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Ideas for eating well on a budget

True or false: Eating healthy means spending loads of cash on fancy superfoods found only at fancy health food stores.

Thankfully, the answer is false, friends. 

Look past the latest fad or trend on TikTok. There is no need for exotic, expensive ingredients to eat well and be healthy. There are plenty of affordable staple pantry foods and seasonal produce that taste good and offer plenty of nourishment. 

Assuming that most of us do our shopping at major supermarkets or have access to fresh produce markets and bulk food stores, here are our suggestions on how to eat well, boost health, and feel satisfied, using foods that are accessible and affordable!

(We’d like to note, we understand there are some who reside in ‘food deserts’ – locations with little to no direct access to fresh food, which is a significant problem and a matter for a separate discussion.)

Make savvy swaps

Get clever by swapping more costly food items with cheaper, yet healthier alternatives. Here are some ideas.

Swap: Meat for legumes

Some people have an aversion to legumes, but when properly prepared*, it is worth letting these into your life.

Meat is one of the more expensive household food items. Save cash by subbing out some meat for lentils, cannellini or black beans in your bolognese, chicken pie or lamb stew. Your meals will go further, will cost less, and you’ll be supplied with healthy sources of fibre, protein, and a variety of micronutrients.

Swap: Ultra-processed foods (UPF) for whole, minimally processed foods. 

Alluring ultra-processed food products – many containing added sugars and other ingredients of little or no nutritional value – are high in energy and only momentarily satisfying. And while some may initially appear to be cheaper than whole foods, UPFs are far less nutritious than real whole foods, and excess intake can lead to all kinds of costly health problems.

We need to eat for nourishment, not energy alone.

Buying whole food versions can save you money simply by leaving your body more satisfied. Whole oats are a good example – often cheaper than a ready-made, sugared-up cereal, and will keep you fuller for longer.

Check out other ingredient swaps, collated by No Money No Time, here

Buy bulk and embrace frozen

Many dried staples can be bought in bulk, saving pretty pennies. Think items such as oats, rice, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Keep in tightly sealed containers in a cool, dark cupboard.

Frozen vegetables and fruits can be cost effective, bought in large quantities, and stored in the freezer for up to a year. Freezing keeps the produce from spoiling, and if you take only the amount you need for each meal, you reduce food waste and save cash.

For more affordable meat, consider buying cheap cuts in bulk (ideal for a casserole or curry) and keep portions stored in the freezer.

Eat seasonally and plenty of veg

Choose veg and fruit that are in season. These are typically more affordable, in abundance, and best for nutrition and flavour. 

In addition, fill up half your plate (or more) with vegetables. Having more veg on your plate is an opportunity to bump out ultra-processed foods. Vegetables are far better for your health than the highly processed, refined stuff, packed with much-needed nutrition and a great source of fibre to keep you fuller for longer.

And as veg are generally cheaper than meat, use animal products as a condiment, not the centre of the meal. 

Salvage what you can!

Get clever with food storage and reduce food waste by freezing excess produce and saving, storing, and using leftover meals. 

Be creative by repurposing leftover foods and turning them into new meals! Think leftover roast veggies cooked into a frittata or soup, or excess brown rice used in a salad or stir fry.

Keep vegetable scraps and bones from meat for making your own stock. Not only do you reduce waste and save money, it is better for the environment, too. Great!

Cook in bulk or batches

We don’t always have time to cook. Cook meals in bulk and have food ready to go on those days you are strapped for time or tempted by costly takeout. 

Create a new habit of cooking meals in bulk and popping portions into the freezer to enjoy at a later date. Soups, stews, and curries are perfect for this.

Embrace imperfect produce and consider generic brands

Select fresh produce that may not look pretty – sometimes dubbed ugly, fugly, odd or wonky – but supplies the goodness and taste all the same. By doing so, you save money, and help reduce food waste by signalling to supermarkets that the imperfect fruit and veg sell just fine.

When buying packaged stuff, so long as the generic brand option doesn’t contain a heap of unhealthy added ingredients, opt for this. 

Importantly, always look beyond the cost of the product and check and compare the price per unit. 

For example, a generic brand of standard basmati rice can cost $0.32 / 100G. Compared to another brand at 0.53c / 100g and a fancier ‘quick cook’ basmati rice priced at $1.00 / 100g. The latter two are nearly identical products but cost more. In fact, the ‘quick cook’ option is over 3x more expensive (and let’s be honest, standard basmati rice doesn’t take THAT long to cook!).

Nutritional bang for your buck

Other tips are: 

  • Planning your meals and shopping lists before you hit the shops. Stick to the list, though allow some flexibility if you find produce items on special.
  • Cook at home. Making simple meals can be cheaper than eating out and will be better for your health – in the short and long term.
  • Do not shop when hungry. Marketing ploys are everywhere in the supermarket, and the temptation can be too great!
  • Be patient as you adapt. Try increasing your use of more affordable whole foods, adapting recipes here and there, such as using lentils to bulk out meals, slow cooking cheaper cuts of meat, or choosing whole oats over cereal. It can still taste great, and if using whole foods, your diet becomes healthier overall, as such foods are more nutritious than highly processed, ready-made stuff.

Another very cool thing to consider in all this? Eating better now will save health costs in the long term (and in some cases, the short term!).

Staples for the pantry

Good staples to have in your kitchen to build meals around include free-range eggs, tinned or dried beans, lentils and chickpeas, frozen fruit and vegetables, plain yoghurt, vinegar, olive oil, herbs and spices, whole oats, and whole grains/pseudo grains such as rice and buckwheat.

Budget-friendly meal ideas

Here are some suggestions for nourishing meals that won’t cost the earth:

Check out more recipes here.

We hope our suggestions help get more nutritious food into your daily diet without breaking the bank. Enjoy experimenting with affordable whole foods to improve nutrition, boost health, and feel satisfied!

A final note: food relief

We know access to food is a real concern for too many. In Australia, check in with your local council to see what food relief agencies are available for support.

By Angela Johnson (BHSc Nut Med)

 

*Preparing legumes
If you are not accustomed to eating legumes and experience side effects, such as bloating or excessive gas after consuming:

  1. introduce them into your diet in gradual amounts until you adapt and find them easier to tolerate, and 
  2. ensure you prepare them properly.

For example, dried black beans can be soaked overnight, rinsed well, and cooked for 45-60 minutes in fresh water. This helps break down some of the indigestible oligosaccharides that the microbes in our intestine struggle to digest for us. (When gut bugs can’t digest something, it generally sits in the intestine and ferments, creating gas. Lovely.)



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