The Ultimate Guide to Eating Healthy on a Budget

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Budgeting for your weekly food shop should be simple, shouldn’t it? Decide on how much you have to spend and then stick to it. But the reality is so much more complicated. We have busy lives or fussy kids who are bombarded by clever television adverts that make convenience foods seem irresistible. Premade meals and fast food restaurants are everywhere, tempting us to cut corners and indulge ourselves.

The good news is that by following a few golden rules, it is possible to reboot your eating and cooking habits in a way that will not only benefit your pocket but also contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

Use these practical tips, inviting recipe suggestions and sources of further information to help you stay on budget whilst creating delicious, nutritious meals for your whole family. You won’t regret it – and your bank balance will thank you for it.

1. PRACTICAL TIPS FOR EATING ON A BUDGET

THE GOLDEN RULES

These simple golden rules for saving money on food will have maximum impact on your wallet.

  • Set a budget
  • Plan your meals
  • Shop smarter: buy healthier, better value ingredients
  • Avoid waste

Tricks to help you save

  • Cook in bulk and then freeze family-sized portions to use later – This will save you hours in the kitchen as well as money on your energy and food bill. It also means you can plan to use all of your perishable items before they go bad.
  • Keep an eye on specials – Look through catalogues or online to find the best deals, and plan your meals around the weekly specials. Also stock up on pantry items that you know you’ll use later when they are on special.
  • Join a loyalty programme – Signing up for a loyalty or rewards programme for your local supermarket(s) will not only mean you receive special offers via email, you’ll also rack up points towards more savings.
  • Shop around – You may have just joined a ‘loyalty’ programme, but there’s no reason why you can’t look around for other options. A different supermarket may have a special on something you need this week, and combining more than one supermarket or choosing a different one could result in huge savings.
  • Collect coupons – Scour the newspapers or online websites for any coupons you can use in your shopping. They may seem like insignificant savings at first, but you can save a small fortune if you are prudent enough.
  • Shop online – Everyone has heard the old adage, ‘never shop when you’re hungry’. Go one step further and get your groceries home delivered. It’s not only convenient, it saves you from making impulse purchases on products that you don’t actually need.
  • Get your pantry in shape – Organise all bottles, cans and jars so that you can see exactly what you’ve got every time you open the pantry doors. Keep a list of your staple pantry needs stuck to the inside of the cupboard so that you can easily mark off what you need to replace.
  • Cut out takeaway and bought lunches – This simple change will save you hundreds of dollars a year. If you love Chinese food, learn to make your favourite dishes at home.
  • Always look at the price by weight rather than the total price. Sometimes it may make sense to buy more of something, as you’re getting a much better deal – but do consider whether you’ll be able to use it all up before the use by date. Larger packets of herbs and spices, for example, usually give you much more for less, so buy your own dispensers and refill them.
  • Only shop once a week – Studies have shown that the more often you go to the supermarket, the more you spend on impulse buys.
  • Head to the farmers market at the end of the day – If there are markets near you, you may be able to pick up some great deals as the day nears a close.

 

Supermarkets have tricks too

While we’re trying to save money, supermarkets are doing everything they can to try to make us spend more. Being aware of the tricks they use can help you avoid being fooled by them. For example, items that the supermarkets want us to buy are placed at eye level, while better value items may be placed above or below. Staples such as milk and butter are often at different ends of the shop to other essentials like bread, increasing the chances we’ll fill our trolleys with non-essentials along the way. Specials and multibuy options, like ‘3 for the price of 2’, may not be as good value as other items, or are used as a way to encourage us to buy more than we need. Discounted items may still not be as good value as other brands or items, so be sure to take the time to check all of the options.

Also watch out for targeted marketing – if you have joined a loyalty programme, the supermarket is collecting data on your shopping habits in order to personalise the offers that they send you. This can be very useful when they get it right, but just make sure you aren’t sucked into buying things that you don’t need.

