Financial Planning

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Healthy, Low-Cost Meal Planning

If you are like most Americans, you spend a big chunk of your monthly budget on food and groceries. In fact, the average American family of four’s food costs around $800 per month. Factor in the holiday season’s temptations and staying on budget and a healthy eating plan can feel almost impossible.

For many families, quantity over quality may lead to unhealthy choices. “If a parent has a tight budget, or multiple children to feed, choosing the high-calorie, low-nutrient foods is often the most economical way to fill a belly,” says Debbie Shore, Co-Founder of Share Our Strength, which runs the No Kid Hungry campaign to end childhood hunger. She adds, “Having foods that are low in nutrients can lead to long-term health problems, especially for children.”

But healthy eating is definitely worth the investment in your family’s health. Shopping exclusively in the organic aisle can be a budget-breaker but a little planning and creativity can go a long way to stretching your dollar while putting healthy food on the table.

Here are three ways to help you achieve budget-friendly meals.

Make a plan.

Jennifer Schwabauer, executive director of Manna, a Los Angeles area food bank, says lack of knowledge is often the problem. “When you’re not thinking about what you eat,” says Schwabaeur, “food will go to waste.” That’s also money wasted.

Nutritionist Amelia Winslow advises, “Head to the grocery store armed with a shopping list and a general plan for meals and snacks. While it doesn’t have to be formal, a meal plan will allow you to make the most of all ingredients and minimize food waste.”

Winslow recommends online resources or meal planning services such as The Fresh 20, Cooksmarts, Food on the Table and Plan to Eat.

Shop smart.

Schwabauer and her volunteers tend to shop at ethnic markets where the produce tends to be cheaper.

Shore recommends dry packaged beans as a great cost-effective alternative to other protein options.

Start small.

“We recommend that families focus on adding things to their diets, not taking things away,” says Shore. “If someone can add more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, they are going to be much further ahead than someone who focuses on removing the less healthy foods.”

Winslow adds, “If you’re not used to cooking regularly, set a goal of making one or two homemade meals per week. Weekends are a great time to experiment. When that feels doable, aim to prepare three or four meals. The trick is to start with simple meals you’re familiar with.”

Kim Tracy Prince is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. She wants you to know that groups like No Kid Hungry and Manna can stretch their dollars even further to help families in need. Consider donating $50, the approximate average cost of a holiday meal this year, which can buy 500 meals for kids who struggle with hunger.