18 Hacks for Eating Well on a Budget

When it comes to cutting calories or saving cash, we know tight budgets can be a challenge. When you’re trying to do both, well, that’s even trickier.

To help you eat well and stick to your food budget, we recently polled our community and collected some helpful tips and suggestions. I hope these 18 hacks from fellow MyFitnessPal users make eating well while pinching pennies a little bit easier and more enjoyable.

1. Scratch-cook.
Not everyone will have time to make everything from scratch (OK, the vast majority of us), but cooking at home can definitely stretch your food dollars, especially if you’re strategic about shopping and minimizing food waste. Restaurants and takeout may be convenient, but 95% of the time they’re not the most economical way to eat.

“Make everything from scratch! Fresh produce, lots of chicken and fish. No processed foods. It is the best way to watch sodium, sugar and fat content. And water, water, water … Along with a minimum of 10,000 steps a day … It’s cheaper to grow/buy fresh than it is to buy packaged, too!” —Larry Tyrer

2. Scout the sales.
If your local grocery store has weekly specials, sign up to receive their circular by email. Every week, peruse the flier for deals on produce, meats, fish, whole grains, dairy and pantry staples (i.e., canned or dried beans, herbs, spices, etc.), and plan your next few meals using those foods.

“Stick to what you like and what’s on sale. Take the sales flier, circle what you like and what’s healthy, plan your meals, check the pantry, then shop. Stick to the perimeter with your circular and list in hand.” —Claire Pelletier

“Shop sales, and freeze everything yourself. Cooking ahead makes your own convenience food, and increases the likelihood of eating healthy.” —Kat Bragg

3. Meal-plan.
Some people enjoy sitting down with a cup of coffee and spending a couple of hours meal-planning each week, but it really doesn’t need to be a big to-do. Ten or fifteen minutes of scouting sales and jotting down meal ideas can be just as effective. One way of doing this might be to make sure each meal includes one source of protein, at least one vegetable (bonus points for adding veggies to breakfast) and a whole-grain or nutrient-rich starch, with fruit for a snack or dessert.

“Meal-planning has literally cut our shopping bills in half. I also make most of our sauces, dressings, etc., from scratch, and that has been a healthy savings (pun intended!).” —Patricia Reily

“I totally agree with the meal-planning approach. It saves money (no wasted fruits and veggies) and also saves calories because I always have healthy choices available.” —Eat Train Win

4. Know how much you’ll need.
The beauty of a meal plan is that it gives you a good idea of how much and what you need to buy at the grocery store. Before hitting up those grocery store specials, do a quick inventory of what you already have on hand. Don’t forget to check the freezer and pantry for ingredients (like frozen veggies or spices) that you might be able to substitute in place of buying things you don’t really need. When it comes to fresh produce, buy only what you’ll be able to eat (or freeze) before it goes bad.

“Buy small quantities of fresh vegetables and fruits so nothing goes to waste.” —Miri Ale

5. Buy in bulk.
One solid argument against buying only what you need is buying certain foods in bulk, particularly those that you eat several times per week, that have a long shelf life or that can easily be frozen. Buying in bulk can save significant money, especially at large grocers or wholesale stores, but it’s always good to do a quick price comparison against smaller quantities just to be sure.

“At this time of the year, I buy veggies in bulk and freeze what I can. Once a month, I buy meat from Costco and freeze it in meal-size portions.” —Elaine Baglo

“Buy quinoa and brown rice in bulk. Also look for big containers of things like cottage cheese and Greek yogurt. And things like bags of apples on sale can be cooked down to make homemade applesauce.” —Matty McIntyre

6. Frequent the freezer section.
Shopping the freezer section can save you a bundle since it essentially eliminates the chance of spoilage and allows you to use only what you need. To maximize your food dollar in the freezer section, keep your eye on that grocery circular and stock up when frozen fruits, veggies, meats, poultry and fish go on sale.

“Buy frozen instead of fresh if on a budget. That way, meats, fruit and veggies don’t go bad.” —Matty McIntyre

“Buy frozen veggies. You get quite a lot for your money, and it never goes to waste.” —Laura Stevens

7. Eat what’s in season.
Pay attention to the large bins of produce that greet you at the grocery store. They’re often filled with in-season fruits and veggies that retailers are looking to unload for a deep discount.

“Seasonal produce is advertised as loss leaders, those deals on the front and back covers of the grocery store circular.” —Becky Dolgener

8. Stick with store brands.
Stocking up on supermarket-brand staples can save you an average of 15‒30% compared to national brands. Just be sure to check the ingredient label before buying to make sure the quality is similar.

“I usually look for store-brand products, because a lot of the time they are cheaper. I can get whole-wheat noodles for the same price as regular.” —Tara Howell-Straight

9. Frequent your local farmer’s market.
Farmer’s markets can be a great way to get superfresh, in-season produce for less, because they cut out the middlemen who can take up to 92¢of every food dollar spent. On the contrary, farmer’s markets take only 6¢ from every dollar a farmer earns, allowing them to sell you their produce for less and actually make more money.

“Going to farmer’s markets is a great way to get nutritious foods while on a budget. Plus you help the local farmers. Win-win!” —Nicole Kennedy

“I buy my veggies at the local farmer’s market or directly from the farms. The cost is less than at the grocery store, and the flavor is so much better.” —Elaine Baglo

10. Serve up smaller portions.
Rather than devouring a heaping plateful of food just because you’re overly hungry and it’s just what’s in front of you, serve up a smaller portion and take your time to enjoy it. Oftentimes, you’ll realize you didn’t need quite as much food as you thought to feel satisfied.