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Don’t look down on cheaper options

Food can be really expensive if you insist on having certain brands or ‘gourmet’ options. Find ways to buy the cheapest possible products without sacrificing on taste or healthy ingredients.

  • What’s the difference between ‘luxury’ and ‘budget’ brands? It’s often mostly about packaging. Buy the budget brand, and it won’t affect your enjoyment of the food, but it will affect your wallet.
  • Budget-friendly retailers like ‘Aldi’ and ‘Costco’ are great for buying bulk options of long lasting products like tinned fish and pasta. Just don’t be tempted to ‘over shop’ on perishable items.
  • Eat cheaper cuts of meat. They might need a longer cooking time but they are often even tastier than expensive joints, especially if treated with respect.

MAKE IT FUN

There’s no way of getting away from the fact that to eat on a budget, you are going to have to set a maximum amount for your weekly shop and find ways of sticking to it. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have fun doing it.

Enlist the whole family

If you have children, involving them is a great way to make them feel that they are an important part of an exciting new project, and that way they’re much more likely to be cooperative – even enthusiastic – about eating for less. Get them to help write out weekly meal plans, letting them go mad with coloured pens and fun stickers.

Encourage them to think ‘outside the box’ when it comes to devising ways to make cheaper versions of foods they love. For example, ‘pizza night’ could become, not the evening you order a takeaway, but when you all become chefs and make your own personalised pizzas from scratch, including the dough base and tomato sauce. This is also a great way of avoiding the processed products, full of additives and preservatives, frequently used by fast food chains.

Create rewards

If you and your household stick to the meal plan, budget for a treat at the end of the week as a reward. This could be a meal on 2-for-1 night at the local pub, a special dessert or even something unrelated to food.

Plant a vegetable garden

Growing things from scratch saves money and can be very satisfying. If you don’t have a garden, how about sowing some herbs in a window box? They will enhance the taste of your meals and shop-bought herbs, both fresh and dried, can prove expensive. And, since you usually only need a small amount in each meal, herbs frequently go bad before you get a chance to use them all – unless they’re still alive in a planter box.

SHOP SMART TO STAY HEALTHY

The way you shop is vitally important when it comes to sticking to a budget. Before you even venture out a) have something to eat (so you are less likely to be tempted by convenience foods) and b) write a list of the things you need to buy to make the meals you have planned for the week. And before you sit down with a pen and paper to plan your meals, think about the following:

A balanced diet

Remember that a balanced diet should include five basic food groups: protein, fats, vegetables, fruit, and grains/carbohydrates like oats, rice, couscous, pasta, and wholemeal bread (plus plenty of water, of course). Ideally you should aim for 30% of daily your diet coming from vegetables and fruit (with more of the veggies than fruit), 20% being protein, 20% dairy products and 30% carbohydrates.

Australians are the biggest consumers of red meat in the world, with each person of consuming an average of 110 kilograms a year, according to some estimates. This is three times as much as is considered healthy. Current Australian guidelines recommend a diet of small servings of red meat three to four times a week with fish, an important source of omega-3 oils, being consumed twice a week.

While chicken and eggs are good low fat alternatives, there is also a huge range of non-animal products that not only provide slow-release energy but also roughage, to aid the passage of food and waste products through the digestive system. Pulses (including chickpeas, black eyed beans and lentils), tofu, nuts and seeds are often underused in diets. The good news is that many of these items are relatively inexpensive and long lasting.

Have ‘meat free’ days

With increasing awareness of the impact of cattle farming on global warming, this is not only good for your health and your pocket, but is environmentally friendly too. The Meat Free Monday movement is already popular in Australia and around the world, and offers a growing community for sharing meatless recipes.

Cutting down the amount of meat that you use on days you do eat meat will also help you save. To increase your intake of vegetables and fibre, ‘bulk out’ meals like casseroles, soups, curries, and pies with pulses, vegetables, or canned beans. Also think about adding a large salad or veggie side dish to meat meals.

