Is it possible to eat better on a budget? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, food prices recently jumped to their highest since 1974. Those that saw the steepest increase include meat and poultry, eggs, bakery items and cereal. Fruits, vegetables and dairy also saw modest increases. Higher food prices certainly impact us all. They may have you wondering how healthy eating habits and a stretched food budget can peacefully co-exist. Fear not. Here are five less obvious ways to save on food that may have you eating even better on a budget than you did before.
Be a Meal Planning Boss
If you aren’t on-board with weekly meal planning, what are you waiting for? Beyond saving money, you will spend less time trying to figure out what’s for dinner each night and likely waste less food. The first step is to take inventory of the foods you have on hand, paying special attention to those fresh or refrigerated foods that may be close to going bad. This step will help prioritize what to use in your meal plan. From there, decide what meals or recipes you are going to make and write a detailed grocery list. Try grouping items by produce, meat, etc., so it’s harder to forget things on your list and to get you in and out of the store as efficiently as possible.
When recipes call for ground meat like chicken, turkey or beef, cut that amount in half. Then, make up the difference with a can of drained and rinsed beans. Reserve the remaining meat for a whole new meal. A single, standard can of beans can cost as little as just $0.50 per pound—far less than animal protein. Use any beans you like, ideally opting for lower sodium or no added salt varieties. Or try soaking and cooking beans from scratch. This half ground meat, half beans technique works particularly well when making family-favorite meals. Imagine tacos, burritos, casseroles, soups, nachos and sloppy joes with half or all beans for protein. As an added bonus, your finished recipe will supply plant-based protein and fiber that’s lacking from meat alone.
Don’t Buy if You Can D.I.Y.
Sure, those freshly-roasted rotisserie chickens, chopped broccoli florets, sliced watermelon and crunchy chickpea snacks may be tempting and while they do save time, they also hit your wallet harder. At least for now, eliminate the convenience foods that normally fill your cart and do-it-yourself instead. This will free up more than a few dollars that can be applied to the purchase of healthful staples. When you DIY, especially with fresh fruit and veggies, you’ll ensure it stays fresh longer. A whole watermelon will last longer in your fridge than cut up pieces.
Transition to Plant-Based
If a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol hasn’t driven you to explore a more plant-based diet, perhaps saving money will? Given the higher prices of meat and poultry, and inevitable future shortages at the meat case, there’s no time like the present to go plant based. More flexible than a vegetarian diet, plant-based eating means that nutrient-dense fresh, canned or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and oils take over the center of the plate with no animal protein or just a little on the side. Start gradually by reducing the amount of meat in your go-to recipes and planning a few plant-based meals, like grain bowls, pasta or vegetable soups on your weekly menu.
Mind the Dates
Confusion on package dates is a key contributor to excess food waste in the U.S. In fact, more than 90 percent of people say they have discarded food that may have been edible strictly because of the date on the label. What you may not know is that most dates are suggested by the manufacturer to address the food’s quality, more than its safety. Exceptions here are for baby formula. In many cases, you can push at least a few days past these “use by”, “best if used by”, and “sell by” dates, assuming the food doesn’t have an unpleasant smell or funky appearance. A good rule of thumb is ‘when in doubt, throw it out.’ If there is no doubt, go ahead and rescue that food from the trash to get your money’s worth. Also, when shopping, check dates before purchase to give yourself enough lead time to be able to use a food once you get home.
So, instead of letting costlier food prices get you down, view this as a chance to innovate your weekly menus and learn how to indeed eat healthier on a budget. It’s an important life skill to have!
Beth Stark, RDN, LDN
Follow Beth on LinkedIn or Instagram at @bethstarkRDN