Many people believe eating healthy meals on a budget is difficult. And while fast food may seem like a quick, cheap alternative, it’s important to remember cooking your own food—even healthy food—is actually more budget-friendly than a family dinner from Mickey D's.
But fast food is easy. So easy, in fact, it can be difficult to break the habit of running through the Starbucks drive-thru each morning or picking up dinner on the way home.
But it may surprise you to know healthy eating can be easy, too.
1. Bring snacks in Ziploc baggies or Tupperware
This may seem obvious, but packing little snacks in portioned containers is a great way to eat a nutritionally balanced pick-me-up when you’re starting to feel hungry. Using Ziploc bags or Tupperware allows you to pre-portion your food, so you won't go overboard and eat more than you really want. Plus, you'll also be able to carry your snacks to work easily.
2. Replace soft drinks with better options
Many of us love soft drinks, but even diet sodas aren’t exactly the healthiest option. If you can, try replacing some of those daily sodas with carbonated water.
If you just can’t drink carbonated water (and some of us can't), try opting for a glass of water or unsweet tea. If you don’t mind some natural sugar in your diet, you may even replace your daily soda with 100% juice drinks.
3. Replace afternoon coffee with a walk
The afternoon slump is very real. When we're feeling full from lunch, exhausted from looking at a computer or phone screen, we start to get sleepy. That's when we grab a coffee to wake up.
While coffee has health benefits, too much caffeine can negatively affect your health and mood. Plus, many of us doctor our coffee with sugar and creamer. Instead of a doctored coffee, consider instead a short walk.
Exercise is a natural way to perk up your mind and body, so taking a short walk around your office or up the stairs is an easy and effective way to get that burst of energy you’re seeking from caffeine. Best of all, exercise releases endorphins to promote happy feelings.
3. Eat protein throughout the day
Protein is a good choice because it satisfies hunger and will help you stay fuller longer. Obviously, some protein choices are wiser than others.
I’d love to tell you that you could get a healthy protein fix by slurping down a big milkshake or ordering a plate of fried chicken. While these foods may contain protein, you’re of course getting many other unhealthy ingredients in most cases.
Instead, snack on protein-filled whole foods, such as almonds and broccoli. For protein-rich meals on a budget, consider making lentils, quinoa, eggs, or lean meats. If you need a dairy fix, consider Greek yogurt or cottage cheese.
4. Pack salads instead of buying them pre-made
Instead of purchasing pre-made salads at restaurants or grocery stores, save money by making your own and packing it in Tupperware.
You can inexpensively purchase heads of lettuce or spinach, as well as healthy salad toppings like carrots, onions, and even chickpeas for an extra boost of protein.
Because many of these items can be split among a few different salads, you can pack a few lunches days in advance, saving time and money.
5. Get creative with salads
If a traditional salad isn’t your thing, there are a number of salads you can make. For a sweeter salad, choose spinach, goat cheese, fruits, and nuts. This is a sweet meal with multiple health benefits.
For a salad that’s light on the greens, consider making a fruit salad, or make a savory southwestern salad with avocados, tomatoes, black beans, corn, and cilantro.
If you eat meat, you can also consider making a meat-based salad with chicken or fish. These are good sources of protein, and you can add other nutritious ingredients. To make it healthier, consider replacing some or all of the mayonnaise with mashed avocado.
6. Make your own dressings and dips
You’ve probably heard most dressings and condiments are full of sugar and calories. Luckily, you can easily make healthier condiments with inexpensive ingredients.
For instance, you can make a simple salad dressing using honey, lemon juice, and vinegar. Consider also making your own ranch with avocado, blending your own hummus, or making your own fresh salsa. If you’re vegan, there are also a number of DIY dips you can create.
7. Incorporate beans into your meals for an inexpensive, healthy filler
Beans and legumes are not for everyone, especially those who suffer from allergens (like peanuts and soy), or those who frequently encounter digestion issues. However, if you like beans (and beans like you), consider incorporating them into your meals for a healthy, budget-friendly addition.
Many beans and legumes provide protein, nutrients, and polyphenols, an important antioxidant that promotes good health. You can use beans in salads, stir-fry dishes, soups, and more. At a very reasonable price, you'll add a healthy dose of fiber and protein to your diet (to help promote a natural full feeling), and you'll incorporate nutrients like zinc and iron into your meals.
