meal planning

Eating Well Without Breaking the Bank

Eating well is expensive, right?

That might depend on what "eating well" means to you. In response to this question I often hear a myriad of responses including the following: 

More produce.

The light frozen meals/snacks or other healthified version of convenience foods.

"Primal" or paleo style staples (grass-fed meats, wild fish, ghee)

Vegan.

Organic.

Less processed food.

Kombucha, cold-pressed juice, chia seeds.

Though any of those can be healthful ways to eat, I like to bring people back to the basics for the purpose of keeping things simple, practical and sustainable. If you were to say that it's challenging to eat satisfying and nutritious food on a budget, I would definitely agree that it does take some extra time and planning to make it happen but it is not impossible. In this post I'll be sharing six ways to save some cash on your grocery bill without resorting to boring or nutritionally lacking meals. 

Eating well does not have to be fancy, but it does have to taste great.

meal plan and grocery list

Make a Plan

First and foremost, if your goal is to save money on groceries, you absolutely must make a plan. It can be simple (write down what you need on scratch paper) or super structured (by using a meal planning app) but it's absolutely necessary to prevent aimless wandering and grabbing things that don't work together. I dedicated an entire post to this so if you're interested in learning how to get more organized with meal planning be sure to check that one out.

I also like to plan some overlap of ingredients so if, for example, I won't use an entire bunch of greens in one meal, I have an idea of where I can use the rest to minimize waste. Remember to plan for breakfasts, lunches and snacks too. This will help limit the need to grab something expensive from a coffee shop, convenience store or vending machine because you need something in a pinch.


Need to plan in a hurry? Subscribe to my 'Healthy Dish' list and I'll send you a meal planning shortcut printable for free!


Shop Store Brands and/or Sales

Grocery stores sell store brands that are basically the same as their more high-end counterparts, just with no-frills packaging. In fact, most store brand items are actually manufactured by those higher end names. I typically do a quick scan of the ingredients to make sure there aren't any unnecessary additives but most of the time I find them to be identical, with a much more reasonable price tag. 

My favorite store brand is the Whole Foods Market 365 brand but every store has a generic option (and if you prefer organic, most grocery stores are responding to an increase in demand for these products and carry an organic version as well). 

When products you buy often are on sale, stock up! Consider purchasing more than one if the item isn't perishable. Think nut butter or canned items like beans and tomatoes. This will also make improvising in the kitchen a total breeze. If you keep some key pantry staples on hand, you should always be able to throw together something simple and healthy. 

365-carrots.JPG

Go More Plant-Based

Meat and poultry are usually the most expensive items on your grocery list. On the other hand, plant-based staples like beans, lentils, tofu, and whole grains are a total steal and can be just as delicious if you take the time to learn new and interesting ways to prepare them. 

I'm not suggesting that you should go full-on vegan tomorrow, but you might consider making meat more of an accompaniment on your plate as opposed to the main entree. For example, you could flavor an entire pot of soup with a couple of slices of quality bacon, or make burgers 3-4 oz instead of 8. You could also use half the meat in spaghetti sauce and bulk it up with some diced mushrooms or lentils. The result will still be full of flavor at a more reasonable price (the environmental benefits are a nice bonus too!). 

In addition to plant proteins, several lesser known items in the produce section are magical when it comes to flavor. Who said you need to buy expensive condiments to make a dish pop? Fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley usually cost less than a dollar per bunch and add freshness to just about anything. Other examples: citrus (such as lemons, limes and grapefruit) and aromatics like onion, garlic, ginger, chiles and chives. All of these can add an extra wow factor that makes people say "what is that flavor?" and are all really inexpensive. 

While going veg even just some of the time can be an economical lifestyle change, be cautious of imitation products like frozen veggie burgers and meat alternatives, nut-based cheeses, yogurts and milks, and any other processed plant-based foods. These can actually end up costing you more than the traditional versions - sometimes a lot more. Just something to keep in mind as you peruse the grocery store aisles!


Want to start cooking more plant-based meals but not sure where to start? Check out my cooking challenges!


aromatics cilantro, onion, limes, cauliflower

Scope Out the Bulk Bins - Compare Prices

The bulk bins are your friend. 95% of the time when in need of nuts, seeds or dried fruit I find that they are less expensive in the bulk bins than if I were to buy a whole package (just be sure to compare the price per pound to make sure because this isn't always the case).

Bulk bins also allow you to purchase the amount you need rather than a large amount of something expensive that might not be used as often. Example: I once needed almond meal for a baked good and a 1 lb bag was nearly $16.00! Since I knew this wasn't going to be a staple in my kitchen, I found it in the bulk bins for significantly less and bought just the one cup that I needed for a few bucks. 

