While Well+Good is the first to say that healthy eating doesn't require buying trendy, expensive ingredients, the fact remains that eating well is harder when you're on a tight budget. Even if you forgo the Instagram-friendly foods, it can still be difficult, with avocados often costing over a dollar each and organic, grass-fed meat being 10 to 30 percent more expensive than conventional meat.
Even still, functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD, says there are still ways to eat healthy even if money is tight. While it's certainly true that Dr. Hyman hasn't walked in the shoes of the 13.5 million people in the U.S. with limited access to supermarkets or the 38 million people who receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), there was a time in his life when he was supporting his family of four on his $27,000 a year residency salary. Yes, he still had access to grocery stores, but he still had to follow a strict budget, too.
In his new book The Pegan Diet ($22), Dr. Hyman shares the tips that helped him stick to a budget while still eating nutritious foods—and not spending tons of time in the kitchen, either. If you're wondering how to eat healthy on a budget, his tips can come in handy and help you prioritize what to buy.
How to eat healthy on a budget according to Dr. Hyman:
1. Buy what you can in bulk
While buying ultra-processed convenience foods may seem like the cheapest route, Dr. Hyman says that in the long-term, making these foods the bulk of your diet could lead to medical problems and expensive medical bills. "If you stick to vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and some high-quality meat, you’ll [actually] save money [in the long run]," he says. Lentils, rice, beans, oats, quinoa are all nutrient-rich foods that Dr. Hyman says are both versatile to cook with and that you can buy in bulk.
2. Go for canned and frozen foods
Guess what: frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as buying them fresh and they last longer. "I like buying frozen berries to add to simple smoothies," Dr. Hyman says. When buying canned foods, he recommends buying brands that are BPA-free; if you're buying canned beans, rinse them well to remove excess sodium. One category of canned foods Dr. Hyman says is overlooked is fish, which is high in heart- and brain-healthy omega-3s. "Canned salmon, sardines, and anchovies are great options for adding to salads when you’re in a hurry," he says.
3. Cast a wider net when buying fish
Besides canned, Dr. Hyman says there are also several places online to buy high-quality fish at a lower price than what's at the grocery store. "My favorites are Vital Choice, Thrive Market, and Butcher Box. These websites make it pretty affordable to get quality fish," he says.
4. Shop at places that sell organic foods for the same price as non-organic
In Dr. Hyman's book, he calls out Walmart, Costco, Trader Joes, and Thrive Market as specific places that sell a wide range of organic foods without the expensive markup at some other grocery stores. He also recommends joining a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) for local, farm-fresh foods at a better price than what's at the store.
5. Master 3 quick healthy meals for super busy nights
Often, people rely on fast food when they're too tired to even think about cooking, but Dr. Hyman says eating out—even at a fast food restaurant—isn't as cost-effective as cooking with the foods he's highlighted here. And it's certainly less bang for your buck nutritionally too. This is why he recommends mastering a few super quick meals you can get on the table in mere minutes.
He personally has three in his rotation: a simple smoothie, an easy salad, and a "kitchen sink" stir-fry, all of which can easily be adapted based on what ingredients he has on hand. Below, he gives the deets on what's in them:
Blend eight ounces of unsweetened non-dairy milk, half-cup of frozen berries, one handful of spinach or other leafy green, one tablespoon of nut butter, and one tablespoon of flaxseeds or chia seeds. That's it—a perfect smoothie.
Super easy salad
To a salad bowl, add one bunch of chopped greens, as many non-starchy veggies as you like, a can of wild salmon or two to six ounces of cooked chicken, three tablespoons of your favorite herbs and spices, two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and one to two tablespoons of lemon juice, balsamic or apple cider vinegar. Toss everything together and serve.
Kitchen sink stir-fry
Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add chopped onion and sauté for two to three minutes, then add chopped or pressed garlic, a little ginger, and three cups of chopped vegetables. Try fennel, leeks, carrots, zucchini, cauliflower, asparagus, onions, broccoli, or pretty much anything else that you like. Add spices like paprika or cumin. Make it Asian-inspired with a little bit of toasted sesame oil, tamari, and mirin. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes or less. Top with lemon juice and fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro, and add salt to taste. Add your favorite protein like cooked ground meat or sliced chicken, beef, tempeh, or tofu.
While it's true that eating healthy on a budget requires more thought than if money were no object, putting these tips to practice makes it much easier to know what to prioritize. That's why Dr. Hyman recommends buying the best you can with what you have, and as these tips show, it doesn't have to break the bank.
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