“I just eat smaller portions of the foods I like, which sometimes includes fast or processed foods. Eating less does wonders for your budget.” —Erin Murphy

11. Prep (and portion) in advance.
Having a fridge stocked with nourishing foods that are ready to eat, or cook, can mean the difference between noshing on something nutritious and spending $20 plus on a fast food fix.

“Set aside some time after weekly grocery shopping to prepare whole foods in advance. Typically, I’ll bake a butternut squash, some baby potatoes and beets. Prewash lettuce, and store in bags with paper-toweling. Cook up some greens with lightly salted water, which is so simple and delicious. Weigh out one-ounce portions of nuts. Make a veg-heavy soup, and freeze some of it in individual portions. Most important, plan when you’ll use them, using the most perishable first.” —Peggy Harris

12. Make your own staples.
Fancy salad dressings, gourmet granola and 100-calorie snack packs—these convenience foods sure do add up fast at the grocery store. Making your own staples is an easy way not only to save money but also to eat healthier versions of your favorite convenience foods, since they won’t contain preservatives and you can control the amount of added salt and sugar. Figure out what your most costly go-to healthy staples are, and experiment with making a homemade version. Once you do it one or two times, it’ll be hard to go back to buying the expensive, convenience version.

“We also save money by making our own bread, yogurt and other various snack items, instead of buying the expensive prepackaged and processed foods! You save a lot of money, calories and guesswork by just buying ingredients in bulk and making your own staple foods.” —Lauren Kalkman

13. Embrace batch-cooking.
When you do have time to scratch-cook, think big batch and freezer-friendly meals. Batch-cooking will leave you with more (nutritious) food, more time and more money in your pocket.

“My husband and I spend our off day together, cooking large batches of lean protein and fresh or frozen veggies (whatever was on sale that week) and then measuring them out into individual meal containers. We save money on groceries, eat healthier because it’s already done, save time packing lunch in the morning and resist the urge to eat out as often!” —Alyssa Leonard

14. Eat affordable proteins.
Meat, poultry and fish are great sources of complete proteins, but they aren’t usually the most budget-friendly. Cutting back on these foods, even one or two days a week, can be an opportunity to save some cash and explore alternative protein sources. Some healthy, affordable protein sources include eggs, dairy (like milk, yogurt and cottage cheese), dried beans, edamame (shelled soybeans), tofu, lentils, peanut butter, peanuts and whey protein.

“We eat eggs and beans for cheap proteins.” —Stacie Meadows

“Buy less meat (which is where the largest cost per pound is). You can get your protein in many other ways.” —Ronald Clark

15. Use up your wilting produce.
If you find yourself with a drawer full of shriveling fruits and veggies, one quick way to use them up is to make a homemade smoothie or soup. Smoothie leftovers can be stored in the fridge for up to 24 hours, and soups can be frozen for a fast dinner or lunch when time is tight.

“Eating healthy can be expensive, so before those fruits and vegetables go bad and you have to throw them out, make smoothies with them!” —Rena Dunkley

“Homemade soups can be made with vegetables that need to be used up, and portions can be frozen for later.” —Shara Hayes

16. Learn to love leftovers.
Cook once, eat (at least) twice. That’s my motto at home, and it really helps save not only time but also money, too. Consider doubling or tripling a recipe to use up all of the fresh ingredients or making a couple of meals at once that use many of the same ingredients. This way, you can minimize waste and enjoy the ease of reheating or freezing leftovers.

“I buy foods I can use in many different meals, such as spinach or tomatoes. I also make large healthy dinners and save a portion for lunch the next day!” —Mary Andrews

17. Drink more water.
And less of everything else. Filtered tap water is essentially free and is the cheapest way to hydrate. By skipping the soda aisle and ordering tap water at restaurants, you’ll save both money and calories.

“Drink water instead of sugary or even diet drinks (not because of health, but because you have to pay more for them than water!).” —Tyler Creighton

18. Have some “back pocket” budget-friendly restaurants.
When you find yourself with both an empty fridge and an empty stomach, it’s helpful to have a couple of go-to restaurant or takeout options where the portions are big, ingredients are fresh, and prices are affordable. Oftentimes, mom-and-pop restaurants, particularly those serving up ethnic cuisine (like Indian, Thai or Mexican), offer healthier, homemade dishes that leave you with enough leftovers for a second meal.

“Believe it or not, eating out can sometimes be cheaper than cooking. For example, we get Indian takeout, which sometimes can serve as two meals.” —Lauren Caggiano

To sum it all up …

“I dropped 140 pounds on a budget. There are numerous options that don’t break the bank. I was addicted to fruit cups and would buy honey dew, grapes, and cantaloupe to make my own. I had about a week’s worth that kept fine in the refrigerator. Bananas and apples are also inexpensive, healthy and filling. I weighed my meats, which gave me a lot more food for my buck. I bought whole-grain bread but not the fancy whole-grain bread. Sometimes, it’s easier to make healthier versions of your favorite foods: meatloaf with quinoa or baked fries, or chicken Parmesan without frying it. I found the easiest way to lose and maintain weight is to make foods you like healthier and in smaller portion sizes.” —Shannon VanLoffelt
Tags:  budget budget-friendly Cooking Tips food food budget

Elle Penner, MyFitnessPal Registered Dietitian
Elle Penner, M.P.H., R.D.

Elle Penner, M.P.H., R.D., is the Registered Dietitian and Food & Nutrition Editor at MyFitnesssPal, as well as an active runner and food-enthusiast. For more healthy living inspiration, connect with her on Twitter andPinterest.

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