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Healthy Meals on a Budget

You can stretch your food dollar — and eat well, too.

En español | Serving healthy meals on a tight budget can be challenging. But with a bit of knowledge — and a little planning — you and your loved ones can eat well without spending a ton on groceries. Strategies, such as buying fruits and vegetables in season and understanding which foods are the best buys in terms of nutrition and cost, can assist you in making wise food choices.  

Linda Netterville, a registered dietician and vice president of grants for the Meals on Wheels Association of America, says the best way to stretch a meal budget is to make casseroles and stews. “Choose a casserole over just eating a piece of meat,” Netterville advises.

Building a meal around rice, beans, noodles or legumes provides an opportunity to extend the protein, cook in bulk and have leftovers for healthy convenient meals later in the week or for freezing.

Here are some tips for meal planning from the Agriculture Department’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion:

Before shopping, make a list of what you need and stick to that list to avoid excess spending.

  • Compare the cost of convenience foods with the same foods made from scratch. You’ll find that you can save big by doing the work yourself.
  • Get in the habit of buying what is on sale and what is in season.
  • Look for specials in newspaper ads and use coupons only for products you will use.
  • Stick with store brands. Often, they are cheaper than name brands, even if you have a coupon.


Here are tips for meal preparation:

  • Use slow cookers to make meal prep easier.
  • Make large batches, divide into portions and freeze for later. This will save time and money.
  • Create homemade desserts, such as fruit crisps and rice puddings. They are nutritious and will save you money.


Here are some suggestions for best buys:

Breads and grains: Look for day-old bread and bakery products. Regular rice, oatmeal and grits are cheaper than instant. Whole-grain bread and brown rice add nutrition.

Vegetables and salads: Get large bags of frozen vegetables because they are often a good deal. Just take out the amount you need and keep the rest in the freezer.

Fruits: Look for fresh fruits in season. Be careful not to buy more perishable items than you need to avoid waste.

Milk: Try nonfat dry milk; it is the least expensive. Mix several hours ahead and chill before drinking.

Meat and poultry: Look for specials at the meat counter. Buy whole chickens and cut them into pieces yourself. Buy chuck or bottom round instead of sirloin.

Dried beans and peas: Substitute them for meat, poultry or fish. They cost less, are lower in fat and provide the same nutrients.

Bulk foods: Use them to replace similar foods sold in packages. They are lower in price.