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How to plan healthy meals on a budget

You've probably been spending more on groceries lately, and it's not just because you're cooking at home more often. Food prices have gone up. In fact, U.S. grocery prices are rising at a faster pace than they have in decades. In April 2020, grocery prices rose 2.6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – that's the biggest one-month increase in food prices since 1974.

When money is tight and food prices inch up, it can be hard to think about making healthy meals. But although it's tempting to only buy "cheaper" options even if they aren't that healthy, there are ways to still eat healthy while keeping within your grocery budget.

Here are 6 tips for planning healthy but economical meals:

  1. Let meat take a back seat. Feeding a hungry family meat-based meals night after night can become pricey. Instead of making meat the star of the show, think of it as a much loved side-kick. Make casseroles, stir fries, tacos, burritos, salads and grain bowls healthy and less expensive by loading up on the veggies and whole grains and scaling back on the meat.
  2. Have breakfast for dinner. One way to keep costs down but nutrition up is to eat breakfast for dinner. Veggie omelets, whole wheat French toast topped with fruit and Greek yogurt parfaits are low-cost meals that are sure to please. Although eggs have seen price increases lately, they're still a very economical protein source.
  3. Cook once and freeze. You can often save money if you buy food in larger-sized packages. For example, a bag of potatoes or avocadoes is often cheaper than buying one at a time and family packs of meat cost less per pound than smaller packages. To take advantage of bulk buying without letting food go to waste, cook and freeze a few meals that use similar ingredients.
  4. Get creative with leftovers. Some people hate eating leftovers, but why let all that good food go to waste? The key is to plan how to use leftovers so the family treats it as a whole new meal. Turn extra beef, chicken or fish into enticing pasta dishes, stir fries or burritos. Or make a delicious soup or salad with whatever you find in your fridge.
  5. Pass the pasta. Noodles are inexpensive and filling – and with so many different shapes and sizes available, your meals will never be boring. To keep meals healthier, use whole grain pasta instead of white. You can also experiment with protein-rich, chickpea or gluten-free pasta varieties. Keep toppings light by using tomato or broth-based sauces and going heavy on the veggies and light on the cheese.
  6. Remember soup is good food. Homemade soups are more nutritious than their canned, sodium-filled counterparts, and they taste better, too! Plus, it's easy to fill them with healthy, hearty ingredients like fresh veggies, grains and lean protein. Start with a soup stock made from leftover bones, meat and vegetable scraps or use low-sodium broth and then throw in whatever you have in the house.

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Date Last Reviewed: August 17, 2020
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Nora Minno, RD, CDN
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