Guide to Affordable and Healthy Eating

Lets face it, we all need to eat, and for many of us, it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of life! Unfortunately, money is often a barrier holding us back on the variety of things we would like to explore in life. In the U.S. the average person spends around 11% of their disposable income on food (USDA). This guide’s purpose is to show some of the easiest ways to cut costs on food, while still providing ourselves delicious and nutritious meals! 

Know What It Means To Eat Healthy 

It is important to start off with a basic understanding of what a nutritious well balanced diet means. Generally, eating healthy means eating a variety of foods that give you the nutrients you need to maintain your health, feel good, and have energy. These nutrients include protein, carbohydrates, fat, water, vitamins, and minerals. A key aspect of this is understanding key food groups so you can get all the nutrients you need and maintain balance in your diet. 

What is implied by “healthy eating” will vary depending on what doctor or dietitian you are talking to, but here are some general rules:

  • Eat food in its most natural (raw) state. Processed food often has less nutrients and more additives that aren’t good for you. Avoid foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce or with more than 5 ingredients. 
  • Eat at least 5 servings of fruits or vegetables a day. Fruits and veggies are a healthy choice at any time. Try to consume them raw, steamed, sauteed, or juiced.
  • Avoid sugar and sodium as much as possible. Artificial sweeteners can be replaced by honey, maple syrup, or stevia. 
  • Eat a balanced diet by following the USDA’s Food Guidelines. ChooseMyPlate is the USDA’s version of the food pyramid and is a great guideline to follow. 
  • Choose whole grains. Whole grains are grains that have not had their bran and germ removed in the milling process, and include nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, folic acid, potassium, and magnesium. Furthermore, studies show that there is a link between consuming whole grains and weight loss, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases like diabetes.
  • Drink lots of water! The general recommendation for hydration is to drink half of your body weight in oz of water. So if you weigh 160lbs, drink 80 oz of water a day!
  • For more information check out this guide to healthy eating

10 Basic Rules to Live by for Saving Money on Food:

1) Create and Follow a Budget

Even if you have been working for years and never have to manage your money in this way before, creating and maintaining a budget will significantly help you in spending the exact amount of money you want and need to on food. 

So sit down and make a list of all the things you absolutely must pay for regularly — each year, quarter and month. That might include rent, utilities, car payments, insurance, phone plan, etc.! 

(You can make this process easier by digitizing your financial life with a budgeting app. Here are “best budgeting apps” on penny hoarder.)

Then, compare all expenses to your regular income. The difference —  leftover money — is what you have to spend on everything else in your life, including food. When it comes down to it, all the food you buy must fit inside that figure. Don’t worry if it is troublingly small, my roommate and I have a budget of around $40 a week each for food following this guide! 

Learn more about tips for making a food budget here.

2) Cook at Home - Meal Prep

Stretch out your money by making large meals at the beginning of the week to get you through! Cooking at home is a significantly cheaper option than eating out, so take some time on Sunday to make large batches of food that you can pack with you throughout the busy day.

There are endless options when it comes to preparing meals for your week, if this is new to you check out this Meal Prep page for inspiration.

Here is a starter meal-prep plan for you:

3) Cut the Junk Food and Late Night Snacking

Unhealthy junk foods may be tempting, but if you are looking to incorporate a cheap and nutritious diet into your lifestyle, these food items are the first to go. Potato chips, sugar drinks and sweets, ice cream, candy, processed meat and cheese, refined grains, and more may all be considered junk foods. Though often surprisingly cheap, these foods offer little nutritional value and your money is best spent elsewhere!

4) Eat Superfoods and Whole foods that are Cheap 

    • Eggs make an easy meal on the go, especially if you hard boil them ahead of time.
    • Oatmeal will keep you full longer than cold cereal. Opt for steel-cut or “old-fashioned” oats that you cook on a stove top. Instant oatmeal is loaded with sugar and additives, and will not keep you satiated for very long
    • Rice is incredibly cheap and goes well with almost anything. Opt for brown rice, as it includes the entire grain, and consider making a rice and beans recipe.
    • Beans are also good for you and your wallet. While soaking them and cooking them yourself is most cost-effective, it might be more realistic for you as a college student to buy them canned.
    • Avocados can be very affordable, especially during the spring when they are in season. While avocados are high in calories, they provide good fats that will power your brain.
    • Peanut Butter is high in calories, but the protein will help you stay full. Avoid peanut butter with sugar and other additives, and instead purchase peanut butter that lists only peanuts and salt as ingredients.
    • Apples are the absolute best study snacks. They give you the same amount of energy as a cup of coffee.
    • Spinach is very high in iron and protein. Can be bought in a can or frozen to limit waste.
    • Whole Wheat Bread or Pasta may be a few bucks more than white alternatives but offer many more health benefits and nutrients.
    • Sweet Potatoes are a rich source of fibre as well as containing an array of vitamins and minerals including iron, calcium, selenium, and they're a good source of most of our B vitamins and vitamin C.
    • Chicken is one of the best lean meat choices. It is a great source of protein, calcium, and potassium. 

