How to eat right on a budget

Featured Sliders / Food & Drink / Health & Fitness / HER Health / Stories / January 14, 2020

Planning, research key to big savings on nutritious food

Story by Madeleine Leroux

When it comes to trying to get healthier, eating right is one of the most important steps. But, for so many of us, that can seem just out of reach for a number of reasons.

The most common reason? It’s too expensive.

But that perception is not always accurate. There are a number of things we can do to both eat right and stay within our budget.

Lynda Zimmerman, county engagement specialist on nutrition and health with the University of Missouri Cole County Extension Office, said the key to doing so is in both planning and research.

“The No. 1 thing is you’ve got to plan, and that can be a four letter word,” Zimmerman said. “It does take time on the front end.”

Zimmerman teaches two Cooking Matters classes that are available for families on limited resources. The courses focus on how to shop in the most cost-efficient and healthy manner, as well as how to use those ingredients for the healthiest and long lasting meals.

Obviously, the best savings are by making the majority of your meals at home. With work and family responsibilities, it’s key to use your time as wisely as possible.

Zimmerman advises people to plan meals for at least three or four nights per week. On the other nights, you can use leftovers or maybe eat out one night per week, she said.

“Look at what you have on hand … that you need to use up, then look at sales,” Zimmerman said. “Look at what’s on special, look at what’s in season and that’s how you’re going to get your best buys.”

Knowing what’s seasonally available will ensure you get products that are both fresh and economical. Zimmerman said coupons can help, but people need to be careful not to buy items simply because of a coupon.

“Sometimes we can be swayed into buying things with coupons that normally we wouldn’t buy,” she said. “You just have to be careful with that.”

Buying in bulk also can provide savings, but it’s another area where Zimmerman said to use caution.

“Usually, the bigger the quantity, the better the price. But not always,” she said.

Image from, run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What she advises, along with tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to look at the unit price of an item, which will show you what the price breaks down to per ounce. It can show that a larger item may not be the best buy after all. Zimmerman said most grocery stores display that information, so just look next to the base price where a small number, often in the bottom lefthand corner, displays the unit price.

“It’s surprising to me how many people don’t look at that,” Zimmerman said.

The other consideration when buying in bulk is how much you and your family will realistically use. For instance, a 10-pound bag of potatoes may be a great deal, but those savings are wasted if the entire bag isn’t used before going bad.

When thinking about your meals for the week, Zimmerman said she likes to use the idea of cook once, eat twice, or even more times, which ensures healthy, cost-efficient meals that take less time overall.

“It’s a big time saver,” Zimmerman said. “A lot of people say the reason they don’t want to cook is because of the time if takes, so anything we can do to reduce the amount of time we have to spend in the kitchen.”

That can mean roasting an entire chicken or turkey to use in several different meals or even to freeze portions, sized out for specific recipes, that can be used later. In the case of freezing, Zimmerman said to make sure you label each bag with the date so you know whether it’s safe to use later.

Freezing certain foods can really help cut down on waste. When buying fresh herbs, you can use an ice tray to freeze leftover herbs in oil or water. Once they are frozen, place the cubes in a freezer bag for use in later recipes.

Zimmerman said people need to make sure they limit how much perishable food they buy at once. Lettuce and other produce is only good for a few days, so if you don’t plan to use the entire amount within that period, you’re likely going to toss it.

On the other end are the types of produce with a long shelf life in the refrigerator, such as carrots, cabbage and cauliflower, she said.

“Nobody likes to throw food away, and that kind of discourages us in the end,” Zimmerman said. “So try to set yourself up for success.”

Julia Henry, a dietician at Capital Region Medical Center, said she doesn’t really like the concept of “eating right” as it assigns a morality to eating, which can lead to people just feeling bad about themselves for making what may be perceived as bad choices.

Henry suggests cooking your own beans in a slow cooker just from dried beans and then freeze them in portions similar to what you’d find in a purchased can of cooked beans. Not only will it save money in the long run, but it allows you to cut down the amount of sodium that you would normally find in the canned product.

