Healthy Eating on a Budget

As a dietitian, I often hear about how it’s too expensive to eat healthfully. It often takes a lot of convincing to show people that, in fact, their favourite discretionary (or “extras”) foods are actually responsible for racking up the grocery bill. And you’re really not to blame, foods high in sugar, fat and salt are the most heavily advertised and put on special in catalogues and also in-store (think of all those end of the aisle specials for soft drinks, chips, chocolate and biscuits).

The average Aussie spends almost $250 per week on food and non-alcoholic beverages which can creep up over $300 per week for families with two older children. It makes up almost 20% of our household expenditure, so making savings here can seriously add up.

Here are my top tips for eating well when you’re trying to save a few dollars.

(1) Shop in Season

When shopping for fruit and veg, always choose what’s in season as not only will the produce be the best quality it will also be the cheapest. This is because there is a strong supply of the product leading to a decrease in prices. If you’d like a way to check what’s in season here in Australia – check out this page. Shopping in season will ensure you’re getting the best nutrients and variety year round. A diet higher in variety is associated with better dietary quality so you’re doing your body and your bank account a favour by shopping seasonally.

(2) Shop Frozen

Frozen fruit and veg is a great way to save a few dollars (pricing tends to be more consistent and cheaper than fresh) and you get to keep eating your favourite fruit and veg outside of season. In fact, frozen fruit and veg have more nutrients than their fresh counterparts. This is because they are snap frozen after harvest locking in the nutrients, compared to fresh where heat, storage, travel from farm to table are prime opportunities for nutrient breakdown. Including both in your diet is a great idea, so don’t be afraid of throwing in some pre-chopped frozen veg into your shopping trolley for a quick throw together weeknight dinner.

(3) Shop Canned

Canned legumes, beans and fish are fabulous sources of protein without having to worry about perishing and are really inexpensive compared to fresh meats and seafood. These foods are super nutritious, simply drain (rinse any beans or legumes) and add to a meal for a cheap source of protein. There is also minimal waste with canned products, as they have a long shelf-life compared to fresh products that may be thrown out if unused. Substituting a couple of meals a week with canned sources is a great way to help your back pocket. You can also get canned veg such as corn which can be a nutritious addition to the work lunchbox.

Let’s compare

Beans (4 Bean Mix) = $1.78 per 400g ($4.45 per kilo)

Fresh meat (Beef Scotch fillet) = $13.20 for 2 steaks ($33 per kilo)

Sausages (Supermarket Brand Thick Sausages) = $5 for 760 g ($6.58 per kilo)

Canned tuna (Supermarket Brand 90g) = $0.90 per 90g ($10 per kilo)

You can definitely save more when buying larger size cans! However, I find these are often the most convenient with still a pretty good price.

Fresh seafood (Salmon Fillet) = $7.50 for 250g ($29.90 per kilo)

Another cheap protein source is eggs! With cage-free eggs priced below $4 per dozen (that’s 6 protein serves) are an excellent way to save a few dollars and are an excellent source of nutrients – omega-3 fats, a host of B vitamins including B12, vitamin A & D.

(4) Buy in Bulk

The bigger the bag the bigger the savings! Generally, the larger amounts you purchase at one time the cost per 100g or per kilo generally declines. So stock up big when your favourites are on special and consider buying the larger packs of foods you eat regularly. This is best applied to products with long shelf-lives such as rice & pasta, beans and legumes (tinned), dried products. However, if you don’t think you are going to eat it all before it spoils just buy how much you need. As food wastage is a serious problem here in Australia and is also a waste of your money.

(5) Avoid convenience products

Products that are pre-packaged into single portions for convenience are generally more expensive than bulk products.

Let’s compare

Porridge oats (individually packaged ready to cook) = $4.40 for a 10 pack ($12.90 per kilo)

Rolled oats (supermarket brand) = $1.10 per 750g ($1.50 per kilo)

Muesli (cereal) = $6-$8 per 500g ($12-$16 per kilo)

Muesli bar (e.g. Carman’s) = $5.60 for 5 bars ($25 per kilo)

Hack alert: you can buy the big bag and portion out how much you need for porridge into freezer or zip-lock bags for your convenience and save yourself a whopping $10+ per kilo.

As you can see the convenience products versus the bulk product counterpart is more expensive. And also, as the product becomes more refined the price tends to go up. You can see a similar thing with raw potatoes, frozen potato fries and potato crisps as well as yoghurts too (check it out next time you’re shopping).

(6) Don’t shop hungry

You’ve heard this one before, but it’s definitely true – shopping on an empty stomach is increasing the chance of items landing in your trolley that you weren’t planning on (often these are high in energy, sugar or fat and weren’t on your shopping list!) Before you leave for the shops, have a piece of fruit or a few crackers with cheese to tie you over.

If you want to know more about tuning into your hunger – check out my hungry & hangry post.

(7) Come prepared but be flexible

Of course, bring a shopping list along with all the items you need but also be flexible when it comes to shopping in season and buying extras of items you regularly use that may be on special. If you’ve got the time check out what’s on special ahead of time before heading to the shops.

This post was inspired by a recent paper the SMILES trial (2017) Jacka et al. which showed that people with major depression undergoing a modified Mediterranean diet intervention showed a reduced cost from $138 per week (made up of poorer dietary choices) at baseline to $112 per week (mid-range products) – side note: they also found people’s symptoms of depression improved dramatically on this dietary pattern! It’s OpenAccess so give it a read if you’re interested.