Control portion sizes

Are you eating too much? Think about investing in smaller plates. This is one of the easiest way to reduce the amount your family eats to an appropriate amount, thereby reducing waste and costs too.

Buy food in season

Not only is it likely to be cheaper but it will also be fresher and tastier too.

Cut down on junk food

Junk food like chips, chocolate, ice cream, and other sweet treats are not only bad for you, they’re expensive. They’re also usually between meal or after-meal snacks that you don’t need. Once you get used to not having them, you won’t even miss them. Also ditch drinking fizzy drinks and switch to tap water – it’s better for you and also free! If you need something to add to the taste, try adding slices of lemon.

Cook more from scratch

So much money is wasted on packaging when we buy items from the supermarket. Many things are simple to make yourself and much cheaper – for example, bread, pasta, muesli, salads, cookies, and stir-fry sauces. By planning to cook more from scratch you’ll not only be saving money but also doing a good turn for your family’s health, as many of the store bought alternatives are filled with preservatives, additives and colouring.

When it comes to chicken, you can save by roasting your own rather than buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts (the most expensive way to buy chicken!). Roasting a chicken yourself is super easy and you can use leftovers in soups, salads or sandwiches.

Also choose meat from the supermarket deli over prepackaged meat, as the price per kilogram is usually much cheaper, owing to the lack of packaging. The same goes for fresh vegetables or herbs – avoid the packaged options.

CUT DOWN ON WASTE

One of the easiest ways to save money on food is by not throwing it away.

  • Conduct a weekly audit of your fridge and pantry. Make a list of items that are about to go out of date and find ways to use them as soon as possible.
  • Don’t ‘overbuy’ perishable items like fruit and vegetables. Instead stock up on fruit tinned in natural juices, canned fish and frozen veggies – particularly when they are on special.

Love your leftovers

See ‘leftovers’ as opportunities for creating future meals.

  • Rather than serving up leftover meat and seafood as cold cuts with a salad, transform them into an entirely new meal. Chunks of chicken or a few prawns can become an exotic Thai curry. A small bowl of bolognese can become part of a Mexican themed supper when served alongside bowls of cheese, avocado, shredded lettuce, sour cream and spicy tomato salsa, accompanied by tacos or flatbreads.
  • Use leftover vegetables in soups or combine them with cheese or meat to make hearty pies.
  • Stirfry’s are a great way of using up strips of meat or portions of prawns. They are quick to prepare and cook for hungry mouths too.
  • Stale bread can be whizzed in the food processor into breadcrumbs. These are great for coating fishcakes or schnitzels, or, when combined with a little grated cheese, make a tasty topping for gratins.
  • Over-ripe, browning bananas make delicious muffins or banana bread. Other fruit slightly past its best can be stewed and served as compote, used to make the base of a hot fruit crumble, or used in smoothies.

The freezer is your friend

There’s no doubt that the ability to freeze food has transformed our lives, giving us a greater convenience and choice of food to eat. But the freezer can be utilised to help save money too.

Make sure that you follow these tips for ensuring that your food is safe to eat. Food needs to be frozen at the correct temperature, in suitable containers, and labelled with a description and date. Use it before it starts to deteriorate and defrost correctly in order to avoid food poisoning.

  • If you can’t use up all your leftover soups, lasagnas, or other meals immediately, simply freeze them for future use. Small portions make an ideal meal to take to work or to be incorporated in a school packed lunch.
  • Supermarkets often have ‘buy one, get one free’ deals on bread and other products. Freeze the extra one for later use.
  • If you’re fixing a casserole or fish pie, why not think about making an additional one for popping in the freezer? Invest in some freezer and oven friendly serving dishes that can be popped into the stove once their contents have defrosted, to save on washing-up.
  • When you have a spare half hour, make batches of soups and sauces that can be pulled out of the freezer when you’re in rush. This is a great way to make the most of cheap, abundant seasonal produce too.

The freezer is so useful, you may want to consider investing in a larger one or a chest freezer, to ensure you can make the most of these tips.

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