If you’re like me, attempting to eat real food on a budget can be a challenge. How do you make healthy and thrifty choices when you know there’s plenty of $1 fast food options elsewhere?
I’ve always had an appreciation for good food, but was never actually taught how to cook. Throughout college, the concept of prepping meals for the week seemed like an affront to my lifestyle, especially when I relied on dorm food. But I eventually realized it was time to grow up and make better food choices.
So I tapped Andrea Hiatt, a registered dietitian with Novant Health Weight Loss Solutions, to go on a trip to my local grocery store. I had two goals: I wanted to learn grocery shopping tips she swore by and learn what healthy food staples she picked up from the aisles.
She shared tips that, in the end, made me feel comfortable with the idea that, yes, it’s easy to fill your cart with healthy ingredients that won’t break your budget.
Her favorites: Here’s what’s on her list
- Mixed greens (mixed greens over iceberg lettuce because they’re packed with more nutrition)
- Spiralized vegetables (it’s a fun, low-carb alternative to traditional pasta noodles)
- Chicken breasts
- Root vegetable-based hash browns (as an alternative to potato-based hash. Some non-potato-based hash browns have fewer carbs and more nutrients.)
- Nuts (great healthy snack packed with “good” fats, but Hiatt warned that watching your serving size is key, since they tend to be high in calories)
- Plain Greek yogurt (flavored, high-fat yogurt can come with more servings of sugar than you would expect, so she recommends getting plain Greek yogurt and adding your own toppings)
- Seasonal fruit
- Veggie tater tots (a cousin of the potato-based kind that’s generally cauliflower or carrot-based and has more of a nutritional oomph than other varieties)
Tip 1: Remember, healthy eating doesn’t mean you only have to eat chicken and salad
When Hiatt preps meals for the week, she keeps her daily caloric intake in mind. This can vary per individual (you can use the calorie calculator here), but there’s a lot of flexibility you can have that goes beyond just eating chicken salads each day.
“For instance, it’s totally possible to have a healthier version of pizza (made with cauliflower crust instead of regular pizza dough, for instance). As dietitians, we’re not always just having salads,” she said.
Tip 2: Pick up ingredients you can reuse
Stretch your dollar by getting stuff that you know you’re going to use throughout the week. An example Hiatt chose for our trip together were tri-colored peppers. Hiatt planned to make Western omelets for breakfast and wanted to use the leftover peppers for her dinner salad.
“I used to throw out ingredients all the time because I didn’t use it for a couple of days, but now I try to meal-prep by thinking of recipes with ingredients I know I can reuse quickly,” said Hiatt. “This is a great way for me to stay on budget and not be as wasteful.”
Tip 3: Read the ingredients and nutritional labels of everything you buy
Knowing what’s inside the food you eat is key to helping you stay mindful of what you’re putting inside your body.
For instance, cereal and granola are typically considered healthy, but they often have lots of added sugars. So if you’re going to choose breakfast items like these, it’s good to go for whole wheat and grain choices.
“Nuts are a great snack since they have a lot of good fatty acids and omega threes, but once again if you don’t check your labels carefully you could easily pack on calories by not portioning them out properly,” said Hiatt. “Checking your labels gives you a good sense of how much you can eat, and it allows you to compare your options in the store as well.”
Hiatt’s go-to snack items: nuts like walnuts and pecans and Greek yogurt.
Tip 4: If you’re a pizza and pasta lover, try making your own tomato sauce instead of buying premade items
Growing up in an Italian-American household, Hiatt cultivated a love for Italian fare. She learned cooking tips from her mother that “it’s better to avoid the jar and make the tomato sauce yourself.”
Making your own pasta or pizza sauce is relatively simple, plus you’ll avoid the extra sodium and calories that comes with premade sauces.
Tip 5: Put together a grocery list before your trip
Walking into a grocery store without a plan is a common mistake that shoppers make, according to Hiatt. By putting together a plan of all the key ingredients you need for your meal plans, you can avoid repeat trips to the store because you forgot to pick something up. Plus, you’ll feel better walking through the aisles with a purpose.
Tip 6: Avoid grocery shopping when you’re hungry
This is another mistake Hiatt said she sees people make very often.
“When we’re hungry, we’re going to run toward anything that we see that looks good or sounds good,” said Hiatt. “This can be dangerous because you could easily fall into the trap of spending a lot more money than you budgeted for, and it also adds up to your calorie budget — it’s a lose-lose situation.”
Tip 7: And finally, groceries don’t have to be expensive
“The biggest misconception I hear from clients I work with is that healthy eating is always expensive,” said Hiatt. Now there are more great options for healthy produce and meats than there have ever been before.
“I think that’s the biggest thing, because a lot of people are just used to the convenience of eating out or eating fast foods, they think healthy eating is just overpriced, but it isn’t,” she said. “There are great sales and coupons you can take advantage of, and by eating super processed foods often, you end up paying the price of your health later.”
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