Tight Budget, Tough (Food) Choices

Here’s a healthy, delightful and totally-doable-on-a-daily-basis idea for your next family dinner. Take a little trip to your favorite local grocery store and pick up the following:

  • Some fresh-caught, never-frozen, Atlantic Bluefin tuna steaks (high in protein and Omega-3 fatty acids).
  • A big side of organic kale (one cup contains whopping doses of antioxidants, including Vitamins A, C and K).
  • Carrots, ginger, celery, scallion and organic lemons for a Japanese side salad.
  • For a sweet treat, some plantains sweetened with yacon syrup.
  • A nice bottle of red wine to go with it (red wine contains antioxidants).

You’re all ready to eat a delicious meal with all sorts of healthy nutrients your body needs — assuming, of course, that you have enough money to buy all the ingredients, not to mention the three-plus hours you would need to prepare the meal. Don’t have the cash or the time? Don't feel bad; very few of us do. In fact, there's a correlation between income and eating: The tighter the food budget, the more likely the food bought will be highly processed and low in nutritional value.

Think about it: If you're trying to feed a family of four on a tight budget, you can choose to spend $5 on a pound of red grapes that will go bad in a week, or you can spend $5 on a 24-pack of frozen pizza bagel bites that will keep, well, forever. Thankfully, we don’t need to be rich to afford the healthy food and get the vital nutrients that our bodies need.

Make It

Cooking is a tough issue to tackle because time is money, and families that are strapped for money are usually also strapped for time. Single-parent families or families with two working parents, one job or multiple jobs, kids and kids' activities — no matter the scenario, it can be difficult to find the time to cook. However, buying whole, real foods that you can cook rather than buying processed, prepared or pre-packaged foods will automatically save you money. A whole, raw chicken is cheaper, more versatile and goes further (roast the chicken for dinner one night, put the leftover meat in a casserole the next night, and use the bones for soup base another night) than a box of, say, frozen chicken nuggets. A head of broccoli can be steamed for a side, added to a stir fry or chopped up and baked in a healthy breakfast egg dish. With a little meal planning, you can set aside one night to prepare meals for the entire week.

High Fiber, Low Cost

As every budget shopper knows, one key to affordability is to buy in bulk. Bulk shopping can mean two things: Buying large quantities of certain items or buying items that are not sold in individual packages (think of the bins of oatmeal, almonds and rice available at some stores). Either way, buying in bulk will save you money. But the main issue with bulk-buying is perishability. If you buy, for example, 5 pounds of strawberries for a family of four, your garbage is bound to smell like rotten strawberries in a couple weeks. So what’s good for you that's also good for your wallet and cabinet-friendly?

  • Beans and Legumes. Cultures all over the world have depended on these staples for years. They are versatile, easily seasoned, store well, and many are chock full of protein and fiber. Particularly rich in protein are dried soy beans (more than 30 grams of protein per cup); roasted peanuts (35 grams of protein per cup); and beans of every variety (a cup of boiled black beans contains 15 grams of protein).
  • Easy and Easy-to-Store Alternatives. You can increase your intake of great nutrients with these healthy alternatives to standard fare. Substitute whole wheat pasta for white pasta to up the fiber, and instead of white rice or couscous, try some bulgur wheat or the newest super food, quinoa. One cup of quinoa has about 8 grams of protein.

The great thing about these items is they can be bought in bulk, stored (properly) for years and used in nearly any kind of dish. 

Freeze It

Contrary to what some people say, freezing fruits and vegetables (if done right) does not strip these foods of their nutrients. If frozen at or below 0° Fahrenheit and without widely fluctuating temperature, your strawberries and broccoli can be bought when the price is right and eaten when you are ready. The texture may change to some extent because of the physics of freezing and unfreezing water molecules, but don’t mistake this slight change for a decrease in quality or nutrient value. Freezing is easier and less time-consuming than canning, and freezing allows you to buy highly perishable fruits and veggies when they're in season (i.e. cheaper) or when your friends are looking to get rid of more zucchini from their garden.

Grow it Yourself

Another strategy for healthy and cost-effective eating is cultivating your own small garden. Many common meal-enhancers — like basil, rosemary, sage and even garlic and tomatoes — can be grown in a home garden with minimal effort and at a fraction of the cost of buying these goods at any store. If you don't have a giant backyard, or if you don't have the time to tend to a giant garden, even small gardens in a raised bed or containers on the patio, balcony or windowsill can help immensely. And if that minimal effort gets you off the couch to water and harvest every once in awhile, so much the better. You’ll probably find that you have so many delightful herbs that you’ll have to share with the neighbors, and you can’t beat the health benefits of an active social life.

The Sad Side: Food Deserts

A sickening aspect of current American life, both literally and figuratively, is the proliferation of so-called “food deserts.” As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food deserts are “areas that lack access to affordable fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lowfat milk and other foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.”1 According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2.2 percent of the American population lives more than a mile from a supermarket and lacks access to a vehicle. If you fall into this category, or if the time, effort, and cost of going to a store stocked with good foods prohibits you from doing it on a regular basis, you need to make an effort to stock up when you can.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A Look Inside Food Deserts. https://www.cdc.gov/Features/fooddeserts/

This article is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to be used as or substituted for medical advice.  Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health care provider with any questions about your health or a medical condition.  Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have read on the internet.