“It does save some money,” Henry said.

Zimmerman advised considering different types of protein, which is often on of the higher cost items. She noted that eggs are a cost-effective protein option, as well as plant-based protein sources such as beans and lentils. She also suggested trying purchasing portions of a turkey or chicken that can be low cost, such as turkey legs. Portions can be easier to cook and provide more options for different meals, she said.

Henry also suggests using a grocery store’s delivery or pick up service to cut down on impulse purchases you might make in the store.

When it comes to fruits and vegetables, Zimmerman said there’s often a misconception that fresh is the most nutritious. Those types of food are most nutritious at the peak of ripeness, she said, and that may not be the point at which you’ve purchased that fresh produce.

“Think about where our food comes from,” Zimmerman said.

Fruits and vegetables that have been canned or frozen should be picked and packaged at that peak ripe point, while that fresh produce may have had to travel a bit to the store since being picked.

Henry agreed, noting that any fruits and vegetables are a good choice, whether it’s frozen or fresh. Sometimes the frozen option is cheaper and easier, she said.

Zimmerman said it really comes down to personal preference. Whatever fits best with your budget and your tastes is what you should go with.

Going back to her first, and really most important, point, Zimmerman said it’s important to establish a routine in prepping for the week. Make your meal plan and do however much prep work you can such as chopping up veggies and portioning them out for specific recipes.

Once you can get into a routine, you’ll find that healthy eating and staying within your budget is well within reach.

Healthy eating tips to fit your budget

  • Plan out your meals in advance. Ideally, try to plan one week’s worth of meals. If that seems too difficult, start small and work up to more.
  • Vary your protein. When planning your meals, choose a variety of protein sources throughout the week, form chicken to seafood to lean meat or eggs.
  • Use leftovers. Prepare enough of one dish to eat multiple times during the week.
  • When it comes to grocery shopping, ask for advice. Plenty of stores and markets offer good deals if you know when and where to find them. Read sales flyers, which can be found in the newspaper or on the store website. Check for loyalty programs where you shop, which is typically free and offers special deals and discounts. Ask friends and family where they find the best bargains.
  • Make sure to eat before you shop to reduce impulse purchases.
  • Use coupons, but only for the items you know you will use.
  • When at the store, look at the upper and lower shelves, as stores often stock the priciest items at eye level. Check for store brands, which often cost less than name brands. Grab from the back off the shelf, where you can often find the newest and freshest items, especially in the produce, dairy and meat aisles.
  • Think outside of the grocery store. Farmers markets and farm stands can be great options for fresh produce that fits a budget. The News Tribune prints a weekly list of area farmers markets in the Wednesday Flavor section.

Information from the USDA.

Meal planning tips

  • Before making your meal plan for the week, check what items you already have on hand. Using some of those items in your meal plan can save some money.
  • Create a list of recipes to try. Try finding healthy and low-cost meals based on the items you have on hand, what your family enjoys and what items are the best buys at that time. The USDA recommends using MyPlate Kitchen, available at, an interactive tool that helps with meal planning, cooking and grocery shopping. The site includes recipes and videos. Lynda Zimmerman suggests, which is by Oregon State University, or, which is by Share Our Strength, to find recipes. The University of Missouri Extension Office also offers a free app called Seasonal & Simple, which tells you what produce is in season in Missouri. It also provides tips for food storage, recipes and farmers market listings.
  • Think about your schedule. Choose meals that can be easily prepared when there isn’t a lot of time and save the recipes that take longer for your days off. For your busiest days, try preparing meals in advance that can be heated and served quickly.
  • After you’ve made your meal plan for the week, make your grocery list. By doing this after you’ve planned out the meals, you’ll buy only the items you need, saving money and preventing food waste. (Make sure you check off the items you already have on hand!) The USDA recommends using a worksheet and even has a grocery game plan worksheet available at

Information from the USDA.

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