Healthy eating on a budget
Published: 4 August 2017
The Heart Foundation’s team of food and nutrition experts’ trial ‘eating on a budget’ for a month and share their top tips for making your weekly eating more affordable while still being healthy.
Let’s face it most New Zealanders are trying to stretch their food dollar further and eat better for less. But does eating on a budget mean you have to sacrifice nutrition? How easy is it to be on a tight food budget when there are a lot of other priorities in our lives?
How much should I spend on food?
‘Eating on a budget’ will often mean different things to different people. How much money you spend each week can vary considerably depending on your personal situation. For our ‘eating well on a budget’ challenge, we determined the weekly food costs using the Otago University Food Cost Survey as a guide. We then applied the basic food cost to each of our living situations.
For example, an Auckland family of four consisting of one male, one female, one 10-year-old and one 5-year-old would have a weekly food budget of $206. This includes all food for the week including lunches, coffees, meals out etc.
Did the Heart Foundation nutrition experts manage to stick to a tight grocery budget?
We all had varying degrees of success with meeting the food cost target. While there were different strategies to reduce food cost and save money, there were clearly a number of common themes our team used to reduce their food bill.
What worked effectively through the trial was making the swaps to cheaper vegetable and meat cuts. For example kumara (expensive because of the growing season) was replaced with carrots at ($0.99c/kg) and pumpkin. Equally spinach was replaced with frozen peas. I rekindled a relationship with mince, purchasing the full-fat version and draining the excess fat after cooking. This provided a lower-cost protein source in wraps, pita pockets etc. I also added grated and processed vegetables to the mince to extend it further – this worked particularly well with the children’s meals. There were also some excellent meat specials – such as chicken legs and shoulder of pork – which could be roasted off and extended over three family meals, provided we watched our portion sizes.
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For our family, who have a strict food budget, this challenge was fairly straightforward: it meant that we had to compromise on some of our food choices. For example, we ate vegetarian meals more often as these were cheaper to make than meat-based dishes. Also, buying in-season, fresh produce at reasonable prices at the local Farmers’ market was a necessity to help keep costs down. We would take advantage of specials and ‘bulk buys’ to reduce costs and had access to a Farmers’ Market to get lower-cost vegetables.
I am already a budget shopper! In saying that we usually buy our lunch once a week (husband and I) and might get Thai or a curry on a Friday. Some of my budget “hacks” that I live by are being organised. Sitting down on a Sunday morning before shopping and going through my recipe books and Healthy Food Guide to plan meals. Having ingredients written down on my list and buying vegetables to work in all dishes. For example, if I plan three meals I will make sure all of them have silver beet so it all gets used and not wasted. Having a daily dinner-menu written on the whiteboard on the fridge, so there are no last minute 5pm panics about what to cook. Adding beans, chickpeas and lentils to meat dishes, really makes a meal go further. Always buy seasonally and on special. If a key ingredient is too expensive adapt the recipe to suit.
I was able to stick to the food budget without too much effort as long as I was well prepared. The meat/protein component of my evening meal was relatively more expensive, so I made sure I had a couple of vegetarian meals each week and went for cheaper meat cuts or mince for my other meals. Watching my portions was really important and I made sure I bulked-up meals with extra vege or legumes. Often less-processed foods were cheaper so I would buy a whole chicken and spilt it up myself for two or three meals, and boil up the bones for soup rather buying individual chicken portions. A couple of times I did come a little unstuck buying expensive, out-of-season vege like capsicum and tomatoes. I then needed to make up for it later in week with cheaper meals that weren’t as nutritionally well balanced.
To help us stay on budget, we turned towards using more house-branded products for some of our weekly staples such as milk, bread, canned tomatoes, brown rice and legumes. While house brands (eg Budget, Homebrand or Select) are usually quite a bit cheaper, there is often little, if any, difference in nutritional quality. We embraced legumes (often lentils) as a way of stretching meat-based meals further and often substituted fresh vegetables for frozen. When buying fresh produce, we only bought fruit or vege that were in season to ensure we were keeping the cost down – and that meant not buying any avocado! I was also conscious of minimising food waste, one way to do this is to use the whole vegetable from stalk to tip. Planning was key too – I planned out our meals and snacks for the week and then based our shop around the required ingredients. I also tended to cook in bulk so that we would have enough for leftovers or lunches at a later date.
