Monthly Health Message:

Eating Cheap but Eating Healthy

May 2009

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RD, FADA, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Many people are watching their food dollars these days. Fortunately, eating healthy meals does not have to cost a fortune. Need to save some money on your monthly household budget? Below are some simple tips that match up good nutrition with low-cost meals. Remember, every small step makes a difference.

  • Plan Menus for a Week or a Month - Grandma actually was very good at meal planning and using low-cost foods in her meals. She learned during the Depression that it was possible to stretch small amounts of meat and poultry to feed a large family. She prepared soups, stews, and casseroles to feed many mouths. Planning is crucial to get the best food buys.
  • Use a Shopping List for Weekly Purchases - After you plan your weekly menu, find recipes and then develop a shopping list of foods you need to buy that week. Check your pantry, freezer, and refrigerator for food you have on hand. No sense buying more when ingredients are sitting on the shelf.
  • Check for Coupons - Use the Internet, flyers from supermarkets, and newspapers to find foods needed for next week's meal on sale. Consider purchasing major food staples in bulk if their prices are attractive.
  • Writing a Weekly Shopping List - Keep a pen and paper handy in your kitchen to write down items that you have just used up and need to purchase. Let these items start your shopping list for the following week. Encourage family members to add to the list when they finish that loaf of bread or have used that last bit of oil in cooking.
  • Eat Before Shopping - Studies show you will spend more money on a food shopping trip if you have not eaten a meal before you go. Be smart and don't go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.
  • Plan Meals with Small Amounts of Meat - Meat, poultry, and fish are all high protein foods that many people overeat. They are also expensive, so cut back on how much you buy per person. It is easy to cut back if you prepare soups, stews, and casseroles with meat, poultry, or fish as one of many ingredients.
  • Beans, Beans and More Beans - All kinds of beans added to whole grains like brown rice, pasta, or barley are cheap and healthy. Prepare a chili with beans and only a tiny bit of meat or make it meatless. Beans contain protein and are high in fiber. Add them to salads, main dishes, soups and pasta.
  • Learn to Cook Healthy - If you can't boil water, it is time to learn basic cooking skills so you can save money. Become a great chef by reading cookbooks, taking an adult school class, reading Cooperative Extension publications and online presentations, and watching healthy cooking shows. Cooking is easy, fun, and a great way for the family to spend time together.
  • Buy Seasonally and Locally - Take advantage of local farmer's markets and/or try growing your own garden. The growing season means supermarkets will sell produce at lower prices in season. The savings is passed on to you. Try new and exotic types of produce for more interesting dishes and family meals.
  • Rethink Your Drinks - Make water your beverage of choice at meals. Cut the number of carbonated beverages, sweetened juice drinks and teas, energy drinks, and fruit punches. These costly products add lots of sugar and calories to your diet. Make your own iced tea or iced coffee and buy milk and 100% juice. A good thirst quencher is 2 ounces of juice to 10 ounces of seltzer water over ice.

Consider these small steps to plan healthy meals on a limited budget. By spending money wisely and improving your shopping and cooking skills, you will improve your health and personal finances.


  1. Rutgers
  2. Executive Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  3. School of Environmental and Biological Sciences