5) Get Smart About Grocery Shopping 

Now that you have created a budget and a plan for prepping your meals, this is where the rubber hits the road. There are tons of ways to save money when shopping for groceries:

  • Utilize coupons
  • Stick to your list 
  • Buy generic items instead of brand names
  • Check out the sale items
  • Buy frozen veggies instead of fresh
  • Read labels to know what is in pre-packaged food
  • Follow Dr. Oz’s grocery list for inexpensive and healthy items

6) Find Other Sources of Protein 

A common misconception is that the only way to get protein is to eat meat. You can get protein from many different sources, such as legumes, eggs, and fish. They are inexpensive and easy to prepare. Red meat can be very expensive and is often consumed in high amounts which can be very bad for your health. Check out alternative sources of protein to combat this challenge! 

7) Avoid Eating Out and When You Do, Chose the Healthy Options

Roughly half of the income the average American spends on food is spent eating out. Not only will you cut costs by cooking at home, you will learn valuable life skills and spend more time with your friends and family. When treating yourself to take-out every once in awhile, be mindful of your choice and price range.

There are a few general rules you can follow to eat healthy when out to eat:

  • Choose lean meat like chicken or plant based meals 
  • Avoid fried foods
  • Avoid cheesy, oily, or greasy options 

8) Eat Seasonal and Local

Many people don't see this as an affordable option but in reality it can be! Below are some tips to eating locally and seasonally!

  • Try growing your own vegetables! If you have a backyard plan out a garden, and if you live in an apartment try container gardening or access a local community garden plot.
  • Always keep in mind which fruits and vegetables are in season when you go shopping. They will usually be cheaper and fresher when they are in season, so plan your meals to include fresh produce.
  • Canned foods have a longer shelf life and are much cheaper! You can find great sources of protein and vegetables in cans. These are also very easy to prepare.
  • Try to barter or get deals at your local farmers market! Find out what you local farmer are itching to get rid of!

9) Team Up With Your Friends, Roommates, or Family 

If you share a living space with roommates or family, you have a whole host of savings opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise. Buying ingredients in bulk can be a much cheaper option. Also, planning and preparing meals ahead of time saves money, energy, and planning. My roommate and I share this burden by cooking together and buying bulk items like trail mix and peanut butter that we share!

If you can split the task of meal planning — and the cost of the groceries — with your roommates, you’ll avoid that problem. Try having each member of the household make a cheap, but delicious, batch meal at regular intervals throughout the week. 

Another option open to you if you have roommates: Go in on a warehouse club membership together, which can help you save on healthy staples like grains or bulk servings of frozen veggies and meat. 

If you live alone, you can do this with friends! Start a community dinner every Sunday and collaborate.

10) Opt For Water 

Water is the healthiest drink option! As stated above, the recommended daily intake of water is a minimum of 64 oz or roughly 2 liters. Substituting unhealthy drinks like soda, alcohol, and sugary fruit juices with water will not only save your bank, but also your health! If water doesn’t necessarily excite you, check out this list of ways to make water more exciting.  

Cheap and Healthy Food Tips for Whitewater, WI

Much of this advice can be very contextually driven depending on where you live. For example, choosing different grocery store options is a great way to access cost savings when buying food. Many of us are aware that we are limited in Whitewater, WI; unless you have the privilege of driving to a neighboring town for different grocers. Due to this challenge, we have included a variety of resources and tips for cheap (or free) access to food in Whitewater!

Food Pantries 

Free Meals

Local Businesses Offering Deals

  • All you can drink for $7 on Wednesday at Thursday at local pubs 

Dumpster Diving

  • A very unconventional option, but in the United States around ⅓ of our food is wasted and much of it is edible that ends up in dumpsters. Check out this guide to dumpster diving.

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  • Brienne Brown
    LOVE the Sunday dinner idea. That was one of the ways I saved money in college. Either everyone brought an element of the meal and we cooked it together, or it was potluck.
  • Jonathan Roberts