by D&L Ambassador: Gabrielle Kassel (@gk.fitness)
Eating healthy on a budget, especially when you’re an athlete, weight-lifter, or wellness-junkie can seem pretty impossible, especially with all the hype around $14 dollar smoothies, $4 dollar fermented tea drinks, and $10 dollar jars of almond butter. But it is possible to find affordable, nutrient-packed food at any grocery store (yes, even Whole Foods!) if you know what to look for and how to cut costs.
Check out the 11 cost-cutting tips below and prepare to save on healthy-eats so you have extra cash for some D&L swag:
1. Go for generic and store-brands.
If you’re working out for 90 minutes or more, and especially if you’re doing high intensity workouts (like the Dande and the Lion Evolve Training Programs) you need to fuel up with good-for-you-foods. But guess what? It’s possible to eat whole-wheat pasta, chicken cutlets, and milk without the fancy organic or name-brand label! Couture chicken? Name-brand noodles? Who needs ‘em! It’s not that the quality is worse than their name-brand counterparts, but the prices are lower because they don’t need any fancy branding or marketing.
2. Keep your pantry stocked with healthy foods.
My pantry is always stocked with steel-cut oats, chia seeds, almond butter, a can of black beans, whole-wheat pasta, apple cider vinegar, chopped walnuts or raw cashews, a can of albacore tuna, and either vegetable broth or vegetable pho broth. Meanwhile, Heather and Kelsey keep theirs stocked with mixed nuts, nut butters, dried fruit, popcorn, rice, spring roll wrappers, oats, chick peas, black beans and supplements. Some nutritionists recommend stocking up on extra virgin olive oil, soy sauce, and honey, but because I do most of my cooking with butter or margarine, I only buy those items when my grocery list and pre-planned meals require them. Find the healthy pantry foods that you like and get stocked up on those!
3. Keep your refrigerator ‘lean & green’.
Spinach, kale, green apples and avocados are some of the lean & green foods you should keep in your fridge at all time. Spinach is only ~$2.00 per bag and it really packs a punch of vitamin A, vitamin K, and potassium, while being a great salad base or steamed side dish. Kale is a bit more expensive than spinach at about ~3.50 a bunch, but of our recommended daily value, it gives us 206% vitamin A, 134% vitamin C, and a (holy cow) 684% of our vitamin K. Worth it? Totally worth it. Kale makes a great salad base, sauteed side, or crispy chip. Green apples are typically ~$1.50 per apple, or ~$5.50 for a pack of four and are both low in sugar and high in fiber. While I prefer my apples as a snack, or baked ~dessert style~, they are also great chopped up in a salad or in a morning smoothie. Finally, while avocados can be a bit pricey at $2.00 a pop, they have healthy fat, lean protein, more potassium than a banana, and tons of vitamins and minerals (consider this your multivitamin of the day).
Pickles (lots of probiotics), broccoli (lasts forever), and basil are also green & lean foods that are great to keep stocked in your refrigerator. I know Kelsey also likes to keep a bag of lemons, Medjool dates, hummus, sweet peppers, and coconut water on hand-which while they aren’t green, are delicious and healthy. Other foods and condiments such as greek yogurt, eggs, hot sauce, spicy mustard, salsa, tofu, and whole grain breads are options that you should try to keep stocked up on.
4. Meal prep.
After a long day at work it can be tempting to stop at your favorite sushi-takeout restaurant for a white-rice packed no-cook dinner, or order in “healthy” helping of Pad Thai from Seamless. While it is occasionally okay for your health (and budget) to splurge on a to-go meal, it is not something that should become a routine (because face it, we can’t afford it). The solution for fighting The Pre-Made Food Temptation is… (dun, dun, dun)... yep, you guessed it: meal preparation.
Prepping meals ahead makes it much easier to assemble healthy meals throughout the week. Additionally, because the healthy cooking is already done, it will be easier to commit to eating healthy throughout the week. Nutritionists and dietitians unanimously agree that meal prep is the key to fighting the urge to order take out or veer off the healthy-eating track.
5. Find healthy recipes you LIKE!
I also recommend figuring out which foods you never get sick of. For example, I eat the same breakfast every single day and still wake up craving it: overnight steel cut oats with chia seeds, walnuts, a tablespoon of almond butter and vanilla cashew milk. But, while I love the pesto chicken dish I make at least once a week, I can’t have the green-goodness more than two nights in a row without feeling unsatisfied. I have found some of my favorite protein-packed meals from the Customized D&L Vegan GF Meal plan (specifically the spicy tofu stir fry and buffalo tofu- who know tofu could taste so good?).