These also come in handy for expensive dried herbs and spices. If you need a teaspoon of a more obscure spice, keep in mind that that flavor tends to fade at about the one year mark so buying an entire canister might not be the best idea. If your grocery store carries these in bulk, you can save a lot of money by taking advantage of these. 

Homemade Snacks

Years ago I relied heavily on store-bought bars (either boxed or individual ones) almost every week for an on-the-go snack option. One day I actually thought about how expensive they are compared to homemade versions and realized that I have all of the ingredients at home anyway (and it takes less than an hour to make them). Now I usually try to throw together muffins, snack bars, oatmeal balls or something similar on Sundays so I have a high-fiber snack to grab all week without spending extra cash on a packaged option.

Here are a few favorite snack recipes that I make often and modify based on my mood or what I have on hand:

Peanut Butter Snack Squares

Oatmeal Energy Balls 

Peanut Butter Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

cooked muffins.JPG

Use a Rebate App 

I have been using a smart phone app called Ibotta for over a year and find it to be a great way to get cash back on items I would be buying anyway. I find Ibotta to be extremely user-friendly and I love that they are local to Denver. 

So what is it? Ibotta is an app that you can use to "unlock" rebates on certain products (unlocking might entail watching a 30 second video, or answering a product-related question but sometimes you don't have to do anything). You purchase said items and once home, scan the barcodes and take a picture of your receipt. Money is then automatically added to your Ibotta account!

When you earn at least $20, you can either deposit the money to PayPal or Venmo, or use it to buy gift cards. I typically let it build up for a while before transferring to PayPal and then my bank. It's kind of like an extra little savings account that's out of sight and out of mind.

It does take some extra effort to browse rebates, select the ones that look good, unlock them and then remember to scan the barcodes when you get home. But if you seek out the bonus opportunities (where you can earn extra cash for redeeming certain combinations) I think it's totally worth the time. I actually think it's kind of fun and can gameify grocery shopping in a way. 

Just a note: if you sign up for Ibotta using the link above, I'll get a little bit of cash. 

What are your favorite tips for eating well on a budget or alternately, do you set a food budget? 

How to Get Organized with Meal Planning

snack with cooking magazine

It's back-to-school time, and with that comes feelings of getting back into a routine and leaving behind the relaxed vibe that summer brings. I don't know about you, but no matter how far removed I am from my school, I still feel a small sense of excitement when Labor Day rolls around. 

Getting organized with meal planning is not exclusive to students though. Meal planning can save a tremendous amount of time and energy which is something that we don't always have come 6:00pm on a week night.

Here are a few ways you can nail it in the kitchen and use that saved time for relaxing with a glass of wine (or tea!) instead. 

Always Keep a Notebook Close 

Keep a notebook in your purse or car so whenever a meal idea or craving strikes, you can write it down. You can also use the notes app on your phone to do this (but I'm a sucker for pen and paper). If you already have a general idea of what you want to make by the time you sit down to write out a plan, I would consider this a win. You will probably still need to browse recipes or thumb through some cookbooks but at least it's a start. 

If you are a coupon-user, keep those tucked inside your notebook so you can factor them into your plan as well (and never forget them at home again - unless you forget your notebook too, then you're just out of luck). I get a great mini-magazine from the grocery store I visit regularly. They include coupons catered to my purchasing history so it's a win-win and also serves as some extra inspiration for meal ideas.

Use Technology to Your Advantage

There are a few ways you can utilize technology to help you out big time with meal planning. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Utilize the 'save' function on Instagram if you see a recipe that you want to refer back to later. As you can see below, all of your saved posts are in one easy-to-find place on your profile so you don't have to remember who posted what (click each photo to enlarge).

  • Install a Pinterest plug-in on Google Chrome. This allows you to "pin" anything you find around the internet, regardless if the site has Pinterest functionality enabled. I have a wide variety of recipes on my Pinterest page and they are organized by categories like “fast” or “plant-based”.

  • Try out a meal planning service that does all the work for you. For a small fee, I can provide weekly plans that include super fresh and flavorful meal ideas curated by registered dietitians. You can also drag and drop recipes to meet your needs, scale the number of servings to suit your family and generate a printable grocery list. If this sounds like something you want to test out, sign up for a free 3-day trial to see what it looks like.

Make a List

It all comes down to the list, doesn't it? The beauty of it is, you can use a pretty template, scrap paper, or even a cocktail napkin. Whatever the case, a list is just an all-around great idea because it helps ensure that you don't forget any necessary ingredients or just wing it and grab whatever looks good in the moment.

Start by listing everything you need and then take inventory of your kitchen and cross off any items you already have. This will help you cut down on food waste since you are buying only what you need. It can also help you stay on track with a weekly food budget. 

related resource: Get a list of the 10 healthy foods I always have on hand

coupons.JPG

Leave Room for Flexibility

It can be easy to get stuck in a fruit and vegetable rut and buy the exact same thing every week. I like to keep this part of my plan as general as possible as a way to save time, and also so that I can scope out what's on sale and what looks the freshest once I actually get to the store.

