What you suspect is true: healthy eating does not come cheap, especially when it comes to health-food trends like cold-pressed kale juice, salt-free sugar-free almond butter, organic cage-free hormone-free salmon, and acai bowls. However, it is possible to eat healthy while on a budget. The secret is to plan ahead, know your taste-preferences, and to let yourself indulge occasionally.
This list of tips are basically the New Yorker’s guide to eating healthy AF:
Tip #1: Keep your pantry stocked.
While many nutritionists may suggest that you go through your pantry and dispose (or donate) any of our pre-packaged foods that aren’t in line with your healthy eating plan, when you’re on a budget (and spending half of your budget on rent…), ditching the foods you already have and replacing them with their healthier alternative is not always possible. Instead, phase out the less healthy foods in your pantry. For example, mix the remainder of your ~regular grain~ pasta with its whole grain substitute, that way you are not wasting the food you already have, but are also getting the nutritious value of whole grain. Additionally, if you’ve got a lot of ramen still left in your pantry, don’t throw it out. Rather, add whole vegetables like carrots, celery, tomatoes, and onions, and a protein source like chicken to your Ramen concoction. This is a great way to get the nutritious value of whole vegetables and fresh chicken, without wasting the products you already have. As you begin to use up the foods in pantry, restock them with foods such as dried beans, whole grains, canned fish, nuts and nutritional yeast.
Tip #2: Keep your refrigerator ‘lean & green’.
Spinach, kale, green apples and avocados are the lean & green foods you should keep in your fridge at all time. Spinach is only ~$2.00 per bag and it really packs a punch of vitamin A, vitamin K, and potassium, while being a great salad base or steamed side dish. Kale is a bit more expensive than spinach at about ~3.50 a bunch, but of our recommended daily value, it gives us 206% vitamin A, 134% vitamin C, and a (holy cow) 684% of our vitamin K. Worth it? Totally worth it. Kale makes a great salad base, sauteed side, or crispy chip. Green apples are typically ~$1.50 per apple, or ~$5.50 for a pack of four and are both low in sugar and high in fiber. While I prefer my apples as a snack, or baked ~dessert style~, they are also great chopped up in a salad or in a morning smoothie. Finally, while avocados can be a bit pricey at $2.00 a pop, they have healthy fat, lean protein, more potassium than a banana, and tons of vitamins and minerals (consider this your multivitamin of the day).
Pickles (lots of probiotics), broccoli (lasts forever), and basil are also green & lean foods that are great to keep stocked in your refrigerator. [Other foods such as greek yogurt, eggs, hot sauce, spicy mustard, salsa, tofu, and whole grain bread are healthy food and condiment options that you should try to keep stocked up on].
Tip #3: Prep your meals ahead of time.
Now that you’ve cleaned out your cupboard Kon Mari style, reorganized and stocked-up your fridge, and re-filled your shelves with healthy and cost-effective groceries, the next step is making sure that you actually eat the health foods that fill your pantry and refrigerator shelves. But after a long day at work it can be tempting to stop at your favorite sushi-takeout restaurant for a white-rice packed no-cook dinner, or order in “healthy” helping of Pad Thai from Seamless. While it is occasionally okay for your health (and budget) to splurge on a to-go meal, it is not something that should become a routine (because face it, rent>Seamless). The solution for fighting The Pre-Made Food Temptation is meal preparation.
Prepping meals ahead makes it much easier to assemble healthy meals throughout the week. Additionally, because the healthy cooking is already done, it will be easier to commit to eating healthy throughout the week. Nutritionists and dieticians animously agree that meal prep is key to fighting the urge to order take out or veer off the healthy-eating track.
Tip #4: Know how long your leftovers last.
You made a big o’ healthy pot of chicken chili with corn and a bunch of of veggies and your plan is to eat one serving of chili every night when you get home from work. It’s cost effective and it certainly makes meal prep for the week manageable. But at what point will that chili start to taste a little funky? It’s important to consider how much food you can comfortably eat before it needs to be thrown out. When will the tomatoes in your chili be a little, um, too fresh? Some of this is trial and error. But five days is a good rule of thumb for the keep-date of non-frozen, pre-made meals. However, the good news is that foods last longer in the freezer.
Tip #5: Know your preferences (and how important variety is to to your palette).
You’re planning on eat that pot of chicken chili. Every. Day. For. The. Next. Week... Really? If you’re the type of person who likes to eat the same thing every meal five days in a row, then skip this tip. But if you’re like me, and the thought of soupy chicken mush (I know, I’m making it sound UBER appealing) four days in a row sends you straight for the freezer and that tub of Ben & Jerry’s (guilty as charged), then it’s time for you to learn to make smaller batches of the foods you tire of easily. Make only two servings of the foods you get tired of, like chicken chili, but continue making bigger batches of the foods you can’t get enough for (for me it’s my tomato, cucumber, and kalamata olive salad, grilled chicken, and homemade pickles).
Tip #6: Don’t underestimate the health-benefits of meat-free protein sources.
Vegetarian or not, meat-free protein sources like tofu, pinto beans, (frozen) spinach, greek yogurt and eggs are healthy and cost effective ways to meet your protein needs every day. Eating protein is especially important for people who are working out regularly as part of a healthy lifestyle (Hey, Fit fam). These vegetarian options also have a longer shelf-life than most meat-sources (like chicken and ground beef), which will help you waste less food.
Tip #7: Drink water.
Water is free, regardless of how much you drink. Studies show that drinking a glass of cold water before meals has been shown to reduce consumption at meals by 20%. This trick could cut down your weekly consumption, and therefore cut your grocery bill, by a whole fifth. Not bad, H2O, not bad. Drinking water is not only healthy, but it can really save you money! Who knew?!
Tip #8: Remember: everything in moderation.
Monica Auslander, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., founder of Essence Nutrition told SELF, “My favorite tip for sustainable weight loss is having clients close their eyes and picture the jail cell bars they imagine around all their ‘cheat’ foods disappearing. It’s a way of granting them ‘permission’ to eat their most desired foods whenever they want, based on the principles of mindful eating! I find that when I take away the novelty and forbidden aura surrounding foods, folks won't overindulge.”Auslander suggests that we can indulge, guilt-free, as long as we do so mindfully. Looks like I can have that Ben & Jerry’s after all!
Author Bio: Gabrielle Kassel is a New York based writer who has a deep affinity for weight-lifting, living mindfully, and the em-dash. She has been published at Women’s Health Magazine where she worked on the online editorial team, Feather Magazine where she was a contributing health writer, and ICE NYC where she works as the social media editor. In her free time she can be found reading self-help books, making soup, and practicing hygge.