Is there such a thing as cheap healthy food?
The short answer is yes.
With so many health trends, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to eat exotic foods to be healthy, but that simply is not true.
When I first started my wellness journey I noticed one thing: a lot of ‘healthy’ recipes contained expensive ingredients. On top of that, many of these ingredients are only available at health food or specialty stores. This made the thought of meal preparation and eating well less appealing. It also isn’t budget friendly, which meant following those recipes would be unsustainable in the long run and potentially make me fall off the wagon.
So, I decided I wanted to do something sustainable that fits into my lifestyle. I realised I wanted to select recipes with seasonal produce and ingredients that are easy to access at the local supermarket.
Without further ado, here’s how I’ve figured out how to get cheap healthy food.
Buy seasonal fresh produce
I worked at a fruit and vegetable market for 7 years and it taught me a lot about seasonal availability. My dad’s garden has also taught me some valuable information!
When something is in season, it’s cheaper than when it isn’t. Supply is high, and can meet demand, so it’s affordable. I highly recommend choosing recipes that contain ingredients that are in season. Firstly, these are readily available at the supermarket. Secondly, they can often be a lot cheaper at the peak of the season, which can last a few weeks to a few months! Thirdly, you won’t waste your time searching near and far for something you could never get your hands on (honestly, that really stresses me out!).
Seasonal food guides
If you’re not sure what’s in season, take a walk around the fresh produce aisles at your local supermarket. Whatever is affordable is generally what’s in season. However, if you need more help, there are plenty of guides on the internet that will tell you when fruits and vegetables are in season in your country.
The below table is from Sustainable Table and tells you what’s in season during the Aussie Summer.
Some vegetables are always in season
Working at the fruit market taught me that there are some vegetables that are in season year round and are generally quite affordable. These are:
- onions (think red, white and brown)
Now I know these aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but they are a great way to add flavour and bulk up your meals, as well as add nutrients and fibre! As you’ll soon see, you can use the above with the other cheap healthy food I recommend.
Buy frozen vegetables
Sometimes fresh fruit and vegetables can be really expensive, especially when the weather is playing up. For example, I noticed that fruit and veg were quite expensive recently because of the drought, and weren’t the best quality. Cyclones in Queensland often affect the prices of Bananas. You get the gist!
Frozen vegetables are a budget friendly alternative to their fresh counterparts. Admittedly, I was initially reluctant to purchase these but after doing some research, I discovered they have a lot of advantages. Doctor Andrew Weil says:
“The advantage of frozen fruits and vegetables is that they usually are picked when they’re ripe, and then blanched in hot water to kill bacteria and stop enzyme activity that can spoil food. Then they’re flash frozen, which tends to preserve nutrients.”
So essentially, they’re the second best thing to fresh produce. When produce like broccoli is $12 a kilogram, purchasing the frozen type at Coles for $5 per kilo is an excellent alternative!
Buy supermarket grains
We’re always told to eat Carbohydrates in their natural form.
Personally, I tried branching off to Quinoa and some other trendy carbs, but I found it was too expensive and, more importantly, didn’t keep me full. So now I stick to brown rice, Weet-Bix and oats as my main source of Carbohydrates.
Although these aren’t trendy, you get a lot for what you pay for and they are so good for you!
Eat more legumes and pulses
Legumes and pulses are such an underrated and cheap healthy food. They’re high in protein and are therefore a more cost effective option than meat! When you buy them dry, you get a lot of bang for your buck.
Quite often when I buy 1kg of lentils, it lasts me a few months. They expand a lot when they soak, so it’s easy to see why you get so much out of them. That’s pretty awesome considering, at $4.60 for a kilo, it works out to be 46c per 100grams.
They can also be adapted to the seasons; they work great in salads in summer and just as good in stews and curries in winter. The only downside is that the dry ones need to be soaked in advance so that they cook faster.
If you don’t have time to soak your pulses or legumes, you can use the canned variety instead. They aren’t as good as the dried ones, but they aren’t totally terrible.
“Nutrition-wise, cooked and canned are about the same, but the sodium content of canned beans can be 100 times that of cooked. Draining and rinsing the canned beans can get rid of about half the sodium, but you’re also draining and rinsing away some of the nutrition. I recommend, when buying canned beans, to instead get the no-salt added varieties, and to keep and use the bean juice.”
Eating canned beans are better than ordering Domino’s, right?
Tip: go meat free 1-2 days a week
I’ve started to eat a lot more meals with no meat, predominantly because eating too much meat makes me feel ill. I’ve definitely noticed a BIG difference in my spending habits and budget after doing this.
The difference is the most noticeable on those weeks when I just need to buy fresh vegetables for my meal prep. Because lentils and pulses are dry goods, and I usually have rice in the pantry, I already have everything I need!
Know your spices and dried herbs
Quite often people are put off eating healthy because they think healthy food is boring, or their efforts are cancelled out because they need to add a tonne of calorie dense dressings to make their meal taste good.
Through experimenting with different recipes, I’ve learnt herbs and spices are a natural and affordable way to add flavour to your meals. For example, I like to add cinnamon to my cereal or overnight oats for sweetness. This is a low sugar alternative to honey. A more savoury example is that I add chilli flakes to my stir fries if I want more spice! Dried herbs go really well with roast vegetables. My personal favourites is dried oregano!
Pick recipes with affordable ingredients
Early on in my wellness journey, I realised websites like GOOP or influencers like Molly Sims weren’t a good place/source for me to find recipes. I do feel Molly has good intentions in sharing what she eats to remain photoshoot ready, however most of the recipes she shares contain ingredients that are just way too expensive. If you add all the costs up, you’d be spending a few extra hundred dollars a month on your groceries. Over time, this can be a few thousand dollars a year, and I’d rather put my money towards something else, like my mortgage.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of these types of websites and influences are constantly promoting the latest trendy and healthy ingredients (hemp seeds anyone?). It’s quite overwhelming hearing them say “I swear by this” every 2-3 weeks, only to “Swear by” something else in another 2 weeks time. I’ve come to realise that they probably do this to be perceived as on trend and thus maintain their relevance, however it doesn’t send the message that healthy food can be simple and cheap.
Find affordable recipes on Pinterest
Although I still follow Molly’s blog for other wellness related things, I use Pinterest as my main source of recipe inspiration. This may sound silly, but looking at things that are realistic for my life makes the process a lot less daunting. By doing so, I’ve been able to stick to eating well.
Finally, have fun and enjoy the process…
Honestly, by embarking on this journey I’ve learnt so much more than where I can find and make cheap healthy food. I’ve learnt about flavour combinations and discovered things I never knew I could get at my local supermarket (mainly because I wasn’t paying attention, duh).
If you’re at the early stages of figuring out how to eat well, I hope this post has helped. I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m so proud of how far I’ve come.
If you have any other tips for finding and making affordable healthy food, please let me know in the comments below!