This part may take some experimentation, so start by keeping it simple with a protein/veggie combo with little or no sauces or extra ingredients. Once you find a combo you like, you can begin adding seasoning, vegetable variety, or sauces!
6. Make a grocery list (and follow it!).
This is essential to preventing impulse buys that jack up your grocery bill. Don’t know where to start? Determine how many meals you’ll have at home that week, and plan for 6-10 oz of lean protein per meal plus a veggie side. Once you’ve got that figured out you can add any ingredient you might need for a fun recipe. Thinking of doing stir-fry night? Add bamboo shoots and broccoli to the list. Thinking of making tofu curry? Add curry and green peppers to the list.
Walking into the store with a plan will help you avoid buying things you don’t need. If I’m particularly tight on budget one week I will mentally visualize what my route around the grocery store is going to be. For example pre-cut mango, Kombucha, and Halo Top are my weaknesses, so I’ll steer clear of those sections of the grocer at all costs. My grocery bill thanks me for it even if my taste buds cry a little.
7. Incorporate more plant-based proteins into your weekly meals.
While Kelsey and Heather are already ahead of the game with their plant-based meal guides and vegan lifestyle, some of us aren't quite ready to take the leap, so to speak. However, that doesn’t mean that we should avoid vegetarian and vegan food sources. Items like chickpeas, beans, lentils, tofu and tempeh cost pennies (!) in comparison to beef, salmon, and shrimp. On average, vegetarian proteins like beans, lentils, or tofu cost less than chicken, beef, and other meat products. For example, chicken breasts generally weigh in around $3.27 per pound compared to beans at $1.39, lentils at $1.49, and tofu at $2.50.
Eating enough protein is essential to maintaining a healthy diet especially when we are working out (and trying to get those #gains). Moreover, protein is the nutrient that helps us feel satisfied, which is why it makes a great snack. For great plant-protein snacks try out edamame (from the freezer section), hummus and carrots, a handful of mixed nuts, or oats topped with seeds.
8. Don’t hate on canned foods.
Don’t cut canned foods from your diet when you’re on a budget; canned seafood items and beans are budget-friendly and will last in your pantry for months. Foods like canned tuna or canned salmon are great on top of salads, and they're just as tasty and less expensive than crab cakes, grilled salmon, or seared tuna. Other canned healthy foods include black beans, lima beans (yes legumes!), and even canned veggies. Before you put the canned item into your grocery cart take a look at the sodium content; some brands sneakily add salt or even sugar.
9. Open your eyes to on-sale items.
When some of your favorite staples are on sale, stock up. You may end up spending more in the moment, but for non-perishables, it’s always worth it. For example, ground turkey (to freeze), whole wheat pasta, and your go-to nut butters are great items to find on the cheap. Some nutritionists recommend taking a look at a grocery stores website to get a sneak peek at what the sales are going to be, but in my opinion- ain't nobody got time for that!
10. Cut back on pre-cut/washed/made foods.
Foods such as pre-baked sweets, prepackaged and pre-washed greens, pre-blended spice blends, grated and pre-cut cheese, and pre-made dressings are a huge money-suck! The pre-washed, packaged version of basics like carrots or greens can cost nearly twice the price. She also suggests stocking up on in-season produce and substituting it for similar ingredients in your favorite recipes. If your budget is your priority, force yourself to grate the cheese yourself, make homemade salad dressings, wash your own greens, and make your own sweets. If it sounds impossible to cut back on all these delicacies at once, pick 2 or 3 to ditch to start, and then month by month cut away another unnecessary expense. Bottom line is, the least processed the better taste and deal!
11. Repurpose veggies that are past their prime.
Don’t look at your slightly wilted greens and think that, just because they’re not fresh enough for a salad, you need to get rid of them. Repurpose them by adding them to smoothies, soup, quiche, or grill them, and they’ll get an awesome second life. Blending wilted green with water or coconut water and freezing into ice-cubes is a fix and make perfect flavor-cubes for smoothies.
Author Bio: Gabrielle Kassel is a New York based writer who has a deep affinity for weight-lifting, living mindfully, and the em-dash. She is a D&L ambassador, freelance health and fitness writer, and the social media editor at ICE NYC (@ice.nyc). In her free time she can be found reading self-help books, making soup, and practicing hygge.