This was not really a ‘challenge’ for my family and I, as we are already on a limited budget to feed our family of seven and account for last minute visitors from my parents’ house next door. Creating a list and shopping when we are not hungry helps my husband and I keep to our budget – we are less likely to throw items not on our list, into the shopping trolley. When I am writing out our shopping list, I find using the Food Groups as a quick-and-simple guide to check that our food shopping for the next two weeks is nutritionally well-balanced. I also do a quick, two-week plan for our main meals. My husband and I shop fortnightly and then top up in between for things like milk and yoghurt, mainly because of fridge space. For a large family like ours, we purchase in bulk. We also aim to reduce how often we are shopping so that we are not tempted to purchase other items that we don’t need, every time we are in the shops. We do watch out for special deals but we would also compare those to the items available in bigger volumes/packaging and, of course, reading food labels helps us choose the healthier option. For fresh fruit and vegetables, we find the markets are cheaper but we also purchase frozen and canned vegetables when they’re out of season. We also find that fish and seafood are certainly cheaper and fresher from the ‘seafood outlets’ particularly those in South Auckland. I think that this is mainly due to the higher turnover rate of their fish and seafood.
Eating on a budget doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice nutrition or the enjoyment of good food. What shone through in all of our expert’s experiences was having a knowledge of ingredients, what less-expensive ingredients can be used in place of expensive ones, and practical cooking skills helped to extend the food budget while keeping things balanced and tasty. Yet another reason for the Heart Foundation’s focus on strengthening practical cooking skills in school aged children.
Seven top tips for eating well on a budget.
- Be organised - Have a rough plan for what’s going to be eaten for the week (including all meals and snacks), make a shopping list and try to stick to it (except in the case of great specials. See point 2 and 3). Avoid the top-up shops mid-week as it may lead to over spending and impulse buying.
- Have an eye for a bargain - Some weekly specials, especially meat and vegetable discounts, can reduce food costs significantly. Try and buy in bulk when you see great specials however, keep in mind the cost per 100g. Sometimes grocery ‘specials’ are not always as good as they seem. A number of vegetables can be refrigerated for 2-3 weeks and leftover roasted or casseroled meat can be frozen or extended over a number of meals.
- Shop in season and use simple swaps to reduce costs – Substitute or ditch the expensive vegetables that are not in season. Frozen and canned vegetables can be great lower-cost options. Consider growing a vegetable garden to supplement your fruit and vegetable shop.
- Watch your portion size - By watching your portion sizes you can make your food dollar go further, saving you money. You may find you can stretch out the protein component of the meal over several meals. The Heart Foundation has created recommended portion sizes to help make this easier for you and your family.
- Avoid throwing it out – ‘Use by’ dates mean a food shouldn’t be eaten past a certain date. However, think again when something is on, or slightly over, a ‘best before' date. Often foods are still fine to eat. When it comes to bread – become a crust eater (or a stalk eater, in the case of broccoli). For more information see love food hate waste.
- Alternative protein sources – Consider legumes, canned fish, and eggs as alternative protein sources to use in dishes. Consider the occasional meat free meal to add variety and reduce cost.
- Veg up – vegetables and legumes are a key component of the Heart Foundation’s Healthy Heart Visual Food Guide so consider using more of these in your dishes. Vegetables and legumes can also be a great extender for mince dishes - for example processed broccoli and grated carrot can be added to the mince component of lasagne, cottage pie, and pasta sauces to make them go further. Also when it comes to broccoli or cauliflower in a stir-fry or curry think about using from tip to stalk - cut the stalks finely and add those also.
Where to go for more help
It is always challenging trying to negotiate which aspect of your life takes priority. The problem becomes even more complicated when a family has to choose between feeding their family whole nutritious food or other expenses such as heating, doctors’ visits or winter clothing. For those of us who are not able to afford even the most basic nutritional meals, please ask for help. You would be surprised at the amount of support that you will receive from those around you or what various support services can do to help.
Search out your local service for more help and assistance.
Disclaimer: The content in this blog does not represent the views of the Heart Foundation. Instead, it is the views and opinions of Heart Foundation staff who are speaking from personal experience.