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I grew up in a family of 8 kids, so there was not much excess money beyond the essentials, but the one thing my parents always did was prioritize healthy whole foods. As a result, we were a very healthy family.
It turns out that budget-friendly foods such as oats, rice, beans, potatoes, fruits, vegetables are much more affordable and healthy than packaged, processed foods and snacks such as granola bars, breakfast cereals, juice, chips, crackers, or pre-made dinners.
One of my first jobs out of high school was cooking in fire camps for firefighters, where we often cooked for 200-500 firefighters. We were prized for being one of the best catering companies to serve healthy, delicious meals.
Almost everything was made from scratch. We cooked in bulk as that was the most affordable yet profitable and nutritious way to feed hungry firefighters who had a very energy-demanding job.
Tips for meal planning on a budget
Every meal contained meat or eggs, but they were always accompanied with inexpensive staples such as oatmeal and hashbrowns for breakfast.
A soup with a grilled sandwich, wrap or stirfry with rice was served for lunch. Leftovers from the previous night’s dinner were always somehow used up in the following day’s lunch. Sometimes the best way to save time and money is to bulk cook dinner to have leftovers for your next day’s lunch or think of ways to make new meals with leftovers so that nothing goes to waste.
Dinners consisted of meat (chicken, beef, fish, etc.) cooked various ways and served with fresh or frozen vegetables (corn, peas, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower. zucchini) that were steamed and seasoned with butter, salt, and pepper. A side of potatoes, rice, beans or pasta, was the inexpensive staple to fill up hungry bellies.
It’s incredible how many ways you can use potatoes, rice, and oatmeal in a variety of different ways.
We would sometimes sit down for hours, depending on the size of the camp, to peel potatoes that were then boiled and diced to make homemade hashbrowns. The hashbrowns were served with breakfast every single day. To add variety to the hashbrowns, we would spice the hashbrowns differently, whether it was a classic seasoning salt, rosemary, basil, or oregano.
Potatoes can also be baked and topped with butter, salt, and pepper turned into mashed potatoes or used to make the best baked homemade potato wedges.
Rice can be served on its own and seasoned with tamari or butter, salt, and pepper or a little parmesan cheese. Rice accompanies any vegetable stirfry made with fresh or frozen vegetables, can be used in soups, Mexican style buddha bowls, or vegetarian bean burritos.
Oatmeal was another daily breakfast staple. Oatmeal was served plain, spiced with cinnamon and raisins, banana strawberry oatmeal with vanilla extract, or berry oatmeal. We added variety to the oatmeal as much as possible, but the inexpensive staple of oatmeal stayed on the daily breakfast menu.
I also grew up eating oatmeal for breakfast as it is very affordable and healthy compared to expensive processed commercial breakfast cereals that are essentially just sugar hidden in the form of refined carbohydrates.
To make a homemade porridge healthier, add a tbsp of ground flax seeds for an inexpensive source of the essential anti-inflammatory omega-three fats that people must obtain through diet. Chia seeds found in this chia oatmeal porridge are another excellent source of plant-based omega 3’s.
For those who wanted a lighter breakfast, a fruit tray made with a variety of fresh fruits was another option. Buy local or in-season fruits that are in season and on sale to have as a snack instead of granola bars and chips or for a light breakfast. If you are lucky, maybe you will find a neighbor with a fruit tree. It’s all about being resourceful in all areas when trying to save money on your food budget.
Smoothies can also be another healthy yet budget-friendly recipe as frozen berries are often cheaper than fresh berries, and you can find them year-round. Bananas make any smoothie taste delicious!
You can make an inexpensive, healthy smoothie with 1 cup of blueberries or blackberries, a handful of spinach or kale high in plant protein, and 2 tbsp of coconut cream blended with water. Save the remainder of the can of coconut cream for smoothies, stirfries, or curries.
Coconut cream is an excellent substitute for dairy or nut milk which is often more expensive. Coconut cream can usually be purchased for less than one dollar, and a little goes a long way.
An egg is an excellent source of protein for breakfast that can be made into a scrambled egg hash with potatoes as a filler and any vegetables of your choice for a nutritious and budget-friendly breakfast.
Making a homemade salad dressing using olive oil and balsamic is much healthier and cheaper than store-bought salad dressings. You can whip up a homemade salad in no time with whatever vegetables are in season.
Eating healthy on a budget requires some creativity to use simple foods in various ways and stripping away all the excess treats and processed packaged foods that are more expensive and less nutritious. Start shopping for whole natural foods without the packaging to eat healthy on a budget.
To save money on your food budget, ditch the pop and fruit juices and drink water which is the most critical nutrient for the body. Your body will be thanking you when you cut the alcohol and sugar-laden beverages from your diet, and you will be saving money!
Some healthy foods to eat on a budget and pantry essentials include:
- Oatmeal, rice, and potatoes
- Fresh or frozen vegetables of any type
- Beans and Legumes for inexpensive plant-based protein
- Fresh and frozen fruit (whatever is in season and on sale)
- Flax seeds for essential omega-three fatty acids
- Butter or coconut oil
- Coconut cream for smoothies, curries, and stirfries
- Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and coconut sugar or honey to make homemade salad dressing and stir fry sauces
- Nuts and seeds for a nutrient-dense snack (a little goes a long way)
- Meat in small quantities such as chicken, steak, fish
- Essential spices that you love such as salt, pepper, oregano, basil, rosemary, seasoning salt, curry powder for curries, and Mexican condiments such as paprika and cumin.
Eating healthy on a budget is all about eliminating all the excess treats and expensive processed commercial products from your diet that you don’t need and going back to the essential whole foods that can be used in various ways. The more a food is processed, the more likely it will be less nutritious and more expensive as you pay for the packaging and processing of that food.