Obviously you may need specific items if you are following recipes, but leave some room for shifting things around where you can. Shoot for at least one green and one orange vegetable, a berry of some sort (fresh or frozen) and whatever else is in season and looks good. Remember that almost any vegetable can be chopped up and thrown into either a salad or an egg scramble if you need to use it up fast so don't be afraid to think outside the box with your choices.

basic substitutions for common vegetables:

  • Broccoli - cauliflower (any color), chopped asparagus or brussels sprouts

  • Kale - collard greens, bok choy or swiss chard

  • Spinach - arugula

  • Romaine - butter lettuce

  • Shredded napa cabbage - radicchio or purple cabbage

  • Carrots - roasted sweet potato or butternut squash

  • Green bell pepper - red bell pepper, poblano pepper

  • Cucumber - Persian cucumber (smaller and less watery), zucchini

  • Onion - shallot, scallions

In summary, keep a notebook (or your phone) handy for taking notes throughout the week, use technology to your advantage, and make some sort of list before you go shopping but leave room for flexibility based on what catches your eye. Everyone tends to have a different system that works well for them, but don't be afraid to try something new to streamline that meal planning process and save you some time along the way. 


A Short-Cut Guide to Sunday Food Prep

chopped bok choy

The words 'food prep' have really become a bit of a buzz phrase on social media in recent years. Most people tend to equate prepping with extra time on Sunday that should be spent doing more important things like going to brunch, hanging out with family or doing yard work (#adulting). But I'm in the camp that food prep does not have to take hours, so I thought it might be helpful to break down my (much shorter) process. 

Even spending one solid hour organizing your grocery haul, then prepping some things for the week can have a huge benefit. One strategy you might try is to set a timer for 60 minutes and get as much as possible done in that amount of time. You would be surprised how much you can accomplish. 

Rest assured, we aren't talking about rows of chicken breast, broccoli and brown rice in perfectly lined up tupperware containers here. My strategy is to make enough grab and go breakfasts and snacks to keep things simple on weekday mornings, plus pre-chop some of the more time-intensive dinner components ahead of time to speed things up on the night of. It's a relatively small amount of time that pays back in a huge way during the busy work week.

Not sure where to start? Here is an example dinner plan with suggestions for food prep that you can do on Sunday. 

On the Menu

Monday - 20-Minute Shiitake Mushroom Ramen (meatless Monday!)

Tuesday - Zucchini Noodles with Peanut Sauce and Chicken

Wednesday - Spiced Chickpea and Kale Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Thursday - Simple Grilled Salmon, Rice, Vegetable

Friday - Vegged Out Game-Day Nachos

chopped carrots celery zucchini

Sunday to-do List:

  • Think about how to make breakfasts easier for the week: make a batch of hard-boiled eggs, prep overnight oats, and chop fruits/veggies for smoothie packs that you can keep in the freezer and then just add liquid when ready to blend
     
  • Cook a big batch of brown rice (time-intensive on a week night). 
     
  • Slice peppers and onions for sautéing later
     
  • Wash and chop your vegetable that's planned for Thursday if it won't wilt or brown; wash fresh herbs, wrap in a paper towel and store in a large zip top bag
     
  • Make peanut sauce and store in a jar
     
  • Spiralize your zucchini for the Tuesday dish
     
  • Chop fresh veggies for easy snacking before dinner when you need something to munch on. I like carrots, celery and red bell pepper and keep them next to hummus in the fridge. These are perfect for pre-dinner snacking - just enough to tide your hunger without totally spoiling your appetite.
     
  • Wash and chop any fruit that needs to be prepped, like melon or strawberries. If you do this ahead of time and you can just grab and go, you'll be much more likely to reach for it.
     
  • Make homemade pizza dough if that's your thing (I usually buy it from the store)

Invest in some high-quality food storage containers because as silly as it sounds, stained and warped containers might make you shy away from packing your lunch as often as you might otherwise. I like these pyrex ones (affiliate link) and use them daily for leftovers and/or packing my food for the day. I love that they are microwave and dishwasher safe because hand-washing dishes is pretty much my least favorite chore - so now I don't have to do it!

spiralized zucchini 

Taking time to do all of these food prep tasks when you already have cutting boards and knives out and dirtied is a huge time saver. Plus, sometimes it can be hard to find motivation to cook after a long day of work so the less steps your dinner involves, the more likely you are to actually make it. Always make the healthy choice the easy choice! By setting yourself up for success you'll be much more likely to stay on track with your plan.


Did you find these tips valuable?

Get My Healthy Dish Emails

Subscribe to get my bi-weekly emails that feature healthy cooking hacks and exclusive special offers for my services.

I promise I won't send you spam! Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit