Want a science-supported food shop? Our health and wellbeing researchers share their tips for eating healthy while on a budget.
We all have to eat. We know how and when (usually our tummies will tell us!). But the question we are asked the most often is what should I eat to be healthier? Is it possible to eat healthy on a budget? Which foods should I spend more on? And where can I make savings?
Where you choose to shop, and which foods you like to splurge on, is a personal choice. But there are some things science can help with. So here are our tips for eating well, without breaking the bank.
The budget basics of eating healthy
Can we let you in on a not-so-secret? You don’t need to buy expensive specialty foods to be able to eat well.
Wholegrains, legumes, and tubers have been dietary staples around the world throughout history and continue to be a popular component of Australian diets.
Grains and legumes are full of fibre which helps us stay full for longer, and are packed with resistant starch, which is essential for good gut health. These carbohydrate-based foods provide an excellent source of energy to keep us going throughout the day, and are high in nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin E, and zinc.
We suggest choosing minimally processed options like wholegrain breads, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, barley, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, and the humble potato. These don’t need to be expensive, keep it simple. Dried grains are simply cooked in water. Canned legumes are an easy addition to salads, curries, and soups. And potatoes can be quickly prepared with toppings to create a baked potato meal.
Dried versions have a long shelf life, so they can be bought in bulk or picked up on sale and stored in the pantry. Think bags of barley and rice, and salt-reduced tinned legumes.
Choose freshly made bread if you can – bread with a shorter shelf life has fewer preservatives and less processing. Some bakeries will sell yesterday’s bread at a reduced price, which is perfect for toasting, or can be kept in the freezer until you need it.
Eat your greens
Looking to keep your fruit bowl (and your wallet) full? Fruit and vegetables that are in season are usually more affordable and have more flavour. Keep an eye out for fresh, seasonal, and local produce to get more bang for your buck.
You can often tell which foods are typical for the time of year because they are cheaper in-store. They’ll probably be on display near the front of the supermarket or greengrocer. Growing your own produce, participating in a community garden or co-op, or shopping at farmers markets are ways to become familiar with foods that grow well in your area at particular times of the year. They are also a great way to support the local economy and to reduce your environmental footprint. Buying organic fruits and vegetables is a personal preference – you can get a lot of great fresh produce at local markets.
We know Australians don’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre, and water. They are hero foods for your body, so make them the hero of your meal! At least half your plate should be vegetables – search for recipes that include three to five different types of vegetables. Frozen vegetables are also great time savers. We suggest keeping a packet of frozen peas on hand to add to a meal that needs a veggie boost.
To help when choosing seasonal produce, think about the type of meals you like to eat at that time of year. For example, in colder months we like warming foods like hearty soups, casseroles, roast vegetables and stewed fruits. Broccoli, leeks, cauliflower, sweet potatoes and apples, are all abundant in winter (in temperate parts of Australia). Summer and spring bring lighter, crispier produce like cucumber, fennel, celery, grapes and berries, for salads and fresh meals.
Choose your protein wisely
Buy the best quality protein that you can afford and mix it up. It is good to aim for a variety of protein sources and to include animal and/or plant-based proteins at every meal. So try something different each night, and use left-overs for lunch the next day.
Prioritise fish and seafood as sources of protein, aiming for 2-3 serves each week. Oily fish like salmon is high in omega-3 and is an excellent ‘brain food’. Sustainably caught tinned tuna and salmon is an option if you are looking for conveniently portioned and budget-friendly choices.
If you are one of the many Australians who love to eat meat, choose lean cuts and minimally processed varieties. Spend a bit more to purchase premium cuts, and keep the serves small (about the size of the palm of your hand). Most guidelines now recommend a maximum of around three serves of red meat each week (up to approximately 350-450g). Reduce saturated fat by cutting away visible fat – your heart and blood vessels will thank you. For budget friendly healthy eating try to avoid processed meats such as salami and bacon. These products have been linked to a risk of disease and can be quite expensive.
Milk, cheese, yoghurt, and eggs are also excellent sources of protein, and a popular choice for breakfast and snacks. They are a fantastic option when it comes to balancing protein serves throughout the day. Whether you prefer animal or plant-based dairy foods, or reduced-fat or not, is an individual choice. But we suggest you choose calcium-enriched options. If you have a history of heart disease or need to manage your weight, reduced-fat dairy may be a better choice.
Plant-based proteins like legumes and pulses are important too, as they are an excellent source of protein and fibre. They are good for your gut, your heart, and your muscles. They are really versatile foods that can be turn salads, pastas, curries and dips from drab to fab. Try to include these at least every second day but start slowly to give your gut time to adapt.
Water is the ultimate drink, it quenches your thirst and is cheaper than other choices! Eating and drinking healthy on a budget doesn’t have to be boring. For extra flavour add a squeeze of lemon, some slices of fruit, or some herbs from the garden.
Plain milk is another great beverage choice, containing calcium for healthy bones, protein, and a range of essential nutrients.
Sugary beverages contribute to a range of illnesses like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. So avoid sugar-sweetened drinks (like soft-drink and cordial) as much as possible.
Get vitamins and minerals from your foods
Your first stop should be your diet. For most people, following a balanced diet with lots of variety will provide all the nutrients that you need.
However, if you are at risk of deficiency (for example, if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant, or if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet), work with your doctor or dietitian to meet your individual needs.