8. Utilize your Crock-Pot
Slow-cooking may seem old-school, but its savings and convenience are more relevant than ever. Slow-cooking is also a perfect way to make healthy dinners when you're strapped for time.
No matter your dietary restrictions, there are hundreds of recipes online for your unique eating habits. Meats, taco fillings, stuffed peppers, soups, and stews are all things you can make in a Crock-Pot, simply by throwing ingredients in the night before or the morning of. Then, when you get home, dinner is served.
9. Avoid empty calories
"Empty calories" is a phrase referring to the things we eat with no real nutritional value. Donuts, potato chips, crackers, and condiments are all examples of empty calories—things we don't necessarily need but often enjoy. In order to avoid empty calories, consider ways in which you can curb your temptation for junk food.
For instance, bringing veggie chips to work may stop you from snacking on three bags of Cheeto's. Eating breakfast may help you avoid picking through the donut box. And if you do want chips or a donut, you don't have cut yourself off completely. Simply pay attention to the portion size of what you eat; you may realize half a donut satisfies your craving just as well as two donuts.
10. Plan your meals
Meal planning can seem daunting, but luckily there are several resources to help you. Since meal-planning promotes an organized, healthy lifestyle, carve out a free hour or so each week to plan your meals. You can do this through meal-planning apps or a handwritten meal planning sheet.
If you feel too overwhelmed by the idea of meal planning, start small. Plan your breakfasts for the week and consider prep time. (You probably do this already!) From there, go a little bigger and bolder, until you've managed to outline your meals for the week.
11. Going out to eat with the company? Get creative with the menu
Company lunches can be difficult, especially if you don’t have many healthy options. Catered food can have a limited selection, and restaurants often have huge portions.
If food is being provided, consider discussing options beforehand. Many times, restaurants and businesses are willing to provide options for everyone. If you’re doing a restaurant outing, consider healthy menu items, half-sized portions, sharing, or ordering a la carte.
12. Choose veggies or white meat over red meats
While there may be healthful benefits to certain red meats, studies suggest eating white meat will reduce your risk for certain diseases; red meat, on the other hand, can actually increase your risk. When possible, use ground poultry to replace ground beef, shredded chicken instead of pulled pork, and sausage made from white meats instead of red.
You may even consider going beyond white meat replacements. If you can replace meats with vegetables, consider doing so. Many people living in the Blue Zones (regions with the most centenarians) eat meat much less frequently than most Americans. "Meaty" meat replacements, such as eggplants and mushrooms, are a good way to replace animal-based proteins with plant-based ingredients.
13. Choose healthy alternatives to starchy foods
We're living in a low-carb culture. While going low-carb is somewhat of a fad, it’s important to remember some foods high in carbohydrates are lacking in nutrients. White rice, white bread, french fries, cakes… these are all foods that are high in starches, or complex carbohydrates.
Still, not all carbs are bad. For instance, fruit, peas, and beans are all starchy foods, but they can be incorporated into your meals for added nutritional benefits. So what starches should you cut?
Consider the starchy foods that don’t provide much nutritional value, then replace them with healthier alternatives. For instance, consider rice and pasta alternatives like cauliflower rice (sometimes available frozen), cabbage rice, zoodles, and spaghetti squash. Replace french fries with baked sweet potato fries or roasted veggies. As for the cake, consider healthy alternatives or low-carb recipes.
14. After dinner sweet tooth? Go for healthy dessert alternatives
Sometimes it feels impossible to say no to dessert. Luckily, the internet felt our pain and came to the rescue. Many of us are now just a Google search away from endless, healthy dessert options.
If you’re craving a cakey texture, consider black bean brownies. The consistency after baking is just like a moist brownie, but without the flour and sugar. Honey or agave is used as a natural sweetener.
If you’re an ice cream junkie, consider making your own popsicles or slicing ripe bananas and freezing them for “nice cream.” If you need something soft, consider avocado chocolate pudding, flavored naturally with cocoa and honey (or agave, if you’re vegan).
Healthy eating doesn't have to break the bank. In fact, you may even find you're saving money by eating healthier. If you're trying to stick to a budget, try incorporating some or all of these health-conscious, wallet-friendly tips. You might come up with your own creative healthy-eating ideas and habits, too. Just make sure you're enjoying what you eat.
Kaitlin Westbrook is a content writer for Vecteezy. She covers business, creative content, professional writing, and more. When she’s not writing, she enjoys movies and her Pomeranian. You can connect with her on Twitter.