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Healthy Eating on a Budget – Sample Meal Plan and Shopping List

By Erin Burke, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE

“Eating healthy is too expensive.”

“I’ll eat a salad when it costs the same as a Big Mac.”

“I hate buying fruits and vegetables because they go bad before I can use them.”

I hear you. Meal planning can feel like a full-time job. Cheap, convenient foods are often high in sodium, fat, and sugar. Cheap, convenient, healthy foods often come at a price. I can talk to you all day about how cheap beans, rice, and peanut butter are, but it won’t do you any good unless you know how to put them together into a meal and have the time to do so! Based on my experience working with patients, I thought it would be helpful to outline how I go about planning meals on a lower budget.

What is considered “lower budget”?

The USDA comes out with a monthly report describing the average cost of groceries for varying family sizes at four different cost levels. Their lowest two price points described are the “thrifty” and “low-cost” food plans (1). For a family of two, this comes out to an average of $89.50 and $113.70 per week, respectively. The average goes up a bit when you factor in young children. I used these targets for the sake of this article. That being said, grocery budgets are highly personal. I will share some strategies to further cut down on cost and you can modify as needed.

Budget, Nutrition, and Meal Planning Tips

  • Look ahead at your week. If you have more time one night, see if you can get a head start on preparation for the next night.
  • Find one recipe to start with. Then, see if you can find other recipes with similar ingredients. This will cut down on the amount of half-used ingredients. Foods also tend to be cheaper when purchased in bulk (chicken breasts, for example).
  • Feel free to modify and substitute ingredients as needed. Try substituting different grains, pasta types, meats, and vegetables to use up what you have on hand.
  • Try to balance out simple with complex meals. This meal plan is designed to make dinner every night. To make your day easier, plan to have leftovers for lunch, or something simple like sandwiches/salads.
  • Herbs, spices, and ingredients such as oil/vinegar are not calculated into the total grocery cost since often very small amounts are used. If you do not have any of these ingredients, expect that the bill will be a bit higher the first time you buy them.
  • Use cooking spray and olive oil for cooking where able to cut down on total fat and saturated fat added to the recipe.
  • If you find that fruits and vegetables start to go bad before you can get to them, consider freezing them for future use. Frozen fruits work well in smoothies and oatmeal (defrost in the microwave). Frozen vegetables work best in things like casseroles and soups. Fresh vegetables are ideal for roasting.
  • Substitute half of your meat with a can of beans to cut down on cost, saturated fat, and calories while adding fiber.
  • Use store brands where you can. Everything in this meal plan is priced based on store-brand prices.
  • Instead of taking leftovers for lunch the next day, freeze portions to defrost on future busy nights. Pasta, casseroles, and soup all freeze nicely.

Weekly Dinner Plan for Two-to-Four:

Day Meal Comments
Monday Sheet Pan Chicken Parmesan with Broccoli Pair with whole-wheat pasta, if desired
Tuesday

Tofu and Vegetable Stir-Fry over Brown Rice

To save time, use instant brown rice and frozen stir-fry vegetables. Tofu is a cheap, heart-healthy protein that is high-in-calcium, fiber and vitamin B12!
Wednesday Chicken, Broccoli, and Cheddar Quinoa Bake from Avance Care Healthy Eating Cookbook – visit your local Avance Care for your FREE copy! To save time on chicken, use extra chicken from the night before or shredded rotisserie chicken.
Thursday Chicken (or Veggie) Paninis with Side Spinach Salad Use leftover chicken, marinara sauce, and cheese to grill sandwiches on panini maker or on the stove.
Friday One-Pot Cheesy Pasta Bake If you do not have an oven-proof pan, transfer to a casserole dish before baking.
Saturday Skinny Sloppy Joes Instead of buns, make sandwiches with whole wheat bread, and pair with any leftover raw veggies you have.
Sunday Black Bean and Corn Quesadillas Use this recipe as a guide and use up any leftover veggies you still have. Spinach, peppers, onions, etc. will all work well. Frozen veggies can be easily defrosted and added as well, just drain the water first.
Breakfast Ideas:

Breakfast Ideas

  • Oatmeal cooked in milk, topped with nuts or peanut butter and fresh fruit. To save money, use raisins instead of fresh fruit. Consider “overnight oats” to save time in the morning
  • Breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs and salsa, wrapped up in tortilla
  • Banana with peanut butter toast
  • Smoothie

Lunch Ideas:

  • Leftovers
  • Peanut butter or tuna sandwich
  • Salad with leftover chicken or black beans
  • Grain bowl (black beans, quinoa or rice, corn, leftover veggies)
  • Soup (chicken noodle or lentil) & a baked potato

Snack Ideas:

  • Apples or banana with peanut butter
  • Nuts and dried fruit
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Raw veggies with dip of choice or nut butter

Grocery List:

Produce

  • 5 lb bag of apples
  • 1 lb bananas
  • 1 lb raw broccoli (about 2 heads)
  • 1 bag onions
  • Green bell peppers (cheaper than other colors)
  • Large bag fresh spinach

Meat

  • About 4-5 lbs chicken breast (look for the family pack to save money and freeze anything leftover)
  • 1 lb lean ground beef (93% lean or higher)

Dairy (choose reduced- or low-fat when able)

  • 1 bag shredded parmesan cheese
  • 1 bag shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 bag shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1 gallon milk
  • 1 carton eggs

Bread, Rice, Cereal, Pasta

  • 1 bag brown rice (go with instant to save time, though this is slightly more expensive)
  • 1 box whole wheat penne
  • 1 bag quinoa
  • 1 loaf store-brand 100% whole-wheat bread
  • 1 package whole-wheat tortillas
  • 1 container rolled oats

Frozen

  • 1 bag stir fry vegetables

Canned Foods

  • 1 container bread crumbs
  • 1 jar marinara sauce
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can tomato paste
  • 1 jar salsa
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1 can corn
  • Stir-fry sauce of choice
  • Low-sodium chicken stock (32 oz container)

Other

  • Whole almonds (cheaper than sliced)
  • Natural Peanut Butter
  • 2 Packages extra-firm or firm tofu
  • Dried fruit of choice

Total cost: $85-$90. Prices will vary depending on location and what is on sale. Prices for this article came from a local Harris Teeter!

Happy cooking!

References: 1. https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/CostofFoodFeb2019.pdf

Erin Burke is an RD/N working at the North Raleigh and Central Raleigh offices. She enjoys running, visiting local breweries, and snuggling with her dog, Lottie. She is passionate about promoting a healthy lifestyle in a non-judgmental environment.
Categories: Education,  Nutrition
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