for 8 oz can, 45 tablespoons = $0.06 ea) = $0.06 1 cup milk (½ gallon fat free milk 2.29 = $0.28 per cup) = $0.28 3 packets of sweetener stolen from restaurant $0.00 Cocoa Total: $0.34 totals for the day: $7.29 1765 calories