Eating more healthily doesn’t have to mean buying the most expensive produce or the fanciest ingredients on the shelves. Wherever you live or shop for groceries, you can find simple and nutritious options that will keep your meals interesting and your wallet full.
Here, chefs give their tips on how to have a healthy and balanced diet without spending a fortune on food.
1. Prep Your Meals
Bailey Cohen, a personal chef based in Washington, D.C., says a great way to stay healthy on a tight budget is to prepare meals in advance.
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Batch cooking dishes and storing extra servings in the refrigerator or freezer will save you money and time, as well as reducing waste.
Prepping meals in advance is particularly useful if your job or other commitments make it difficult to cook dinner from scratch every day—and to resist the temptation of unhealthy takeouts.
2. Keep Your Pantry Well Stocked
How many times have you got excited about trying a new recipe or healthy eating trend, only to find that you’re missing one key ingredient?
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“Make sure your pantry is well stocked,” personal chef Jen Wanous told Newsweek. “With lots of options for flavoring ingredients like vinegars and spices, it’ll be easier to have delicious variety.”
Seasonings and sauces are inexpensive and usually have a long shelf-life. Once you’ve stocked up, you can focus on making your meals tasty and nutritious, rather than rushing to the grocery store after work to buy turmeric.
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3. Keep Your Recipes Simple
Even with a well-stocked pantry, the professionals recommend that you keep things simple. The more complicated the recipe, the more it’s likely to cost—plus, who has the time to spend hours cooking every evening?
“Stay away from a long ingredient list,” Cohen told Newsweek. “The longer the list, generally the worse for you. Make sure to check the ingredient list and avoid anything with partially or fully hydrogenated oils as well.” Instead of rapeseed or peanut oils, you can try olive or coconut oils.
4. Look for Long Shelf-Life Products
Keep your cupboards stocked with long shelf-life products such as dried pasta, rice, beans and pulses—they’re cheap and they can make your meal.
“Beans and lentils are excellent sources of proteins,” said Wanous, who works in New York City. “A lentil salad could be your nutritious lunch for a week. With a little goat cheese and a balsamic dressing, you’ll be happy.”
Spices and Herbs
Stock image of fresh and dried herbs and spices. Keeping your pantry stocked with spices will make it easier for you to cook meals that are healthy and tasty.
Legumes such as peas, beans and lentils have been found to have various health benefits. A 2019 study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that people who consumed the highest rates of legumes had lower rates of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and hypertension than those with the lowest intakes.
You can buy many legumes in cans or—cheaper still—dried and in bulk.
“If you choose to buy in a can as opposed to bulk dry goods, check the ingredient list for unnecessary added items. For example, almond butter should contain almonds, not almonds, sugar and hydrogenated oil,” said Cohen.
5. Cut Out Processed Foods
Wanous advises cutting out processed foods, particularly meat products such as sausages, ham and burgers. This will make your diet “less expensive and worlds better for your body,” she said.
Many health agencies recommend limiting consumption of processed meat, which can be high in salt as well as fat. A 2015 study by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found that eating 50g of processed meat a day increased a person’s chance of developing colorectal cancer.
“If you eat meat, buying a small piece of the best-quality meat you can find will ensure you’re doing good for the planet, your body and your wallet,” Wanous added.
Some processed foods contain high levels of hydrogenated oil, cottonseed oil or high-fructose corn syrup—substances that both chefs advise people to avoid. “These ingredients are terrible for your body. Taking a quick look at the ingredients will get you pointed in the right direction,” said Cohen.
Another way to avoid unhealthy oils—and save money— is to make salad dressing from what’s in your pantry, rather than buying it at the store. Wanous said: “It’s easy to make your own. In a jar add one-third of a cup of vinegar—any type will do—two-thirds of a cup of oil, two teaspoons of maple syrup, two teaspoons of Dijon [mustard], salt and pepper. Shake!”
Man handling vegetables
Stock image of a parent and child preparing vegetables. Fresh produce should be eaten daily.
6. Focus on Local Produce
For a healthy and balanced diet, you have to eat plenty of “plant-based colorful foods,” according to Cohen.
“Stay loyal to the produce section,” he added. “It’s important to eat a variety of colors for vitamins, minerals and countless health benefits, but this needs to be supplemented with plenty of beans, grains, legumes and hearty plant proteins such as tofu, falafel, lentil soup and so on. And don’t forget the leafy greens.”
Wanous also recommends sourcing your produce locally. “Stick to the most local produce you can find. Local farm stands and farmers’ markets have great offerings.”
She shared a tip for checking whether produce marketed as organic really has been grown that way: “The stickers with numbers on produce have a secret code. A four-digit number means conventional—grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers—and a five-digit number that starts with a 9 means it’s organic.”
Fresh produce doesn’t have to be expensive. Lydia Beiler, a food blogger who posts as Thrifty Frugal Mom, recommends buying fruit and vegetables in bulk and when they’re in season. If you buy too much, don’t let it spoil. Freeze or preserve it to use later.
She also suggests browsing the frozen food aisle to find even better deals on fruit and vegetables.