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Eating Well on a Budget

Despite the taunts of various naysayers it is possible to eat well on a budget—the operating definition meaning to eat healthy foods that taste good. There are, however, two prerequisites: the person attempting this feat must have a basic command of cooking and a fair degree of organizational skill. The first is a requirement; the second a strong recommendation.

Just as drugs have side effects, there are reverberations to food budgeting. It takes time and generally avoids the use of convenience items. The “from-scratch” nature of the endeavor means that without a basic proficiency of cooking techniques and seasonings your food will be healthy, but nobody will want to eat it!

But you can learn cooking skills—if you don’t know how to cook, invest in in a good all round cookbook that teaches skills alongside recipes, such as the Joy of Cooking or How to Boil Water, or enroll in a low- cost community sponsored cooking class.

Being organized comes in handy when sorting through and deciding on the many coupons, sales, food pantries and farmer’s markets available in any given week.

Now that we have the out of the way, let’s get down to business.

Before you leave the house

-- Plan out your meals for the week and set a menu to use leftovers from one dinner for lunch items for the next day.

-- Make a grocery list. You are less likely to buy expensive impulse items if you shop from a list.

-- Look into opening an account at a grocery wholesaler such as B.J’s or Cosco. They are one low cost, flat fee for one year’s membership.

-- Where you buy your food matters, so choose your food retailer carefully. Food pantries and collectives can save you dollars as long as you are willing to do a bit of volunteering for the privilege. Also, there are price differences among different food suppliers. Convenience stores and high end markets will be more expensive. Even supermarkets can vary widely in price. Compare prices on-line or in your local newspaper to find the most economical one in your neighborhood.

-- Scan the local newspaper for sales and coupon offerings. If you decide to clip coupons it is best to use coupons only for those foods you would normally purchase. Sometimes supermarkets also have half off days on certain purchases.

Once you are in the market

-- Avoiding the “junk food” aisles can save you a bundle. Even though these items may appear cheaper, in the long run they add little nutrition for your food dollar.

-- Buy staple items in bulk when they are on sale. Flour, sugar, salt, pasta, rice don’t go bad week-to-week, and they will be on hand when you need them.

-- Meat and fresh produce generally take the biggest chunk out of the food budget.. Only buy what you will use between now and your next shopping trip to avoid your purchases going bad and winding up in the garbage. Regarding meat—you can either use less expensive cuts or make a little go a long way (see how in the “at home” section below!).

-- Or freeze what you buy in bulk! Whole chickens and large quantity packages of ground beef or turkey are usually less expensive than smaller portions. You can freeze them when you get home (check out the “at home” section below for tips!)

-- Less expensive meats sold in the supermarket (B grade meats are less fatty but generally not sold on the retail market) are usually higher in fat. If you buy these use a cooking method that allows you to rend as much fat as possible (get some tips in “at home”).

-- Buy in season and on sale. In season means the produce traveled a shorter distance to make it to your supermarket, so it will be fresher and less expensive. Most supermarkets also have produce on special each week. Scan the circulars to see what is available and plan your meals around this. (This is where being organized comes in very handy).

-- Buy large bags of frozen vegetables. Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh and you don’t have the issues with spoilage that the fresh are prone to.

-- Buy store brands for those items where there isn’t a difference in taste or quality.

At home

-- Cook most items from scratch.

-- If you bought meat or fresh produce in bulk, stick it in the freezer! For meat, separate into individual portions before freezing it, so you have easy, ready bags for defrosting later. Most vegetables can be frozen, as well. For onions or peppers, for example, cut them into thin slices before freezing them. Websites such as Still Tasty can help you determine the shelf lives of your groceries and supplies more tips on how to safely freeze fresh foods.

-- Trim all visible fat from meat before preparing. If suitable broil or bake meats in a drip pan to lower the fat content as much as possible. Braise or pot-roast less expensive cuts of meat to tenderize them. Cool the dish in the refrigerator after to cooking. This will allow the fat to harden on the top where you can skim it off.

-- Add healthful fillers to meats such as chunked chicken, ground turkey, or ground beef—fillers can be non-starchy vegetables, for vitamins, fiber and color; nuts and seeds, which provide protein and fiber; and whole grain starches, such as whole wheat pasta and brown rice, which provide B vitamins and fiber. All of these can be added to stir-fry and casseroles to reduce the amount of meat needed, improve the nutritional profile of the dish and keep costs down.

-- Try vegetarian meals a couple times a week. Beans and soy, such as tofu or tempeh, and nut butters are lower cost proteins that are low in saturated fat and contain fiber (beans and nuts). Vegetable stir fry, vegetarian chili, and bean and cheese tortillas are a few examples.

-- Have breakfast for dinner. For example, a vegetable omelet with whole grain toast or a low fat corn muffin (2 oz.) and a salad.

If you think this is time consuming, well—yes! It can initially be very time consuming. But after you get into the habit of doing these things, time will speed up. Think about the first time you went shopping while looking at food labels, how long it took, and how much of a snap it is today.

Page last updated: October 20, 2014