Eating on a budget is one thing, but is it possible to eat healthy food on an ‘instant noodle’ budget?
Can you feed your family food they will eat and enjoy, even when you’re feeling like Mother Hubbard and there are cobwebs in your wallet?
Well it takes some careful planning, a bit of extra time cooking and a few weeks to build up staples, but the answer is yes.
When you only have a few dollars a day to feed the family, packaged foods can seem cheaper, especially in the short term. Filling, high calorie food for little outlay seems like the best option when you’re hungry and and money is tight.
But buying packaged foods for each and every meal really adds up over time, costing you more in the long term, not to mention that it’s not so good for your health.
Porterhouse steak might be off the menu when you’re on a very tight budget, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat good healthy food.
Tips for eating well on a very tight budget
EAT NUTRIENT DENSE FOODS
Get more value from your grocery budget by focusing on vegetables.
Vegetables are high in nutrients and low on cost, especially if you focus on seasonal produce. Coupled with a starch and some cheap protein (think stir fried vegies, rice and a fried egg), you have a complete and nutritious meal for only a dollar or so per serve.
MAKE A PLAN
Planning your meals is essential if you’re on a tight budget. Rather than shop day to day for what you need, menu planning helps you make the most of cheap staples.
First, make a list of cheap meals.
There are lots of ideas on this blog (see below also) and on the net, but consider meals based on good starches like brown rice, wholemeal pasta or potatoes with cheaper protein options like eggs, beans or lentils and, of course, lots of vegetables.
Then write a menu plan for the week using your list of cheap meals. Write down meal ideas for breakfast lunch and snacks as well. Don’t forget to plan for leftovers.
Finally write out your grocery list. Put an asterisk next to any items that are optional. That means if you go over budget, those items can go back on the shelf.
BUILD UP YOUR STAPLES
Building a stock of staples will save you money in the long run.
A bag of rice may cost more than an instant meal upfront, but you’ll get many more meals for your money.
You don’t have to stock your pantry with staples all in one go. Just buy one or two staples each week. Then all you need to do is restock them when you run out.
Stocking your pantry may mean you have to eat on an even tighter budget for a couple of weeks, but you will eat better in the long run.
Here are some basic staples to consider stocking:
- Rolled oats
- Wholemeal flour
- Tinned fish
- Tinned tomatoes
- Dry beans
- Cooking oil (‘light’ olive oil is a good all round cooking oil)
- Baking powder
- Milk (fresh, dried or both)
- Salt and pepper
- Frozen vegetables
By having these staples on hand, you will always have a variety of cheap meals to cook. And you can focus the bulk of your grocery spending on fresh produce.
EAT CHEAP PROTEIN
Protein doesn’t have to mean meat.
An excellent alternate source of protein is the humble egg. Versatile, cheap and nutritious.
MEAT FOR LESS
Save on meat three ways by:
- eating less
- stretching what you do eat; and
- buying economy cuts
Mix vegetarian meals with meat meals over the course of the week to reduce overall meat consumption. A plant-based diet, even if it is just part time, is healthy and cheaper than eating meat.
When you do eat meat, use it as a condiment rather than the main attraction. Cook meat stretcher meals like casseroles, soups, stews, pastas, bakes, and stir fry’s. All of these meals can be combined with lots of vegetables and lentils, beans or other healthy starches.
Combine economy meats with meat stretching techniques like adding lentils to a stew and you will save even more while still cooking a healthy and tasty meal. Freeze leftovers for an easy reheat meal for later.
MAKE YOUR OWN BASICS
Stock is an essential frugal ingredient for your kitchen. It can be made for next to nothing if you save your vegetable scraps in the freezer and make stock from leftover bones.
Chicken drumsticks are an economical meal, but you can stretch your dollar even further by making stock from the leftover bones.
From the stock (which is nutritious in itself) you can make soups, risotto, stews and sauces.
Other basics to consider making if you have the time include bread, tomato sauce and yoghurt.
EAT VEGETABLES IN SEASON
Vegetables are cheapest when they are in season, so you’ll save money by planning meals around what’s in season.
At certain times of the year, our greengrocer sells pumpkins for 69c each. And at that price, I try to pick the biggest pumpkins I can find.
