How to eat right and save money at the same time

By Michael Merschel, American Heart Association News

(the_burtons, Moment/Getty Images)
(the_burtons/Moment, Getty Images)

Lea en español

You want to eat healthy. You need to save cash. Can you have it both ways?

Yes, experts say.

"People think that healthy eating is an elite thing, that it's something you can only do if you have lots of money, and lots of spare time, and all kinds of fancy equipment," said Christine Hradek, a nutrition specialist at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in Ames. "And really, that isn't true."

Here's how to make it happen.

Start in a happy place.

The first step is to think about what kinds of foods you like, said Cheryl Anderson, dean of the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at the University of California San Diego. Then, envision the healthiest version of them.

Are you a french-fry fiend? Ponder a baked potato seasoned with herbs as an affordable, not-soaked-in-fat option. Is boxed macaroni and cheese your go-to quick meal? You can get a whole bag of pasta for much less per serving. Sprinkle olive oil, fresh herbs and spices and maybe just a sprinkling of cheese, and you've just stretched your dollar and made something that's better for you.

Learn to cook.

"If you are always buying food that is at least partially prepared for you, chances are you're going to spend a lot more money on food than you need to," Hradek said.

You don't need to make something out of a gourmet magazine, she said. "But for overall habits, we tend to say investing a little bit of time can save you a lot of money."

Plan on it.

"You should not have to start fresh cooking from scratch every day," Hradek said. Planning before you shop can save time in the kitchen and money at the store.

If the idea of planning out a whole week is too much, start by planning just workdays, or just one meal a day. Take inventory of what you have on hand to make sure perishable items won't go to waste. Then fill in your list with things to purchase. It can help keep you from being tempted by things you don't need.

Planning also can ensure you hit all the healthy food groups you need each day. Several resources can be found online. For example, Iowa State's Spend Smart Eat Smart webpage has a printable menu planner with a checklist.

Leverage your leftovers.

Hradek calls them "planned-overs." Find a meal you can make, double the size, freeze half. You've just knocked out two meals in the time it takes to make one.

Planned leftovers let you take advantage of sale items. And they take away an excuse to grab something unhealthy in a rush.

Anderson, who travels a lot for work, uses this strategy. "When I make a meal on a Saturday afternoon, it looks like it's Thanksgiving in my house, because I've not just thought about me eating today – I'm thinking about that day when I get off of the airplane, and it's 9:30, and I don't want to drive through some fast-food restaurant."

Planning lets her go home and pull a nourishing, home-cooked meal out of the freezer.

Canned can be OK.

Frozen, too. At least when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

If canned beans make your time in the kitchen easier, have at it. "Just be mindful of what's in the can by looking at the labels," Anderson said.

Be store-savvy.

A lot of things that look like a sale are actually advertisements, Hradek said. Always compare the price with the items above and below on the store shelf.

Coupons also call for caution. If it's for a product you use regularly – fine, she said. "If the coupon is instead acting as an advertisement and is getting me to buy something I wouldn't have bought otherwise, I would probably avoid it." Especially if it would cause you to buy a bunch of something perishable.

This is another area where planning helps, Hradek said, by preventing you from impulsively stocking up on things you won't use. "Don't improvise with perishable items outside of your plan, because chances are you'll lose them."

Know where to get help.

If you're struggling to put food on the table, you've got plenty of company. According to Census Bureau numbers gathered in May, 19 million U.S. adults reported their household sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat in the last seven days.

Although many people look to local food pantries, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the best place to start, Hradek said. State-by-state instructions can be found at the Department of Agriculture's website.

SNAP even allows shopping at farmers markets, Anderson said. "So that's a new and healthy thing."

Remember, she said, cheap food that's heavy on calories and light on nutrition comes with long-term costs, including obesity, diabetes and other heart disease risks.

Enjoy yourself.

"Food is more than just nourishment," Hradek said. It's about culture and memories, and there's no one-plan-fits-all approach to find balance. "If you're miserable, you're doing it wrong. It should be a source of pleasure."

But, she said, "a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of planning can add up to a lot of savings and healthier choices, regardless of your budget."

If you have questions or comments about this story, please email editor@heart.org.


American Heart Association News Stories

American Heart Association News covers heart disease, stroke and related health issues. Not all views expressed in American Heart Association News stories reflect the official position of the American Heart Association.

Copyright is owned or held by the American Heart Association, Inc., and all rights are reserved. Permission is granted, at no cost and without need for further request, for individuals, media outlets, and non-commercial education and awareness efforts to link to, quote, excerpt or reprint from these stories in any medium as long as no text is altered and proper attribution is made to American Heart Association News.

Other uses, including educational products or services sold for profit, must comply with the American Heart Association’s Copyright Permission Guidelines. See full terms of use. These stories may not be used to promote or endorse a commercial product or service.

HEALTH CARE DISCLAIMER: This site and its services do not constitute the practice of medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always talk to your health care provider for diagnosis and treatment, including your specific medical needs. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem or condition, please contact a qualified health care professional immediately. If you are in the United States and experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or call for emergency medical help immediately.