Rising food prices and stagnant job growth have many Americans looking for ways to save on food bills, but that doesn't justify an unhealthy diet of fast food or frozen pizza for you or your family.
In fact, fast and cheap food isn't 'cheap' at all. An unhealthy diet can result in additional long-term healthcare costs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-third of all U.S. adults (33.8%) and approximately 17% of all U.S. children and adolescents are obese, and in 2018, the cost of obesity nationally is projected to be $1,425 per person in direct medical costs. That doesn't include indirect costs such as a lack of productivity at work, low energy levels and possible depression.
You can prevent obesity by eating smarter, even if your funds are limited. A healthy diet doesn't have to be costly; it just has to be well planned and prepared. Here are 10 ways you can maintain a healthy diet and a healthy budget.
1. Stock Up on Calorie-Dense Whole Foods
To get the most out of your budget, buy foods that give you the best nutritional bang for your buck. Food that has high amounts of protein, fiber and sheer bulk per calorie will help you feel full quicker than empty calorie foods and thus, you will consume less.
You will spend less money and avoid unnecessary calories by focusing on filling foods. Inexpensive and nutritious foods include potatoes, eggs, whole grains, oats and legumes. Stock up so that you always have a quick, filling meal available at all times.
2. Join a Local Co-Op
Food Cooperatives are organizations that offer steep discounts on organic food, meat and animal by-products like eggs and milk in exchange for volunteering or monthly dues. In the United States, the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) is a cooperative federation with 146 food cooperatives. Do a quick online search to find out where the Co-Ops are in your area.
3. Prepare a Vegetarian Meal Once a Week
Meat can be costly for your body and for your wallet. Removing meat -- even one day a week -- can save money, simplify cooking and is a healthy alternative to a meat-based diet. Beans are a protein-rich replacement and cost a fraction of typical meat prices. Vegetarian chefs have even made it easy for you to find delicious, healthy and free online vegetarian recipes.
4. Use Seasonal Produce
Food costs more when you buy it out of season, due in part to the distance it has to travel to reach your market. Vegetables are freshest the moment they are harvested, so plan your menu around in-season produce and you will have delicious, healthy and, most importantly, natural food at the most affordable price.
Once you start planning your menu (see tip #7), check to see when the items on your grocery list are in season.
5. Buy in Bulk
Warehouse stores, such as Sam's Club or Costco, sell dried goods, canned foods and frozen items in bulk at rock-bottom prices. They are great sources to stock up on items so you always have healthy, filling food available for your family.
One of the best things to buy here are frozen fruits and vegetables, as they are picked in-season, so they have the same nutritional value as fresh produce. Look for labels that say 'no sugar, salt or preservatives added.'
6. Plan a Menu
Before you go shopping, plan a menu based on cost and ease of preparation. Try cooking a dish in larger quantities, as it takes about the same amount of time and uses more of the same ingredients so you can buy in bulk and save money. You can eat the leftovers for days or decide to freeze it and have a healthy meal available for when you are tempted to eat out.
7. Learn to Cook
You don't have to become the next 'Master Chef,' but learning how to prepare your own food is always cheaper ( and more delicious) than buying frozen dinners. There are restaurants and stores like Williams Sonoma that offer free cooking classes, as well as daily deal coupons in nearly every major city that offer discounts to local culinary schools and classes.
Take advantage of all the free and discounted resources in your community to improve your cooking. Knowing how to prepare food will be useful for many years to come and possibly make you less likely to head to a restaurant when dinner time rolls around.
8. Do the Prep-Work Personally
Grocery stores everywhere sell fruits, veggies and herbs that are cut and packaged. Not only will these have fewer flavors and be less fresh, but they are also far more expensive. Unless you're really in a rush to get dinner ready, do the prep-work yourself instead.
9. Drink Plenty of Water
Water is free, it fills you up and aids in digestion. You can also add lemon to the water, which helps alkalize your body, balances your natural pH and makes it more palatable. Keeping fresh water nearby and accessible will make it easier to choose over soda. Buy a low-cost water filter for your faucet or a Brita water filter and you can have water around at all times and avoid the added expense of buying bottled water from the store.
10. Plant a Garden at Home
Save money, improve your diet and help the environment at the same time by starting a garden of fresh fruits and veggies. There are some up-front costs, but you can recoup the cost quickly if you grow your produce and eat what you grow.
The Investing Answer: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle begins with a healthy diet and a smart budget. Plan your diet around calorie-dense foods like eggs, oats, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins, and take time to prepare your own meals.
The more time and effort you put into the food you eat, the better your health will be -- saving you money not only on food bills now, but healthcare bills in the future. 'Eat healthy and save money' is a mantra we should all live by.
Photo courtesy of Flickr.