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6 Easy Ways to Eat Healthy on the Cheap

Eating healthy doesn't have to break the bank

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Food prices remain stubbornly high, making it difficult for countless Americans to put food on the table, let alone eat healthy. As a result, many turn to processed foods, which tend to be cheaper and easier to prepare. But a diet full of sugar and fat can cost you more over the long run. Nutrient-poor diets are a major contributor to chronic conditions including diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. ​

They’re also addictive, particularly among older adults, according to a new poll by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. 

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“The word addiction may seem strong when it comes to food, but research has shown that our brains respond as strongly to highly processed foods, especially those highest in sugar, simple starches, and fat, as they do to tobacco, alcohol and other addictive substances,” said University of Michigan psychologist Ashley Gearhardt in a press release highlighting the study results. “Just as with smoking or drinking, we need to identify and reach out to those who have entered unhealthy patterns of use and support them in developing a healthier relationship with food.”

Eating healthy isn’t addictive (at least not in a bad way), nor does it have to break the bank. There are ways to consume nutritious foods on the cheap, including the following six: 

1. Plan

If you’re on a tight budget, getting your daily dose of affordable healthy food isn’t something you can do on the fly. It requires forethought and planning. “The thing about saving money is it’s a holistic approach. Gone are the days when you can go to the grocery stores, grab a newspaper full of coupons and save money,” says Krystal Sharp, a money expert and operator of the Krys the Maximizer website. “Saving money on the things you want takes time to do.” 

Sharp is a big advocate for planning your meals two weeks or more in advance. To save money, select healthy recipes that have common ingredients. Let’s say chicken is your protein of choice; you can buy enough for 10 different chicken meals. Chicken fajitas could be on the menu one night, grilled cutlets and a salad the next. You can also save money by choosing healthy recipes that freeze well or can be consumed for several days. Soups and casseroles are two budget-smart examples. 

Another benefit of planning: Once you know what you want to buy, you can search for coupons and discounts on those items. Start with store ads and then scour the internet for digital coupons and discounts. Stack mobile coupons with sales and promotions to save more.

“2023 is all about saving money from your phone. Whatever store you shop at, crack open their app and see what deal they have,” Sharp says.

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2. Select cheap but healthy foods

There are plenty of foods and ingredients that are cheap and healthy that have a long shelf life. Brown rice and oatmeal are two great choices of grains. To save on fruits and vegetables, buy what is in season. Frozen fruits and vegetables are another affordable option. They tend to be cheaper and can be used in a variety of recipes. “Frozen vegetables and fruits are just as healthy as fresh fruits and vegetables and sometimes even more healthy,” says Donald Hensrud, M.D., a Mayo Clinic internist and author of The Mayo Clinic Diet. Buy fruit and vegetables in bulk only if you’ll consume them quickly. Otherwise you’ll end up tossing them, which isn’t budget friendly.  

Beans are another good source of protein and fiber and are a whole lot cheaper than a steak.

You can also buy meat, ground beef and poultry in bulk. Break them down into smaller portions and freeze them. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends using ground beef within four months of freezing. Raw chicken can be frozen for up to one year, while parts can last for nine months and giblets or ground chicken can stay frozen for three to four months, according to the USDA. 

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3. Stay on budget

Part of your meal planning should include setting and sticking to a budget. If you have $500 to spend on groceries for the month, break it down to $125 a week and shop accordingly. “People allow the grocery stores to tell them how much to spend,” Sharp says. “You need to craft meals and snacks that fit into your weekly budget.” Look for coupons and discounts for as many items on the shopping list as possible to keep your budget on track. 

4. Skip organic

Eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to purchase everything organic, which tends to be more pricey. Sometimes, according to Hensrud, it isn’t even more nutritious if it’s been sitting on the shelf for a while. “It’s better for the environment, that’s the major advantage of organic produce,” he says. “Making good choices that aren’t organic can still be very healthy.”  

5. Purchase store brands

From milk to frozen peas, many grocery stores offer their own brands, which tend to be cheaper. How much? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you can save 20 to 30 percent on your food bill. 

6. Grow your own

Have a green thumb? Then you may want to consider growing your own fruits, vegetables and herbs. Not only can you save a ton but you’ll have fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance. Many fruits, vegetables and herbs can be grown in pots, so even apartment dwellers can have their own healthy gardens. “There’s a common belief that eating healthier is definitely more expensive, but I would challenge that belief,” Hensrud says. “It does take a little bit of work … but it doesn’t have to be impossible.”

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