Uncut pumpkins keep for months on the bench top. For 69 cents, you can make a whole variety of cheap meals.
Roast pumpkin risotto for instance, made with homemade stock costs around $1 – $2 for the whole family. And it’s a pretty flash dinner to serve to guests, with a nice side salad and some crusty bread. A large pot of pumpkin soup is around $1.
Some vegetable staples that are usually cheap all year round include:
- sweet potatoes
- frozen vegetables like peas and beans
- tinned or bottled tomatoes
MAKE BUDGET MEALS EXCITING
Two things can take your meals from boring to exciting: herbs and spices. Ordinary and cheap staples can be transformed into gourmet delights by adding herbs and spices.
Herbs are best grown to save money. They are the easiest thing to grow, even if you’re a brown-thumb like me or don’t have a lot of space. A warm windowsill is all you need. Spices are purchased in small amounts and are inexpensive, but you can usually save even more if you purchase them from an Asian or Ethnic Grocery store.
Explore traditional cuisine’s of ethnic cultures for cheap meals that will tantalize the tastebuds and never leave you feeling bored, no matter
PRESERVE THE EXCESS
Homemade jam costs a fraction of the price of store bought jam when you buy fruit in season. If you’re lucky enough to get free fruit, it’s only a few cents per jar for the sugar.
And for just two or three hours you could have enough jam to last a whole year, plus some left over for gifts.
You can also freeze excess produce that you purchase when it’s cheap and in season, and this will save you money on vegetables at other times of the year.
BUY HOME BRAND
A lot of staples are exactly the same as the name brand items, bar the price. Not everything, I can’t stand home brand mustard, for instance, but for most staples like rice or pasta, there’s no discernible difference in quality between the brand and home brand varieties.
Look for home brand items to save on everyday staples.
SHOP AT ALDI
If you have an Aldi store near you, you can save a huge amount over shopping at Coles or Woolies. But take the time to compare prices, sometimes it can be cheaper to buy home brand items over Aldi items.
SHOP THE SALES
A great way to stock your pantry and save on food is to buy up when staple items are on sale. Shelf stable foods like tinned foods and dried foods are great for stocking up.
For more information on how to stock up on foods during sales check out this article.
LOOK FOR MARKDOWNS
You can usually buy bread for a fraction of the price near closing time. Other bakery goods, deli goods and BBQ chickens are also often marked down near the end of trade (but more likely on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays).
To save money on meat, look for markdowns on meat that is close to it’s used by date and freeze or use straight away.
I’ll confess, we’ve eaten cream that we’ve purchased on mark down two weeks after the used by date expired because it was perfectly ok! Every time I went to throw it out, there was nothing wrong with it, so we kept using it. I don’t recommend you risk food poisoning!! but use common sense when it comes to food and don’t just throw it away because of the date on the packet.
DON’T DRINK YOUR CALORIES
Tea, coffee, soft drink, cordial, juices, bottled water, hot chocolate – these can all add up.
If you’re on a tight budget, the cheapest thing to drink is water, at least most of the time. A jug filter will improve the taste of tap water without costing a fortune.
SHOP OUTSIDE THE SUPERMARKET
The supermarket isn’t always the cheapest place to shop.
Local markets, greengrocers, wholesale meat suppliers and Asian grocers are often cheaper than the supermarket so it pays to shop around and save.
START A GARDEN
Supplement your grocery budget with food you grow yourself.
If you’ve never gardened before, start by growing sprouts on the kitchen bench! Sprouts are easy to grow, cheap and very nutritious.
As mentioned above, pots of herbs are also easy to grow, you don’t need a garden and they make an ordinary dish gourmet.
A FEW CHEAP MEAL IDEAS
Lunch: Leftovers, soup, sandwiches.
Dinner: Vegetable frittata, omelette, soup, casseroles, mince bake, stir fry, vegetable curry, vegetable fritters, fried rice, roast vegetable pasta, chilli beans, chilli mince, ratatouille, tuna casserole, dahl, marinated wings or drumsticks, burritos, baked potatoes with filling.
Snacks: Homemade popcorn, fruit, vegetables, dip, homemade baked goods.
You can eat healthy foods while sticking to a tight budget. It just takes a little extra planning, some creative cooking and some time to build up your pantry.